American Duchess: How One Artist Started a Shoe Sensation

Illustrator and designer Lauren Stowell started the 18th Century sewing blog American Duchess but struggled to turn it into a feasible income.

Forced to sell her precious antique finds on Etsy she hit upon a revelation that would change her life for good. She discovered that historical footwear – made new to modern sizes – was in big demand.

Fast forward 10 years and American Duchess has now become a world-renowned supplier of historically-accurate shoes from the 16th to the early 20th Centuries. We spoke to Stowell to find out how it all began.

How did you get into costume, and specifically the 18th Century? Why is this such a popular period?

“I first became interested in historical dress in high school. My “period of choice” then was the 1940s, but I didn’t really have the guts to wear any 1940s-style clothing. That was the bug that bit me and in college my interest developed more after visiting a local Renaissance Fair and finding several local Victorian dance events, which were excellent excuses to dress up. I loved the dancing, the community, and of course the clothing.”

“I’ve tried a number of periods, everything from Elizabethan to the 1960s, but my favorite ended up to be 18th Century, particularly the last 25 years of that century. It’s such an amazing time for fashion, full of amazing fabrics, silhouettes, color combos, accessories. It was just an explosion of design and saw the birth of the fashion magazine and “la mode” the way we know it today. I think the 18th century is popular today because it’s very fun and extremely flattering to both men and women.”

What did you expect when you started the American Duchess blog? What did you hope to achieve?

“I started my blog in 2008 to journal one gown, which I called “The Barn Owl Gown.” That was actually the name of the blog at the time – terrible! – but I changed it a few months in because I realized I enjoyed blogging and would continue after the one project was complete. Ultimately I wanted to share what I was learning with anyone else who was looking for answers, and that’s still the ethos we have in what we create today with the books and patterns.”

What were you doing at the time and how did you balance that with writing and sewing?

“When I started my blog I was working as a giftware designer in Union City, California, but only a few months in I ended up moving back to my hometown of Reno, Nevada, and working as freelance illustrator. I did a number of gigs and odd-jobs and have a couple steady clients. I had a lot of time to sew and blog because, to be completely honest, I wasn’t that great of an illustrator! I looked for ways to monetize my blog like an Etsy shop and selling ads and nothing really worked out, but I learned a lot about trying to make money on the internet, and was in that first wave of businesses taking to social media.”

When and how did you decide that shoes were the right product for you?

“I landed on shoes kind of by accident. I’d been trying to sell anything to make ends meet and had started an Etsy shop re-selling antiques. One of the items I put in my Etsy shop was a pair of Victorianesque 1990s shoes – not antiques but they had that feel – and they actually double-sold within a few minutes of listing them. I also got emails for weeks afterwards asking if I still had them or would be more. That experience planted the seed but I didn’t think about manufacturing shoes until my now-husband Chris was randomly telling me about a friend of his having some rocket balloons manufactured and how his friend had found the factory. I sat straight up and shouted SHOES!”

“After that moment I set to researching what was available already, which wasn’t much. Shoes were always an issue with historical costume. I couldn’t find them myself, as a costumer, or the options were not suited to the kind of costuming I was doing. I also learned a great deal about finding and vetting factories. It took from about November 2010 to April 2011 before I had a viable prototype I felt comfortable opening a pre-order for.”

 

What funding options did you pursue? Were there any similar businesses that inspired you?

“Initially there wasn’t any funding. I put $250 into the prototype and the rest was generated through a pre-order. Chris and I had a good combination of skills that allowed us to be really lean on the startup side of things – I had graphic design, illustration, and the social media channels. Chris had photography, web design, coding, and data systems experience to draw on.”

“We opened our pre-order in April 2011 to immediate success, which was incredible, but Paypal actually thought we were being dirty fraudsters and froze our account, so almost all of the money we generated in the pre-order was tied up until after we could show proof of delivery of the products. I spent some time of the phone with Paypal explaining the situation – this is how new pre-orders were at the time! They relinquished a little bit of the money, but we still had to pay for most of that first order ourselves, which was incredibly difficult because as two freelance creatives we had next to no spare cash. It was stressful but so many people had put their trust and excitement in us that I knew we had to make it happen. I knew we were onto something with footwear.”

“After the initial bumps and scrapes and awkward, furious flapping of getting off the ground, we were able to get some other non-traditional funding sources, which all came about because of this “new” way of doing business with pre-orders. One of the first was Kabbage, which offered a line of credit based on real-time transactions rather than tax returns. Paypal Working Capital also came along a few years later and has been very helpful for us.”

“As we got older and more established, and the country began to claw its way out of the recession, banks became more open to traditional funding. We have a couple very small lines of credit but really the biggest effect funding-wise has come through SBA lending. The SBA loans are fantastic for small businesses but you do have to jump through hoops of flaming paperwork to get one. It’s a long and arduous process but the SBA loans have been huge for us, helping us become sustainable as an inventory-based business.”

 

Tell us some of the challenges you faced at this stage of the venture.

“Funding is always difficult. We still run and rely on pre-orders. It’s a good test for a style. There have been times when I’ve ignored the pre-order numbers on a style and that was a huge mistake because, lo and behold, that style didn’t sell all that well afterwards. I sometimes still lean on Paypal Working Capital, or one of our lines of credit, but I really try to get the business as financially-independent as possible.”

How do you feel about where you stand now? Have your dreams been realized or would a more normal profession have been preferable at times?

“I don’t think I was well-suited to work as an employee for somebody else. I’m way too headstrong. That being said, it’s been a hell of a ride to get to this point. Being an entrepreneur is awesome but it’s not easy. There is no ‘easy money.’ It’s a lot of hard work, long hours, and sometimes it hurts badly. I’m proud of where we are now and and excited for where we’re headed in the future. We have a lot of fun things planned, and I know it will be an uphill slog, but it always comes back to the reason I started this in the first place – I want to help people. I want to help other historic costumers learn about this stuff, create their outfits head-to-toe, and feel amazing wearing them.”

Where do you see the future of American Duchess? 

“Things are changing quickly. Platforms that we’ve built the business on are changing and presenting new challenges. Our government is making things harder too with losing net neutrality, increases in tariffs, and the internet sales tax coming into effect. It’s getting harder so it’s my job as CEO to stay ahead of these things and find a way through it.”

“We can never be complacent so we look for ways to improve our products, sometimes at a hit to our revenue. It’s more important to us to reach and help and supply the most people than to wring every cent out of a transaction. So we make improvements to our shoes, offering more colors and sizes; we produce more patterns and books; we try to make more helpful videos and encourage newcomers to the hobby. I strongly believe that if our intent is always this, always to help other costumers in one way or another, then we will get through the changing world alright.”

Now you have diversified with books and patterns would you care to tempt us with hints of any future products in mind? What would your dream release be if there were a proven market for it?

“Oh, we have fun things in the works! We are currently in the middle of projects for our second book, which focuses on hair styling, caps, hats, hair products, and makeup from 1750s – 1790s. We also have another pattern in development with Simplicity along with lots of new shoe designs coming out in a variety of colors. I’m most excited about our new men’s line, three new styles, coming out in August.”

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