We are proud that Conscious Clothing was born from our core values of family and sustainability over 15 years ago, and those are the two cornerstone values that hold true in our business today. Rose and Doug, husband and wife, and owners of Conscious Clothing, sat down with our marketing director to chat about running a family business, where it all began and how they grew from a mom making cloth diapers for her babies to a thriving small business clothing manufacturer. Local Grand Rapids photographer Leigh Ann Cobb photographed a typical day in the bustling studio which involves not only designing, cutting, sewing and shipping, but also includes visits from pups, toddlers and teenagers.
HOW DID YOU START THE BUSINESS?
ROSE: When my daughter Tigerlily was a baby, I started looking for organic cotton cloth diapers. My online search found very few options. This was 16 years ago! So I bought organic cotton fabric instead and made my own.
From there I decided to make kids clothing. Hemp pants and dresses. I set up a booth at a local market, the East Town Street Fair, and had such a wonderful response. Moms kept coming up to me and asking “Do you have this in my size?” So I decided to expand into women’s clothing.
I found a pants pattern and started making hemp pants, but at the time, the only hemp fabric you could get was natural white. So this led to my experimentation with dye! I remember being so excited about my first dye bath. It was indigo blue. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.
Then one of my friends introduced me to the new (at the time) website Etsy. I opened an account on Etsy in 2006. I had my first sale right away and it was so encouraging that it just grew from there.
Etsy was a big propeller to Conscious Clothing becoming the business it is today. Back in 2006, there were only two or three companies out there that were making hemp and organic cotton clothing. There were very few of us doing that or at least doing it and putting it out there in a big way. The timing was perfect.
We were one of the first to market, but it takes people a long time to catch on. I did local art shows, then I started doing bigger music festivals. I remember talking to people at the shows and they were so confused by organic cotton. People had really only heard it in the context of food. Hemp was also a term that most people associated with marijuana, so there was a lot of educating as well.
DID YOU HAVE ANOTHER JOB WHEN YOU STARTED CONSCIOUS CLOTHING?
ROSE: I was coaching gymnastics. I had been a gymnast and then a coach since high school. I really enjoyed it and it gave me an opportunity to bring my kids to work with me. I did that until I got too busy sewing that I didn’t have time to go to the gym anymore!
HOW DID DOUG COME INTO THE PICTURE?
ROSE: I met Doug in 2010. He was a wood worker and had a side hustle selling mid-century furniture. He had a great photography set up at his house and we began working together. He was definitely way more of the business person and started making suggestions to improve the business side.
DOUG: I was selling the furniture and building custom furniture frames, in what is now the front area of our studio. I knew more about business and how to make fixtures and things we needed to make this business thrive. So I jumped in and saw what needed to be done, and began making the items we needed to make the clothing easier to produce.
ROSE: I taught him how to sew really quickly. It took him about 10 minutes to figure it out.
DOUG: I was already used to working with machines, so it was a natural transition. Before I knew it, we started making plans for the future and realized we needed a real space to expand.
ROSE: At that time I was living and working in my house in Rockford. We basically had a big family room that we converted into a studio. We started talking about what we needed in a studio space for Conscious Clothing and then came up with a two year plan to do it. We scheduled shows every single weekend to save. We ended up building the studio using money we had saved from all the shows. We used a lot of reclaimed materials that Doug had salvaged over the years: Windows from a gas station that had been torn down. Countertops and doors from a friend’s home that was demo’ed. Salvaged sinks for the kitchenette and bathroom and metal cabinets from an old doctors office.
DOUG: While building the studio, I did a lot of the work myself. We were in the home stretch and I had an accident and shattered my foot. I was bedridden, and then in a wheelchair. At the same time we found out we were pregnant. Talk about everything all at once!
WHEN DOUG CAME INTO THE BUSINESS WERE YOU PROTECTIVE?
ROSE: Yea, probably. Yes, actually. He would suggest all these changes, and I think I fought him on every single thing, the whole way. And a month later, I’d say “actually this is a good idea.” It’s still like that.
DOUG: There’s an artist and then there’s a business person.
ROSE: But in actuality, we had a solid relationship since we met, the whole trust thing wasn’t such an issue for us.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES?
ROSE: By natural strengths. I am the creative mind behind designing the clothing and styling the shoots, but if a machine breaks down or we need something engineered, Doug is the go to.
DOUG: We’ve brought on team members, because we’ve always dreamed of being able to hand things off. There’s no way to grow when you’re handling everything. You get to the point where you hit the ceiling. Now we’re starting to open up to be able to focus on the things we are best at. It feels great to be moving forward and we have a great team in place to get us there.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO HAVE A FAMILY RUN BUSINESS?
ROSE: I think it means that we’re both involved in all of the decisions, and a lot of the time the decisions are based around our kid’s needs. The reason I started the business in the first place was so I could stay home to be with my kids and figure out a way I could still make money. I think all decisions are based around what’s best for everyone.
DOUG: I think the most defining thing is freedom. That we have the ability to take time for our family. As little of a thing as it is to be here when they get home from school, they can pop into the studio and say “hi” and let us know they are home and safe.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND BENEFITS OF RUNNING A BUSINESS FROM YOUR HOME?
ROSE: Having people in your space and in your children’s space can be difficult at times and you can’t really get away from it. It takes discipline to not always be working. Just having the studio closed and locked up keeps me from going over there after work hours. Our home is in such close proximity, that privacy is a concern.
DOUG: For me the biggest challenge is just making sure everything and everyone is safe and comfortable.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND BENEFITS OF WORKING WITH YOUR PARTNER?
ROSE: I think the biggest challenge is to not talk about work when we are not at work!
DOUG: It’s true, it’s a big part of us, what we’re doing and what’s on our mind. I think we have a good balance of all of that actually.
ROSE: This summer Doug spent a lot of time away from the studio working on our house and it was a challenge. He does have a lot of responsibilities here. He does the books, but he also has a big role in production. Nothing can leave the studio unless Doug has coverstitched it or snapped it or something. I think he designed it that way! (laughs)
DOUG: Job security.
HOW HAS THE EXPERIENCE OF STARTING A BUSINESS LOOK DIFFERENT THAN YOU IMAGINED?
ROSE: I didn’t really have a picture of running a business when I started. Being a creative person, you don’t think too much about the business part. It took me a long time to realize that there were jobs that other people could do. I was doing everything; all the photos, making the clothes, making all the listings, answering emails, shipping, etc. Once I figured out it was okay to trust other people and delegate some of the responsibilities, it made not only the business run more smoothly, but me as a person run more smoothly.
DOUG: This year has been the biggest leap of faith, of trusting other people to execute our vision that is changing and evolving. It’s amazing the growth and the change that we’ve gone through this year, not only in delegating the work load, but in directing as well.
ROSE: I struggle with direction too. I have a vision but it can be challenging to express that vision to other people. I’m not as organized as leader as I would like to be. My focus is still mainly on production, so it’s tough to balance. I didn’t envision myself being the boss and taking on all the organizational responsibility or managing people. That’s a big piece I didn’t see when I started.
DOUG: Especially with the organization part. It’s so vast and there are so many different components, to go from doing everything yourself on this one level to breaking it up, handing it off and developing it along the way.
ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE CONSIDERING STARTING A FAMILY BUSINESS?
DOUG: Just do it! More doing less talking.
ROSE: If you have a family and a business, the family has to come first. Your kids watch you and see what you’re doing. I think at this point, we are pretty positive role models for them because they see how hard we work. Giving them any role, no matter how small, makes them feel like they have been a part of this. They always have been. Just keep in mind the balance that comes with any endeavor!
DOUG: My biggest advice is to write down your goals, and then go back and check it off.
photos: Leigh Ann Cobb