"You’re unique," the Annette Ellen Designs website says. "Your style and shape are one-of-a-kind, just as your clothing should be." And Annette Wallander, a made-to-measure fashion designer and the talent behind Annette Ellen Designs, is living out that mantra through her transactions and interactions with clients.
I was introduced to Wallander a few months ago through a mutual friend, and what I quickly learned about Wallander is that her design methods are anything but mainstream. She uses a computer program to custom-create patterns rather than taking measurements from her clients and creating the patterns by hand. And although the market for this method is still fairly small, Wallander believes that high-tech tailoring helps women who normally can't find properly-fitted clothes a chance to feel confident and beautiful. Check out our conversation below:*
Me: You started Annette Ellen Designs in 1997. What did you do before that, and what initially attracted you to the fashion industry?
Wallander: I’ve always had an interest and a passion for design, and I started designing and sewing when I was 10 years old. And before I started my business, I worked for large retail organizations for 15 years [Macy’s, LensCrafters, U.S. Shoe Corporation, which owned LensCrafters at that time, and Liz Claiborne]. Half that time, I was more out in the field in sales management or district level management, and then the rest of the time, I was in a corporate office environment in merchandising and buying. So it’s always been there in the back of my mind, and this passion for design really led me to starting my own business.
But then it kind of took on a life of its own, with the whole technology piece with getting the made-to-measure part right. And I just found it so fascinating to be able to use this technology to help women have this option for made-to-measure because, as you know, there’s really not that many options for women out there.
Can you talk about the technology you use to make your clothes a little bit?
I use a CAD/CAM program for apparel called PAD System Technologies, which stands for Pattern and Design System. They’re a leader in the industry along with Gerber and some of those other software programs for apparel designs. But what I liked about this one [was] their commitment to made-to-measure, number one, and I found it easy to learn, and being that I was kind of out there on my own, that was important to me.
I use the CAD program and take it one step further by adding formulas throughout the pattern so that, long story made short, I can take a customer’s measurements, input them into a database, and then import the measurements from the database into the pattern. With the formulas written into the pattern, it takes the pattern from a standard sample size pattern to a custom pattern in a matter of a few minutes. There’s a lot of work involved in the setup of the individual patterns — to write the formulas. It could be described as a semi-couture because our concept doesn’t allow for the customer to make a lot of design changes, but the garment is made to their measurements.
So once you have those customized measurements and patterns, do you just use those and then make the clothes by hand?
I have contractors in New York who do the actual production. I wanted, when I first started the business, to do the patterns more manually doing muslin as a garment first, [but] then once I started using the technology, we just [went] for it — we just cut right into the fabric. Because every fabric is so different, we found it problematic sometimes even with doing the muslin fitting. So the customers like it, too, because right away, they can see it in their material and try it on.
[With] some of the technologies, we can get 90-95 percent there. It might just need a little nip or tuck here or there because the different varying fabrics, but we try to take that into consideration into the formulas as much as possible, too. But every woman’s body can shift around a little bit, so it might need a little tweak, and then a lot of the customers that I’ve had have wanted to leave their hems undone, so they can get that in the right place.
Are there any stores online that use the same technology that you’re basing this off of, or are you flying off the seat of your pants?
Levi’s a long time ago tried to do the custom jeans, and it didn’t work for them. There [are] a few companies out there when I found them online that do say that they do the custom [patterns], but it’s the algorithms, it's like, OK, what’s your bra size, what’s your height, give me your bust, waist and hips. But what I’ve found over the years is you can have a short woman, but she could be long-waisted, narrow shouldered, wide-shouldered, bust, waist and hips are all different sizes, you know, from a standard.
Your website was launched in 2014. How did you conduct business before that?
Yes, the official launch was in October 2014. I had a storefront in Cincinnati when we lived there. It was in a trendy upscale boutique area called Hyde Park Square. I did spend some time operating it out of my home studio. And when we moved down here [to Florida] — while I was still filling out my new business model and totally revamping how I was operating — I did some [talking] with some U.S. designers that wanted to use PAD System but wanted some help with it or wanted me to get their designs set up in the system.
And then [I started to] work on this whole new concept — to do it over the Internet, and some old schoolers may think, “Well, can that really be done?” and the answer is yes. The key, though, is getting the right measurements. So I’m encouraging them [my clients] on the website to have a local tailor or somebody that they know to take the measurements for them. But there is a guide [on the website] that they can print out that shows exactly what measurements [to take] and how to take them.
Have you done any fashion shows or exhibitions, local or otherwise? How did you promote yourself?
Well the thing that really worked for me because I’m an independent, and [I have] one store, was using publicity. I had a PR person kind of working with me, [and] I had several articles written on the business, which helped get the word out. A lot of it was repeat and referral and then just location. I had a great location for that product, and I did some style shows.
What were those like?
Well, you know, they were just little local ones. I did go to Chicago and was in an expo one time. And one of the things that I ran into there was, you got a lot of great compliments on the clothes — unique and the elegance and the quality fabrics that you just don’t see anymore in ready-to-wear — but the challenge got to be more the price point. So that’s when I started trying to go more direct, again, trying to do this through the website. So, I can kind of keep those price points a little more in-line, and we can provide that extra service because we do have a good average margin.
Where do you draw your inspiration from as a designer? Do you follow popular trends or do you gravitate towards your personal style?
I follow trends, but for the most part I like to stay with sophisticated elegant designs (which happens to be my personal style) that my customers can wear for several years. In addition, I get inspiration from what my customers’ desire in a garment, classic movies, nature and certain fabrics.
Do you model your own clothes on the site, or is that someone who just looks remarkably a lot like you?
Yes, I currently model some of the clothes on the site. While I sell to women of all ages, my target market is women between the ages of 40 to 65. I’ve received feedback from several women (in my target market) that they would appreciate seeing a model that was age-appropriate (plus, most of the samples are made to fit me, so I can test the style, fit and comfort of the garments.) My plan is to have diverse models on my website.
Who are your main clients?
A lot of bridal. We do a lot of mothers of the bride and groom — that was a big client this summer. [Other clients are] women who just needed a couple nice, formal outfits during the year for different events. We do design daywear, as well. I don’t have a lot of that on my site now because things have started to shift to be much more casual. But I am going to probably try to introduce more of that and a line that’s kind of more easy care, so they can put it in the washing machine.
What are your favorite items to make?
Special occasion is a favorite — it’s just a lot of fun to help women out. I’ve also helped a lot of brides, [but] I’m not doing a lot of that right now. I’ve had destination weddings, or another big market was second weddings — they don’t have that traditional bridal look. Just to see them [the brides] come in after they’ve struggled and then have it made to the measurements and to their liking — what they wanted, it’s a lot of fun. But I enjoy just your casual things that you can wear more often, too, so kind of a mixture of both. But the type of product and the price point probably lends itself a little more to special occasion.
We're both Christians working in fashion, so I'm curious if you've faced challenges in the industry, especially when you worked in merchandising. Or have you discovered that it’s a little more accepting than people tend to believe?
I’ve never really struggled with that too much. I’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people — customers over the years that I’ve just felt so blessed to have the opportunity to know. Because I know that if I didn’t have my business, I would have never crossed their paths. So you get a few every once in awhile that might be a little bit of a struggle, but I don’t really struggle with that too much.
What are your thoughts on being a Christian in the art world? Do you think that by having really good products, those speak for themselves and that’s kind of your witness, or do you take a more obvious approach?
I struggle with that sometimes because, I love this art part of this [business], but I should be doing something more to help people, too. [But] if I can get this concept out and keep good price points, maybe finally, some women who have never been able to have a decent dress because they just can’t find one to fit them well — I can help them with that. But the contractors and the people that I deal with there — I’ve never had a problem with them or anything like that.
And as far as telling them, I don’t probably come flat-out unless maybe the conversation heads that way, but I try to be an example with how I treat people. That was a big part of my business — not just customer service but just treating people right and doing the right thing. And if we would make a mistake and do something wrong, it’s how you recover and apologize, make it right for them, bend over backwards and stuff like that. Which is part of how any real Christian would handle something like that.
I'm going to play the devil's advocate and ask if you think that fashion and Christianity are compatible. How do you justify all of the sexuality in the industry? Do you think that sex is what fashion is today?
I think it’s used a lot by a lot of designers to sell their products. I don’t think it has to be that way. What do you find in dealing with that?
I think that people outside of the fashion industry see it that way because those are the things that you hear about — all the shocking things that happen. But from my somewhat limited experience just starting out, I think that it’s a lot more about the clothes than people think. I just think that there’s such a need for Christians in the fashion industry because it’s such a secular field. And fashion isn't what you hear about Christians being interested in because it’s kind of taboo. It’s kind of a vicious cycle: people don’t go into fashion because it’s secular, but it’s so secular because there are no Christians in it. Anyways, that’s what I think.
I just feel like I should be doing more. Maybe I need two careers or something! But the way my business model is kicking off, I do feel like I can help women. If I can grow my brand and get it out there more — like I’m trying to do blogs. One of the [articles I posted] to help them was their wardrobe and how to dress different body types and things like that. One of the things I want to do with my website is make it more educational for [my customers] and make it so that there’s good information out there on, you know, this works, this doesn’t, have pictures, before and after.
But as you know, all this stuff takes resources and time, and so I feel like it’s going really slowly, and that’s where it comes to my faith and just say, “OK, well yeah, it might take five years, and you might have to do something else in the meanwhile,” but I think it’s just letting the LORD guide me, and when the time is right — and I know it’s not always on our time table — but when the time is right, there’s going to be some people along the path that can just help or guide.
What is the future for Annette Ellen Designs? Where do you hope to be in five years?
I definitely hope to have a business going into both directions, where we have business coming to the site from people that found us, but I just want this concept to be known — I just want it to be out there and available as a choice for women. And it doesn’t mean they would have to have every piece be from me — nothing like that. Even if they could have two or three pieces, and then they fill in from other designers. I just want them to have the option.
So five years from now, I want it to be where it’s taking 100 percent of my time, I’m able to help women find their design and get their fit — be able to do it online. There’s body scanning technology that’s being developed every day, so in five years, [it would be great] to have some kind of joint cooperation with maybe a body scanning company that can take measurements, which would help the whole online process be more consistent. But that’s still to be seen whether that really works better than a tape measure, too.
*Note: This interview has been edited down for length and clarity, and ellipses (to denote removed content) have been removed from the text for the sake of the reader.