When Rochelle Behrens was a lobbyist for a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm, she'd pin her conservative button-down shirts from the inside so they wouldn't gap at the chest. "I was pinning my shirt before work one morning and it was hole poked and wrinkled and I had a flash of inspiration," she recalls. That "aha" moment gave birth to The Shirt, which has a hidden placket and buttons that prevent "gapage."
In 2008, she invested $50,000 of her own money to file a patent, have a prototype made, and go into production of a few hundred shirts. "I sent an e-mail to some of my friends and I had a little trunk show at my apartment," she recalls. "That generated some excitement. Politico did a story on me, then NPR did a piece, and then The Today Show asked me to appear."
By mid-2009, she had quit her job and was working on The Shirt full-time. Behrens developed a small-but-devoted following; Fred Segal started carrying her shirts last October.
Then, just last November, Behrens leveraged a cocktail party connection to get her shirt into the hands of folks at the Oprah Winfrey Show. To her amazement, "they called me back in 24 hours," she says. "They said they loved The Shirt and they wanted to include it on the show." The Shirt would be featured on a January 13 segment on fashion "must-haves" for 2011. "It's the most phenomenal way to jump-start your business as an entrepreneur," Behrens says. "When you get a call like this, everything has to have so much more clarity. And you have to learn how to scale quickly."
Behrens ramped up production with her manufacturing facility, which is based in Spain; she started outsourcing fulfillment and distribution to a company in Andover; and she hired a sales team to build out wholesale distribution. She also expanded her Web-hosting platform to prepare for increased traffic. But when the show aired, her site crashed almost immediately. "We had the Cadillac of servers and we quickly switched to the Bentley," she says. "Within the first two days, there were close to 25,000 unique viewers, and our conversion rate far exceeded the standard retail average."
The "O Effect" has continued to impact Behrens' business. The Shirt is now in 30 stores, including Bloomingdale's, Von Maur, and National Jean Company; Behrens has added 11 colors to her line. "To continue to build the business, I have to continue to innovate and introduce new products," she says. While she won't discuss exact sales numbers, she says that in the first few months of this year, she's sold almost 10,000 shirts. "The goal by end of this year is to be a million dollar company," she says.