The world of fast fashion isn't for the faint of heart. In recent years, stalwarts like Hennes & Mauritz, better known as H&M, and its slightly more upscale counterpart Inditex Group's Zara have led to the near decimation of many of the nation's biggest department stores.
So when Kirsten Stuckey struck out on her own in 2009, at the age of 21, one would hardly have thought she was embarking on what would become the fast-fashion darling of Arkansas--with $4 million in sales last year and $6 million projected for 2015. But as all entrepreneurs know, necessity makes people do the darnedest things.
In the fall of her senior year of college, Stuckey (then Blowers) knew she was going to be out of luck come May. As an interior design major graduating amid the latest recession, she quickly realized there wasn't much hope of getting hired in her field.
Fortunately, plan B also reared its head. While interning with an interior designer, she would refurbish and paint furniture. Before long, it struck her that she could be doing that for a living. So with $100 in her pocket, she began scouring local garage sales and surrounding areas in search of gently used castaways. After buying as much furniture as she could, she refurbished everything and sold it to Facebook friends.
Time to grow
By February 2009, Stuckey had amassed enough capital and furniture inventory to open a storefront on the east side of Fayetteville. She called it Riffraff.
"It was terrifying," she says about opening the business. "It taught me a lot [about] patience and focusing on what's going to work, as opposed to what you want to do."
That she seems naturally attuned to her target customer--Millennial women--would only bolster her ability to achieve this, says University of Arkansas marketing professor Thomas D. Jensen, who has popped into the shop. "They seem to put together everything that is attractive to that group. Their employees are their customers," says Jensen.
Stuckey also credits social media. At the time of her first store opening, it was still free to generate advertising on Facebook. So with that, the self-proclaimed "social media junky" garnered a following for her store--and plenty of sales. Within the first year of the company's founding, Riffraff was ringing in more than $100,000 from local shoppers. By the following year, sales had tripled. By the middle of 2010, she had enough momentum to pull up stakes and move her flagship store downtown, closer to Fayetteville's bustling city center. That's also when Stuckey's foray into fashion would begin.
"When we moved to this new location, there were a couple of clothing racks built in from the previous tenant, and I didn't have the money to take them out," she says. "So our alternative was to start selling clothes."
On opening day, the store's roughly 50 articles of clothing sold out. Besides fashion, she quickly gathered that people like variety. So she started uploading pictures of new arrivals on Facebook every night. By 2012, the shop had 100,000 followers.
Coping with change
But like all good things, Facebook's algorithm changed. That meant fewer of Riffraff's posts were able to gain traction. So Stuckey knew she needed to act. Building an e-commerce site was her first order of business. Next, she opened a second retail location, in a well-to-do suburb of Dallas in 2014. Also that year, she launched the wholesale clothier Charlie Southern.
The wholesale business, which now generates a sizable portion of the company's revenue, also started out of necessity, says Stuckey. In 2011, she created a T-shirt design that had the word Love scrawled on the front with the o replaced by a picture of the state of Arkansas. She called it the State Love Tee. Five or six months after the shirt's debut, she began spotting her design in other boutiques in Arkansas. Customers also alerted her. After filing lawsuits and dispatching cease-and-desist orders, she created the wholesale company--now selling the T-shirts to the stores that were initially ripping her off.
Today, the six-year-old company has 670,000 Facebook followers and 15 full-time employees, 14 part-timers, and six interns who handle everything from customer service and in-store merchandising to shipping, logistics, and bookkeeping. While Stuckey has no plans to open any additional locations this year, she plans to eventually expand to a third store. Stuckey is hopeful--if realistic--about the challenges ahead.
"The life of a business owner can seem very glamorous, but it's not," she says. "It's the daily struggle of putting yourself and your pride out on the line, because there are many options to fail."