Get That Life: How I Started My Own Plus-Size Fashion Company


Aimee Cheshire founded Hey, Gorgeous!, which curates clothes from designers around the world that cater to sizes 12 and up.

When she was growing up, Aimee Cheshire loved fashion but hated shopping. She was taller and bigger than most kids her age, and retail stores didn't sell many larger options. She got a job she loved in the plus industry, but hated the clothes — big, boxy T-shirts, ill-fitting pants, muumuus. So she quit her job and started a plus-size fashion blog. The success of that blog led Cheshire to found Hey, Gorgeous!, an online fashion retailer that curates on-trend separates from designers around the world that cater to sizes 12 and up. The site also profiles up-and-coming designers, models, and thought leaders in the plus fashion space, and offers inspirational blog posts about living life in your own skin. 

Cheshire, 36, talks about learning to love her body and how she thinks her business will revolutionize the fashion industry.

I was always the biggest, tallest girl in the class, positioned in the back, middle of every class photo. There were not a lot of options for plus sizes in Canada at the time. I had to wear jogging suits to school or anything else I could find with flexible sizing. I didn't have a lot of peers that looked like me. It made me feel so alone and isolated.

Around sixth grade, my mom and I finally found a pair of men's jeans that fit me well. It was an amazing moment to go to school wearing jeans like my friends. Everyone was commenting on how cool they were. That's the moment I made the connection between fashion and self-esteem. I became really addicted to that feeling.

When I was about 15, I moved from Toronto to Virginia. I thought moving to the U.S. would give me all the fashion options in the world, but it just wasn't the case. As a teenager, the only retail stores that sold clothes in my size were Torrid, this edgy store owned by Hot Topic that sells a lot of black clothing, or Lane Bryant.

I studied psychology at James Madison University. By this time, I had figured out how to piece a wardrobe together — a few items from those same two stores [Torrid and Lane Bryant], and a lot of thrift shopping. I spent a lot of time online researching the plus-size fashion industry and I noticed a lot of ads for plus-size models. I thought, Maybe this is something I can do.

I reached out to Catherine Schuller, who was a [plus-size] FORD model in the 1980s and sent her a few photos. She was very encouraging, saying, "Yes, you'd be great for this!" It gave me validation that maybe I could do this. By senior year, I knew that the world of psychology was not going to be for me. I graduated with my degree in psychology in 2002, and then I moved to New York to study fashion merchandising at LIM College.

I did a lot of networking and went on any modeling call for plus. I got signed to an agency within my first year in New York. I walked in consumer-facing fashion shows for companies like Lord & Taylor and Macy's. I also did a piece in Marie Claire for a story about "real women" in iconic poses where I was able to channel my inner Kate Moss. After a year, I realized that modeling wasn't for me. I struggled with playing up to the camera, with letting loose.

I decided to focus on the industry side of fashion. [For an internship,] I sought out [one of] the only companies in the U.S. that addressed the plus-size market at the time. They sold budget-priced clothing, mostly from catalogues, for sizes 12 through 7x. I wanted to learn everything — how did they treat their customer, why did they sell the items that they did, how they mimicked the fashion of straight-size women.

When I graduated LIM in 2003, I was hired at as an assistant product manager. I helped develop knit sportswear for one of the catalogues — laying out the fashion spreads and shopping everywhere I could to find inspiration for new products. During my time there, I was promoted a few times and ended up project manager of another catalogue, where I designed the layouts and consulted on the apparel it sold. As a customer of this clothing myself, I started to grow weary of the same, simple styles. I was constantly being asked to remove details from clothing so it had more of a mass appeal. But I knew I wasn't the only one who was craving more fashion-forward pieces. I was pitching items like a really good-fitting T-shirt, and a motorcycle jacket. They all just looked at me like I was crazy.

I left [the company] the summer of 2009 to start my blog. I don't recommend it as a career move to leave your full-time paying job for one that does not pay, but I was married and my husband's income could afford me that luxury. The blog was called Madison Plus. It was just about discovering your style as a plus-size woman, taking the current offerings out there — the five pieces you could buy at the three stores that sold to us — and learning how to create trendy looks. It wasn't about complaining about what we didn't have, but making what we did have work.

I had developed really good relationships with all the modeling agencies, and at the time, there were still very few outlets for plus-size models to promote themselves. So I would shoot their looks and put them on the blog. I worked with many of the top names of today who were just getting their start then — Robyn Lawley, Tara Lynn, Ashley Graham, Clementine Desseaux, and Denise Bidot.

The site traffic grew. One of the photo shoots with Ashley Graham was featured on Entertainment Tonight. There were very few people advertising on blogs at the time. There were no plus brands sponsoring posts. So I launched an affiliate shopping site where I would curate pieces from all the brands that offered plus sizes, and customers could buy them online [and the site earned a percentage of sales]. It was important to me to bring in indie designers and help them get their start. I looked to brands in Europe and Australia, constantly keeping an eye on emerging U.S. designers. They were the ones doing interesting and unique things with clothing for this market. They just needed a place to sell.

I realized that I needed to take the business to the next level [and make it a shopping site], but I just didn't know how. I started going to various tech meetups and fashion events to start networking. In 2013, I went to a women in tech meetup hosted at the Facebook offices in New York. I met this guy named David Wechsler [an investor and serial entrepreneur] in the elevator on the way up, just making small talk. When it was time to sit down, the only seat available was next to him. He had never heard about the plus-size industry. He asked me so many questions, and I kept wondering, When is this guy going to be quiet so I can listen to the speakers? 

Dave and I exchanged emails, and he sent more questions. He told me he was looking for a new project to invest in, and he loved being a part of spaces no one else wanted to be a part of.

It was a big leap of faith. You always assume your partner will be someone you've known for years, but Dave and I work because we're so different. My strength is as a visionary. I understand this customer's needs and her emotional state when she's shopping. Dave had a Rolodex of private investors who liked to invest in his projects, and that's where the majority of our startup funding came from. But we still had to pitch to venture capitalists [to grow the business]. I was six months pregnant at the time. In the male-dominated tech world, they question your commitment to the business. Then we met a woman named Joanne Wilson, a prolific angel investor in New York. She told us, "I've seen every plus-size business around, and yours is the one I've been looking for." Then I sheepishly told her I was pregnant. I wasn't sure what her reaction would be or if she'd bail knowing I would need to take time off. She said, "You just gotta do it. You can't put this off; it's part of being a woman. Just go for it." She really lifted a load off me and made me realize I was getting lost in this path of self-doubt.

Madison Plus naturally faded away, and we launched Hey, Gorgeous! in April 2014 as an online boutique offering style-conscious, on-trend apparel for plus-size women. I knew this customer was out there: mid-career women, working moms, CEOs, and lawyers who put most of their income toward shoes and makeup but never had the opportunity to invest in great clothing. She's not trying to lose 20 pounds. She wants something that looks great on her today.

I started [selling] five brands, and now we have more than 30. My job is to curate the best pieces from these brands — everything from workwear, to swimwear, to high-end pieces, to everyday staples. I want Hey, Gorgeous! to be the place responsible for launching the careers of talented indie designers who cater to the plus woman.

Initially, we spread the news through our blog and social media channels. We gained support from long-term friends in the industry — from bloggers to models to fashion media. Last July, we launched a private shopping experience in our midtown Manhattan showroom. Customers email us what they like, send links from our site, and tell us what areas of their body they want to hide or emphasize. They then spend two hours with a personal stylist trying on beautiful clothes. Every woman comes in and says, "I hate shopping." And each of them leaves with tears of joy because she finally won the battle with that 12-year-old voice in her head that always told her she's not worth it, that she won't fit into anything. We now have more than 3,700 online customers. I'm developing a private Hey, Gorgeous! label, which will launch at the end of April.

Retailers are understanding the spending power of this huge portion of the population, and we're starting to see more options out there. But what I want to focus on changing is the mentality of the plus woman. If I invest in beautiful, quality clothing, which makes me feel great, that confidence will feed the rest of my life. This process has never been encouraged or validated for the plus-size woman. So it's more than just throwing more options out there and hoping that they'll shop. We have to woo them and show them they are worth it. 

[ By: Heather Wood Rudouph ] [ Cosmopolitan ] [ Read More ]

 

Comment