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Voices: A Route Interview Series Feat. Sabrina Zohar
Making Lemonade out of Lemons: How an Apparel Company found opportunity in a Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has taken so much from so many—but in the toughest of times, we often dig up our best. Like so many of us, Sabrina Zohar is one of those people who found adulting to be tough. Personal challenges, burnt out enthusiasm, competing in the world, and repeating it day after day is tiring.
So how did she go from barely grinding through each day to running a business about to tackle $1 million in revenue? She picked up an opportunity that was dumped at her feet just as the pandemic swept in. What appeared to be a heap of lemons turned out to be the best for Sabrina and her thriving brand, Softwear. Read on to hear what she learned along the way.
Q: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
A: That’s a good question! I would say that I’m capable of a lot more than I actually think I am.
Five years ago, I didn’t even think that I could run a business. I could barely even take care of myself, let alone run a business through COVID and doing it alone. I wish five years ago that I knew I had the strength within me to be able to do it, but I’m glad that I figured that out along the way.
Q: What does the future of ecommerce look like in your mind?
A: The norm. I mean, I hate to say it, but I think ecommerce is just going to be expected. I feel like stores are going to end up being kind of like showrooms where you go in, you can feel the product, and you can engage with the product. I think, ultimately, even having an assortment, online is just going to be the only way that people will be able to get what they need.
At least for a small brand, we had a store and I could only have about five things out and pieces here and there. I think online is just going to be what we always will gravitate toward. Immediacy will be like Bodegas in New York, which is our little corner store, and things like that.
I think we’ll be expediting that local delivery aspect a lot more as we figure out how to scale smaller businesses into bigger ones and be able to maximize on different territories.
I do think that local delivery will play a big role. I think being strategic about where you offer the local delivery and partnering with people that can help will make that more accessible. For us, it works because the inventory is in my apartment, so I can work with different delivery services in our neighborhood.
I offer a local delivery to people and I bring it the same day. We have a few stores here and there that carry just a rack of our things. There’s a sign that says: If you’d like to order more sizes, then please go to softwear.com. Being able to figure that caveat out, which Rent the Runway is kind of doing it, started with that business model where they would bring it to you within two hours, because then there’s no overhead.
Q: What is your best failure?
A: The best failure we had was when I had a business partner in September 2019. He came to me and said that he didn’t want to do it anymore. It just wasn’t his thing and I told him I’d buy him out. Upon doing that, I inherited all of his issues and realized that he had made about $250,000 of inventory.
That was the best thing that could ever happen to us because the pandemic hit. What that happened, I started hand tie-dying everything. That was my way of moving the inventory, making the relationships with the clients, and giving people what they wanted, as opposed to forcing people to buy what I already had.
I had about 500 pieces of white and tan things and I just started creating different looks. I posted the pieces I liked online and that’s how we were able to sell out of all of our inventory. We were then able to start an entire new collection and scale.
The biggest mistake that we ever made was over-producing pieces that nobody wanted, but it was the best in a lesson because it helped me keep the business alive and completely change it. It just sort of fell into place. Unlucky circumstances turned into a lucky outcome.
It allowed me to build such great relationships with every person I talk to. We had one influencer post and I think we did around $28,000 overnight, which I never in my life experienced. I had to talk to every single person directly and ask them: What do you want? Here are your options. Where do you want it?
It allowed people to feel like they were laying the brick down with me because we’re building this together, we’re in this together. I then could give them exactly what they wanted, which made them come back because they knew that we really care about what they want.
Q: How have you pivoted strategy during the pandemic?
A: We’re listening a lot more now, and we are being reactive when it comes to our collection. Prior to this, I was solid and refused to entertain a side-eye, print, or anything like that. It just wasn’t on my radar.
We went from 60% black and 40% solids to 60% black, 15% solids, and 25% tie-dyed. For 2021, what we’ve decided is that we found it. We partnered with a dye house in LA, which helps with everything in Softwear, including our fabric being made.
Our woven and finished cut strings, hang tags, and everything are made within 10 miles. It’s all within the same little city in LA, and by doing that, I was able to cut down on everything, like reducing our carbon footprint, but also chase the business. We’ve made a ton of garments that are not going to get dyed right now and we’re going to do limited-edition quantities on everything.
In two to three weeks, we’ll start dropping new colors to keep things fresh. We’re chasing the business. We’re not preemptively striking too hard to where trends could die out or everybody has the same color and then say shit, what are we going to do?
We have too much. We can send items, shoot them in a week, get them online, and then be done. We’ve learned that by being local, we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re not dealing with minimums in China. We’re not dealing with long lead times.
We’re dealing with being really smart, being crafty, cutting ahead of time, and then just making strategic decisions along the way. Truly, I think that is how we will hit our goal of $1 million this year. By following the business and listening to our customer, it’s hyper sustainable by far that way.
We’re not producing anything that’s going to go to waste. We’re going to produce the same garments anyways. We’re going to make pants and make hoodies, but this way we will make 40 per color and keep that kind of limited-edition mentality going.