Growing up on Kodiak Island in southern Alaska, Meagan Delaney was about as far removed from the world of high fashion as one can get. “We’d get fashion magazines like three months late,” she says. “I think I learned not to take it too seriously. Fashion should be fun and clothes should be wearable.”
A visit to her year-old women’s boutique on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side reinforces that philosophy. The whitewashed brick walls and raw wood finishes serve as an unfussy canvas for the array of rich colors and textures The Rising States are known for. Despite the luxurious assortment of silk, wool and buttery leather garments, each piece upholds Meagan’s practical approach to fashion: chic, creative, and slightly tongue-in-cheek but still very much wearable.
Meagan has not only become a champion of the little guy by stocking independent local and international designers such as Laer, Samantha Pleet, Bedford Street Laundry, Sunday Somewhere, and Etienne Deroeux, but she has also established herself as being one step ahead of the trend curve. “When I started, hardly any of my brands were recognizable to more than a handful of people. But now a lot of them are really starting to blow up, and rightfully so.”
Since moving to New York 12 years ago, Meagan has tried her hand at various jobs in the fashion industry: public relations, brand manager, store buyer and shopgirl. “I’ve always worked in fashion in some sense, but I gravitate back to retail,” she says. “This was the only place for me to go.”
In one year’s time, Meagan quit her buying job, took business courses at NYU, traveled two months with her fiancé Todd Higuchi, filed for an LLC, leased a storefront, and starting buying for her debut season. And much to the benefit of fashionable girls everywhere, she hasn’t looked back since.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
What were your first three steps towards building The Rising States?
I spoke to other girls who had shops about their startup process, logistics, legal stuff, etc. One of them recommended I hire her lawyer to help me file an LLC, which you can do pretty easily on your own but I wanted to make sure I did things right. In the end, I’m happy I hired her because she helped me understand what I needed to do and facilitated the process.
I hired a real estate agent to find the space. I only looked at about ten total, whereas most people I spoke to had to look at like 40 before finding the right space. I really lucked out. It had only been on the market for a day or two and had everything I wanted: great block, good neighbors and a finished basement. I started looking the last week of May and signed the lease on July 4, 2013.
I opened a second bank account strictly for The Rising States. I wanted to know how much money I had apart from my personal finances and be able to see all the ins and outs. Then I hired an accountant. I could probably manage that myself, but at that point there were too many other things that needed my attention.
The majority of your work experience has been in fashion and retail. Was opening your own store always the end goal?
It was never at the forefront of my mind. Maybe subconsciously I knew I wanted to have a store, but I never thought “My dream is to be a shop owner.” For a lot of girls, working in retail is something you do to get by until you move onto your “real” career or “bigger and better” things. But I always really liked it. Even just being a sales girl was fun for me. I’m very hands on with customers and enjoy helping them find what they want. When I learned how to buy, I became even more invested in retail because I was able to see and experience the whole process, from being in the showroom six months prior to thinking about the girls that would eventually wear those pieces. That’s the coolest part for me. I didn’t want to continue working for someone else in their shop if I could have my own and execute my vision. It just seemed like a natural progression and I felt ready to do it.
You also spent a lot of time working in fashion PR and brand management. What about owning a shop was more appealing than another type of business?
What I liked about PR was working with the designers and getting to know them on a personal level. That’s an aspect I’ve transferred to the shop. Many of the designers I carry are local or at least independent to the point that I know them even if they’re not based in New York. Wherever they are, they’re definitely not in some massive showroom and disconnected from their buyers. I like that. For me, the best part about working in PR was building relationships with the designers and learning about their creative processes. Having my own store allows me to convey that more clearly to the customer. There’s so much time and work put into a collection and I think the stories the designers are telling should be respected. It’s kind of like being a curator.
For a lot of people wanting to start their own business, knowing where to start is often the most intimidating part. What did you do in order to prepare yourself for this venture?
I knew I wasn’t ready to open a store but I also knew that retail was what I eventually wanted to do. In 2012, I took two summer classes at NYU’s School of Professional Studies: “Starting Your Own Business” and “Management Planning, Control and Effective Budgeting.” I left my job two months earlier and wasn’t working at the time. The classes were helpful but I went with the intention of opening an online store so everything I was thinking about was based on this online business that never happened. After school ended, Todd and I traveled through Europe for two months which was really rad because I got to clear my head and get away from the pressure of being in New York. I took that time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to do e-commerce, I wanted to open a brick and mortar.
What was the deciding factor in choosing to open a traditional store versus an online shop?
Ultimately the satisfaction of having the pieces in here and giving them to the right girls. I really like working with the customers. If I had opened an e-commerce business, the whole face-to-face aspect would’ve been missing. Initially everyone told me the more financially responsible decision would be to open online first and then open the brick and mortar. It seemed like the smart thing to do but my heart wasn’t in it. So I did the opposite. It’s difficult to connect with the customer if it’s strictly online. I do feel like e-commerce is important; that’s just the nature of the way things are now. There are plans for that but I’m happy to have had a year of working out all the kinks and solidifying a brand identity. If I had started with e-commerce and wasn’t 100% into it with my heart, I don’t think it would be as exciting as it is now.
Once you figured out what you wanted to do, did you dive in headfirst or were there still underlying fears to work through?
The fear that I had was seriously debilitating for a long time. We got back from Europe in November 2012 and even though I knew what I wanted to do, I was still scared. For the following three months I didn’t do anything about it. I had already taken a year off from working so then it became a matter of “I have to do something.” The fact that I had the idea and could afford to do it but wasn’t making any progress was really bumming me out. Then there was the pressure of time and the buying season. I wanted to open in the fall so I had to start buying that February. I bit the bullet and just did it. Once you start moving you keep moving because you have to. When the first thing happens, the second thing is a little easier and the third thing is a lot easier. Nothing is really like “Oh shit I can’t do this” because you’ve already done one, two and three and now you can’t not finish. You keep going because you’re on your way to doing what you want and that’s really exciting.
What is the focus for The Rising States and how is it different from that of other retail stores?
The main focus is independent designers. I’ve got a few that are bigger than others but most of them are pretty small. When customers come in I can tell anyone the background of every single piece in here — the designer, where it’s made, the inspiration. That is becoming increasingly more important to consumers and it’s something I’ve always valued. I have a problem with things being labeled “eco” or “green fashion” because that should just be fashion. Ideally all garments should be ethically and responsibly produced and you should know where they’re from and how they’re put together. There’s been a whole uptick with things being made in America and the overall accountability of how clothes are constructed. I’m thrilled with the rising interest I’ve seen from girls who want to know the story behind the piece they’re buying. It definitely makes each item a lot more special and makes them appreciate it that much more.
WOMEN’S NYC FALL BUYING CALENDAR
Striking a balance in the buying process between trend, quality and profitability seems like a skill to be perfected. What do you look for when buying?
A little bit of it is driven by trend and what’s happening in terms of fashion forecasting, which I kind of follow. In New York, what’s trendy is pretty obvious on the street before it’s on the runway. Here, most girls pay attention and I probably pay attention more than most girls. Hopefully I’m still hip and staying with it! In terms of aesthetics, I do like every piece though I wouldn’t necessarily wear everything — some just aren’t my style. When I’m buying I try to imagine the girl that would wear the piece. Trend aside, fit and fabric are crazy important to me. I like things that are flattering on most body types opposed to just one body type. I also like buying really special basics, like things that should probably be in every girl’s closet but have something more to them than just being a plain t-shirt.
How do you figure out how much to buy of each item? Are there minimums and what’s the average quantity per style?
When I first opened I seriously underbought. Girls would come in and ask if I was a gallery because the racks were so sparse! Since then I’ve gotten better, though I wouldn’t say that I’ve totally figured it out. The size of the order varies tremendously from designer to designer. A lot of it is based on price point, how popular the item is or how much I want it to be popular. Some of the bigger brands who produce more have minimums they have to hit with their factories, which trickles down to me needing to increase my order. But on average, I’ll probably do a size run of three to four pieces per style. At the moment, I have roughly 40 designers. A few of them only do one thing so there’s only one style to choose, but most of them design whole collections. I prefer to pick enough pieces out of a collection to be representative of the designer’s vision for that season. That way when girls come in they understand what the designer is trying to achieve.
You were pretty lucky in terms of finding the right space for your business. What was that process like and do you have any pointers to share?
Be vocal about what you want. Real estate agents can be pushy and try to talk you into things you know you don’t want. They might try to sell you on a neighborhood you’re not interested in or convince you that a quiet block is soon to explode. So follow your instinct and make sure you speak up. That was the first time I realized the importance of knowing what you want and vocalizing it in business dealings. I also really lucked out with the condition of the space. The guys that were in here before did a great build out and spent a lot of money on it so there wasn’t much for me to do. That being said, Todd did all of the minor renovations including the beautiful carpentry and shelving. I got the keys on July 15th and opened September 3, 2013.
Do you have any first-year advice for future shop owners?
A piece of advice that’s helped me is to look beyond the first six-month stretch. It’s an important one, but know from the get-go that there will be an evolution of the store. It’s not going to stay the same for a week, let alone six weeks or six months. I guess it’s a matter of not being too arrogant and thinking you have it all figured out from the jump. It’s a massive learning process so be open to change. I was so busy dealing with vendors, making rent and building a customer base that I let certain things go like aesthetics and merchandising. I was lucky to have people around me to tell me when things looked dumb or didn’t work. The most important thing is to be open, for sure. Listen to other people. Not everyone, but definitely the people you trust.
Hill, Napoleon. Think and Grow Rich. 1937. Reprint. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Crest, 1960.
More on Meagan
Petreycik, Caitlin. “At The Rising States, Designer Fangirling Is Encouraged.” www.ny.racked.com. October 8, 2014.
Tanenbaum, Kayla. “Spotlight On: The Rising States.” www.suitcasemag.com. October 18, 2013.
Designer turned tech-preneur Ellen Johnston is democratizing design one download at a time. Read Ellen’s startup story on creating pitches, apps, and branding tools for all.June 12, 2015
Visual effects vet Steve Mottershead makes cars shiny, hair lustrous, and Kanye look good. Welcome to the world of VFX, CG, and animation — where nothing is quite as it seems.May 27, 2015
Matt Dilling shares his thoughts on going with the flow, the future of neon, and building his greatest work of art: his business.May 13, 2015