Designer Stella Carakasi: How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More

by Allan Boutrous January 13, 2021 13 min read

stella carakasi fashion designer fashion disruptor eco-fashion size inclusivity retail

We opened our flagship store on Fourth Street in Berkeley, and I remember one woman, in particular, who pointed out everything that we took into consideration when setting up the space. From the grand chandelier that is the focal point of the store to the clean bright lighting and the peaceful music, it was her oasis. She called it her “happy place”. She even loved the smell; we carry a line of home fragrances that refresh your senses the moment you step in the front door. It instantly took the stress out of her day, and that was before she even started trying on clothes.

Aspart of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stella Carakasi. She is an eco-friendly, direct-to-consumer, size-inclusive women’s clothing brand creating comfortable clothing that transforms the way women feel.

Stella Carakasi has been a fashion disruptor since her first eco-collection in 1993, creating the first hemp clothing collection in the United States and designing the first pair of jeans out of the controversial fabric. Her collections continued to raise the bar in eco-fashion helping to mainstream the emerging green revolution by utilizing under-promoted, under-used fabrics at the time like organic cotton, recycled polyester, bamboo and Tencel®.

Her more recent move to leave the traditional seasonal fashion calendar behind and focus on “wear now“ capsules continued to help revolutionize the fast-changing fashion landscape. Not one to sit and watch the market change around her, in 2018 after more than 25 years in the wholesale fashion business, Stella Carakasi took the gamble and left the wholesale business behind. She re-launched her name-sake brand as a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business in order to connect directly with her band of loyal followers and fully embrace the concept of sustainability in her design and manufacturing processes. “Less is more when less is better” became her guiding star. Creating sustainable, timeless designs that are size inclusive has never been more important. Sustainability goes beyond working with eco-friendly materials and ISO certified partners. It means producing and consuming less while expecting more from each style. As a designer Stella Carakasi takes on the responsibility to offer styles in a tight capsule that easily mix and match to create a wide variety of fresh looks and that makes getting dressed easy. Considering most of us only wear 10% of what we own in our closets, it is very important that we own the right pieces that are comfortable and make us look great- styles we love to wear season after season.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Ihave always known that fashion design was my calling in life ever since childhood.

I am Greek but I was born and raised in Germany and I came to the United States as a young adult in 1988 to realize my dream– owning my own company and working as a designer. I grew up watching my mother sew, she was a classically trained tailor with an enormous knowledge of couture techniques. Fabrics, trims, and notions were part of my toy assortment in childhood. Growing up in Europe has obviously influenced my sense of aesthetics and is always somewhat reflected in the work I do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

As you can imagine, I have pretty much made most of the mistakes one can make after 27 years in business and the true value of each mistake is always the lesson, the humility, and the experience you gain. Most mistakes weren’t funny but rather costly but there is one that comes to mind. Early on, when I was learning a lot about garment dyeing, one of our first organic cotton knit productions came in a lot shorter after dye than we anticipated. So before sending out all orders my business partners and I were literally stretching out all the pant legs and arm lengths before sending out the orders.

In our freaked out, exhausted state, we couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves over having to do this.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

This is so true, and I have had many mentors and helpers show up at the right moment on my hero’s or shall I say the heroine’s journey. Frankly, I have a lot of people to thank starting with my two business partners who brought important skill sets to the business early on. The fact that we’re still together after all these years says a lot about who we are as a team. Then there are all the incredible employees, both past and present, that joined the business over the years, further propelling us forward with their, brilliance and commitment to our vision. We were also very fortunate to have worked with a handful of great mentors and leadership experts which widened our horizons and deepened our knowledge. To single out one person would not be fair to the many I owe gratitude and respect for. They know who they are!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Again, I love reading and expanding my mind and knowledge. If I had to single out one book, out of the many. I would most likely choose Napoleon Hill’s, “Think and Grow Rich”. Abundance is all about one’s mindset, and true abundance is not just the financial aspect but all areas of one’s life. Learning how to shed deep-rooted self-limiting beliefs and learning how to align with one’s true purpose and power in life requires a willingness to get very uncomfortable and reprogram one’s mind, by far the most difficult undertaking and a continuous work in progress. The magic clearly happens outside of one’s comfort zone and I have taken up permanent residency there it seems.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe in presenting a clothing label that stands for more than the garments themselves. I have a strong passion for size inclusivity and promoting women’s empowerment in all aspects of our brand. There is no denying that the clothes we wear have an impact on how we feel. I strive to ensure every woman feels comfortable, beautiful, and powerful within her own skin.

The casual style and easy fit perfectly harmonize with the way people are really dressing and my silhouettes are engineered to look as good on a size 2 as they do on a size 18. My key styles are ultra-mixable and designed to work seamlessly with previous capsules and with my customers’ closet favorites. I want to create a positive fashion experience for the many women that feel left out of the fashion conversation by offering clothing that focuses on personal expression and body shape diversity. By no longer chasing the unsustainable fashion industry calendar, deadlines, and unrealistic “ideal” body image, I finally had to draw a line in the sand and put my customers first. Delivering time-honored craftsmanship and engaging directly with my customers, not only resulted in better designs but helped eliminate excess inventory for an overall lighter environmental footprint. Each of my designs is manufactured in small quantities, which means we are able to increase sustainability and ensure extremely high production standards.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Fashion, in general, is a burn out business, because of its complexity that most people are not aware of. I have seen so many businesses, both large and small, come and go over the years. What has gotten me this far is my true passion for my business and the difference I am making in women’s lives. Many of my customers are women that main street fashion has been overlooking for far too long because they do not fit the “ideal fashion industry mold”. Finding that passion and thriving on its impact has been my fuel to forge ahead even in the most difficult of times. Finding meaning in what you do matters greatly and will help you overcome the most impossible obstacles.

Being organized and planning ahead goes a long way in creating an efficient mindset. Most of all, disconnecting from all of my devices and connecting with family and friends with true quality time seems like almost a luxury these days but it’s important for everyone and reminds us all of why we work so hard in the first place. I also like to get out in nature even if it is for a short walk it always refreshes my mind and recharges my spirit.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

It has been a tough several years for all of us in one way or another and we’ve all had to make sacrifices and change out of necessity. Embracing change opens you up to a whole new world of opportunity that you never would have realized if you stayed with the status quo. Taking change “by the horns”, or even better, leading the charge has always been in my DNA. Whether in the development of sustainable manufacturing processes and fabrics or embracing body shape diversity, we have always been at the forefront of innovation both technical and social. The world seems to move faster every day and it’s hard not to get lost in all the clutter. Change seems to make one analyze what’s working, and question how to move forward. Finding opportunity in change can seem daunting but being true to yourself is the guiding light that helps the decisions along. Introducing eco-fabrics to the mainstream was a challenge, as was confronting age and body shape diversity. These were real concerns for us and our customers! They have a lot to say and to be able to have direct dialog has been the most gratifying element in the process of shifting from an outdated wholesale model to a direct-to-consumer brand. It’s the sink or swim scenario that really rings true and having a dedicated team that you believe in and that believe in you has been the lifeblood of our success.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Nurturing our brand identity certainly sets us apart from Amazon and other cheap drop ship companies out of China. We are an American company and have produced high-quality clothing all over the world. One of our main tenets is sustainability, so knowing where and how our products are produced is important. It’s important to us and our customers. Over the years we have incorporated our company values into our global partners and have helped many of them transition to more efficient manufacturing processes and the use of sustainable and eco-friendly materials. We have been fortunate to have a long-standing loyal customer base that has grown with us. We listen to their needs and try to understand how they live and what they are looking for. Often times, people don’t know what they want until they see it, and it’s my job to present it to them season after season. Value, craftmanship, intention, and mindfulness across all manufacturing channels trumps cheap, senseless, and environmentally harming clothing.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think not knowing your customer, their needs and the value they place on your product are big factors in unsuccessful retail ventures. Finding your product-market fit early on is very important. Furthermore, creating a customer-centric positive, and efficient shopping experience is essential no matter if it is in a physical location or online. A well-informed friendly staff that loves and uses the product your selling makes a big difference too, but being present and working on your business rather than being wrapped up in the details helps you see the big picture and think more strategically and creatively about the road ahead.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

Great customer service and customer experience are everything and acquiring and maintaining an informed and dedicated staff is as important as the product itself. If these two aspects of your business work in synergy with each other I think success is inevitable.

We have all had times either in a store or online when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I think failure in customer service or user experience is due mostly to lack of training or even not hiring the right person for the job. Setting up an employee for failure by putting them in the wrong position or not training them properly is frustrating for everyone. Keeping employees involved in decisions and giving them a sense of security, building their confidence, and letting them know that they are a valued and important part of your business can only add to the company’s success. I think many company owners get caught up in the daily grind they forget the simple things like showing gratitude and appreciation.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

There are so many to share but allow me to filter it down to the main essence which is a transformative experience for our customers. More often than not, first-time customers that finally try our clothing leave a great review about the quality of the garments, the many compliments they receive, and the comfort and confidence they feel while wearing our designs. We have so many dedicated customers because they finally found a high quality but affordable brand that fits their realistic body shape, sizes, and lifestyle.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

No doubt, our customer retention rate is very high and that speaks for itself when you see customers come back season after season and sharing their positive experience with their friends and family. Imagine the impact it has when you finally find a product that truly works for you and your lifestyle after many failed attempts, after having given up, feeling overlooked and dismissed, and all of a sudden there is a brand that signals “I see value in you, and you deserve to feel and look beautiful just as you are.” Now that is powerful because you just transformed how that person feels about themselves.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

Customer engagement is the heart and soul of any retail business. Creating a beautiful, comfortable, and efficient space is the first step, physical or online. It’s the customer’s first impression before they even look at what products you are selling. A well-planned store with interesting and educational displays gives them a chance to linger and enjoy the atmosphere. A friendly knowledgeable staff gives the customer confidence that they are in good hands when and if they need assistance. Knowing when to give a customer space or if they need some handholding is an art form in and of itself and only authenticity and experience can keep even the most dismissive customer engaged. Being respectful goes without saying, knowing when to be empathetic to a customers’ personal situation and being proactive to their needs is also a crucial element in customer relations. Finally, fast efficient service leaves the customer feeling satisfied that their experience was worth the time and money invested. They will come back, and they will tell their friends.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

We opened our flagship store on Fourth Street in Berkeley, and I remember one woman, in particular, who pointed out everything that we took into consideration when setting up the space. From the grand chandelier that is the focal point of the store to the clean bright lighting and the peaceful music, it was her oasis. She called it her “happy place”. She even loved the smell; we carry a line of home fragrances that refresh your senses the moment you step in the front door. It instantly took the stress out of her day, and that was before she even started trying on clothes.

Introducing yourself has a great impact on the customer, they feel more comfortable instantly and many repeat customers bring in their friends make introductions and start selling them the clothes themselves. The same experience applies to online.

For the women on lunch break who just want to pop in and say hello, they start the conversation off with “I have 20 minutes, Wow me.” …and we do!

There’s more to retail therapy than selling clothes. Sometimes a salesperson doubles as a therapist. A bad day can be turned around with one nice comment, some sage advice, and we’ve even been known to hug a customer or two when they need one.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

We all have the power to support change and it starts with our own practices. Reversing global warming and reinvigorate the planet should be on everybody’s top priority list. Not only do we have the knowledge and the resources to make a huge impact in reversing the damage already caused but it is imperative to our survival as a species. Mother earth does not need us, we need her! We’re talking about building cities on mars which is a noble cause and many great advances in technology will probably come out of this endeavor. I would only hope that we don’t end up living in bubble cities here on earth as the other option.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can learn more about us on our website, www.stellacarakasi.com follow us on

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carakasi/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stellacarakasi/

Watch for us on YouTube when we finally launched our channel in 2021.

Thank you for giving us an opportunity to share.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

About The Interviewer: Orlando Zayas is the CEO of Katapult, an award-winning omnichannel payment platform. Zayas is known for his revenue growth strategies and visionary leadership in the eCommerce and retail space. His future-forward expertise has led companies such as GE Capital, Safe-Guard Products International, and DRB Capital. Zayas is also highly committed to providing educational opportunities to underprivileged communities through his philanthropic endeavors. Zayas’ business insights are regularly featured in publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Retail Insights, and more.


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