Alumna Bianca DePietro owns Toile, a popular Philadelphia atelier and showroom.
In this Nexus series, Get My Job, we interview alumni and faculty from one of the University’s 160-plus undergraduate and graduate professional programs. The latest installment features fashion design alumna Bianca DePietro ’10, owner of Toile, a popular atelier and showroom in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. She currently sells the work of over 40 designers, including pieces under her own Bianca Rachele line.
How did Jefferson (then Philadelphia University) best prepare you to enter the fashion world?
The University’s textile legacy and well-rounded curriculum inspired me to leave New York City and attend school in Philadelphia. I took business and textile courses along with my core fashion classes, and during my junior year, I had an incredible experience studying abroad in Florence at Accademia Italiana.
While at Jefferson, I participated in numerous fashion events, including the Red Dress Competition, CFDA Competition, FGI Red Carpet Competition, Philadelphia Fashion Week and many FIA shows. I also was selected as one of the few designers featured in the Fashion Journal’s Graduating Class of 2010 and Emerging Fashion Designers Book.
Clara Henry, Jefferson’s fashion director at the time, guided me through the program and continues to be a huge mentor to me.
What inspired you to open Toile, and what was your career path to get here?
After graduation, I moved back to New York City and worked on a collaborative custom couture collection with Rachel Wendling, another Jefferson alumna. We showed our debut line during New York Fashion Week and worked with a showroom for press, editorial, shoots and shows.
However, when it came down to selling in stores, cracking into the world of custom couture as a startup designer in NYC is extremely difficult. Everyone wants to know where you sell and who wears your clothing. You basically have to give pieces to celebrities to wear, but when your garments cost thousands to make, it’s not something you can do easily without substantial financial backing.
I wasn’t interested in outsourcing just to bring the cost of our garments down. I’ve always felt strongly about producing domestically, and I believe in sustainable and ethical fashion. Selling direct was the best way to keep the price affordable and quality high.
I opened Toile for a few reasons. First, it gives designers a first location to get started. Stores want you to already sell somewhere before they carry you. It’s like the concept of how do you get a job without job experience. This way, they have their first retailer.
Second, I wanted designers to be able to set their prices and profit enough to make money. All the designers have pieces on consignment so they can make more money off their sales.
Third, I wanted to offer custom and customization to clients. Most shoppers would say, “I would love this if the sleeve was shorter, or the waist was snugger, or it was a different color.” At Toile, we do onsite alterations and can customize everything in the store.
Since April, I have made over 5,000 masks. This allowed me to keep my store and even hire back a few employees.
Is tailoring a big component of your business?
It’s a huge part. I started 10 years ago in Philadelphia doing bridal alterations for five different bridal shops, so that business carried over to the store when I opened it in 2013. During peak season last year, I had 30 to 40 fittings per week and did about 80 alterations a month, including bridal, bridesmaids, mother-of-the-bride, evening and more. With that volume, I only can make three to five custom gowns a year. I’ve been working on a custom bridal line for the past three years, so I have taken a step back on alterations to finish my own line.
How have you pivoted your business to operate during the pandemic?
On March 13, I closed my store and started off the pandemic depressed and in shock like most people. Fortunately, I have a skill in high demand during this time. Numerous people contacted me about masks, dressing gowns and patterning for PPE gear. I started making masks to donate to local hospitals since many were running out. Some facilities asked for 50 to 100 at a time. I began selling them through my website to pay for the materials, and since April, I have made over 5,000 masks. This allowed me to keep my store and even hire back a few employees.
Spend time focusing on what you love about fashion.
What are your favorite parts of your job?
I enjoy having my hands in everything. I love that I still get to design, pattern and sew, but I also love working with customers, merchandising, buying and holding in-store events.
Aside from the challenges associated with the pandemic, what are the most difficult aspects of operating a small business?
People always say, “It must be nice working for yourself because you can make your own schedule.” But in reality, as a business owner, you basically work 24/7. You don’t get to clock out and go home. It’s challenging to have a life-work balance because your business is essentially your life, especially with a small business.
I’m in charge of it all: running the store, social media, website, bookkeeping, scheduling, training employees, events, customer service and everything in between. Finding the right staff to delegate some responsibilities is challenging but necessary for any growth.
What advice do you have for students considering entering this major or opening their own business?
Spend time focusing on what you love about fashion. It will help you figure out the area you should concentrate in and you can take advantage of the classes and electives geared toward that.
As far as opening a business as a fashion designer, be prepared to not have any time to work on your own brand. It took me years to be able to get back to my own designs, so a private label might be a better route than a brick and mortar. But it is true: If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. Just find out what makes you happy and give it your all. Success comes from hard work and perseverance.