Behind the Scenes: Fashion Entreprenuership



"If you are committed to something, don't let anybody tell you otherwise, don't let anybody push you off your path. Keep asking for what you want. When I was looking for a particular organic cotton, I ended up having a mill make it custom for me because an organic version didn't exist."
-Althea Simons

In this interview, Althea basically gives a mini masterclass on life. How she lives her life and how she runs GRAMMAR are one in the same because both are rooted in love and care. Sharing her expertise as a designer and entrepreneur is part of her purpose. Since GRAMMAR began in 2017, Althea has mentored fashion designers, marketing majors, graphic designers, and a poet. Below, Althea discusses why she loves working with interns and her long-term goal to teach in a classroom setting. No doubt, she will be the best teacher and best-dressed professor ever. Read to find out why Althea says “becoming an entrepreneur is like getting a PhD in yourself.”

Callie: Althea, I’ve been so lucky to have you as a friend and mentor during this last year, especially in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Often, I’ve thought back to a conversation we had last March. You talked about the importance of beauty and of creating art as an act of resistance against difficult times. I’d love for you to say more about this.

Althea: Part of what I’ve come to realize during the pandemic is that creating beauty is my purpose and an act of extreme importance and resistance. It's a gift to create; to not create is a tragedy. When you have that calling and that ability, when what you make touches people, it is important to share it—it’s important to them, it's important to you, it's important to the universe. To deny yourself the act of creation is not only hurting yourself, it’s also hurting the world.

Callie: So, it's not just knowing your gifts but using them.

Althea: Yes. The other thing that I think about a lot, which was the impetus for us working together, is this feeling I have that my purpose is to share my knowledge with younger people, or people who are earlier on in their journey of knowing themselves, knowing their gifts and sharing their gifts, whether that is starting a business or becoming a designer or artist. Our interviews have been about sharing what I know, sharing my point of view, and sharing my knowledge. It’s important for me to keep that going, whether it's through continuing to write or speak. I have a dream of teaching a class, as I’ve told you before. I know that is part of my calling, too.

Working Together

Althea is passionate about sharing her knowledge and collaborating with others to create beauty.

Callie: One thing that your audience may not know is that you work with interns each semester. Can you say more about why you value working with interns?

Althea: I have new interns starting in a couple of weeks. I find the process incredibly rewarding. I know my interns do, too, because my internships are not typical of the industry. I was talking to a young guy who was at one of my vendors the other day and he was telling me that he had an internship where they just had him running errands. Yeah, somebody needs to do errands, but there’s so much more to running a business. I believe that it is my responsibility to teach interns and give them the experience of what it's like to run a small business. My interns always work directly with me. I have them doing all different kinds of things; it's never just one thing.

Callie: What qualities do you look for in an intern?

Althea: It really helps if they're interested in entrepreneurship. As a business owner, you're never just wearing one hat. There are always a million different things happening at once so even if the intern doesn’t end up becoming an entrepreneur, they get to see all the different aspects of the company, and that might help them better understand where they want to be within a company.

I always make time for lessons and time to discuss anything that the intern wants to learn about or any questions they have. I make space for that kind of time together and I love it. I love having that young energy around. I love sharing my knowledge. I love their questions and their perspectives. It's always enlightening.

Callie: I think it is so great that you have interns. I imagine that it takes up a lot of your time and energy. I’ve very much benefited from my internship experience and your generous willingness to share your knowledge.

Althea: Thank you. I remember being an intern and wanting that opportunity. There are always things that need to get done and I'm not saying that our interns never have to run an errand, but I want to make sure that they're challenged and get to work on things that they’re passionate about.

In your case, I want to challenge you because you're an artist, and you're incredibly talented. You are showing up wanting to share your talents with me, and you're doing it out of wanting to learn and wanting to be of service. I want you to do that. I want you to practice your art. I think it would be a waste for me not to ask you to write poems. Like, here I have this amazing poet working for me, how could I possibly not ask you to write?

Callie: I’m blushing. Gosh, I just can’t thank you enough for believing in me. Your encouragement has led to so many unexpected collaborations. One of my favorites was your idea to donate to the Acadiana Native Plant Project based around a piece I wrote in response to a photoshoot. Just this past weekend, I was planting native seeds in hundreds of new containers that you and your customers supported. That’s just so neat how your designs and my words came together for good.

Have you always had interns since you started GRAMMAR?

Althea: I had my first intern the summer before I launched GRAMMAR—so that would be the summer of 2017. I had been working on getting ready for launch for about six months. A professor at Parsons who I had been working with recommended my first intern to me. She ended up working through the fall as well. Having interns has been a big part of the company since the beginning. It's become more of a robust program over time in terms of training, interview process, and workflow. As with anything, you learn more and more as you go along in terms of what makes a good fit and how to make the experience successful.

Althea and Fall 2021 Interns Da Re and Jingxuan

The GRAMMAR Team on a field trip to see the holiday windows along 5th Ave.

Callie: How do interns make the most of their internship with GRAMMAR?

Althea: As I mentioned earlier, having a desire to start your own company is helpful. That doesn’t have to be the case, but I do think a person who is willing to take on a lot of different tasks will benefit from the kind of knowledge I have to offer. Like, if you're a fashion design intern, I may ask you to do some social media marketing, and you definitely will be asked to help with some production tasks. Everybody working at GRAMMAR has to wear multiple hats. If you want to sit and sketch all day, this is not for you. Not to say that you won't sketch; I want you to sketch and I want you to bring your ideas and I will give you feedback, but there's going to be many other things that need to get done. I think a desire to start your own business is a proxy for being willing to do and learn many different things, because the kind of person who wants to start their own business is willing to do whatever it takes.

Callie: I’ve loved the chance to try on different hats. You’ve given me all this valuable writing experience including editing interviews, marketing, product descriptions, press releases, and so much more.

Anything else you are looking for in an intern?

Althea: I want someone who brings their own perspective and desires to the experience. I think the most successful interns have come in and said, “I really want to do this.” Usually, it's a project that they work on from start to finish throughout the semester whenever there isn't something more pressing to do. That kind of initiative adds something to GRAMMAR that wasn't here already. I think those interns get the most out of the experience.

Callie: What types of projects have past interns done?

Althea: This past semester, for the first time, I had two design interns. I asked the designers to work on ideas for accessories, which isn’t really something GRAMMAR does yet but is something I've thought about. The interns would sketch, make prototypes, and show me ideas throughout the semester that I would give them feedback on.

Callie: How did their internship with GRAMMAR support their long-term goals?

Althea: One of the interns really wants to be a women's collection designer and the other is a menswear designer who wants to start her own company.

Callie: Super cool. Any other projects you’d like to share?

Wearing many Hats

Althea wears her many hats literally after a long photoshoot day doing just about everything.

Althea: A graphic design intern wanted to make a brand standards manual that included a secondary color palette. Our primary color palette is black and white, but she made this whole other secondary palette for us to use for our graphics and for Pinterest, which she was doing a lot of work on as well. I still share it with interns during onboarding.

I had another intern who wanted to create a business model canvas. She asked me questions about my suppliers, production, and marketing—basically everything that goes into the business including the sustainability aspect. She put it all into a presentation that I still use and share with people, especially interns, if they want to know everything that goes into the business. Interns are creating valuable things that I am still using and that they can use in their portfolios to help them in their career.

I also had a design intern who sketched hundreds of ideas. We did a pin up and went over all of them. Some of her designs inspired an actual product. She sketched an idea for an upside-down sleeve dress that turned into The Simile Dress.

Callie: That's incredible. She can leave the experience with something to point to and say, “I helped bring this into the world.”

Althea: Absolutely. The final product is different from what she sketched, but the original idea was hers. She now is a designer at United By Blue—another sustainable company. She was really interested in technical outerwear. She's an incredibly gifted designer who could design anything. A lot of my interns have gone into fashion and have great careers now—and it’s only been three years or less since they interned with me.

Callie: So much in so little time! I think that speaks to your gift as a teacher. You support your interns and give them a chance to create.

Althea: Thank you. It's a huge point of pride for me. I keep in touch with the former interns who want to keep in touch. That reminds me, I should reach out to some of these girls and see how they're doing.

Callie: Well, I plan on keeping in touch. I need Althea in my life [laughs]. Earlier you mentioned a desire to teach. How do you pursue that? Do you just propose a course?

Althea: I don't really know. I want to teach fashion entrepreneurship. I was talking to Paul, the same vendor I mentioned earlier, and he taught a class at FIT. They just asked him and he thought they were asking him to teach one class—a single day. But, they were asking if he would teach an entire course. At first he was like, “I have no idea what I'm doing,” but he ended up teaching for four years.

I also had a design intern who sketched hundreds of ideas. We did a pin up and went over all of them. Some of her designs inspired an actual product. She sketched an idea for an upside-down sleeve dress that turned into The Simile Dress.

I haven't pursued it yet because it is a lot of work and I haven't felt ready in terms of having things under control here at GRAMMAR, but it's definitely on the horizon. I taught one class for my friend who was a professor at Parsons at the time; she is now a professor at NYU. She’s a fashion theorist.

Callie: What! I know what my next degree is going to be [laughs]. That's so cool. I love it.

Althea: Yeah, I mean, she had to make her own PhD because there aren't a lot of fashion theorists out there. She's so cool. I went and taught a single class to her students a few years ago about fashion entrepreneurship. I gave them a mini business plan template and had them come up with an idea for a business in like an hour, and then we talked about it as a group.

Callie: What are some things you would want students to learn about fashion entrepreneurship?

Althea: There are some practical things and some more existential things. On the practical side, I know for a fact that programs don't teach production in fashion school. Even if you're a designer at a big company, I think you need to know how production works because you will get pushback on your designs from the production team. The questions I ask fashion design interns are: how would you make that? How does that work? I want them to think about how this garment will be constructed, how it will exist physically in the world. There's also the cost of production. You have to know your price point and design for that because otherwise it's not going to get made.

Then, there’s creating the brand; it's all about the brand. You have your product and you have your brand; that's a fashion company. Without a brand you have nothing. You have to know your target audience and you have to design for them. You have to have product-market fit. Half of what I do is marketing.

The Simile Dress

This design was inspired by a past interns ideas and input.

Callie: What are some of the existential questions or considerations?

Althea: In the beginning of creating your brand, I think there can be a lot of self-doubt. It can be an emotional roller coaster. Having your own business is like getting a PhD in yourself.

Callie: I love that.

Althea: I think many of the psychological and emotional aspects are not something that people think about. You're not just going to your job and then going home at the end of the day. Having a business is intense and never-ending. I don't know if I would say this in a class, but an entrepreneur is sort of a personality type. There are people who want to go to a job and then want to go home and live their lives. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, if you're an entrepreneur, your work is your life—it's what you're doing and thinking about all the time. You have to be obsessed with it.

For me, I think that's a great thing. I feel like life imitates art and art imitates life, and owning GRAMMAR is the kind of life I want to lead. But it's a choice to live for your art and for your business. It has to be both. It can't just be for your art because then you're an artist, which is a different thing and is a totally wonderful way to live. But, if you want to have a business, you also have to think about your market.

There are many ways to approach entrepreneurship. There are also people who start a company with the intention to sell it. You still have to be obsessed with building the brand, but you are a bit more detached. Whereas, for me, GRAMMAR is what I want to do for the rest of my life. It has to work because it's my life. I have to figure it out because there's just nothing else in the world that I want in terms of my career and life path. You have to be driven by this intense, existential desire. Otherwise you're going to quit, because it's really hard.

Callie: How do you go about establishing your brand? It seems like such a big thing to need to get right.

Althea: That is such a good question, because the brand is the root of everything. The brand is where you start from and where you always go back to. I have a brand strategy deck that I share with everyone I work with because they have to know the foundation of the brand and its values.

For me, I think your brand has to be something that you believe in personally because, again, you have to be obsessed with it; it has to come from within. But also, because it is a business, it has to fulfill a need in the market. The business aspect also has to be something that you're good at. It’s like that diagram: it has four circles; where the circles overlap is your purpose.

Get to Know Yourself

Find your drive and purpose so that you can share it with others.

You have to know your purpose which is why owning a business is like getting a PhD in yourself. You have to know yourself really well and know what you love, what your gifts are and why they’re important to the world, and what people are willing to pay you for.

Callie: What are some questions that you asked yourself when creating GRAMMAR? How do you guarantee that you are staying true to the brand as you move forward?

Althea: Great questions! I think the key consideration is: who is my customer? Who am I talking to? Who is this person, or who are these people? On the wall behind me, I have photos and descriptions of my four customer archetypes. I'm always looking at these women when I'm designing, creating language for marketing, and sharing.

Once you’ve identified your customer, you have to understand her and what she wants. Even though I have four archetypes, they all have certain things in common. When I’m designing and communicating, I'm speaking to the best of them from the best in me. This includes being thoughtful, speaking intelligently, and treating everything with extreme care. For me, everything is rooted in our core value of love. I ask myself: do I love this? Are my ladies going to love this? Is this going to add something to their lives? Then I think: is this something that she needs in her closet and that I need in the line? Basically, I’m trying to determine if this is something that needs to exist in the world; is this essential, which is our second core value. Finally, our third core value is the pursuit of perfection: is this the best it could possibly be?

Callie: When did you identify these four archetypes? Is this something you did before you began GRAMMAR?

Althea: It has evolved over time. You need to have an idea of who your customer is before you start a business, while also understanding there’s a possibility that you put something out into the world and the people who respond to it are not the people that you thought. In my case, this process involved a more nuanced understanding of who my customers are and identifying subtle differences. For instance, something I've always thought about are my customers’ different body types and how people like to wear things on their body. Some people like clothing close to their body and some people like to have a lot of room; I'm one of those people. I like things oversized with room between my body and the clothes.

Callie: I like how you reflect this preference on your website with options to shop by regular, oversized, and slim fit.

Althea: Exactly. Designing for different fit preferences is a challenge sometimes because I have to put myself in another person's experience. This is why it's really important for me to identify and connect with who my customers are when I'm designing, to make sure I have options for each of them in a given collection. This really has nothing to do with psychographics; it's more of a preference.

Getting to Know Your Audience

While knowing yourself is essential to entrepreneurship, you must also know whom you are creating for.

I also think about different body types. This was especially important for the first five pieces that I designed for GRAMMAR, because I wanted to create for different body types and different needs. Some people really don't like their butt, and so the high-low hemline of The Preposition Shirt is designed for that. But then it turns out that other people are attracted to the style for different reasons. Many petite women like The Preposition Shirt because it has three quarter length sleeves.

It's these existential questions that I return to: who am I talking to? What is it that I stand for? What is the brand? Why am I doing this? Why does GRAMMAR exist? I remember, I used to work at a branding agency and one of the designers, who was French, would always say, “Why do I care?” [said in a French accent].

But, it's true [laughs]. It’s an important question: why do I care? There’s so much clothing already in the world, so to me it is important to ask if what I create matters.

Callie: Your commitment to sustainability really sets you apart.

Althea: Creating sustainable fashion is an extremely important part of how I do business. It's not something I talk about all the time, which is kind of strange, but I think it's because sustainability is baked into who I am as a person, my core values. I would not have a brand that wasn't sustainable. From GRAMMAR’s beginning, I knew that if I was going to bring something new into the world, I would never want it to be harmful. I want what I create to add something of value and change fashion for the better.

Callie: What made you decide to use GOTS-certified cotton?

Althea: Cotton is a water-intensive crop. Many sustainable brands will give that as a reason for choosing other types of fibers, but I really believe in natural fibers. I love cotton for all of its properties; there's nothing else like it. By using organic cotton, I am pushing, in my small way, the industry towards more organic practices. In the four years since I started the brand, more consumers are demanding organic and sustainable clothing, and so there’s more pressure on the industry to change. I need to look up this statistic, but when I first started less than 1% of all cotton grown in the world was organic. I doubt that it has changed that much yet, but the more demand there is, the more the industry has to change. The change is slow because farming is slow. It takes a long time for farms to switch from conventional to organic. Supporting positive change in the industry is super important to me, and something that I think about with all of our production decisions, especially with anything that we are creating physically in the world like all of our packaging, etc. It's something I always have in my head: how can we do this with less impact? How can we do this better?

Callie: I love that you create a space for interns, like me, who care about sustainable fashion to learn about how sustainable production actually happens. This connects back to your earlier point about the importance of knowing all stages of production.

Althea: Yes, exactly. People are more and more aware of overconsumption and the impacts of our capitalist society. I think as a business owner and as someone who creates things, I have a responsibility to consider how I’m playing into, or not, capitalism and the culture of capitalism which is a culture of white supremacy and patriarchy. It's really important to think about the impact of your business on the world. It’s not always easy; the more responsible or sustainable decision is never the easy decision. The easy option is to do things the way the industry has done forever, which is not sustainable. Sustainable production is never going to be the cheapest option. It's never going to be the fastest option. If you want to be sustainable, you have to be really committed.

This also goes back to the psychological aspects of owning a business. If you are committed to something, don't let anybody tell you otherwise, don't let anybody push you off your path. Keep asking for what you want. When I was looking for a particular organic cotton, I ended up having a mill make it custom for me because an organic version didn't exist.

People will push back on what you want, so you have to be really committed. You have to keep asking questions and be determined. You have to know what is negotiable and what is not negotiable for you. Sometimes you have to make tradeoffs; it’s not possible to be totally sustainable. We have to do our best and try to make the best decisions possible, and then keep improving from there.

GOTS-Certified Organic All The Way

Althea's commitment to making an impact through her small business.

Callie: Whew. You just said so much good stuff. How do you find balance while managing these decisions?

Althea: When starting GRAMMAR, I spent a lot of time before even making the product thinking about what is important to me and the decisions that I need to make in order to start. My advice is that before you even start your business, you need to enumerate your core values.

You have to have an understanding of your personal values and which of those relate to your business and which don’t. Having your personal values and your business values aligned makes it a lot easier to make decisions because they are coming from you who are.

And so, I think part of the PhD in yourself is understanding who you are as a person, what you care about, how you make decisions, and if the decisions that you’re making align with what you truly want.

Callie: That’s a lot to think about, but it makes such a difference. Basically, if this is the work that a person is going to spend their life doing, then it should be fulfilling and not in opposition to who they are.

Althea: When you are first starting out, it can be really hard. In the first couple of years of GRAMMAR, all I did was work and take care of myself because if I didn't, then I wouldn't be there for my business and everything would stop. I had to stay healthy; I had to stay well. That was the healthiest I've ever been. This sounds counterintuitive because I was working all the time and definitely stressed, but I was eating so well, exercising regularly, and sleeping well. I had to organize my life around starting and running a business. I think that's how you have to do it, especially at the beginning. And so, there are sacrifices that you have to make, which goes back to knowing what's important to you.

I think so much of what I’ve been saying applies even if you go to work for a company, which I think makes sense if you are a young person. I do think it's a good idea to have some experience working for other companies before starting your own. Having knowledge and understanding of how another business is run is helpful because you learn skills and learn your value, and you learn what you do and don’t want to do in your own business. I wasn't ready to start my business until I was 31. I think it helps to know what it takes to run a business. You need to be ready to go there.

Callie: You've basically just given a master class in life [laughs.] Ugh. Wrapping up this last interview together is emotional. It sounds cliche, but I will carry our time together with me always. I treasure everything you’ve taught me.

Althea: [giving an air hug through Google Meet]. It has been a wonderful year working together. I’ll miss you terribly, but I know you are headed for big things. You are GRAMMAR’s and my personal poet laureate.

Callie: I feel like our weekly meetings wouldn’t be complete without saying something about New York. Thanks to you and Sydney, I’ve learned how to complain like a New Yorker [laughs]. For example, it is wild to me that people ride bikes in NYC traffic. Like, is that a certain personality type?

Althea: [Laughs]. Yeah, cyclists in New York are fucking hardcore. My good friend, who doesn’t live here anymore, used to be a cyclist and rode her bike to work. I remember her talking about it and just being like, “Oh yeah, you'll get hit by a cab.” Another friend, who is a master tinkerer and is always making bikes, gave one to me a few years back. I rode it once to work, but when I was biking home I almost got hit by a car. I was like, “Okay, that's it. I can't do this.” I gave the bike back [laughs].

Callie: Yikes! Ok, yep. I’m glad you decided not to do that anymore. Yet another example of your good decision-making skills [laughs]! So, I’m procrastinating saying goodbye, but I think we are here. Althea, I love you!

Althea: I love you, too, Callie!

It Takes A Village

Althea is incredibly grateful to all of the strong, creative women she works with. The team celebrates makeup artist Yana's birthday after our Fall 2021 e-commerce photoshoot.

Love and Passion

Althea and her mom wearing classic GRAMMAR shirts. Althea creates to make something she knows her friends and family will love while staying true to herself and her ideals.

A Poem for the New Year

Read Callie Smith's reflections on the New Year

BTS: Sourcing the Perfect Fabric

Read about how Designer Althea found the perfect fabric for our fall collection.