There is a whole list of things you need to start a business.
An idea, talent, education, money, support — but even if you have all these things, if you don’t also have a little bit of luck, it won’t work.
Sheila Elaine is a fashion accessories company started by Sarah Wagner. Ms. Wagner, who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and now lives in Teaneck, knows what it feels like when that little bit of luck takes you to the top — and then drops you back down to square one.
It all began with a scarf.
“I was shopping in Manhattan in 2005 and saw a scarf in a high-end boutique on the Upper West Side,” Ms. Wagner said. “It was selling for a small fortune. My mother bought it for me as an early birthday present, when she saw how much I adored it. I noticed that the scarf was nothing more than a piece of cut wool that involved no sewing.”
That inspired her creativity so she immediately went to a crafts store to buy material. She wanted to make that scarf herself. “As I was looking for fabric, I stood in front of stacks of cut felt squares, in a range of colors. In an instant, I had mentally designed my first scarf.
“An obsession was born.”
Ms. Wagner did not start out as a designer of fashion accessories. She graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 1991 with a degree in communications and pursued a career in advertising. “I worked at McCann Erickson for three years as a creative assistant, working on a few campaigns including Coke, Smirnoff, and McDonalds,” she said. “I was attracted to advertising because it allowed me to express my creativity, and it was an amazing environment to work in.
“But it was also a highly competitive industry,” Ms. Wagner continued. “It became clear that I was not going to be successful as my inspiration, Ken Olin’s character from ‘Thirtysomething,’” the hit TV show that finished its run just as she graduated.
Much as she loved working in advertising, the months she spent at her dining room table, creating original felt scarves, was even more fun than those campaigns had been, Ms. Wagner said. So with a lot of encouragement and seed money from her mother, along with an introduction to Shelbee Teller, a family friend who was looking for a job in fashion, Sheila Elaine accessories was born. The company was named for two of Ms. Wagner’s aunts, Sheila Seider and Elaine Katz, both of whom were fashion icons and who both died “far too soon.”
But before 2006, when Ms. Wagner gave birth to her company, she had given birth and devoted time to raising her three children. Her son Simcha was born in 1997; he was followed by her daughter Meira two years later. Her younger daughter, Eliana, was born 11 months after that. Simcha now is a student at Clark University, Meira is in her gap year at Amudim in Modiin, Israel, and Eliana is going to be graduating Ma’aynot High School for Girls this spring.
“While I had always had a creative streak and loved fashion — as in clothes shopping — I could never have imagined myself a designer,” Ms. Wagner said. “I had no formal training in fashion design and my only sewing experience was in fifth grade, when I took a sewing class with Mrs. Glassman. I hated it, she hated me, and I was terrible at it.”
Ms. Wagner continued her adventures in business. “In less than six months, I had developed a line of scarves, belts, and bags,” she said. “My rep and I were doing trunk shows at Henri Bendel, selling an average of $3,000 a week. It wasn’t long before we began doing trade shows and selling our line to stores like Searle NY, Takashimaya, and New York Look, as well as to boutiques across the country and around the world.”
Within its first year — 2006-2007 — Sheila Elaine almost broke even. “We were written up in trade magazines, as well as Life and Style magazine,” Ms. Wagner said. “One of our belts even ended up being selected by the stylists of a What Not to Wear segment to accompany an outfit for their client.
“The success of the line validated my creative impulses,” she continued. “I was no longer engaged in a hobby, making scarves at my dining room table, I was designing pieces that women wanted to buy — for a lot of money — and wear.”
Then the recession of 2008 hit. Almost overnight shoppers stopped shopping, and stores’ buyers stopped buying.
By the end of 2009 it was clear that Ms. Wagner no longer could keep the business going. “Early in 2010 , I let go of the small work space I rented in the city, as well as the two people who worked for me,” she said. “I was left with $40,000 worth of inventory, including bags, capes, belts, jackets, and hats, and 50k of credit card debt.”
Ms. Wagner admits that it was hard not to feel sorry for herself then. “I tried to sell the 40k worth of inventory on my own, but it soon became clear that while I had a talent for designing accessories and selling them directly to customers, as I had done at Henri Bendel, I lacked the confidence necessary to sell to buyers,” she said. “I made a few sales — but not enough to make another go of it.”
It was around this time that she decided to focus on designing and selling the one accessory that she didn’t need to outsource. Fascinators.
“Even though it was my least profitable accessory, it was the only one I could design, make, and sell on my own,” she said. “I knew it would not be easy but I was determined to give it a try.”
When she wore one of her fascinators to shul in 2007, nobody knew what they were. They certainly couldn’t think of wearing one. Women were sporting either hats or doilies.
It took a long time for the trend to catch on. But it finally did. “Thank you, Kate Middleton,” Ms. Wagner said.
So began the next chapter of Sheila Elaine. It has been a more modest enterprise, but Ms. Wagner continues to find the work rewarding.
There have been many bumps along the way, Ms. Wagner said. “I remember the roughest bump came from one of my first clients. Her son was getting married, and she wanted a head covering for the ceremony. She had gotten my name from a high-end dress shop in Englewood where she had purchased her dress.
“She had selected a fascinator in the shape of a petal, which was one of the features on her dress.” So Ms. Wagner made her a fascinator, based on that shape. The client “liked the piece, but wanted it to have more coverage in the back,” she said. “I told her that more coverage in the back meant more coverage in the front, and she needed to understand that it was going to fit differently than the piece she had tried on. She agreed, and when I delivered the fascinator she had ordered, she was disappointed and furious.
“She left a long nasty message on my machine, saying that I had not given her what she asked for, and for added measure told me that her daughter-in-law forbade her to wear it to the wedding. She had no intention of paying for it.
“That was a low point. I wanted to call it quits, but kept at it for no other reason than to pay off the large credit card debt the business had incurred.”
It has been eight years since Sheila Elaine reboot, and Ms. Wagner has become much more confident in her skills as a designer and businesswoman. “I learned a lot from my rookie mistakes,” she said. “I would advise anyone contemplating starting a business of any kind to write and follow a business plan. I did not.
“Passion and talent without discipline can only take you so far.”
As it often happens, when one part of a life gets back on track, another gets derailed. As her fashion business started to gain traction, Ms. Wagner’s marriage began coming apart at the seams. “The setback of the success of my company paled in comparison to the pain I felt as a result of my failed marriage,” she said. “I find myself starting over — again. As painful as it is, this time I am stronger and wiser.
“I am not afraid to seek support from family and friends and ask for help when I need it. I know I can create a second act, because I have done it before.”
Her kids have been supportive and helpful, she said. “Meira’s English name is Sheila Elaine, so she was particularly proud when this second act began.
“I think my kids learned most from me that it is important to do something that you are passionate about. My girls have been instrumental in helping me work at the shul boutiques. They are really good at selling the product and keeping up with taking the orders and writing receipts.
“There were times I really couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.