Thursday, November 26th, 2020

The Business of Art(isans): Part III

By Cathy Watters on Jan 25 2010 • Filed under Business

Wendy Van Riesen, Dahlia Drive, turns used shirts and slips into one-of-a-kind wearable art pieces and  sells them at fairs, through stores and online. 

Her business started out as a class project while she was changing careers from acting to visual art. As part of her two-year textile course through Capilano University she had to learn how to make and use natural dyes. She chose to dye a slip she had on hand using flowers from her neighbour's garden.  

Around that time, it was fashionable for women to use camisoles as shirts and to show their thongs by wearing low-rise jeans. Wendy was fascinated by the idea of taking what was normally hidden and wearing it where people could see it. 

“I thought, if slips are worn traditionally underneath, and we're now wearing them out, what's underneath that?”  

So she silkscreened the image of a skeleton on her newly dyed slip. 

She enjoyed the process, so she did more slips for a class market and they sold out. People loved wearing her slips as dresses. Encouraged, she went into business a year later. That was 2006, and Dahlia Drive was named both for the flowers she'd first used, and for the street she'd grown up on.  

Wendy has continued to take classes at Capilano and Emily Carr University of Art and Design, working towards a Fine Arts degree. Her exploration of clothing-as-canvas also continues; one method of transferring interesting colour and shapes onto fabric involves burying slips and shirts in the ground with rusty objects. 

When she started, Wendy had no business plan. She took a single marketing class in school, but most of what she's been learning has been hands-on. When she wanted to get her slips into stores, she found a boutique she liked and called them up. 

“I told them I was coming and they said that was fine,” she remembers. “So I put [the slips] on a rolling [clothing] rack and rolled them in there.”  

The owner took a few on consignment and they sold really well.

Wendy admits that she didn't know what her designs were worth. She now charges $125 and up for slips and $95 for shirts; more for custom work. But in her first year of business, she charged half that at the stores, and at her class sale, she'd sold them for a mere $20 each.  

In the beginning, Wendy struggled with doubt. She loved what she was doing, but would the business be viable? Was there a large enough market of people interested in buying her unique clothing line?

 

“Because no one was really doing exactly what I was doing, I didn't know that the visions I had for my slips would be of interest to other people,” she says. “But they were.” 

Her start-up costs were low: used slips and shirts are inexpensive and she worked out of her basement for the first three years. (She has since moved to a studio in Lonsdale in North Vancouver.) As a result, she didn't need to borrow money. 

“My biggest weakness is that I don't have any business background,” she says. “I just worked with what I had, and what I had seemed to be enough for what I wanted. I still don't have a big plan for where I want everything to go at this point.” 

When it comes to marketing, Wendy says “I don't have that very under control either.” She notes her website is about two years out-of-date and lists the old prices. 

However, she does a lot of face-to-face marketing: she attends craft shows and folk festivals in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, and sells her work through small boutiques. 

She loves her business because she gets to meet people and see them wear her artwork. What she dislikes about running the business is, well, running the business. 

“It's an interesting dilemma,” Wendy says, “what business does and how much it might take me away from what I actually love to do, which is just do the work.” 

She says her husband is the main breadwinner in the family so when she began she really just wanted something to do.  

“I have to make a decision as to whether I want to grow or stay small,” she says. “Initially, I didn't want to go very big. I'm 54 and I just wanted to enjoy myself, be able to create, and make a little bit of money. Now I'm considering, am I happy with that, or do I want to grow the business and make more money but also have more responsibilities?”  

She says she's leaning towards just enjoying herself. If she can continue to make an average of $3000 a month from her artwork, “then I'm pretty content with that.”  

“I just feel fortunate enough to be able to be an artist,” says Wendy, “and essentially look at my slips as my canvas, and be able to sell my work. A lot of artists can't.” 
 

TIPS:

1. Follow your passion: If you try to make what you think people want, you're not satisfying yourself or anyone else. People can see the passion in the product, and that's why they'll want what you make.

2. Avoid fads: Fads come and go, so if you got into it just because of the fad, what will you do when it changes?

3. Work on the business a little bit each day.

4. Charge enough for your work that you can afford to sell wholesale.

5. Hire people to do the things you're not good at. (Wendy has an accountant, a web-tech, and a publicist.)


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