Means&Matters
Stories of Money and sustainability

From Tiaras to Masks: Lessons From a Woman-Owned Business

BY Sara Gabriel Business Owner Sara Gabriel Designs

Aug 24th 2020

When shelter-in-place orders began across the country, wedding cancellations quickly followed. I knew my business—hand-made, custom-designed veils and tiaras—was in trouble. I had to act fast.

Sara Gabriel Designs, has made custom wedding veils, tiaras, and jewelry in Denver for nearly 20 years. More than 200 bridal salons and department stores in the United States, Canada, Singapore, and South Korea carry our designs. As brides plan for their summer weddings, my team and I are behind the scenes focused on the month that kicks off the bridal season: March.

In a typical spring, it seems we’re working around the clock to handle demand of about 150 orders a day. It’s what we live for. It’s what we love to do.

Not this year. As the pandemic struck, orders started to plunge. By mid-March, sales were falling 10-15% a day. By late March, just three orders a day were trickling in.

The business I had built from the ground up over two decades was dying.

Against the odds, we had made it through the Great Recession. And, here I was again, fighting to survive in a world stacked against women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

And like other small business owners, I’m not a faceless corporation that might anonymously fire employees to get by. My business is a close-knit group of 12 employees. Most are women; some have worked with me for more than a decade; one is pregnant.

Against the odds, we had made it through the Great Recession. And, here I was again, fighting to survive in a world stacked against women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

With March payroll in doubt, and no weddings on the horizon, I had an idea: It was time to stop making tiaras and start making masks.

My family and I were on our way home from a vacation at Lake Powell, and while my husband drove, I began calling my suppliers. I’ve known many of my vendors for years—from startup through growth modes. I knew if I pivoted, they would pivot right along with me.

My team pivoted, too. Back at work on Monday, I shared my plan with my girls—a talented group of designers and makers. By Friday, we had masks for sale on our website. A month later, we were working six days a week, making 250 masks a day to keep up with the orders. I feel safe saying we saved the business. We had no layoffs. And in recent weeks, orders for veils, tiaras, and jewelry have started flowing again as women around the world look forward to being late-summer and fall brides.

So this is my pandemic story. But, what did I learn along the way? A lot.

Bits of wire, sewn into the mask above the nose for structure, were sourced from the shop’s inventory of bridal tiaras.

Think Globally, Even If You Sell Locally

Pay attention to the big picture. I was watching the pandemic as it hit China and Europe. I’m a policy nerd with a background in economics, so I knew travel restrictions and event cancellations in other countries would affect wedding planning here. Being aware of the situation made me better able to react quickly. I’m planning on a long recovery, and don’t expect people to feel safe rescheduling weddings until 2021.

Know Your Company’s Strengths

Think about what your company is really good at and how that skill can be adapted to changing business conditions. For us, sewing is our superpower. We were already a fabric-based company. And we were already vertically integrated—we had the workspace, seamstress-makers, and sewing machines that could even put bindings on the fabric. So we switched to sewing a pandemic-ready product.

Be Quick

When I got home from camping, our sales were near zero. I told my team the plan to start making masks. They were all in and immediately began coming up with a mask design. The team finished prototypes that afternoon. By the next day, we were in production. We had them for sale online three days later.

This was a change for us because weddings run on a longer timeline. The average engagement lasts 15 months, and weddings take months to plan and book. Our industry doesn’t typically move this fast. But we did.

Be Creative

We knew our masks would be mass-produced, not custom-made like the tiaras and veils. But we didn’t skimp on the design or materials. People might wear masks for months to come, even after this pandemic. We considered the mask’s shape, how glasses might sit on top, what material is most comfortable, and what style would be complimentary for men and children, not just our usual female client.

My designers came up with masks made of Egyptian cotton that have an inner pocket for a filter. We sourced bits of wire from our inventory of tiaras and sewed them into the mask above the nose, to make them fit better. The result is a mask that’s high quality and comfortable, not to mention machine-washable and reusable—nothing like the disposable ones just adding to the landfills.

Sara Gabriel Designs celebrates its 20th anniversary in July

Understand Your Customers’ Relationship with You

You can buy my tiaras, veils, and jewelry online, but I knew online sales wouldn’t pay the bills. Brides don’t order these items online. They want to be in a salon with their mother, sister, or girlfriends. They want to pick them up, try them on, and discuss which one to buy. They will buy masks online, though. Our customers are used to coming to us for an artisan-designed, well-crafted product. Now we’re selling them an artisan-designed, well-crafted mask.

Develop Good Relationships with Your Vendors

When I started sourcing mask materials, elastic and trim were already in short supply. But my trim vendor came through for me. It helps that I’ve worked closely with my suppliers since the early days of my business. They have been with me through the austerity of the last recession to our recent expansion in our new facility. Having those relationships in place was essential for moving this project forward.

A quick pivot is bridging the business through COVID-19

Tell Your Story Online and IRL

We used our website to get the word out about our new direction. My husband added a page called The Mask Project. As soon as we finished the prototype masks, my employees and I took selfies wearing them and uploaded the photos. We had the page live on April 3, three days after we made the prototypes and the same day the president touted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation that people wear face masks.

I also posted photos of our masks and our story on our Instagram feed, which has 15,000 followers.

And we started telling everyone we knew about this—my mom, friends, people from our Denver-area schools, my banker. Anybody. Within 48 hours we had sold $40,000 worth of masks, enough to make another payroll and get us through May.

Be Transparent with Your Customers

Our masks cost $53. That gives people pause because most masks sell for less than $10. So we included a breakdown of our costs to explain our price. Each mask consumes $11 worth of raw materials. $36 accounts for paying our staff a living wage, and $6 goes towards keeping the lights on, the water running, and the rent paid. We can barely keep up with orders, so people don’t mind paying more for the product when they know the reasoning for the price.

We’ve always run our company with a sense of purpose, so our shift to making masks aligned with our company’s operations and values. We don’t know when the $78 billion wedding industry will be back on track. Nobody does. Nearly all couples with early-2020 weddings are rescheduling, and nearly half of them are looking at 2021 or don’t yet know when the big day will be. But thanks to what we’ve learned during this time, we know one thing: We’ll be here when our bridal customers are ready. Our masks will help us get there.

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