Spring is usually the best of times for my business. As brides plan summer weddings, my team and I at Sara Gabriel Designs take in about 150 orders a day for custom tiaras, veils and other bridal accessories. Owning a business is intense and sometimes overwhelming, and yet — like most entrepreneurs — it’s what I live for.
Spring of last year, my Denver business came to a sputtering halt. As the pandemic hit, couples cancelled weddings. Orders crashed. By late March, we were down to three orders a day. I’d spent 20 years building my company. Our designs were available in more than 200 boutiques and major department stores across the U.S., and in Singapore, South Korea and Canada, and, now, I wasn’t sure we would survive.
I made the decision to pivot: Stop with tiaras and start making masks.
Within a week, we were selling masks through our website. We told everyone we knew — family, friends, people from our Denver-area schools, my banker. Anybody.
Within 48 hours we had sold $40,000 worth of masks, enough to get us through May. A month later, we were working six days a week, filling orders for 250 masks a day.
“We had to downsize, but we took the opportunity to return to our roots.”
One year later — as life opens up and an almost “normal” wedding season begins — we are filling orders and I have to give thanks. Thanks to my amazing team, thanks to my family, friends, and customers, and thanks to the Denver community and partners who helped me skate on thin ice for a year and make it to the other side.
My business is going to make it. We had to downsize, but we took the opportunity to return to our roots. We moved into a hip new space in the LoHi district in keeping with our bespoke design heritage. Small independent and woman-owned businesses dominate the block. That’s another hopeful sign. Women face a disproportionate impact from the pandemic, and we’ll need every entrepreneur to ensure a strong recovery.
When people ask me what I learned from this past year, I talk about four lessons.
1. Know your company’s strengths
For us, sewing is our superpower. We’ve worked with fabric for 20 years, so we had everything we needed in-house to pivot our production — the workspace, seamstress-makers and sewing machines that could even put bindings on the fabric. Making masks made sense.
2. Be creative and don’t compromise
We knew our masks would be mass-produced, not custom-made like our tiaras and veils. But we didn’t skimp on the design or materials. We considered the mask’s shape, how glasses might sit on top, what material is most comfortable and what style would complement men and children.
3. Trust your relationships
When I started sourcing mask materials, elastic and trim were already in short supply. So, the fact that I’ve worked with my trim vendor for years was key. I’ve worked closely with my suppliers since the start of my business, and most were with me through the austerity of the last recession. Strong relationships matter in good times and in hard times.
4. Tell your story
We used our website and Instagram to get the word out about our new direction. As soon as we finished the prototype masks, my team and I uploaded selfies wearing them. We had the page live three days after the prototypes. That same day, coincidentally, the president touted the CDC’s recommendation that people wear masks.
I’ve always run my company as both an artist and an entrepreneur. The pandemic pivot was a short chapter in our story, and it stress-tested our ingenuity, relationships and resilience. It also proved for me that we’ve got what it takes to survive in the unpredictable years ahead.
With the reopening underway, the $78 billion wedding industry is poised to come roaring back. We’re seeing the uptick of incoming orders. People want to celebrate with their families and friends.
After such a hard year, I’m grateful to be a part of the Denver community and those celebrations of life and love.