Inspiration can pop up when you least expect it. And with a little determination, you can accomplish anything.
This is what happened for Marist’s very own Rachel Colwell. After three years of working at Paradise, a Lilly Pulitzer shop in her hometown of Basking Ridge, N.J., Colwell developed a passion for fabrics and fashion. Colwell ordered Lilly Pulitzer bows off of Etsy but was disappointed with the results. Not only did she have to wait weeks for a simple six bows, they were poorly constructed and each bow cost $12. This was the moment that started it all.
All it took was YouTube tutorials, fabrics and some basic supplies for Colwell to begin making her own bows. Getting her inspiration from the bright colors and prints that Lilly Pulitzer uses, Colwell strived to make an improvement in the flawed bows she received. Her goal was to produce good quality bows that would not fall apart. Simply by posting pictures of her handmade bows on social media, Colwell received bow requests from friends, which is how she came to take personalized orders. In December, what started as a small hobby turned into Bows by Rach and has only been growing since then.
The bow-making process is tedious but also something that Colwell finds relaxing. You could sense the passion she has for her work as she described the steps while so naturally showing the hand movements it takes to make each individual bow. On bow-making days, which are just about every day in the summer, Colwell will spend hours at a time in her makeshift “bow studio” in the basement of her house. With some music on, Colwell makes bow after bow, reaching approximately 40 to 50 bows per day. Although she’s relaxed and focused at the time, Colwell said she’s typically exhausted afterward. Her goal, however, is to provide good customer service and to get bow orders to the customer as soon as possible due to her poor experience on Etsy. When she first began the business, each bow order was hand delivered to her friends’ houses. Of course, as the orders piled up and expanded into different states, she developed a shipping process.
Each bow is handmade and hot-glued together attached to a barrette. Colwell typically uses cotton fabrics because they are simple to work with and cheaper than silk, although she willingly accepts special orders in any fabric.
Colwell attended crafts fairs over the summer, an event she does not plan to continue. She found that paying for a table at the fair outweighed the money made from sales. On the other hand, the “Bowtique” event Colwell set up at her house this summer was a great success, selling approximately 100 bows.
Bows by Rach has solely been dependent on word of mouth and social media to get the business known. For a girl who began making personalized bows for herself, she now has over 300 likes on Facebook and over 470 followers on Instagram. Much of her expansion to other states has come from popular bloggers wearing and promoting Bows by Rach. Colwell provided blogger Kelly in the City with several free bows and in return, Kelly wrote a blog post endorsing Bows by Rach.
Navy and black small bows are generally the best sellers, but Colwell says she personally prefers the bright colors and patterns. However, Megan Krysh, a fashion student in charge of consignment for Fashionology this semester, said she’s mostly seen the large bright colored bows being worn around campus. Spring of 2014 was the first semester Bows by Rach were sold at Fashionology. “I was told Fashionology could not keep them in stock long enough,” said Krysh. “We hope they will sell as well as they did last semester.” Colwell provided Fashionology with 200 bows to sell over the course of the semester. Aside from Fashionology, Bows by Rach are sold at Bling, a boutique in her hometown, providing a great way to gain exposure. She stocks Bling with plenty of inventory over the summer prior to coming to Marist.
Since the process of fulfilling special orders in a timely manner is too much to balance during the school semester, she is not currently selling individual orders. However, in October Colwell will put her skills to work, providing 200 pink bows for her Tri-Sigma sorority event. Each individual bow will be sold for $7, six of which will be donated toward Breast Cancer.
Sarah Spring, a freshman at Lehigh University, recently placed an order for 18 bows for her cross-country team. Spring said she was very pleased with the bows and how accommodating Colwell was. The order for 18 small brown and white chevron bows with gold glitter was even specially designed with ponytail holders rather than barrettes. Aside from balancing classes, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, sorority life and a social life, Colwell successfully handmade and delivered the bows, with two extra free bows, within only two-and-a-half weeks.
“I absolutely will continue to [spread the word],” said Spring in an email interview. “I think Rachel’s company is amazing and I’m glad she has had so much success with it.”
Although Colwell first came into college expecting to major in social work, she has since declared a fashion merchandising major with a business and product development minor. Her dream job would either be to work in the corporate headquarters of Lilly Pulitzer or to own a small-scale boutique. “I love the customer service aspect of fashion and working with people, but I do not want to be a store manager,” said Colwell.
Colwell has set multiple goals for the near future, including expanding Bows by Rach into more small accessory stores in New Jersey by the summer. Developing an Etsy site is another major goal, as it would make the ordering, selling and money transfers much easier as opposed to receiving checks in the mail. Aside from this, Colwell hopes to design business cards and a banner for craft fairs and to update packaging. In her words, “there’s always room for improvement.”
Colwell admitted that bows are a big hit now, but she expects them to eventually die out. For this reason she has been learning how to create men’s bow-ties, which currently sell for $12, and plans on eventually making men’s ties as well as horse show ribbon bows, something Colwell thinks would be a big seller at horse shows.
Colwell’s parents, who are now fully supportive, did not initially fund her startup. Instead, she used her own funds to get the business rolling from her three years working at Paradise. She has learned from her mistakes to only buy the necessary length of fabrics to make a quick profit, allowing her to purchase more supplies and repeat the process.
“Rachel is a very hard worker and will push through to get to the end result,” said Mrs. Colwell in an email interview. “She doesn’t give up and her energy is infectious.”
Since start-up, Colwell’s mother has become her fabric shopping partner, an activity they enjoy doing together. Her mother, according to Colwell, has been very helpful behind the scenes helping with shipments and other tasks. Her father has provided tips for success coming from his business experience.
Colwell recommends any aspiring entrepreneurs to first test out their products in small quantities to see if they will sell. “Make sure people are interested and know that making mistakes is okay too,” said Colwell.