Follow Your Arrow: How The Lingerie Lesbian Got Her Start in Fashion Design

What does it take to build a successful business in the big, shiny, fast-moving world of fashion? I’ll bet plenty of the folks reading this have toyed with the idea of designing their own clothes, perhaps some of us are even pretty handy with the sewing machine and can knock out a dress or a skirt. Maybe you spend hours reading fashion blogs or magazines and love dreaming up your own designs — I know I do. But turning that love of clothing into a sustainable business, making a living from selling those creations? That’s a whole other ball game.

In this installment of Follow Your Arrow, NYC-based designer Caroline Elenowitz — who specialises in high-end evening wear — talks us through her journey to full-time fashion designer, from the moment she realised that she needed creativity in her life, to launching her debut collection, and all of the hard work in between.


Caroline Elenowitz, Designer/Founder of Caroline Z. Designs

Age 26, New York City

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Hey Caroline! Could you tell us a little about your business? What’s your mission? Who do you serve?

Caroline Z. is a designer evening wear brand focusing on special occasion. We make evening and cocktail gowns from luxurious fabrics including silk and fur. One of our specialties is laser cutting, and the materials and patterns are entirely designed by me and customized to fit each consumer. Our customers are people who are looking for a special occasion outfit that is beautiful, but also individual. At present, all of our dresses are custom-made for each customer who comes into the studio in the garment district in New York City.

How would you describe your approach to business? And what personal qualities inform your approach?

I would describe myself as a ‘lazy overachiever’ which means that I tend to do things in fits and starts, where I will seemingly be doing nothing for periods of time and then suddenly work like crazy, driven by the fear that I am going to disappoint people. Given that designing is creative, it can tend to exaggerate that aspect of myself and being my own boss was much, much harder at first than it seemed like it was going to be in my head for the very reason that watching TV can be an excellent way to waste hours that would otherwise be spent working if other people were around to judge me. At a certain point though, I remembered the reason I’m doing this–even with all of the hard work involved–is that I really want to do it, so I have buckled down and worked really, really hard.

Caroline’s sketchbook

What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?

My day depends on the type of work I’m planning to do that day. I have a studio space that I try to go to every week day, but when my work for the day mostly consists of emails or other things I can do on the computer, I can sometimes get started in the morning at home and then suddenly realize it’s 5 PM and I never made it to the office.

Doing this business is my full time job right now, so I work a minimum of a 40 hour work week in the studio. It really depends of the week though— sometimes I’ll work for 2 weeks straight including weekends (which is what I did building up to my look book photoshoot) but then I took a couple of days off in the middle of the week. I also spend most of my ‘off’ hours reading articles about the industry and doing research, either for my new collection or on people I should try to work with or learning new techniques. At present I actually do everything for my business — sketching, draping, pattern-making, sewing, as well as all of the ‘business-y’ things, like filing taxes and managing our website. I also plan for events, book models, and find photographers and makeup artists. I designed the logo and the website myself, and I manage all of our social media. It’s a lot of things.

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Caroline’s studio in New York City

When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps? 

For a long time I had no idea what I wanted to do. I actually went to Yale and studied English Lit and loved every minute of it, but I didn’t want to go into academia, so I went into PR. That was somewhat interesting, but I missed being creative so, so much. I had started this blog The Lingerie Lesbian right after I graduated college, so I thought, my goodness, I love lingerie, I should study lingerie design! So I went back to school to FIT to study fashion design in general and I kind of fell in love with the whole thing. At the end of the first semester I realized that playing with fabric and creating things people would wear was just magical. And although I still have a soft spot for lingerie, I wanted to make things that were bigger, that would make an entrance. And that’s how I ended up with gowns.

When I graduated, I thought I would probably want to create my own collection at some point, but I knew I wasn’t going to do it right away. I worked for another designer for a little while, where I learned a lot, but when I left I still thought I was going to get another job designing for someone else. Which, of course, would be the practical thing to do. But when another opportunity didn’t immediately present itself, I thought, “Why wait?”

Why do you do this? What makes you spring out of bed in the morning? What’s the best thing about the work you do? 

I like making things. I love coming up with an idea that starts to take on a life of its own and I know will be wonderful when it’s made. And I love seeing the final product, on a model or on a client. The middle bit between designing and the final product is really hard and makes you ask yourself why you ever thought you ever had a single good idea in your whole life. I’m especially excited in the morning to see my only regular co-worker, Malcolm, the cat who lives in the studio and is the harbinger of wisdom.

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Malcolm the cat

And the worst?

When I know I need to talk to someone in person about something complicated and I really don’t want to do it.

What are the key challenges you face in your work, and what are your tactics for overcoming these?

It’s hard to figure out what to spend money on. In this stage of my business, there are lots of things to buy and pay for and it can be hard to figure out what is the expensive item/service that will really be worth it in the end and what isn’t. It’s also hard to figure out when to bring more people in and hire contractors for certain parts of the business. I definitely try to talk to friends who are designers, but in the end, I have to make the ultimate decision about my business, which can be intimidating.

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How do you approach time management and work-life balance? 

I make a lot of lists. One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to make a list of all the things I have to do tomorrow. In the end, checking things off on a list is satisfying enough that most of the stuff gets done. Except for things like “Organize X.” I never find organizing to be at the top of my priorities.

I have an incredible girlfriend, we’ve been together for five years, and she’s been extremely supportive of my work (and is slowly learning things about fashion from watching Project Runway. Her favorite thing these days is to tell me to ‘elevate’ my designs or ask me ‘What would Nina [Garcia] think?’). Plus, she’s a lawyer, so her hours are much worse than mine!

Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?

I would like my business to have grown enough that other people will be doing the things that I don’t like to do! Especially taxes.

How do you market your business?

Right now, my most powerful tool is word of mouth. Given that I make relatively high price items, there is a somewhat limited pool of clients who are generally in a similar social circle. I also use social media as much as I can and I try to contact press also. I also lend out pieces to stylists and magazines in the hope that they will get shot. I’m still in the beginning stages of my business, so I don’t do any paid campaigns at present, but I might in the future. We’ll see!

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How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?

It doesn’t have a day to day impact on my business, but there is definitely a lack of out queer women in fashion. Gay men are everywhere, but whenever I come out to a client or someone who also works in the industry, they are startled. I actually have some interesting ideas for some more queer-ish photoshoots for the future, but we’ll have to see what makes sense. My work is quite feminine, which is generally not read as queer. It can be weird to be a lesbian designer because my work doesn’t fit into what people usually think ‘queer fashion’ is. I know I’m not changing the world: I don’t make clothes at an ‘accessible’ price point, I am not solving an urgent problem or making things people need. All I want to do is make things I think are beautiful and that other people will appreciate and hopefully buy.

What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?

Business of Fashion is good for fashion stuff— their roundups on other articles on the fashion business are also excellent.

Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes was a very interesting read with surprising insight into the challenges of the fashion business even though it was published in 1938.

Inc Magazine also sometimes has some good general business tips.

What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?

I myself am hoping to make more queer women business owner friends so we can figure this out together! My advice so far: you are probably not going to make any money from your business for a while, so be prepared! Also: make sure you research your industry so you know what else is out there.


Check out Caroline’s debut collection at caroline-z.com! You can also keep up with her on Instagram, TwitterFacebook  and Tumblr!

Do you run your own business, organisation or charity? Want to tell us all about it? Email beth at autostraddle dot com and let us know how your business story can inspire others! We are, as always, especially interested in hearing from women of colour, women with disabilities, trans women and non-binary folks and people outside of the US and UK.


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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer based on the Isle of Skye. She has two cats, a hot builder girlfriend, far too many tarot decks and not enough coffee cups. She's really into bread, the colour red, camping and brand new notebooks. She'd love to cut your hair, read your cards or hang out with you on her blog, Little Red Tarot!

Beth has written 111 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. 0

    my goodness these gowns are gorgeous! the one with grey tulle is an absolute dream! I also love that you mentioned the lack of queer ladies in fashion- I’ve just finished up my graduate collection for my degree and the constant chat about boyfriends and general air of Assumed Straightness got old reaaaal quick.

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