Known for their ethical practices and vibrant textiles, free-spirited fashion brand Stela 9 is made purely by local Guatemalan artisans. The brand’s founder, Jess Bercovici, first fell in love with Guatemala during an archeological visit in 2007, where she was captivated by the people and their unique, handmade goods. She went on to launch Stela 9 in 2010, with a focus on cultural preservation through creating modern, wearable handbags and clothing. We recently caught up with Jess to learn more about her mission and how she launched her business.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 5-10 YEARS BEFORE LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS?
JB: I was 25 when I started Stela 9. Before that, a huge part of my life was focused on acting. Looking back now, it was a fairly toxic environment for me and I don’t think I was really secure enough with myself to ever truly succeed. When that felt like a dead end, I went back to school and studied archaeology with aspirations to follow that into a PhD program. Stela 9 then found its way into my life before I ever went that far.
IS STELA 9 YOUR DREAM JOB?
JB: That’s so hard to say. At this exact point in my life, I am very content with what I’m able to do with Stela 9. I have the flexibility to move around and also to grow the business in multiple directions—like hospitality, tourism and production for other designers. I absolutely love what I do and I know that I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to build up my business to a point where it sustains my lifestyle. Maybe that’s the funny thing with life: we never see what we have in front of us as our dream job and always aspire to something else. I’d probably be just as happy in any creative field. Actually, over the last few years, I’ve gotten really into pottery. Some days I wish I could just give all of this up and become a ceramicist, but I should probably be a little better at it before that happens.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO START YOUR BUSINESS AND DID YOU HAVE AN “AH HA” MOMENT WHEN EVERYTHING CLICKED?
JB: The business started kind of by chance. I was traveling through Mexico in the summer of 2010 with my then-partner, and we were writing a travel blog. I’d buy things from the local markets on the side and send them to my friend’s shop in Brooklyn. Each time I’d send her more things and it started to finance our travels. Once I was back in Guatemala that year, I collaborated on design with a local artisan I had met in the years prior. I sent 10 of those bags to my friend’s shop and they sold out in a week. That really gave me the confidence to realize that this could become an actual business.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS BUSINESS CONCEPT AND DID YOU HAVE EXPERIENCE IN IT PRIOR?
JB: I pulled inspiration from the few “bohemian” brands I knew of that were working within small-scale production. I had zero experience in fashion production and design. I suppose I’m a very driven individual—when I decide I want to do something, it’s going to happen. Although that doesn’t always mean that it happens for the best. For the first year of my business, I worked at a Free People boutique to immerse myself in the retail industry. I hadn’t really done anything similar since high school so it was a nice reintroduction into that world.
WAS THERE A POINT WHERE YOU THOUGHT THINGS MIGHT NOT WORK OUT AND WHAT WERE SOME OF THE OBSTACLES YOU HAD TO OVERCOME WHEN CREATING THE BUSINESS?
JB: Because I had no experience in business, fashion or production, there was a huge learning curve. I had to learn how to time out production cycles and sampling. It was something that I was completely unfamiliar with, and I was doing it with individuals who were also building up their own business and had zero experience doing the same. In addition, I had to learn how to manage a team of my own employees who helped with accounts, customer service, design and production. It was great in some respects because we were all new to the industry and learning together… but, at times, it was also incredibly frustrating because I really didn’t know what I was doing.
WERE THERE OBSTACLES YOU FACED THAT WERE SPECIFIC TO YOU BEING A WOMAN TRYING TO CREATE A BUSINESS?
JB: I was fortunate enough to start a fashion business that really is rooted in a female-dominated industry. As a woman, I did find it difficult, however, to raise capital and get funding. The ironic thing with fashion is that it is so dependent on finances and initial capital to grow and thrive, yet that still remains a predominantly male industry.
HOW DID YOU FUND YOUR IDEA?
JB: When I first started, it was easy to self-finance because I was just a little Etsy shop and I was quickly able to use my previous sales as capital to produce more products. That being said, once we got into wholesale, the entire business bulked up insanely quickly. For the first three years, we quadrupled our sales annually—which isn’t the healthiest way to grow a small business. I started small by selling my car, clothes, handbags and anything I had of value that I had acquired before starting Stela 9. I was also fortunate enough to be able to move in with my parents that first year to really make sure that I put everything I had back into the business. Once we needed more capital to fund larger orders, we turned to PO financing. This was probably not the wisest idea and I would highly recommend insisting on a 50% deposit instead. I didn’t do this because it wasn’t an industry standard at the time and there was a lot of pressure from myself and my sales team to take on these orders and never say “no” (something which, coincidentally, is now one of my favorite things to do!)
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOUR BUSINESS?
JB: Stela 9 has grown in a few different directions at this point. A few times a year, I run artisan-instructed courses over a week out of one of my Airbnbs, Casa de Stela. Although it’s an Artist Residency program, it feels more like a retreat. It’s a chance for women from all walks of life to reset and immerse themselves in another country for a week. Continuing the Stela brand, I also recently opened a new Airbnb, Jardin de Stela, as a joint venture with my boyfriend, Chris.
Another part of the business is private label and mentoring. I’ve worked with multiple new business owners to oversee their production and help launch their businesses over the past two years.
Stela 9 is still here too. We have a boutique in Antigua, Guatemala, and I sell the collection to a handful of boutiques and direct to consumers on Stela 9. Instead of creating a collection every season, I now design capsule collections every 6-10 weeks. Once we sell through our fabrics, I’ll generally have a new design woven, new patterns cut, and even bring back some favorites from the previous collection.