Whitney Lundeen of Sonnet James
photography: marisa vitale
Around the time her second son was born, Whitney Lundeen understood she needed to leave her marriage. But as a single mom, she had to start earning money to support her small boys. She’d been out of the corporate world for more than four years, and she didn’t feel equipped to return to her former career in commercial interior design. She was terrified.
In the midst of this fear and uncertainty, Whitney took her boys for a walk. Their neighborhood Walgreens had a “HIRING” sign in the window, and Whitney considered applying, willing to do whatever was necessary to support her boys. In the end, she decided to pursue a business idea that she’d had the year before: a dress line that would remind moms to play with their children, with pieces made from easy-to-care-for materials that wouldn’t require dry cleaning.
On New Year’s Eve in 2012, Whitney’s family was sitting around talking about their goals for the coming year, and Whitney said she was going to make and sell ten dresses. “Learning how to sew and make a dress was a pretty big obstacle for me, so I was pretty proud of that [number].” Her brother, who was at Stanford Business School at the time, convinced her to bump up that number to 100. While the idea of making 100 dresses was daunting, Whitney dove headfirst into her goal. “I gave myself a deadline: I said in six weeks I’m going to launch the website and in two weeks my sister is going to come take photos [of the prototypes].”
Whitney named the company Sonnet James, a combination of the two names she had chosen for her children, had they been girls. For the next month, every day after she put the boys to bed, Whitney worked on her company. She read business books she’d bought on Amazon and taught herself pattern drafting and sewing. Before she had any prototypes of the dresses, she called her sister Remi to say she was buying her a plane ticket.
“Remi said, ‘Don’t you think we should wait until you have some dresses before we buy a plane ticket?’
“And I said, ‘No, because then I’ll never make any dresses!’ ” Whitney laughed.
Whitney built the website on Squarespace the night before the launch. At 8am. she pushed publish, exhausted and totally unsure what would happen next. “I really just thought maybe my mom would buy a dress because she felt sorry for me.” But one of the many bloggers Whitney had emailed for help spreading the word about Sonnet James (Gabrielle Blair from Design Mom) wrote back. She loved the idea and agreed to post about it on her blog. Within two days, Whitney had more than 150 orders.
Whitney was totally unprepared for such a positive response to her line. At the time, she only had prototypes of the dresses; she didn’t know where to get fabric or where to have the dresses sewn. These challenges seemed insurmountable – especially in such a short period of time. Her first inclination was to shut the website down and refund everyone’s orders. Whitney called her brother. “Very intensely [he said], ‘Please Whitney, do not shut the website down.’ He could hear it in my voice, I was totally freaking out…”
Moments like this are when businesses often fail, Whitney explained. “I think it takes having one person to really support you and tell you, ‘You can do this, go for it.’ ”
She drove to LA’s Fashion District in the hopes of finding a production house that could sew the dresses. Finally, she found one willing to take on her small order, but there was a catch. They charged Whitney $95 per dress, but she had already sold them for $78. She was losing $17 on every dress.
“I had no idea where else to make them,” Whitney laughed. “The one good thing was that they had a really good patternmaker, and I felt like he helped me clean up the patterns a lot to make them fit so much better than my patterns [would have].”
After Whitney got those orders shipped, she decided to run a Kickstarter to help get the word out about the brand. Her brother, sister-in-law, and sister all helped her produce the campaign video. “We were with each other every night [working on the video until] late, and it was really fun.” Through Kickstarter Whitney raised $58,000, surpassing her original goal by $10,000.
“As soon as I got the money I was like, I cannot work with the company in LA ever again … I need to be able to see my factory on a daily basis.” Whitney started scouting for a production house in San Francisco. Someone had sent her an old list of factories, so she decided to drive to each one. She quickly discovered that every single factory had closed down. As she walked toward the last building, which was also closed, she asked the man sweeping the sidewalk if he knew of any sewing houses. He didn’t speak English, but he pointed to the building across the street. The man in that lobby sent her to the patternmakers on the fifth floor, and these patternmakers recommended Peter.
Still holding on to a thread of hope, Whitney looked up Peter’s address and began driving as she called him. Saturated with work, Peter said he couldn’t take on any more clients. (He manufactured for several of the top athletic companies in the world.) But Whitney was unwilling to give up. She told him she was already on the way and would only take five minutes of his time
Less than an hour later, Whitney and Peter struck a deal. Although Peter wasn’t going to make any profit on Whitney’s initial order (her minimums were much too small), in the end she convinced him to take a chance on her.
After doing some additional market research, Whitney discovered that Peter’s prices were twice as expensive as his competitors. The economics didn’t make sense, but Whitney knew that was where Sonnet James should be. She thought Peter’s employees seemed happier, and the factory was brighter and better ventilated.
“I feel like every company has to make those decisions. And probably a lot of business people would say I should have taken the [one that was] half as much if I was worried about profit,” Whitney said. But she was more concerned about building a business with integrity than maximizing profits right away.
Four years and ten collections later, Sonnet James is thriving. The company is growing 200% year over year—and to think that Whitney grew the business so dramatically while single parenting her two boys and receiving very little help with childcare. Her boys are now six and nine, and this is the first year they’ve both attended full days at school. “Having 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. uninterrupted every day [makes me feel like] I feel like I can change the world,” Whitney laughed. “I can do anything now.”
“I have to accept that [fashion] is still a very sexist industry. That’s not going to scare me out of it. I’ve gotten in yelling matches with the fabric guys and, you know, they’ve called me names; they’ve been verbally abusive on the phone. It’s really, really difficult.
“I feel like when I work with my female-[run] fabric companies, it’s just so respectful. If they make a mistake, they own up to it. They want to work together on trying to find a solution. It’s so frustrating, you know, because I still need fabric from these companies that are really difficult to work with. For a year I swore them off and said, I’m never, never working with these people. But they’re the only ones who have [certain types of] fabric.”
“[Building a company with] very personal marketing and branding gets confusing as you start to grow. You get more followers, and [you have to decide], do you still want to use yourself as the face [of the company]? Or do you want to switch it over, so you can live your life as someone that no one recognizes? But then you lose all the personality and the vulnerability. I don’t know. It’s really, really tricky.”
5 Things I Learned From Whitney:
Bloggers are an incredible resource for early-stage entrepreneurs looking to spread awareness about their brand.
Identify a company you admire. Then, as questions arise, find out how that company solved that problem.
When selecting vendors, sometimes it’s not just about finding the most inexpensive option. Sometimes it’s about finding the most ethical option, and you find a way to make the economics work.
It is possible to start a business that feels warm and welcoming even when other brands in your industry do not feel that way.
It’s difficult to opt-out of the fast-fashion cycle if you want to ever take on investors - since they are looking for high year-over-year growth, which is far easier to achieve if you release a new collection every season.