Starting and running a business is never easy: you have to constantly be prepared for the unexpected. Because at any moment, things can change drastically. That was proven over and over during the pandemic. But even without a pandemic, businesses are subject to constant turmoil. Fortunately, for Arlene Wasserman, the founder and owner of Fashion Lab NY, preparation and pivoting have always been part of her DNA.
In 2015, a full year before she launched her business, she reached out to the Women’s Business Center at Canisius College (WBC) and signed up for the Launch Program to start the learning process. “I met others like me who were thinking about starting their own businesses. The program touched on the things I needed to do to start,” Arlene said. “I learned what I didn’t even know I needed to learn.”
After Launch, Arlene signed up for the WBC’s Grow Program, which forced her to take action. As a master planner, Arlene said she and would probably still be planning her business if she hadn’t gone through the WBC programs. It also provided her with a network of other women entrepreneurs and accountability partners, many of whom she still connects with on a regular basis.
Fashion Lab NY is a sewing and fashion design studio that provides skill-based programs that teach sewing, fashion design and fiber arts to children eight and up, teens and adults. They offer a variety of scheduled Sewing Labs, Specialty Workshops, Fashion Camps, Birthday Parties and Girl Scout Workshops, as well as custom-designed programs. They create a laboratory where students feel comfortable exploring their creativity while gaining the skills to be a fashion designer. “Learning the life-long skill of sewing teaches so much more – our students of all ages gain confidence, learn patience and practice problem solving,” Arlene said.
And then the world changed
The business model for Fashion Lab NY was based on group events sharing supplies and sewing machines. They provide all the sewing tools one needs, along with the instruction to learn in a group setting. When Covid hit, that concept became obsolete. Not knowing how long Covid would last and what the world would look like, Arlene had to close her studio when her lease came up for renewal in October 2020.
With the help of some angel customers, she moved the studio to a historic church and community center on the East side of Buffalo, The King Urban Life Center (KULC). They provided her with a dedicated space while she figured things out. As businesses began to open up again, they offered smaller workshops with separate sewing stations to keep students safe and socially distant. Business started very strong once they were able to teach again. Young and older alike found us and wanted to learn to sew.
“It was a difficult decision to close our beautiful space, although our new space has been repurposed with large open areas for a variety of educational activities,” Arlene said. “I loved sharing our new dedicated space surrounded by beauty and design to inspire us all.”
But Covid wasn’t the only challenge Arlene faced in 2020. Just two weeks before Covid struck, her husband of 33 years died suddenly. The combination of these two traumatic events left her lost and grieving. While her business had been growing steadily over the years, it was not ready to support her and her family – and the events of 2020 left her in a delicate emotional state.
Fortunately, the combination of amazing Buffalo neighbors and the WBC helped her get through the difficult times and come out stronger on the other side. “The North Buffalo business community and my customers were so supportive during this time,” Arlene said. “They reminded me every day of the wonderful relationships I had built here in Buffalo, both personally and professionally. They made me realize how proud I am of the business I created and the opportunity it provides for young and old alike. Therefore, I made the choice to pivot and reset.”
Repair, Review and Assess
Based on all the turmoil in her life, Arlene’s chosen strategy for 2020 was to Repair, Review and Assess. Before closing her studio in North Buffalo, they managed to hold four weeks of Fashion Camp by limiting the number of campers and allocating a sewing station to each camper. The camps completely filled in a few days. “It was quite the experience keeping the kids socially distant and teaching the entire day with masks on. And instead of ending each Camp week with a Fashion Show in the studio, we took the kids outside and filmed a Fashion Show. They were posted on YouTube for family and friends to see. It worked out beautifully. The kids didn’t miss a beat. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention!” she stated.
Classes started up again in November 2020 with a focus on sewing workshops for kids, teens and adults. They continued to offer classes with amazing instructors that bring their own creativity and talents to the Fashion Lab NY family. Their focus, as always, was on teaching the lifelong skill of sewing through the lens of fashion.
Her 2021 strategy has been to follow the plan established by the WBC and Restart, Regrow and Reconnect. “Covid forced all of us to learn how essential pivoting is to restarting and regrowing our businesses today. What worked before may not work now. Covid forced us to learn how to do things differently. Most of us never heard of Zoom before Covid. Now it’s a part of our toolbox,” Arlene said.
The year 2020 presented a lot of challenges for Arlene and other women-owned businesses. And fortunately, some very good lessons were learned as a result. For Arlene, she was able to verify what she knew all along about Buffalo: that it is truly a city of good neighbors. “The outpouring of support and love kept me going,” she said. She also learned that owning your own business is all about pivoting. Nothing stands still and you must embrace the pivot.
Ever the planner – Arlene says that you need a solid plan if you want to start a business. But you also need to be flexible and resilient if you want it to survive and thrive. “It will not look the same way years down the road as it does in the beginning. It will grow and evolve, and you will too. You must also have a good support system, financially and emotionally. Starting your own business is harder than you think. And it is exhausting wearing so many hats. It is also the most fulfilling thing you will do as you see your dreams come to life,” Arlene said.
Currently Fashion Lab NY is leading Summer Fashion Camps in Buffalo, partnering with The Park School and Buffalo Seminary, and for the first time outside of the area in Saratoga Springs. And – since her agreement with KULC has come to an end – she is exploring the idea of Pop-up programs and Private lessons during the Fall – Spring months and then concentrate on a more robust Summer Fashion Camp Program partnering with private camps and schools throughout the WNY region.
So while Arlene is still sorting out where she wants to take her business, she knows that with the help of strong connections made through the WBC, she will come out just fine. She just will need to be prepared to pivot some more.