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Fashion Designer: Roxi Suger
If you were the kid making clothes for dolls, cutting your t-shirts into more interesting shapes or taking a Sharpie to your sneakers, you might have considered a fashion design career.
Roxi Suger was one of those kids. She learned to sew at age eight and never looked back. She talked to JMA about working for big brands, teaching and eventually launching her own line.
JMA: Did you always know you wanted to go into fashion design?
RS: Once I gave up the idea of being a ballerina, I was attached to fashion. It’s been a long, dogged journey. I learned to sew at eight and committed to fashion by the age of 10. I studied fashion at the University of Alabama and then moved to New York City right after college.
JMA: How did you get stated in the business?
RS: I started working for a mass-market maternity line and I went on to work for Vivienne Tam, Urban Outfitters and a number of large retailers. I got experience in retail design as well as operation — it was a wonderful mix of experience, but I had the entrepreneurial bug very early on.
JMA: When did you know you wanted to go out on your own?
RS: I launched Baby Doll by Roxi in 1996 and had a great run. It was a juniors line that I ran out of the company I was working with. During that time, I was also taking classes at Parsons The New School for Design and working on launching angelrox, which I did in 1999.
JMA: What’s the vision behind angelrox?
RS: I didn’t approach developing a brand with the idea of filling a hole in the market and I have always self-financed. We’re focused on comfort, versatility and ease of travel. As my collection has evolved, I have increasingly focused on what will adapt easily to modern, busy women’s lifestyles. I try to design simple, elegant pieces that can be dressed up or be casual — they can take you from a class to a cocktail party to the boardroom and then the soccer field. It’s about essential pieces that transcend different needs.
I have always focused on angelrox as a sustainable brand. We’re not like, “Oh, darling, what’s the next trend?” That doesn’t align with me at all. Maybe when I was younger, but I feel that mentality is wasteful and I want nothing to do with that. We manufacture some of the clothes on-site in Maine and also use a facility in Brooklyn. All of the fabrics we use are knit on the Eastern Seaboard.
JMA: How did the move to Maine change the business? Why did you decide to relocate?
RS: Biddeford, Maine has millions of square feet of old textile mills. Situated on the Saco River, it’s a traditional New England mill town. There’s a wonderful, vibrant community here. We have entered retail by opening our own storefront, which allows us to introduce ourselves and other great designers to the community. It also gives us the chance to get to know people and give back. Philanthropy is a driving motivation for me; we’re earmarking a percentage of sales for donations to local charities.
Personally, the move was great for my family. We have a six-year-old son and his grandfather lives in the area. After 18 years in New York, we were ready for more space and a different sense of community.
JMA: What appealed to you about a career in fashion design in the beginning?
RS: I loved the art of creating things. I have always gravitated to textiles and the way things feel. When you’re young, there’s the appeal of the fabulousness of the runway or a photo shoot. But today, it’s more about being able to empower women to feel powerful in clothes — it’s a heady sensation and a huge honor to be a part of women’s lives in some way.
JMA: What made you nervous about this career in the beginning?
RS: There were definitely times when it was hard to keep going in the early days. When you’re self-financing, you have to be naïve, take risks and dive in. If you really knew all of the risks and potential threats, no one would ever do it.
JMA: What did you do to make it work early on?
RS: I was able to teach for many years. I have always revered education and had taken some sketching and illustration courses and my mentor asked if I would be interested in modeling for his fashion classes. I did that for a few years and was invited to be part of a curriculum board meeting at Katharine Gibbs. I was very vocal at the meeting and advocated that the students needed access to more business classes. This career isn’t just pretty pictures; it’s a business. They need more than the core curriculum that teaches them about becoming a designer by sewing. I taught a few courses there and a year or two later, Parsons was in a huge growth spurt after Project Runway and my mentor recommended me to the school. I loved it and I loved having a venue where foibles or mistakes could be flipped into learning experiences.
JMA: Did your education prepare you for a career in fashion design?
RS: I wish when I had gone to school there had been more business courses. I have had to figure it out and learn on the way. It can be more painful and take much longer than having a class. Also, there’s a real difference between school and the first jobs you get in the field. I have seen so many young designers hit a wall of frustration when they get a job. A company hires you for your creativity and then they are quite terrified of it. The culture is very much: “What’s in the stores?” Companies often have confidence in that. There’s a real fear in the design world of things that haven’t been seen before. It can be quite dismaying for a young designer if their ideas aren’t adopted on the job.
JMA: How do you get past that?
RS: You realize it’s a job. You take the creative passion that you have and cultivate it and nurture it and ripple it out to friends and community and foster it elsewhere. You stop relying on your job to provide you with the passion. This is true in far more careers than fashion and it can be hard until you embrace it.
JMA: What has been the most surprising thing about your career?
RS: The intense love, devotion and perception of my customers. They get it. They put on the clothing and they just get the essence. They feel the thought and the love that goes into making the clothes. It’s a wonder to me, and the most incredible thing is the connection and that sense of understanding that is communicated through a piece of textile.
JMA: What is the hardest thing about your career?
RS: What’s hard for me is that I’m a designer, but only 5% of my time is spent designing. I do get creative satisfaction from the branding, marketing, website, packaging, merchandise display, etc. So, there are creative forces beyond actually designing products. But what my day involves is customer service, phone calls, addressing problems, making sure the wheels of the business are running. Today, I need to input orders. It’s not like I get to wake up and think, “What am I going to make today that’s pretty?”
JMA: What’s the salary range in fashion design?
RS: It totally depends if you work for a large company or for yourself. The range is big. I used to tell my students that it’s important to work for other companies as long as you can before launching into you own thing — even if you have that hunger and a person ready to back you. Get all of the experience you can and while you have the security of a job, build your good credit. Think about your brand quietly on the side; fan your unique flame; start working and fostering it. There are so many ways for people to get up and running — there’s Etsy and other online mediums. The reality now is that you can support yourself as you leave the full-time job — that’s the ideal scenario.
JMA: What’s the bottom line?
RS: You can do anything in this life you really set your heart on, believe in and go for with gusto. You do need to study the marketplace and believe you have products that will resonate, but the only way to really know is to start. You can risk over-thinking and scare yourself away from just going for it. Have high expectations, but take satisfaction out of each little accomplishment. The total value of the business or my distribution is not the measure of success. To me, it’s bringing joy to customers and making their lives a little more comfortable. At the end of the day, I’m so blessed to be here and do what I love, supporting my family and a growing number of employees. I get overwhelmed with the gratitude.
Learn more about angelrox and check out Roxi’s work here.