College student Erin Bleakley starts own fashion line, Erin Kathleen Couture, at 19

Erin BleakleyWith what she calls a small frame, University of Denver student Erin Bleakley says she always struggled to find clothing that fit and looked good. While some students her age may have just continued shopping aimlessly for that perfect fit, Bleakley decided not to count on existing fashion brands to make her look stylish. She had always been interested in fashion, but she had no formal training in design or production. That wasn't enough to stop her; she formed Erin Kathleen Couture in 2008 at the age of 19.

Bleakley, now 21 and a junior marketing major, never planned on being a fashion designer or an entrepreneur. "Honestly, I just drew out some sketches, found some fabric, and had a couple of things made," she says. "After that, I guess fate took it because people started asking where I got what I was wearing, and it just kind of developed from there."
The line started mostly as a way for Bleakley to outfit herself, but as she continued to field clothing requests, she had to figure out how to make a business out of her new hobby. Being a business owner can be pretty intimidating for any 19-year-old, but Bleakley found a way that was manageable for her. She says she saved money to buy fabrics and pay seamstresses and had some help from her parents. She admits, "It's not easy; starting out is pretty expensive."

While she's been managing the business for two years, she still doesn't have a fully-realized business plan -- though it's in the works. She says, "That is something that I will probably eventually do, but so far the business is kind of an off-the-cusp deal."

Bleakley's not flaking on the business, she says she "keeps really good records of what is sold" and determines any holes in the line of production.

Being that she's still in college, her line is priced realistic to a student's budget. "There is a fine line between charging enough and charging too much, and in order to keep my prices just right, I pay my seamstresses well, and then only mark the clothing up 25% instead of the usual 100-150% that most designers or store owners do," she said. She cites this reasonable price point as a way in which she was able to find a "niche market in the bad economy."

She says most of her sales come from personal inquiries, but she has also sold her line to a couple of Dallas boutiques and plans to sell her clothing in a few stores in her hometown of Kansas City. Currently, her sales are on hold so that she can use her brand for a charity fashion for the American Heart Association through her sorority.

The words Bleakley uses to describe Erin Kathleen Couture fit the image of a classy sorority sister. "The style of clothing I offer is conservative, yet sexy," she says. "There is something to be said about leaving something to the imagination, and my line not only does that but it also is very flirty and feminine at the same time." She may have a clear audience in mind, but her success isn't going to her head: "I am still so humbled when people like and buy my clothing."

While her career as a fashion designer is only beginning, Bleakley continues working on her undergraduate degree. She says finding balance represents her biggest challenge as a student entrepreneur. She advises others who would follow her example to make time for friends and doing the "normal college thing." She adds, "You have the rest of your life to work, you only have a few years for college."

Bleakley already has big plans for her post-college career: continue in education, but this time in fashion. She hopes to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. She says this is a personal goal for her to gain more knowledge, hone her craft, and better her line. She's looking to learn from the pros. "I would love to intern for someone like James Perse and gain knowledge of the effortless laid-back California style that he does such a great job of implementing into his line."

Bleakley is confident that she made the right choice in starting her business and she advises other young entrepreneurs to do some soul searching before making the investment.

"You need to be 110% sure that you're starting it for the right reasons and that you genuinely love what it is you're trying to make a go at, because if you don't you will be putting a lot of time and money into a dead-end career," she said. "I got lucky with fashion that it was my passion, and I was and am going to do everything it takes to make sure it's successful."

Clothes to Free, which appears Thursdays, is a weekly fashion-on-a-budget column by Money College blogger Alysse Dalessandro. Send Alysse column tips at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

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