Perhaps just 15 years ago, before the explosion of social media and online marketplaces allowed small-scale entrepreneurs and artists to sell their niche products to scattered customers all over the world, Mallory Ottariano wouldn’t have been able to do business the way she does now.
Out of a small studio in her home, Ottariano creates unique, eco-conscious, handmade clothing like stretchy yoga headbands, funky dance pants, skirts, tops and “tribal steampunk warrior Goddess” utility belts from upcycled materials. She peruses local thrift stores and other places to find her fabric, then she stitches bits and pieces together to give them new life and artistic style under the name KIND Apparel.
From there, she relies on Etsy, a peer-to-peer e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items. She has a list of order receipts on her wall from places like Brooklyn, New York, San Luis Obispo, California and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When the Internet was still in its infancy, Ottariano would have had to rely on a local market for her wares, but now anyone anywhere in the world who wants an orange “upcycled cowl neck patchwork hoodie gypsy tunic dress” can connect with her. Perhaps one or two people in Missoula would buy such a product if she opened a shop on Main Street, but since she’s connected to the global marketplace, customers in every corner of the world can find exactly what they’ve been searching for.
“The Internet is amazing,” she said. “It’s been really crazy. I started this as a hobby in Massachusetts. I would go to a couple craft fairs a year. The Internet allowed me to move across the country without changing my business whatsoever and have no real repercussions.”
The success of her online sales has allowed Ottariano to dive in to her passion head-on. She recently quit her day job and has committed to building her personal business full-time. She averages five individual – and two or three wholesale – orders of varying sizes online every week. It’s something that would be inconceivable without the Internet, but she still relies on a little bit of the good old-fashioned grapevine network to help her locally.
“I got started on Etsy selling my one-of-a-kind stuff and then I developed my own website and then I have stuff at stores around town, but mostly it’s just word-of-mouth,” she explained. “I usually get custom orders through Etsy and people tell me ‘I like this item that you made in the past, but could you make it in a different size or a different color?’ Like this top that I’m making now, a woman is going to a mermaid parade in New York City and she wants a sea-goddess costume. But most people contact me through Etsy. It’s kind of challenging. We send lots of photos and emails back and forth.”
Etsy has changed a lot over the years, but Ottariano described it as “awesome.”
“I started selling on there two and half years ago, but it’s just a marketplace for people who are doing handmade items, and there’s so many people doing so many different things and creating stuff there,” she said. “I would liken it to eBay and Amazon for artists. It’s a marketplace that is not curated, anybody can be a part of it. People just go there looking for interesting home décor, clothing and jewelry and very specified items. The Etsy wholesale is curated, and you have to apply for it. About a year ago I got accepted, and it’s open to qualified buyers.”
Ottariano said that more and more people are becoming conscious about where their clothing is made.
“That’s sort of why I started this whole endeavor is because it’s been a way of life for me ever since I was a kid,” she said. “I was brought up in a household where we grew a lot of our own food and made a lot of our own clothing and attention to where things come from and consumer needs was a very big part of my childhood. I’ve been making my own clothes since I was little and I always wanted to be an artist. I think that there’s more awareness being brought up now, especially because things like Etsy are becoming so popular. Like, Etsy just started selling stock on Wall Street. It’s crazy, it’s awesome that people are investing in handmade art. “
The Internet not only allows her to connect to customers, but it allows those customers to educate themselves.
“I think that as YouTube gets bigger and media gets bigger people are becoming aware of working conditions and that child labor happens when you buy a T-shirt from India or China,” she said. “There is definitely a revolution coming about for handmade clothing. It’s definitely more expensive, but I think people are starting to understand what goes into that cost. It’s a cost of community and a cost of sustainability and progress.”
Being self-sufficient is one of her main themes.
“One thing that runs throughout my stuff is every single thing is done by my hands and I’m really proud of that,” she said. “I think that’s something that sets me apart. My business cards, I print them in my house and I cut them by hand. My headband packing containers are upcycled cereal boxes and I use a hand-carved rubber stamp. I don’t send things to a place to get mass-produced.”
Giving up a steady paycheck isn’t for everyone, she said, but she encourages other artists to research ways to market their products.
“I would say that if it’s something that you enjoy doing, nothing’s really going to stand in your way,” she said. “It might seem impossible and it might seem like it’s not going to work out, but figure out if it’s something that speaks to you and if it’s your calling.”