Athelia Woolley: Fortunate Frustrations

Posted on September 24 2013

Athelia "CK" Woolley LeSueur, founder, Shabby Apple, studied dance, art history, and neuroscience previous to earning her graduate degree at Stanford. Before realizing her fashion career she was a counselor for victims of domestic violence in Brooklyn, and did her best to defend human rights while at Amnesty International. She is a woman who listens to neuroscience lectures while feeding her baby, takes evening dance classes, and finds it hard to miss a new exhibit opening. She currently lives in New York City with her family where she likes to boogie with her baby.

Athelia Woolley: Fortunate Frustrations

Thunk. I see: stunned dance partner, hear: a twittering audience, feel: a sharp pain in my right leg. Falling in the middle of a performance? I could get past it. But dancing through my senior project with an injured leg? I didn't think it possible. Mental strength can be willed, but physical limitations cannot be ignored. I would learn that the line between the two can be shifty.

“Work with what you have; utilize your limitations and failures,” Professor Moses told me. “Yeech! Trite advice.” Trite advice that changed me. I couldn't jump; I decided to do the entire piece with a part of my body connected to the wall. The dance remains my favorite.

Utilize your limitations and failures: In high school, I put in writing that I wanted to be a fashion designer; unfortunately, I couldn't sew. Once I designed and sewed costumes for my high school dance concert. To the chagrin of one dancer -- and the delight of the boys in the audience -- her costume fell apart mid-performance!
Failed. That, I thought, ended my fashion career.

Okay, I thought, I’ll become a dancer. After college, I moved to London to dance. Nine months later I returned, yellow and emaciated from a rare glandular disease. Failed. Next, I worked at Amnesty International in Human Rights, worked at a neuroscience lab at Stanford and counseled victims of domestic violence in Brooklyn. My health forced me to quit all of these endeavors. Failed. Failed. And failed.

Work with what you have: Six years ago, these health problems forced me to return home to live with my parents. I worked at contract jobs but couldn't put in the long hours at an office that most jobs required. This limitation forced me to consider what I could do with my time. It forced me to squarely look at my limitations, focus and work efficiently.

Living in my high school bedroom, I revisited my high school dream – Fashion. Because I had limited experience, I conducted research -- and lots of it! (My two favorite books were The McGraw-Hill Guide to Starting Your Own Business, by Stephen Harper and The Fashion Designer Survival Guide, by Mary Gehlhar.) There was still so much I didn't know -- industry jargon for instance. I remember listening carefully to what store owners said at retail shows, and trying to replicate it, but one factory owner later asked me where I had received my training because my “phrasing was so unique!”

Limitations – I had them. One was not understanding all of the fashion business protocol. In the end, this worked to my advantage. For example, I didn't know about the cultural norm to hire an expensive wholesaler to represent company owners to buyers, a task that most wholesalers do not do well, causing many companies to ultimately fail. I didn't know any of this, but I knew that I bought my own clothes on-line, so I unknowingly bypassed wholesalers, and opened a store early on the timeline of dress shops.

Another limitation that eventually worked to my benefit was a lack of funds. As a small under-capitalized start-up, the one manufacturer who would work with me and my partner gave us only two fabric choices: cotton poplin and poly/spandex jersey. We had to be inventive. Further, because each seam, pleat, button or pin tuck in a dress cost extra money to produce, and we didn't have money, out of necessity, we kept our designs simple, making the design process easier, faster and better. As for limitations around design, convincing the manufacturers I really did want our dresses to have sleeves, higher necklines, and hemlines at least to the knee, was not easy. As frustrating as this was, it helped to define our brand and set us apart from other companies.

One of the dresses from the first Shabby Apple line produced

Not all frustrations are fortunate – some are just frustrating. I experienced many ‘blips’ in manufacturing before improving our process. One such blip involved me personally ripping off the buttons of 500 incorrectly sewn dresses. Another was when a manufacturer ‘changed his mind’ about producing dresses two days before it was supposed to ship hundreds of dresses we’d pre-sold.

One of the 500 dresses that Athelia personally ripped incorrectly sewn buttons from

Almost every person, and every endeavor has limitations. We all feel the pain, experience the thud. More often than not, if we take a step back and consider events from a different angle we can see that a limitation or failure can force us to be more creative, more inventive, more hard-working.

I read an article in my early twenties about failure that had a huge impact on me. It theorized that the people who do the best in life are those who take failure and decide that they’re going to find meaning in it. I love this notion because it brought clarity to a nuance -- it doesn’t claim that failure ‘happens for a reason’ -- rather, as people who fail, we can choose to make these experiences meaningful. It is this choice that matters. I’m so glad I read this article because I kept failing! I wanted to dance. I didn’t. I wanted to have a human rights career. I didn’t. I wanted to have a counseling career. I didn’t. However, I remember making a conscious decision that I was going to derive some sort of meaning from these failures. I decided that I wanted to make sure that I made my life better after these failures than it would have been had I never had them. I don’t really know if I’m happier now with my job than I would have been as a dancer. But, I do know that I love my job and that I never would have had it had I kept dancing.

Founder: Athelia "CK" Woolley LeSueur

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