Have you ever had a shopping experience you either walked away from completely frustrated by and empty handed, or with a hole in your wallet? I definitely have and so it was with great pleasure that I was introduced to Alice Walk and its founder, Emily Keneally last September by my friend, Susan.
Opened in July of 2016 and located in South Boston, Alice Walk designs and manufactures semi-custom dresses, skirts, tops and jackets. At this by-appointment studio, you become the designer choosing from a wide range of classic silhouettes to pair with beautiful fabrics, most of which are imported from mills in Italy and France. Prices for Alice Walk dresses range from $295-$475. Named 2017’s Best Clothing Line by The Improper Bostonian, Alice Walk derives its name from a small piece of land in Hingham, once a public garden and walkway and now a part of Emily’s parent’s home.
Susan and I visited the studio in early September and were walked through the dress selection process by Emily herself. Emily was so warm and welcoming, resulting in a shopping experience that was both fun and relaxing. Within 3 weeks, the dresses we chose had been produced in Alice Walk’s South Boston studio and shipped to our homes.
How did this young woman who made her own wedding dress, and those of her bridesmaids and mother for her 2016 wedding create her own business? Emily was well prepared for her role as entrepreneur as you will see when you read the interview.
I so enjoyed meeting Emily and was thrilled with both my dress and a subsequent purchase of a long wool, reversible vest. I thought she was an excellent choice to share her story on my blog and am very appreciative that she agreed to be interviewed! I think you will be inspired by her and perhaps if you are in need of a dress or something special for your wardrobe you will consider paying a visit to Alice Walk and Emily in the future!
Now onto the interview…
Thanks so much for having me to your studio! You graduated from college less than 10 years ago. Can you tell us about your path?
I grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts and attended high school at Noble & Greenough School. I was a serious dancer, studying with the Boston Ballet. That experience not only gave me a deep appreciation for the arts, but also instilled in me a great discipline and drive.
I attended Bowdoin College, which had a dance program, a feature that initially attracted me to the school. However, I majored in Economics and Art History, following a completely different path than I ever would have expected.
I was invited to attend a Goldman Sachs NESCAC women’s conference in New York and discovered I loved the energy of the city. After graduation, I ended up working for Goldman Sachs in New York, spending 5 years on a sales and trading desk that covered high net worth individuals and family offices. I enjoyed being on a team and working in a global industry. I loved my clients and am still close to my team but ultimately concluded that my creative side needed to be nurtured. I was always creating various small businesses when I was young and knew deep down that one day I would start my own company.
So, I left investment banking and moved back to Boston where I worked as the brand director for a food start-up named UnReal Candy. UnReal makes all-natural versions of America’s favorite candies. That experience was formative and eye opening, teaching me what it takes to build a brand from the ground up.
It was while I was at UnReal that the idea for Alice Walk was born. I attended 15 weddings in one year and I was always searching for dresses to wear. My ideal dress would have a classic silhouette and be constructed from a beautiful, unique fabric. I found this type of dress was actually really difficult to find unless I was willing to spend a lot of money.
I always loved textiles. For example, I might go into a home décor store and look at a cool pillow and think why can’t I make a dress out of that fabric?! I also didn’t care for the experience of shopping. I found it stressful and wasteful thinking about racks and racks filled with clothing that wouldn’t be purchased because it was neither special nor well made. This led to the idea for Alice Walk and I started to develop the business plan during nights and weekends while I was working for UnReal.
When you say you were developing Alice Walk while still at UnReal, what exactly were you doing?
My concept for Alice Walk was to deliver a quality dress in a beautiful fabric at a price point that was reasonably accessible. I also wanted the shopping experience to be completely different from what women typically experience in department stores.
I had no background in design, textiles, construction or manufacturing. So, for about a year and a half, I went to the New York garment district every other week and taught myself about the industry, meeting with experts in manufacturing and retail. I taught myself as much as I could about clothing and textiles. I stalked everyone I knew who could help point me in the right direction. I got to the point where I was comfortable doing a small beta launch in New York to see if people would welcome this concept. At that point, the idea was to have a fully custom-fit line, which I think was naïve of me to think I could pull off at a reasonable price point.
I had promised myself that I wanted to build a business that was accessible, bringing the experience of an atelier to a shopper who didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars for one dress. Because we source our fabrics from a lot of the same mills as high-end designers, I needed to go back to the drawing board to see what I could tweak in our business model.
Having established silhouettes and standard sizes, versus a fully custom concept was part of the solution.
Were design and fashion something that was always a passion of yours?
I have always loved beautiful clothes and textiles. But ten years ago, if you predicted I would own a fashion line, I never would have believed it.
I think my passion lies with owning a business and creating a solution for a consumer who is looking for something unique. Having said that, I have very strong opinions when it comes to aesthetics, so I enjoy designing our clothes and sourcing all of our fabrics. But my passion really centers around delivering an experience that is very different from what currently exists in the market.
How did you decide which silhouettes would be best to offer?
I had a couple of silhouettes in mind, inspired by vintage clothing and fashion icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis when I first got started. But I also spent 4 months going to every store under the sun and trying on silhouette after silhouette. Friends with different body types joined me on these excursions, also trying on lots of sample dresses. That process was so interesting and informative, revealing which styles complement the figure (and which do not).
I had a few criteria for my line. I wanted my designs to be classic and timeless, and for the silhouette to allow the fabric to be the showcase. I originally expected my audience to be women in their late 20’s to early 30’s, but in fact the average age of an Alice Walk customer is more late 30’s – 40’s. But we’ve had college-aged customers and a woman in her 90’s recently purchased a dress!
How many silhouettes does Alice Walk offer and did you create the designs yourself?
Right now we have roughly 12 silhouettes that can be made to order with a variety of sleeve styles, lengths and fabrics. And yes, I design them with the help of my team, which currently consists of 3 employees. Jeffrey, Candy and Sarah do the technical design and production of the garments, all of which are made right here in our Boston studio. Our outerwear is manufactured in small batches in New York City.
Tell us about your fabrics. Are they all imported and how do you find them?
The majority of our fabrics are made in Italy and France. We work closely with 8 mills, some of which have been family owned for generations. Some have incredible in-house design teams so it’s often that I immediately fall in love with one of their proprietary fabrics. However, we also collaborate with the design teams to create our own custom fabrics. All the fabrics we purchase are made to order. In addition to the imported fabrics, we have a few silk prints – one of which is produced using a watercolor painting created for us by California-based artist, Eva Black. We have a couple of fabrics that are actually hand-painted in-house as well.
Do you envision adding more products? How far out are you planning?
Yes! We are hoping to launch Alice Walk Essentials, a line of classic pieces that will fill the gaps in your wardrobe, but that are timeless and will last for years. Our first product test for this line was our very popular virgin wool cape. We are envisioning blouses in silks and cotton poplin, jackets and a knitwear line starting in the fall that will include some luxurious cashmere sweaters. These items won’t be customizable.
We are planning out a year to a year and a half. Unlike some brands, we don’t have to be forecasting trends because we can have a new fabric turned around in 4-6 weeks depending on what real-time feedback we are receiving from customers.
Take me through the process from a client’s perspective?
A client makes an appointment to come into the studio either alone or with a friend or partner. I think multiple opinions can often be helpful so the more, the merrier! I walk the client through the various silhouettes we offer and what aspects can be customized, referring to our menu cards that detail all of the options including the fabrics offered for each silhouette. The client will then try on as many styles and fabrics as possible to see which fit best and are appropriate for the occasion.
There are so many factors that go into finding the right piece, so I have people try on as much as possible to see what complements their skin tone and personality. Once a client orders a garment, it takes about 2-3 weeks for it to be produced. Once ready, the item is wrapped in our Alice Walk box and shipped to the client’s home.
How important is social media as a component of your business plan?
Very important. Alice Walk was launched 1-½ years ago and one hundred percent of our marketing was through word of mouth, followed by social media. Instagram has really changed the game, especially when a brand is visual like a fashion line. People use Instagram for inspiration and I think they enjoy looking at the various dress options we offer from the privacy of their own homes. I may want to hire someone to help me leverage all of the social media tools out there at some point, but right now I believe customers want to hear the voice of the brand from the founder – even though that’s really outside my comfort zone. I am not really a public person, which is why I didn’t name the business after myself. Ironically, people still call me Alice sometimes!
What’s the best part of owning your own business?
First, there is nothing better than seeing happy customers. Second, I have built a team that I love and respect and who hopefully love the business as much as I do. And third, it’s wonderful to do something that I am passionate about every single day. While it’s one of the most difficult things I have ever done and at times can feel like a roller coaster, it has also been incredibly fun. I feel like I’m building something and that is very special.
The most challenging part?
Managing a team and being the boss. Sometimes all you want is for someone else to be the boss, and I didn’t expect that.
What’s a typical day like for you?
No two days are the same, which I love! I am usually up early and try to go to barre class in the morning. If I am not traveling to New York for meetings or to source fabric, I am in the studio with customers and managing the day to day of the business. I especially love that I am not in front of a screen all day.
What keeps you motivated?
I am really driven to build something great and I won’t stop until I am satisfied that Alice Walk has reached the vision I had originally imagined. I am driven to make my team and my family proud. Most of all, there is nothing more rewarding than receiving an email or call from a customer saying how happy they are with a purchase. That provides me with the motivation to keep going.
Who were your mentors/your biggest influencers?
My parents. My Dad is an entrepreneur and has owned a packaging business for most of his career. He is the hardest working person I know and an incredible boss. My Mom is an English teacher. She is very smart and an excellent writer. Both of them pushed, yet supported me my entire life. I owe all of my success to them. Also, because I do not have a business partner, my father is essentially my right hand man who helps me through all the challenges and bigger issues when they arise. I also have an incredibly supportive husband. I jokingly refer to him as our official intern!
What’s the best advice, either professional or personal that you have received?
Good Question! I was told early on to get as much advice as possible by talking to both experts and non-experts in the field before starting the business. But at the end of the day, I feel that what makes or breaks a business is being thoughtful about the advice you actually take and act upon! For me, there’s nothing more powerful than listening to your gut instinct. If I listened to half the people in the fashion industry that I spoke with when I was formulating the idea for Alice Walk, I never would have started it. Many said it was impossible.
Is there a philosophy by which you live?
I am not sure I have a philosophy, but a big theme in my life is to be curious. I believe authentic curiosity leads you to places you never imagined and people who you might not otherwise have met. By opening your world, you become more empathetic which is important both as an individual and as a business owner.
What about you would surprise a teenaged Emily?
I always thought I would own a business one day, but I never thought that it would be in the fashion industry. Maybe food or a technology product, but not fashion!
What do you do to unwind after a long day?
I like to cook dinner, spend time with my family and read.
Is cooking something you actually enjoy? Do you have a signature dish? Favorite restaurant?
I love to cook. Recently we’ve been making a lot of Ina Garten’s prosciutto wrapped pork. I enjoy making soups in the winter although recently I’ve been relegated to sous-chef, as my husband also loves to cook. As for restaurants, we love Coppa in the South End.
Please finish this sentence. Emily Keneally is…
Emily Keneally is passionate about building a business that makes women feel good about themselves. I am lucky that I have an incredibly talented team and supportive family and friends to help make it happen.
Emily, I wish you continued success with Alice Walk and thank you so much for being “In conversation” with The Kitchen Scout.
Click on any picture and then scroll through for a glimpse at just a few of the Alice Walk pieces, including mine and Susan’s!
Superbowl Menu ideas from The Kitchen Scout
Until next time…