How many times have you been a bridesmaid? How many bridesmaid dresses are now sitting obsolete in your closet?
Park & Fifth saw a gap in the market to design direct to consumer, minimalist and stylish bridesmaid dresses that you can wear again and again for additional social occasions. We had the pleasure of chatting with founders Zoe, Brooke and Jenny to learn the path they took to grow their business in three years from a made-to-order service to three physical locations across Canada and off-the-rack options for Bridesmaid dresses.
Pendulum Magazine: P
Zoe Tisshaw: Z
Brooke Johansen: B
P: You two first met while being on the buying team of Kit & Ace. What factored into your decision to collaborate on this business venture?
Z: Starting Park & Fifth was a dream of mine for a long time. I was the first to leave Kit and Ace to start the company and Brooke joined me the following year. We really enjoyed our time working together at Kit and Ace and loved creating together — we saw this new venture as an amazing opportunity to collaborate again, but in a much larger capacity.
B: We have another business partner, Jenny, who joined the team in the first year, leaving her job as a wholesale fashion rep. Together we own and operate Park & Fifth.
P: How did you identify the market need for re-wearable gowns on the market?
Z: My friends were starting to become regulars in wedding parties and they were always complaining to me about the lack of on-trend, minimalist options for bridesmaids. I made a few bridesmaid dresses for friends as a sort of passion -project, and had a feeling there was potential for this to become a viable business opportunity.
B: At the time, there were few bridesmaid specific stores that created and sold their own lines direct-to-consumer — this lead to higher prices and wholesale markups. We also found that most of the local bridesmaid stores lacked a really enjoyable shopping experience, making finding a bridesmaid dress more of a chore than an experience to be enjoyed with close friends. Bridesmaids, even brides for that matter, looking for non-traditional dresses were shopping at mainstream women's fashion retailers that were not set up to facilitate bridal parties and their needs. They also weren’t retailing the desired dresses during peak bridesmaid shopping season. We saw a major gap in the market for a Canadian-made bridesmaid and social occasion dress company.
P: When Park & Fifth first launched in June 2016, dresses were sold exclusively on a made-to-order basis. Fast forward to now, you have three locations across Canada and a successful e-commerce business. Can you tell us what you did to expand your business within three years?
Z: We made some key decisions that propelled our business to expand over our first three years. Deciding to operate as a made-to-order company at first was great for getting acquainted with the market. We only made what we sold and by doing this we were able to eliminate inventory liability in the first two years and develop a great database of styles.
By the time we hit our third year, we were able to take the plunge and buy inventory upfront to offer an off-the-rack experience for our customers, something rare in the bridesmaid fashion industry. We were able to reduce costs by producing dresses in volume without foregoing important sustainable practices and local production.
B: We were also interested in expanding across Canada but wanted to test each market by hosting a pop-up in each city first. By doing this, we were able to dip our toes into the local markets and decide if any were a fit for our brand.
P: Did you face any hardships along the way?
Z: Absolutely! One of our biggest hardships has been production — currently, we produce everything in Vancouver. As Vancouver’s production supply is smaller than the demand (which can make negotiating quite difficult) we are constantly re-strategizing. As our volume and product lines expand, we remain dedicated to local production with a low environmental footprint.
P: Deciding where to start and expand a business is a big decision - how did you choose the three physical store locations? What triggered the team to want to open a second and then a third location?
B: Our goal was always to expand across Canada’s largest cities. We’d received a ton of positive feedback on social media after our Toronto and Calgary pop-ups and ultimately decided to open in both.
Our Toronto pop-up opened in 2017 and it became a very obvious expansion for us. In January 2018 we opened a permanent location.
In January 2019 we had an opportunity to open up inside Lovenote (Truvelle’s new bridal store concept) and happily accepted.
P: We know that sustainability is a main focus of Park & Fifth. How would you explain the importance of brands like yours making steps to become more ethical and sustainable to someone who isn't well versed in what this means?
Z: The fashion industry is known to have an extremely negative impact on the environment, so when we began Park & Fifth we made it our mission to not contribute to the problem.
Our solution presented itself with the P&F Pillow Project. Every single piece of fabric scrap is repurposed into a pillow, to be sold at our Vancouver boutique or recycled ethically by a local company called Fabcycle.
B: The dying of fabrics is something that we know is harmful to the environment and there are very few companies worldwide that have been able to dye fabrics in an environmentally friendly way. We are constantly working to find a solution to this issue and remain extremely committed to the cause.
P: How are you promoting the value of sustainability within the business and has this impacted competitors in your industry to react / join you in the cause?
B: We talk a lot about our efforts towards sustainability practices on social media to educate our customers on production waste as well as the positive impact of re-wearing your bridesmaid dress.
Z: We’ve seen some other local companies, inspired by our pillow project, and we are absolutely in support of more Vancouver fashion companies following suit!
P: How have you selected your production partners and what tips about the process could you give to those who want to start their own business in sustainable fashion?
B: It has taken three years to foster the relationships we now have with our production partners. We’ve generally made these connections through word of mouth in the industry and following our gut. It’s taken a lot of nurturing, as well as the ability to pivot quickly when something is no longer a fit.
P: Many of us assume that responsible production comes at a higher cost. How do you balance the use of local production and recycled materials, beautiful and on-trend design, and a palatable price point?
Z: We manage a lot of the small matters internally to keep sustainability-related costs as low as possible. For example, we collect all the scraps from factories and stuff our pillows in-house. We are also looking to adopt a fabric shredding machine for even better and efficient pillow stuffing results!
B: Since we sell direct to consumer we don’t feel the pressure to cut corners in order to squeeze out higher margins. It’s a lot of hustling to ensure we keep our prices as low as possible for our customers while producing locally!
P: Though sustainable fashion is becoming more on-trend at the moment, there is still a stigma attached to pieces made out of recycled or repurposed fabrics. How are your collections recasting ethical fashion as desirable and stylish?
Z: Many of our printed and textured textiles are from a fabric retailer in Los Angeles called Ragfinders. This is a retailer that buys end-of-the-roll fabrics from LA-based factories that otherwise would have ended up in the landfill. By using these dead-stock fabrics we give the fabric new life, while delivering on-trend prints to our customers. These never-been-used fabrics come in smaller quantities, resulting in limited edition styles - desirable for both our customers and the environment.
P: You have recently launched your first bridal line of wedding dresses. Can you tell us more about this collection?
B: We are so excited about our bridal line! We are following the same concept with this line as we did with the bridesmaid collection - ie. selling directly to consumers and cutting out wholesale mark-ups. Subsequently, we’re able to offer price points between $500-$1300 for beautiful, Vancouver-made dresses. These are simple and on-trend silhouettes for the modern bride, made out of Japanese Crepe and various limited edition laces we’ve found from Ragfinders and other textile sources.
P: With wedding dresses, there may be an increased use of silk, laces, and beaded details - would this make it more challenging to source sustainable materials? How are you ensuring that Park & Fifth is adhering to the green business model?
Z: We have yet to run into sustainability challenges while sourcing material for our bridal collection. We still order many of our laces and linings from Ragfinders and have chosen some alternatives to silk, offering only one silk-chiffon dress in the collection.
Other fabrics incorporated have been sourced from Vancouver retailers. While we can’t trace every piece of fabric to its original production, by continuing to support these select fabric sources we’re supporting local businesses in Vancouver and helping to decrease dead-stock fabrics from ending up in landfills.
P: How do you see the fashion industry overall and your sustainable fashion market evolving over the next few years?
B & Z: We see the whole industry shifting towards greener practices, which is so exciting. Increased pressures from consumers will push more brands and designers to request cleaner textile production and better scrap recycling from factories.
The whole industry must work together to change the standards, and we have already seen strides being made in the industry. Park & Fifth will continue to work harder to be a leader in sustainable and ethical fashion.
P: Given this insight, what’s next for Park & Fifth?
In terms of the business overall, we'll continue listening to our customer’s needs and feedback. We're committing to growing our sustainable practices and expanding both our Bridal and Un-bridesmaid collection online, across Canada, and beyond — every day our team wakes up excited by creating ethical, fashion-forward, wearable pieces for all occasions!
We want to thank the founders for taking the time to provide us with insights on how they have grown the business and their exciting development plans ahead. We are sure many bridesmaids have secretly rejoiced when the bride ordered bridesmaid dresses from Park & Fifth and thought ‘thank goodness I can wear this again!’ The ‘unbridesmaid dress’ checks all the boxes when it comes to style and sustainability by giving longevity to an otherwise single-wear item with designs fit for any elevated social occasion.
Photos courtesy of Park & Fifth