SCORE Mentors Samii Clothes to Success
Gay Ellis couldn't believe her good fortune as she left the New York Gift Show in 1990. Clothing buyers at the world's largest fashion trade fair had raved about her line of outerwear and accessories, all of which were inspired by the colorful costumes of Scandinavia's nomadic Samii tribes. For someone with no formal experience in fashion design, Gay was on the verge of making a childhood dream come true.
"I'd always been interested in clothing and costumes, but my training was limited to classes in the basics of design," she recalls. "In 1979, a National Geographic article about the Samii featured a photograph of the tribe's traditional winter coats. The colorful, intricately patterned designs inspired me to craft one of my own. The result was so well received that I began developing adult and children's wear based on the Samii style."
The popularity of Gay's designs led her to start a small company called Samii Clothes and, eventually, make the fateful trip to New York. Returning home with orders from buyers across the country, Gay realized that expanding Samii Clothes from a home-based sideline into a full-fledged business would require expertise in finance, marketing, and human resources—skills that she simply did not have. "My instincts had helped me find a niche where I could apply my design talents," she says, "but I knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of building a business." Fortunately, Gay found a resource where she could get the answers she needed—SCORE.
Gay received a loan through Vermont Economic Development Authority, enabling Samii Clothes to exceed everyone's expectations. Since Gay incorporated the firm in 1992, annual sales have surpassed $1 million. The company's products are now featured in several well-known catalogues such as the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston and Orvis of Manchester, VT. Samii also provides employment for more than 10 people in northeastern Vermont.
The experience has broadened Gay's horizons in more ways than one. In 1995, she became involved with Aid to Artisans, a private organization funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which helps overseas craftspeople find markets for their talents. Samii Clothes has since added a new line of clothing accessories called Lanya, which are based on beading and appliqué techniques found in Eastern Europe. Gay has also worked as a paid consultant to Aid for Artisans, advising textile groups in the remote villages of Uzbekistan.
And there's more to come. Gay is preparing to launch a line of bed throws, accent pillows, and other home furnishings based on her Samii designs, as well as a Web site that will keep the retail community up to date on the company's news and products. She also hopes to begin marketing Samii products in Europe. The company's growth has been almost dizzying, but Gay never forgets how her SCORE mentors provided both the advice and flexibility to make her dream come true.
In January 1991, Gay began working with SCORE Volunteer Mentors Ben Harris and Bill Mathers to develop a business strategy for Samii Clothes. "I couldn't have asked for two better mentors," Gay says. "Ben had long been involved with the operation of a chain of men's clothing stores in Vermont, while Bill was a former New York City corporate lawyer. Both had the experience and perspectives I needed to get my company rolling."
Over the next two years, Ben and Bill advised Gay on developing a business plan, identifying sources of financing, preparing presentations, personnel management and product lines. Along with sound advice and objective critiques, the two mentors were a source of unlimited encouragement. "Ben and Bill helped me through all the ups and downs that are a part of getting a business started," Gay says. "They also helped me address issues that I'd never thought of, such as providing home-based employees with workers compensation."
Gay also learned that not everything goes according to plan. "When I made my first loan presentation, I was certain I'd get the money," Gay recalls. "Ben and Bill knew the head of the agency, we'd prepared a solid business plan and I had a variety of samples to show. However, we'd been warned that the loan officer was a difficult person to work with and sure enough, he was extremely negative and rejected my application. I was furious when I left the meeting, but Ben and Bill helped me regroup and try again."
"Because Samii clothes are designed for winter wardrobes, Ben and Bill have always encouraged me to launch a summer line to help even out my cash flow," she says. "I've followed my own instincts, and am hopeful that the home furnishings will balance things out. Ben and Bill are supportive, but still like to tease me about it."
Gay says, “Every business needs help getting through its growing pains, but I could count on having the wisdom and experience of two wonderful SCORE mentors at my fingertips.”