BFA, Fashion Marketing and Management, Savannah College of Art & Design
Sometimes inspiration—and more importantly, know-how—can come in uncomfortable places.
Sarah Cunningham was miserable in her first real job after college. But she was learning the ropes of fashion and getting one step closer to her dream: opening her very own store. And A Lovely Universe is the realization of that dream; a lifestyle shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn that focuses on vintage-inspired apparel, accessories, and home decor.
The shop has also led to another project, The Bond Street Co., a branding and marketing business where Sarah offers guidance for young entrepreneurs and designers who need support from someone their own age.
It's easy to 'shut everything off' if someone else is signing your paycheck. But when it's all you, your business is like a limb on your body.
How did you discover your current job?
After working plenty of odd jobs in fashion and retail, I took the leap and started my own business in 2012. I started various online businesses throughout high school and in college I started a repurposed vintage jewelry line that I maintained from my dorm room.
I’ve always wanted to start my own full-time business since I was little. It’s been my only career dream and I narrowed down early on in my life that opening up a store was my main goal. So after working my first 'real job' post-college, I was utterly depressed, yet totally inspired. I was learning the ropes of fashion from the wholesale end of things at my day job and at night, I was writing my business plan and doing endless amounts of research until I fell asleep at 3 a.m.
A Lovely Universe was conceived out of my hunger for a physical space to showcase beautiful and functional items to customers and to create a tangible shopping experience, rather than digital. The doors opened September 2013 in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, NY and it’s been a true dream. Yes, the hard work is sometimes overwhelming, but the best part is that I often have to remind myself it's work (and often unpaid!), because I love it so much.
The Bond Street Co. was created this winter after many emails and in-store inquiries from young women (and men) wondering how I had the guts to leave an office job with a steady paycheck to start a business at a young age. I've had many coffee sessions or email mentoring moments with young entrepreneurs and designers who need a little guidance from someone their own age who’s in the midst of doing what they’re setting out to do, so I turned it into a little consulting business. More of a project and a conversation than a business though—it's so important for young women to not be scared to have the confidence to literally leap after their career goals.
What responsibilities do you have in your role?
I have every responsibility you can think of! I run the show 24/7 all by myself. I do everything, including buying, social media, PR, accounting, day-to-day maintenance around the shop, customer service, sales, etc. It's just me here and will be for a while.
At the moment, I live for it, but know that it takes a fantastic team to make a business grow and I have big dreams for A Lovely Universe and will open the door to employees within a year or so. I have great support from family and friends, which makes me feel like I have a little team around me at all times.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
The fact that I have not even thought for one second that this was a bad idea. I’m an over-thinker about everything in life except my business. Does this mean that I don't think things through in a rational way? I absolutely do! I obsess about the business on a daily basis; however, everything I do here is instinctual and somehow just in my heart and gut. Even on the bad days, I love what I'm doing. Of course, right now the store is smaller, so it's a bit easier to maintain than if I had four stores, but that concrete foundation of just feeling confident and sure about my decisions and the brand itself is already in me. I trust myself as a business owner and I trust my eye, which is almost half the battle.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Basically anything and everything. This is definitely something that's difficult for people to understand unless they’ve gone out on their own. It's easy to 'shut everything off' if someone else is signing your paycheck. But when it's all you, your business is like a limb on your body. It's always with you and I’d have it no other way. To me, that's how I keep myself working hard and moving forward. But to be specific, finances and the future keep me awake at night. How much is in the bank account this week? When’s that bill due? Will I have enough money to place an order with that new designer I found? Did I lock the gate? Should I be doing more? Am I doing too much?
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
At the moment, it’s not really an issue. In fact, this was a big surprise for me—I thought I would be signing away a social life and any prospect of a healthy love life the minute I started my own business. I truly believe that as women, we just have a really innate sense of how to get many things done at once without losing our minds. Time management is essential, regardless of the industry and gender, but unfortunately, women get more of those questions. It's just the way it is—but thankfully, it's changing.
I signed my lease for my storefront the day my long-term boyfriend moved from Chicago to NYC and into my apartment. And guess what? It all worked out fine. Two dreams happening at once was very overwhelming, but you just do it. The balance has been easy, because I'm organized with my time and I’m realistic.
Don't let the work/life balance thing scare you; just be really organized and proactive. Nothing’s easy. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes I wish I could just sleep in on a Sunday, go to brunch and soak in New York City, but I know one day I will again.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
There hasn’t been one big moment just yet. Instead, there have been a lot of little ones.
Seeing an article about the opening of the shop in Time Out New York magazine was the first big one. Hearing people stop in and talk amongst themselves about how much they love the store or seeing women's eyes light up when they try on something that makes them feel beautiful are some of the moments I live for here and makes everything so worth it.
With my new project, The Bond Street Co., it's amazing hearing from other women who have the coolest ideas and want to show the world what they’re made of. There’s nothing more inspiring than meeting people—especially young people—who have their wheels turning and feel hungry for taking their careers into their own hands instead of signing it off to someone else's idea.
What are some of the rules you live by?
If you're going to do something, do it right. Don't spread yourself too thin and try to do too many things in a mediocre way.
Concentrate on an idea, pursue it with passion, and watch it grow.
Protect yourself and your ideas, but be generous and embrace the conversation, rather than think everyone is out to steal what you have.
Also, just be a good person and learn to laugh at yourself!
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
It takes the ability to multi-task like crazy, make quick yet confident decisions, and to have a full long-term vision. It helps to have a tough skin—something I’m always working on. Get ready for people to think you just dance around a store all day playing dress up and not actually working. Be hyper-organized, but at the same time, leave room for the unexpected and learn from and embrace every mistake. And last but not least, you must feel okay with not getting a true paycheck for a while.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
Keep embracing everything around you, keep your eyes wide open, and learn as much as you can and your dream will happen sooner than you think.