Jennifer Lezan-Veguilla founded Halfstack Magazine with two friends with the hopes of showcasing all that Chicago creatives have to offer in: fashion, art, music and retail. When not working at Halfstack, Jennifer can be found teaching as a professor in the Business and Fashion Departments on the campuses of The Illinois Institute of Art and Columbia College. When she is not writing for Halfstack she can be found designing for her childrenswear line: Bella + Sophia. Read our interview with the lovely Jennifer below…
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
After working in the corporate fashion industry for years after college, I found that I was not feeling creatively fulfilled. I started working on side projects and freelancing out of financial need, but also out of a need to feed my soul creatively. Back in 2012 – after building up connections while writing for other outlets like the Chicago Examiner and others while connecting with local publicists, I decided to launch an indie magazine. The goal was to showcase all the amazing creative people that I knew and was exposed to and who didn’t necessarily get the attention they deserved from national platforms. I ended up leaving the corporate world behind to focus on my small business as well as my teaching career in local art schools. I found my passion was following my creativity and also connecting with and helping others. In 2014, I felt that while I was being creative in the digital space, I wasn’t using my hands to physically make things, which was something I missed. I originally went to school for fashion design and would make clothing for my two daughters. That year I decided to launch a small batch kidswear brand inspired by my daughters: Bella+Sophia Clothing. What started off as a small etsy project – launched into a full scale small batch manufacturing project this past year. I knew off the bat that when I launched this collection I wanted to do some good for the world. It’s a line with a heart that focuses on sustainability and making a difference in the community. A portion of each sales goes to local charities that help at risk youth.
Tell us about your business.
I launched Halfstack nearly 5 years ago because I saw a need in the media world. I wanted to feature the work of up and coming creatives who didn’t have a voice in major media outlets. Halfstack is the latest in independent culture magazines focused on and dedicated to the local Chicago community. We showcase musicians, designers, boutiques, brands, artists, local entrepreneurs and social changers who are the rise because of the impact they are making and the hard work they are putting into their craft. Halfstack is a brand that believes in attainability and sustainability. It is here to highlight careers, fashion and lifestyles that can be sought after by normal people and that leave a positive impact on this world. We hope to inspire people from all walks of life, cultures and backgrounds to follow their dreams by inspiring and guiding them through the images and stories on the pages of the magazine. The mission of Halfstack is to share the love and help other brands and creatives reach their capacity and give them the exposure that they deserve. We like to think of ourselves as creative curators.
Bella + Sophia Clothing is a modern line of childrenswear dedicated to high quality, innovative and comfort design. We are based right outside of Chicago and focus on sustainable and local sourcing as well as making a difference in the community. The brand is designed by me and inspired by my two daughters Bella & Sophia. At the heart of the business is a genuine desire to educate, reform and inspire the youth from underserved communities. As a young girl, I grew up in a low income, single mother home in a rough community in the “hood” of Chicago. The violence and heartache I saw as a child affected the decisions I have made as an adult and now parent to do better and make the world better for my girls. Through hard work and persistence we can truly change the world and we must start with the children. With this idea in place, a portion of the sales of each garment goes back to the community through local non-profit organizations catering to the underserved, minority and at risk youth.
Are you currently running any promos/contests/giveaways that you would like our readers to know about?
We are offering free shipping on orders $75 and over. Just use code FREESHIPFALL.
For Halfstack, we are always looking for contributors for our issues, our site and Youtube channels. Anyone interested can learn more here.
Where is your business based?
Chicago, IL (Midwest).
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
I think planning out what my goals were was probably the first step I took. Halfstack was launched via kickstarter, so I needed to do a fair amount of planning to get it coordinated in order to reach our fundraising goal. I also needed to reach out to friends to begin to build our team of contributors. Many of the people we started with are still writing for the publication to this day. Yet, I find that people have the tendency to get stuck in the planning phase. They almost feel like if the timing is not just right or things are not planned to a tee, then they can’t start. I think the reality is that there is never a more perfect time to start than now. The idea is to take the leap, organize what you can and learn as you go. Because there will always be “what ifs”. Yet, I would rather not think about “what if I didn’t just go for it”. That was the idea when I launched Bella + Sophia. Everything wasn’t perfect, but I took the leap and I have been learning as I go. It’s not easy, but it’s an experience that I am continuing to grow and develop from.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
The most effective way I have found connecting with customers and gaining exposure is to think like a publicist. Before I launched my businesses I worked in the corporate retail focusing on branding, marketing, social media and public relations. I made it a point to maintain my connections and relationships and have been working hard to pitch my brand to outlets to gain the exposure necessary for my brands. Also, utilizing social media to maintain a strong online presence is important to my overall digital strategy as an ecommerce.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
The biggest challenges as is the case with most small businesses is cash flow. Launching a fashion label is not an immediate gratification in terms of profitability. You are often putting up the costs of the initial run of products months in advance and often don’t recoup those costs until anywhere between 6-12 months as you sell directly, push for wholesale, work on consignment and sell to online sites. It’s hard and I often tell people that if you are launching a line in hopes of “getting rich quick” – it is not going to happen. You have to do it for the love of it, put in the hard work and hours and do it for the passion. Eventually, the money will catch up, but it definitely requires passion. One of my favorite Chicago designers: Anna Hovet actually talked with me about this very topic in the Making It Series on the Halfstack Youtube Channel. I would highly suggest people who are interested in pursuing the dream of becoming a designer watch this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQt1ei9HBXY
How did you overcome these challenges?
I overcome the challenges of cash flow, by being very strategic about my budgeting with my business. I stay lean and don’t spend on things I don’t need. I also maintain my full time job as a professor in the arts while I build up my brands. That way I can still manage to the pay the bills while I am working towards profitability for my companies.
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
Before anything, I am a mother. I have two beautiful daughters who are the light of my world. When I first became a mother, I felt like I was reborn. I was given a purpose and my children are the driving force behind all that I do. I grew up really poor, with a single mom in a not very good neighborhood. The odds were stacked against me, but I prevailed. Yet, it was hard and as much as my mom tried, she couldn’t give me all I needed. She gave my what she could and for that I am forever grateful. I want to give my children a better life than I had growing up. I want to offer my daughters the opportunities that I didn’t have. I want to make the world better for my girls. Even when times are hard, I work hard because I know I have them watching and depending on me. I work hard because I want to be the woman they look to for guidance, inspiration and as a model for the strong women I hope that they will be one day.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
I think my overall vision, openness to collaborate and openness about the realities of the industry I work in gives Halfstack a unique perspective. I am true believer in collaborative efforts and showcasing that all I do with the magazine isn’t just because of me, it’s because of the amazing team of people that I am blessed to work with. Each of them offers something special to our publication and that sets us apart from the million of other digital zines you will see out there. I also truly believe we are going back to the roots of what “zines” were about. Rather than focus on materialism and the “perfect body and perfect life”. We are rebelling against the status quo. We are a brand by the people for the people.
Many magazines have an air of inauthenticity and are often aspirational in their branding. We are looking to connect with readers in an authentic and real way by curating content that matters to them and highlighting people/brands/creatives who can inspire them in their every day lives. Rather than focusing on the material, we want to highlight the experience. The Halfstack ideals are a movement to showcase that you can follow a dream, build an idea and that those concepts can be attainable. We live life attainably.
At Bella + Sophia, my creative vision sets us apart from the competition. Not only do I design each product from start to finish, I also design many of the textiles. My background in digital textile design offers something special and unique to the line. You won’t find our prints anywhere else as they are exclusive to the brand because I personally designed them with my vision and daughters in mind. I also am bringing back this idea of high quality slow fashion back that is a direct retaliation against the fast fashion world. Fashion has become commoditized and I don’t want to play into that ideal. I saw a movie a couple of years ago that moved me called The True Cost of Fashion. It’s a film I utilize in my courses at the fashion schools I teach at. It highlights how cheap clothing is only cheap because it is built off the backs of slave labor. I make it a point to work with organizations whom I know are taking care of their workers and paying them a living wage right here in the United States. But, my goals are to eventually globalize and work in fair trade settings helping others beyond the States. This is something that is a far cry from the cheap fast fashion brands you will find in stores today and what I think adds substance to our brand. I may not being saving lives with fashion, but I know I can at least impact them in a positive and empowering way.
What social media outlets do you use? List them below.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
This was a great book, inspiring and eye opening to the fact that what we think really does create the world around us. It pushed me to think more positive and the appreciate what I have and be open to the greatness that I am deserving of.
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
I am learning that nothing ever goes according to plan and that I need to learn to move with the ebb and flow of life. I am by nature a type-A personality and I always have a plan, but I often attempt to control everything. I am learning that sometimes I need to leave it to the universe to take care of me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t put in the hard work or hustle, but rather that I do the work and know that it will pay off instead of expecting it to pay off.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
My goals are to just keep moving forward. My goal is to eventually focus on my creative endeavors full time, I am hoping to finish selling out of my inventory and get started on the next Bella + Sophia collection. As for Halfstack I want us to keep growing, this past year has been our best yet. We hit over a million views for our publication on the issuu platform and we are being read in nearly 50 countries worldwide. My goals are to continue to grow our readership, work more often with advertisers and find a stronger form of monetization so that we can continue to develop consistent and meaningful content. My ultimate goal is to have a creative office space where I have both my BSC and HSM teams around me and I can offer my team gainful employment doing what they are passionate about while we are doing positive things in our community (charity outreach, employment and training programs etc.)