After 18 years as an investment banker, she decided to pivot. Stella McCaffrey had two children and commuted to the city an hour and half each way from Greenwich during the week, leaving her only the weekends to run family errands. When her 12-year-old daughter got invited to a bar mitzvah, her plan was to take her shopping on her day off, for the event that evening. “We couldn’t find anything, and we were in a panic.”
When she needed a dress for her daughter’s communion, the same thing happened. “Everything looked like it was either for a five-year-old or a twenty-five-year-old.” When the market turned in 2008, Stella decided to leave banking to explore something more creative and entrepreneurial. She felt this was her opportunity to build a business from the ground up.
Stella had experienced a need not being met in the market and she knew other moms of tween girls had, as well. “I began designing dresses for my daughter and her friends to see if I could come up with things that would work for that age group.” The girls and the moms loved the dresses. She knew she had a good idea.
Stella had always been interested in clothing but never dreamed of fashion as a career path. At first, she thought of making the designs herself and went to seamstress school in SoHo. “I quickly realized that if I had to wait until I was proficient at sewing, I would never get there.” But a friend whose daughter was on her daughter’s soccer team said, “You have to do this.” Looking back, Stella says it was the best advice she received.
But what to name her new venture? “My own name was so close to fashion icon Stella McCartney. I didn’t want to be accused of intentionally confusing the name, so I used my children’s names. The “M” comes from Michael and “Lia” is my daughter’s middle name.” Smashing all three of us in the brand’s name felt right and Stella M’Lia was born.
Her next step was to head to Asia to find manufacturers who could create and deliver her designs. She went to four countries to find fabrics and supplies and set up relationships that she could manage from the states. “Because I wasn’t in a position to order large quantities, I had to find companies that would do smaller orders.” Stella went to Asia in January and had inventory by May.
Her first sale? A friend suggested she visit a special occasion store in Rye Brook, NY, called, All Dressed Up. She showed the dresses out of the trunk of her car. “The owner loved the dresses and she told me to go home and steam them and bring them back that day.” Apparently, the fall party season had kicked off and they had girls who would be coming in directly from summer camp that weekend to shop for party dresses.
“When the store called me to say they had sold four dresses, I was so shocked, that I had to pull over on the highway and call the friend who had been helping me all along to tell her the good news. I was shaking.” This was validation to Stella that her targeted market of 8 – 14 year-olds was being under-served all along.
Stella feels that it can be such a difficult time for young girls to find themselves and to gain the self-esteem that is so important at this age. If her dresses can help, she feels that her small business is doing something meaningful.
Stella names each dress design after the moms and girls who helped her in the Stella M’Lia journey. She converted her screened-in porch to her office, her basement to her warehouse and her dining room into her conference room. There is a skeletal crew and shihtzu pooldle that helps her guide the ship.
What are Stella’s goals? “I want the girls to feel feminine and good about their bodies when they wear my dresses.”
When you find a need not being met, build a business around it.