Small Business Profile: Julia Okun, Owner of rennes - Philadelphia
Hi Julia! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Julia and I run a shop called rennes in Philadelphia, PA. I like design, archaeology, and a good mystery novel. I like creating an atmosphere through visual storytelling and rennes is how I do that.
What led you to begin rennes?
I started rennes shortly after I graduated college in 2008 in Boston. Initially it was a leather bag line. I couldn't find a bag I liked without any hardware so I started buying leather and sewing my own. After a few months I broke both my own home sewing machine and my Mom's so I bought an industrial one on craigslist. It grew very slowly. First it was my own line, I was sewing everything, then I wanted to do wholesale so I couldn't sew it all, so I found a local factory to make them. I did that for a while, but I found that it was hard to reach my customers online. Also leather manufacturing in the USA is really expensive and for the most part I didn't see my audience seeing the value in paying for that. It's unfortunate but it's true so I decided to pivot. I love fashion so I started picking up other brands to carry online as well, and fast forward a few years and now I have a shop selling all those brands.
Tell us more about the origins of the brand’s name.
It's silly and I'm embarrassed; it's kind of like when you name your first pet when you're five years old, but it's ended up working out rather well, even though it was unintentional. My Mom had given me a copy of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, kind of the book that The Da Vinci Code was based on, because I like that kind of stuff. Most of it took place in the Pyrenees in France in Rennes-le-Château. For some reason I decided, why yes, of course that's what I'll name my shop! And no one could pronounce it. So someone, very wisely, said I should shorten it to Rennes, so I did, even though Rennes is in a completely different place in France. And still no one can pronounce it.
You sew and design your own clothing items and leather goods. What is your inspiration and process behind making those items?
Mainly that I don't like name brand things. I want things that don't have a brand or logo, I want them really simple and empty of imposed identity. For design it's mainly material-driven with some historical influence. Usually I'll find a material and then I'll be inspired to make something from it. Right now with the shop just opening I'm taking a hiatus from designing. The next time I start sewing and drafting I want to be very focused and make just one or two perfect dresses or bags rather than focusing on making lots of them.
How do you source the items you have in the store that aren't your designs?
I mostly carry brands I've been a fan of for a long time or I own some of the pieces. Or then there's a random discovery at a trade show or on Instagram. The main thing that's important to me above anything else is quality and fabric fiber content, even over design.
You recently moved from your studio in Boston to a stunning storefront in Philadelphia. What was your reason for the move and how has the change affected your business?
My husband Jesse and I decided to move last fall because we were tired of feeling priced out of Boston. I love Boston - it's a wonderful city with great things, but it feels limiting financially and we felt stuck. The storefronts available for rent there are so overpriced and many of my favorite shops had either gone out of business in the past five years or were about to close.
Jesse grew up in Philly and we visited often so it felt like a good match. I'm a big fan of all the architecture here and it still feels like an undiscovered gem. For the shop I picked the neighborhood of Old City which reminds me of how Soho was a long time ago. There are lots of restaurants and little boutiques.
I think just having the brick and mortar shop has changed how rennes is perceived, even online. I think it's made it go from being an adolescent to being a grown up.
Do you have a team? What steps did you take to build it?
Nope it's just me for the whole week and Jesse helps with the books and odds and ends on the weekend. In Boston I had someone helping me sew, but right now it's just the two of us.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
I've gotten to meet a lot of the people who live locally in the neighborhood, many people who say they've been wanting a shop like ours to come for a long time. There's a vibrant creative community here. I've been able to meet lots of other shop owners and makers and that has been wonderful.
What are some brands/designers that you are excited about that we should know of?
Right now I'm most excited about Veritecoeur from Japan and also Casey Casey from Paris. Both make lovely pieces and it's hard not to want to keep everything from them when it arrives!
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
Local makers and small shops are vital in keeping communities alive and fresh, without them all cities and towns would look the same and where's the fun in that?
What is your favorite thing about your workspace?
My favorite thing is that I get to have my shop in the front of the store and I get to have my studio in the back. Having everything under one roof makes me much more productive than if I was to have all my sewing machines somewhere else. It also gives a chance to tell a story to customers who are curious to hear more.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
For me it's about capturing the perfect moment, whether that's in a photo, styling an outfit, or sewing tiny buttons in a row, it's about finding that perfect combination. I don't know why but it makes me happy.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting rennes?
It feels like there have been too many to count! But I've always learned to recover or change and it all works out okay in the end. For me a challenge is a feeling that I should have done more by now. I feel like after 8 years I should have more to show for myself. I always feel like I should be posting online more, doing more shoots, buying more things to sell, sewing more, finding a factory, etc. but at the end of the day I'm one person wearing lots of hats and doing the jobs of about five people. So I have to give myself some slack.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
I think it's important for women to support each other because men have essentially dominated the business industry for an incomprehensible amount of time, and as a result women are not taken seriously in business. On a day to day basis it doesn't always affect me, but certain situations, like negotiating leases, working with a factory, etc. - it can feel like you are being talked down to. Patronizing phrases like "sweetie" are used and you think, "you wouldn't talk to another man like that." Sometimes I even get frustrated at how some women talk to each other, sometimes using the same diminutives and I feel the condescending tone still remains. We need to find a new way to be assertive and strong as women without the culture of being made to feel bad about expressing our opinions and ideas.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
When I started, the fashion / maker blogging community (real blogs, not instagram) was really inspiring. There were so many creative people doing really wonderful things and I miss that now and can't believe how much time has passed since then!
Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
My high school played a huge part in shaping me. The teachers I had there were phenomenal: my Latin teacher, my theater and visual arts teachers, my history teachers - they gave me such a solid foundation. Also the students who went there were really good people. I gained a lot of confidence there in who I was and that it was okay to be a little different because at the end of the day everyone's different.
What have you learned from owning your shop that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
When you own a business there are so many things that are going to get thrown at you and you'll be like "what? what is this? I didn't ask for this!" - so you're going to have to learn to pick your battles of what's important and what's less important. It's important to learn to prioritize. Also that not everyone is going to "get" what you're doing and that's okay. I have so many people walk by everyday and they're like "what the heck is this?" or my favorite "I think this is an Amish store." But there are so many people who are happy that we are here and I have so many lovely customers, so it's all about finding your niche.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
I always get excited when new arrivals come in. I'm excited to get to know the community here in Philly more and maybe have events or workshops.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating your business?
In terms of manufacturing, there are so many more resources now than there was when I started. Eight years ago I dug through the depths of the internet to find anything on where to buy or fix an industrial sewing machine, but now it seems like it's a standard thing to own one if you make clothes or bags. The internet has really changed everything. Other people in the industry too are also the best resources.
How do you manage a work/life balance?
It's hard. When I just had a studio and online store I could put it away easily at night or on the weekends. Now it's much harder to take time for myself after I go home or on the weekends. Right now I work six days a week and I take Sunday off so Jesse and I can have a day together. At the beginning of July I made myself take a vacation and we went away so that was really nice. For the most part I put work aside and tried to "be here now". But I inadvertently see things I want to photograph, end up on my computer editing, then posting, and they you're in this place where you're kind of working but kind of not. I think I've just learned to accept that this is how it is when you have a business.
What are some of your favorite places in Philadelphia?
For cafes: Rival Brothers, Frieda, Artisan Boulanger Patissier, Weckerly's
Food: Cafe Almaz, Manakeesh, The Dandelion, Dmitri's, Hungry Pigeon, Gojjo
To do/see: The Mutter Museum, the Waterworks, hike the Wissahickon, Eastern State Penitentiary, Rodin Museum, Wagner Free Institute, Longwood Gardens, Terrain, The Fabric Workshop Museum, Reading Terminal, and all the cute houses between Locust and Lombard Streets in Center City.