Four people in a studio huddle around a computer, scrutinizing a simple line drawing of a pair of breasts in silence. Finally, someone speaks: “They look like the dudes from South Park’s eyes.”
To production manager Middleman’s credit, they do look like Kenny’s eyes — gently oblong, slightly splayed, with two tiny pricks that could be read as pupils or nipples, depending on what you’re looking for.
“I know what it is,” says Mary Seats, heaving off the stool she’s sitting on. One hand clutches her pregnant stomach that’s wrapped in an off-the-shoulder jumpsuit covered in pink hibiscuses; the other quickly flips through the photo album of inspiration images on her phone. One claw-tipped finger taps on the screen in rapid-fire morse code when she finds the wobbly sketch of breasts she’s looking for. “They’re too perfect. I think they need to look more imperfect. Boobs are not perfect!”
Graphic designer Fred makes a few quick adjustments. Seats cocks her head for a split second, and her face melts into her signature smile that makes anyone on the receiving end feel like they’ve just gotten a compliment from a real-live Disney princess. “I’m cool with that. That looks good," she says. "We’ll put them on pink and black [shirts] this year — not white. Last year, our customers felt like it was a white lady on the shirt.”
Within minutes, Middleman has printed the image on a half dozen shirts commemorating breast cancer awareness in a variety of sizes for a shoot to be conducted the following day, featuring three women of different sizes and body types — none of them white. One day later, they will be for sale online and in Seat’s flagship store in Atlanta. A month after that, they’ll all be sold out.
Nothing about this process is normal. It typically takes six months to create, produce, and sell a shirt — not three days. And appealing to women of color of many different sizes is usually a growth strategy, not the main fare. But Seats — known as Skittlez to her employees and friends — is used to being an anomaly. With just $300, Seats started Cupcake Mafia in 2011, a fashion label for young women who look to Seats not only for clothing that’s as confrontational as it is cute, but also for real-talk business advice as well. Today, she grosses a respectable $2.4 million a year, has spun her business savvy into a lucrative consulting service, and considers celebrities like Cardi B, Missy Elliot, and B. Simone fans.
As so many retailers are losing their footing in an increasingly unpredictable landscape, Seats has an impressively profitable and popular company. And yet, she’s failed to gain the same attention as the infamous e-commerce success story of the era — Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal, which launched as an eBay shop in 2006 and quickly became one of the fastest growing retail companies in America. Nasty Gal’s story, and Amoruso’s #GirlBoss philosophy, was considered a blueprint for how to fix a broken retail reality. But when it all came crashing down in November 2016, it was clear that the industry had been following a false North Star.
While Nasty Gal melted in the limelight, Cupcake Mafia has been quietly flourishing behind the scenes, despite having a story that’s as iconoclastic, a founder as charismatic, and a customer base as loyal. While retail success (and failure) relies just as much on luck as savvy, the overlap between Amoruso and Seat’s businesses are too big to ignore. It’s worth exploring the fundamental differences of retail philosophy between the two, and why the world was more than ready to accept a white, thin woman who sold to her peers — and quick to ignore her Black counterpart.
If you’re a prolific shopper, but don’t know what Cupcake Mafia is, it’s probably because of one of two reasons: You’re not from Atlanta, and you’re not Black. Within the city borders, Seats’ empire is indisputable. Atlanta is considered the Hollywood of hip-hop, and the home base for legends like Gucci Mane, Migos, and OutKast. And if you’re part of hip hop, you’re dressed in streetwear.
In cities beyond Atlanta — like LA and New York — streetwear is as part of hip hop as it is skate culture, and has emerged as largely a white man’s game (KITH, Supreme, Stussy, and Palace are all owned and operated by Caucasian men). For women, there are brands like Married to the Mob, HLZBLZ, and Dimepiece. But among them, none are owned and operated by Black women, and their e-commerce sites showcase the kind of ethnically ambiguous, light-skinned models that suggest diversity, without actually embracing it. Even Zara has more melanin in its lineup.
But walking around downtown Atlanta, streetwear looks different. Men sport T-shirts, sweatpants, and athleisure from brands like Black Pyramid, 10.Deep, Billionaire Boys Club, and Pink Dolphin. For women, there’s Cupcake Mafia.
Most of Cupcake Mafia’s models are Black. They sport a range of twist-outs, braids, weaves, and wigs, beyond just the standard short afro style that is standard on mainstream retailers. They are light-skinned, medium-skinned, and dark-skinned. They are local artists and aspiring stars — some have regular-degular 9-5 job and have been recruited by Seats to model for the site. Some are thin, but most are not.
“Black women have money — and when you have an underserved market and people start to make money at it, others follow,” says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR Research, a retail insights company. “It’s that way for plus-sized women, too. It’s a market that’s befuddingly underserved.”
There’s evidence that Cupcake Mafia’s colorful and curvy vision of the world is something more and more customers want. In 2017, LA-based retailer Fashion Nova broke the Top 10 list of most Googled fashion designers, besting a slew of luxury designers including Dior and Chanel. The fast-fashion prices set Fashion Nova apart from the others on the list, but what really reveals that a switch is being flipped is its roster of non-sample size #novababe brand ambassadors, the majority of whom are women of color.
But while every woman on Fashion Nova has the extreme hourglass proportions of a Kardashian, on Cupcake Mafia, the women look more like your friend group on a turn-up night, where everyone shows up looking amazing. “They’re Cardi B’s, not Naomi Campbells,” Seats clarifies. Some models grin in their photos, and others serve faces so ice-cold I feel intimidated even clicking on them. The words on their shirts spell it out clearly: “Fuck Yoga Get Money” “Validation Is Only For Parking.” “The bags under my eyes are Chanel.”
“We got a lot of beautiful, boring girls who are interested in modeling,” says Seats, batting her eyelashes in jest. “But modeling for a streetwear brand is more about personality than looks. There’s aggressive language on your shirt…so do something.” While statement tees are a dime a dozen these days — especially ones that sport wispy cotton-candy feminism — there’s something jarringly real about the words on Cupcake Mafia merch. The world they describe is one where hard-earned money is the key to success. It’s aggressive and unapologetic, but self-aware about it, too. In this world, women are not girlbosses — they’re bitches with bank accounts.
The irony is that Seats’ own money-making moxie isn’t aggressive. “My biggest quality is knowing how to outsmart people,” Seats tells me one day over glitter-dusted disco fries covered in a thick blanket of cheese dyed in rainbow colors. She points one blue fry at me. “In Atlanta, they call it finesse. I know how to look at a situation and know how to come out on top. I’m not the smartest person, but I know how to get the outcome I want.”
Money — not having it, needing it, and getting it — has been a defining theme in Seats’ life. Seats grew up in Indiana with her mother, who put her in beauty pageants, despite the fact that they were always broke. “We needed school clothes, not big, goofy dresses and fake teeth. It did build my self-confidence up because it made me feel pretty on those days. But when the lights were off, I went back to being this homeless girl.” Lashing out, Seats began stealing things from her 2nd grade classmates. One day, her mother found a bag of trinkets and supplies Seats had been hiding in her room and drove to school so she could dump it out in front of her entire class.
In elementary school, Seats and her mother moved in with a charismatic, well-dressed man into an abandoned Big Boy restaurant. “We couldn’t go inside until after dark. We had to hide our stuff in the tiles of the ceiling. The bathrooms don’t work — there’s no gas, no lights, no water. It’s freezing. We put four booths together and made beds, and slept under tons of blankets,” says Seats. During those months, Seats saw how the man’s finesse — and fashion — could pull them through. “Every morning we’d wake up and walk to this hotel and eat continental breakfast and freshen up in the bathrooms as if we were guests. Because he was so well-dressed, no one would question it,” says Seats.
From then on, Seats’ life was a series of trauma and triumph. Within a span of three years in high school, her best friend and boyfriend were murdered, her half-sister committed suicide, and her grandfather passed away. After her father was released from prison, he moved her to live with her aunt and uncle in Cleveland. She paid her own way through college at Kent State. Fashion and rapping became outlets, and she did an exchange program in Atlanta during college where she met her mentor Shawty Lo who helped build a career in hip-hop. To earn extra money, she began styling people like Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti, and Lloyd. A connection of a connection got her placed on Miley Cyrus’ 2009 tour, where she received a check for 1,500 euros a day. Her father convinced her to invest it in a new business instead of spending it on a car.
While styling and working on developing a local store (where she first connected with a variety of mentors, including shoe designer Jeffrey Campbell), Seats formed a group of up-and-coming female rappers based on a nickname Gucci Mane had given to her. To her chagrin, Gucci Mane insisted on calling her Cupcake instead of Skittlez (“Back then, Gucci was a totally different person,” she says, referring to the rapper’s history with prescription-strength cough syrup. “He didn’t care about or respect me.”). The shirts they printed became more popular than the group itself, and Seats saw the potential in pivoting to a retail brand. Six years after she printed her first batch of shirts, and 20 years after she experienced homelessness, Seats became a CEO of a million-dollar business through a mix or luck and pure effort.
“Life is easy here if you can finesse,” says Seats about Atlanta, recounting all the times when and places where life was not. “If you’re confident about what you want to do, it’s easy to move money.”
Most people who proclaim that they’re good at multitasking actually mean that they’re good at pretending that they’re listening to you while typing out an email. But Seats is actually good at multitasking. During the course of the two days I spent with her, her two thumbs rarely left the screen of her phone. Her laptop was always an arm’s length away. During the morning of the photoshoot, she has welcomed and introduced all dozen members of the crew and talent, hosted a group of high school friends, given and changed direction on the makeup looks, made notes on styling, organized the props, played the music, sent out a dozen emails, and organized her evening’s plans, all while thoughtfully and thoroughly responding to my questions.
Perhaps because of Seat’s juggling skills, the Cupcake Mafia business is organized in as equally a fractured way. T-shirts are only one part of the business. The flagship shop in Atlanta also acts as a neighborhood bodega, and rents out space to a bakery that provides the actual cupcakes for the store (Seats’ friend Johnny Cupcakes warned her that if her store didn’t stock real cupcakes, she would be plagued by negative Yelp reviews from confused cupcake-seekers).
Much of her merchandise is produced in a Chinese factory that Seats recently partnered with; Seats brings in new business to the factory in exchange for a cut of the profits. Much of the new business comes from her retail and branding consulting jobs, which has become the most lucrative part of Cupcake Mafia. Her clients range from celebrities like Tameka “Tiny” Cottle who want to start a line of merch to retailers like TJ Maxx who want to appeal to the streetwear consumer. Seats is most excited about the prospect that consulting offers.
“This may change in a few years, but people are so much more interested in buying knowledge rather than products,” Seats says. She breaks it down: “The store’s goal is $5k a weekend. If there’s some weather issue, and we only make $1k, I can get on my Instagram Live and sell a class [on entrepreneurship], or do a social media coaching call and make $2k in one hour. I wish that I could take that $40k I spent on college at Kent State and put it into someone that could have told me, ‘If you order all this merchandise from overseas, there’s a possibility that stores will cancel. You need a Plan B’.”
The unsold inventory is small potatoes compared to the other uninformed mistakes Seats wishes she could have avoided. Just last year, Seats lost Cupcake Mafia. After Forever21 inquired about placing a $1 million order with Cupcake Mafia, Seats figured that she would need help in order to make this next necessary leap for her company. A major New York City clothing manufacturer promised to upgrade her production capabilities in exchange for a share of her business. And so, Seats moved to New York, started earning a salary for the first time, and watched as her staff grew from eight to 60.
While important for the brand, this investment was not the type of high-profile, big-business move that triggered Nasty Gal’s come-up. Venture capital investment infuses hyped brands with lots of cash and information to spur rapid growth in exchange for larger returns. Unlike traditional investments, the timeline for a big return is much shorter. With stakes so high, the players are usually heralded as the innovators within their industries, earning celebrity statuses within the world of business. Roundups of the most promising startups tell a consistent story about the boys club of this world; female founders are heavily underrepresented, and Black female founders are nearly nonexistent. Needless to say, this big step for Seats did not lead to a Forbes cover story.
But even given the relatively slower growth goals, Seats found the acceleration jarring. She was surprised at how much less her bigger team was able to accomplish than a leaner one. She was uncomfortable with the changes to her shirts’ language and tone that felt like corporate approximations of how she and her friends actually talk. Her unwillingness to seek the lowest common denominator in order to scale was seen as a detriment to the company. Soon afterward, she was fired from her own brand. In one fell swoop, she lost her stores, label, apartment, and her career, and was forced to move back to Atlanta.
After a year of scrimping and saving from consulting, she was able to buy back the rights to her brand after a series of tough negotiations. But the entire experience made her wary of outside investment or even the idea that a business needs to scale in order to be successful — two fundamental assumptions of the current retail environment.
“Brands that grow too big and forget their identity die. Sophia [Amoruso] forgot that her girl was that eBay girl who wanted that very unique look within a certain price range. There are millions of girls out there that want that. But, she had a board, and they’re telling her that a jacket can’t be $50 — it has to be $150. There were a thousand girls who would have bought it for $50, but only a hundred for $150. Now, you’re stuck with that merchandise. Those are the things that happen when the brand gets too big. Many designers miss that — even my mentor, Jeffrey Campbell. If he was still focused on the girl that got him to the top with those Litas…”
Seats has a few ideas that run counter to retail trends. For one, she believes opening physical stores through franchises will be essential (something that her former business partners dissuaded her from). She also believes small batches of limited-edition products released in quick, controlled drops are her future — a process that streetwear brands like Supreme and KITH rely on that’s faster than the traditional fashion cycle. Most strikingly, the fastest-growing part of her business hinges on threatening Cupcake Mafia’s dominance in the space by teaching others how to start their own streetwear brands.
When I ask her if she believes she’s arming her own competition, she shoots me a side-eye that manages to be both generous and completely humiliating.
“I know that my brand is so intimately special that there could be a Connie and an Amanda, and only Amanda will buy my T-shirt. Connie might be an Aeropostale girl,” Seats says, her eyes drifting to my cropped denim jumpsuit. “So many designers wear themselves out by trying to appeal to Connie when their line is only for the million Amandas. I’m only going to focus on selling to Amanda.”
This ethos extends to her employees, too. Although every one of Seats’ employees were fans of Cupcake Mafia before they were hired, working at the brand is not their career goal. “I want people who wake up for their dream, not mine. If you’re waking up for your dream, you’re going to do your best,” Seats says. Even new employees are asked about what they want to eventually do, and Seats works hard to give them as many opportunities within Cupcake Mafia as she can. Shop clerks style on photoshoots. T-shirt designers work on creating websites for clients. Friends learn how to use professional cameras and equipment. Customers learn how to become models. And then, they leave.
It’s an investment that might not please investors or help with your bottom line. But, it means that everyone lucky enough to swing through Seats’ orbit talks about her with the kind of reverence you could only hope for at your own funeral.
“She embodies women’s empowerment,” says Lala, an aspiring stylist who was manning the store register the afternoon I come to visit. Though she’s only been working for two months at the store, Seats has introduced her to a variety of celebrity clients for styling assistance. “How can we help each other and get work? That’s why she hires us. We aspire to do something, and she’s the first to be like — I’ll teach you.”
Before I go, I have to ask Seats about her rampant use of other brands’ trademarked designs. There are Nike swooshes, Gucci logos, and Tommy Hilfiger flags — a portion of Cupcake Mafia’s T-shirts are parodies of established brands. While the rules governing copyright laws when it comes to knockoffs and “inspired by” fashion are notoriously loose, trademarked logos are a different story. “That’s a dangerous game to play,” says retail analyst Rosenblum. “It depends on how brands perceive it in terms of damage to the brand. It has its risks.”
“I feel entitled to luxury logos. You can walk into Gucci and get a T-shirt with drawn-on words. That’s street. They’re trying to embody our culture,” she says. “At the end of the day, I only care about that girl who’s been riding with Cupcake Mafia, and making her happy. That girl can’t afford a Gucci T-shirt. But, she could wear a Cupcake Mafia T-shirt that says ‘My Life Is Gucci.’”
She pauses, remembering the time Beyoncé sent her a cease and desist. A fan had worn a Cupcake Mafia shirt with Beyoncé’s face that appeared on the On The Run tour video. Seats made $10k in one day after the tour DVD came out. “Then the letter came. It said, ‘I want to make money off my own brand. I’ve worked really hard, just like you.’ She was super cool. But then we got a certified letter with all these documents. ‘You sold this and this to this and this. Discontinue it right now.’ It was a nice letter, and then a scary letter!” Since then, Seats has stopped producing merchandise tied to celebrities. But, perhaps because she operates outside of the fashion establishment, she hasn’t yet heard from any fashion brands.
For Seats, it’s clear that retail is not a zero-sum game. There are enough customers to go around, especially if your customer is a woman who’s mostly been ignored by traditional retailers. And when you consider your enemies as teachers, your competition as clients, and successful businesses as those that last, not those that are big, the way you treat every single person changes, too.
When I ask Seats whether she feels ignored by the established fashion industry, she begins nodding before I even finish my sentence. “Yes. Yes. I don’t feel like I’m part of that group of people. But you know what? Success doesn’t mean raising $50 million dollars. Success means creating something that makes other people around me more able to achieve their goals, based on things I’ve set up.”
She leans back on the stool and places both hands on her stomach while she scans the set. The machine is buzzing along without her. The models are taking turns posing against a pink-painted bike. The designers in the adjacent room are busy mocking up the pages where the new shirts will be sold. Downstairs, Lala organizes the store and tends to a few customers.
“The Cupcake Mafia girl is independent. She’s sweet and street,” she says, answering a question I didn’t ask. “But most importantly, she’s not looking for approval from the outside world. I know I’m not.”
In business, it’s a feat to convert a customer to a fan, or a fan into an employee. But through instinct and conviction, Seats has created a world where employees, customers, fans, and friends are all the same people, whose love of the brand is inseparable from their love for Black women. Given that, it’s easy to feel that whatever the outside world thinks is just icing, so to speak.
An earlier version of this story included a phrase that was not in line with our style guide.