How This Designer Built A Clothing Label From The Ground Up Without Investors

In the early aughts, Jen D’Angelo's Oakland, California apartment housed far more cardboard boxes — stuffed with folded cotton shirts — than functioning furniture. At the time, she was selling handmade, screen-printed T-shirts online and bartending on the side.
Some 15 years later, D’Angelo's company, Nooworks, is a local sensation in the Oakland/San Francisco area — with three brick-and-mortar shops and a booming online business. But in place of kitschy graphic T-shirts, the brand now produces full clothing lines, all of which are the result of local artist collaborations. For each line, the artist in question transposes work into textile form, before Jen cuts and designs the fabric into dresses, T-shirts, jumpsuits, and other products to be sold by way of Nooworks. 
Most products sell out — this is part of the allure of the special-edition craftsmanship. Everything is available in small batches, for the duration of the season it's released. (Naturally, this doesn't stop fans from writing in, pleading for encores of favored past collections.) So, as Jen’s inbox floods with artist and consumer inquiries, and Nooworks continues to grow, we sat down with the founder, mother of two, and PayPal ambassador to learn how she built her brand from the ground up — and how she keeps it growing. 
How did you get the initial idea for Nooworks?
"When I was still in art school for industrial design, I started screen printing T-shirts. I cut and sewed the garments myself, created my own illustrations, and printed everything by hand. I would host these merchant shows — people do it all the time now, but 20 years ago, the 'artist flea' was a novelty. I had all these independent vendors come to rented spaces and sell their stuff, and my T-shirts were pretty popular. At the time, I was working as a bartender, so I would wear them on the job, and people would compliment me on them all the time. Eventually, a few people asked if they could buy them wholesale, and that's when the ball started rolling."
How did Nooworks go from a small-scale side hustle to a full-fledged business?
"At one of my trade shows, I was approached by a printer who said he could make this stuff on a larger scale. I learned all about the joy of rotary printing, and he really worked with me to start getting the business off the ground. Everything just sort of grew organically from there. Eventually, my house was so full of boxes from online sales, I opened a little store on Valencia in the Mission. Six months later, it was going so well that we opened a new one that was five times the size. I was lucky — I never had to work with investors. I was working another job for the early stages, then when it took off, we got to grow at our own pace."
When did you start collaborating with local artists?
"When the company was really taking off, I had just finished art school, so I had this amazing network of friends making art that I was totally in awe of. It really felt like a natural pivot. Instead of printing one design on a shirt, which is the norm for screen printing, I decided that I wanted to print each design all over, and people loved them. From there, I started scouring Instagram and reaching out to different artists I admired and wanted to work with. Now, I get proposals from artists rather than the other way around! But I still do constant outreach. I want to be sure I only agree to work with someone whose work I feel really connected to."
How do you go about contracting new artists to work with?
"I generally reach out to them — either they’re friends of friends or I follow them on Instagram and have been stalking their work for a little while. Every time I reach out to someone who I’d like to work with it feels like dating. My internal monologue is like, SOS are they interested? What will they say? If they don’t respond, it feels like being stood up — but fortunately, I’ve mostly gotten really positive responses. We try to do two new textiles a season, so we’re never putting out a ton of work by different artists at a time. I don’t want to pump things out so quickly that nothing has its own full moment. That said, it’s all limited edition, so it does run out pretty quickly. We don’t really have a solution for that one yet." 
What’s the production process for each garment you make? 
"I still personally design the cuts for each of the garments — and my main guiding principle is that I won’t make it unless I want to wear it. We listen to our customers a lot — we want to make sizes that fit everyone. That means, when women who are tall reach out to say jumpsuits never fit them, we make a jumpsuit that fits them. We want everyone to be comfortable.
"After I begin work with an artist, I spend a few weeks designing the collection. I try not to make a big environmental footprint. We never print digitally — usually digital printing is done on synthetic fabrics; we use organic cotton. I found this factory super close to us in Oakland, and it’s amazing — my office, my house, and my factory are all within 30 blocks of one another. It’s a real local operation — even the fabric is milled in Southern California. I’ve been working closely with the families who work at our factory for 10 years — I probably go in at least three days a week. I like working really closely with everyone who has a hand in making this stuff. I bring my daughters along with me all the time."
What’s the best part of running your own business?
"I’d have to say it’s my team. No questions asked. I have an amazing staff — I learned pretty early on that one person just can’t do everything well. At first, I was doing it all alone: pattern making, printing, selling. I was bartending on the side to pull it all off. Then I realized there were definitely people out there who could do a better job, and I could guide them. Seven years ago, I was about to have a baby, and that’s when I first really learned to relinquish control. I had the store open already, and I leaned on my team super heavily."
How do you balance motherhood with your business? 
"When my first daughter was born, I realized pretty quickly that she actually liked coming with me places. Our factory is run entirely by women, so I could have her there and breastfeed and it wasn’t an issue — everyone was great with her. It was just an easy thing to do. Then, of course, the same was true of my second daughter. Honestly, the fact that our whole world is planted in the same space in California makes things super easy.
"Generally, my days are pretty crazy. My husband leaves at 7 a.m. for work, then I make sure both kids have breakfast, I pack lunches, and I take one to school and the other to day care. Usually I can get to the factory by 8:45 a.m. After that, I’ll spend some time in the office — we’ll all conference about what insanity is going on that week — then I’ll pick my kids up by 2 p.m. Sometimes I stop by the store, but when I'm there, I just chit chat all day and give things away for free. 
"It all feels like a true whirlwind, but at the same time, it all makes me really happy. Yeah, I’m addicted to my phone — I’m constantly checking emails and scrolling through Instagram. But that’s just sort of the name of the game. And it all brings me so much joy. Often, I wonder how I got so lucky. I know I put in the work, but I’m surrounded by so many great people and so much positive energy. I cannot imagine anything better."

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