After the last few months, it can be hard to imagine a wardrobe filled with anything but soft, plushy things right now. But the case has been made for dressing up even when you have nowhere to go, so as we reacquaint ourselves with the other, non-sweat categories of apparel, the new L.A.-based brand Almost There, founded by Celine Kabaker, wants to become a destination for dresses that are well-made, thoughtful and truly inclusive.
"I have been interested in fashion since I was two years old. I've always known that I wanted to be in this industry," Kabaker, who is also the brand's CEO, tells me, over Zoom. "I started working, in high school, in retail. I went to college in Paris, where I studied business and communications. After I graduated, I started working for BCBG Max Azria Group as a senior executive assistant to their EVP of merchandising and buying, and really became immersed in the industry."
"As a merchant or merchandiser/buyer, you have different responsibilities. Each organization has their own definition of what it means, to be honest," she explains. "Buyers, traditionally, are responsible for managing inventory and making sure that they're buying correctly so that they're hitting certain sell-through targets, certain unit velocities and certain margin goals. In merchandising, you're also creating a line from scratch. You're working with your design teams so that you're creating a product line that is both beautiful and commercial but also affordable and has great top-line profit margins."
The sets of skills you gain from merchandising and buying, Kabaker argues, are really valuable when you're starting your own business, particularly when it comes to understanding the financials of a growing fashion company: "You're really expected to be the main business driver for these brands. That knowledge, and being able to lead a team, be collaborative and work with cross-functional partners —whether that's in marketing or design or visual merchandising — allows you to understand how to move the needle."
They're also useful in identifying an opportunity in the market.
The idea for Almost There was born out of an observation about price points, specifically on dresses marketed in the "contemporary" range. "To be able to buy a casual dress that you can wear, I felt like the pricing was getting in the $300+ range and that wasn't necessarily accessible," Kabaker says, noting how "dresses, traditionally, have been one of the highest-volume categories in retail businesses."
She had been freelancing since April 2019 and started about what would become Almost There that summer. During this time, she had also been reflecting on the industry's environmental impact, following conversations with her sibling about the role some of the companies she'd worked for have played in this. Kabaker wanted to solve for that market problem she saw in the dresses category, while building a fashion brand that prioritized sustainable, ethical production.
Then, "I saw that there were certain brands that were calling themselves 'sustainable,' but they were really speaking to a singular-looking woman," she adds. Kabaker wanted to ensure that her brand catered to a wide range of people, so she also set out to build size inclusivity into the company.
Almost There officially launched at the end of July, with 10 dress styles available in sizes XS through 5X, with prices ranging from $168 to $288. They're made to order, manufactured in factories in L.A., where Kabaker is based.
"I wanted to create a collection that felt timeless and wasn't necessarily something that you would only be able to wear once," she says. "I wanted to create dresses that you could wear for the rest of your life and still look chic and stylish. We didn't really want to go for over-the-top, too-trendy pieces.... They're done in a way where they're not necessarily tied to a time period."
The brand's commitment to sustainability begins with its fabrics (which you can read about on its website). "I really explored using hemp organic cotton blends, because it's considered one of the most sustainable fabrics in that it doesn't require a lot of water and it's regenerative," Kabaker explains. "We also use deadstock — I spent a lot of time going to Ragfinders."
Almost There's neck labels are made from 100% recycled, post-consumer polyester. Then, to ship its products, the brand uses paper mailers that are made from 97% post-consumer waste and are biodegradable, and clear bags that are made from 100% post-industrial waste and are recyclable. It also has a partnership with One Tree Planted, where for every dress sold, the organization plants a tree.
"I have to say that because of my background as a senior merchant, my skillset is in creating product lines, marketing them and figuring out channels of distribution. [This] was something that I'm familiar with doing," Kabaker says of doing the research when it came to finding the right production partners and sourcing the right materials, all while sticking to a schedule. "The hardest part was really finding the right pattern makers."
To create the inaugural 10 dress styles in the XS-5X size range, Kabaker worked with pattern makers on "extensive rounds of fittings" with real fit models. "At the end of the day, I want all women to feel beautiful in Almost There product or in any of the product that I create," she says. "It was something that I felt like was a missed opportunity at Victoria's Secret. It was something that I really wanted to perfect."
Like many other businesses, Almost There's timeline was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. After coming home following a pre-launch party during Paris Fashion Week, "I had to say to myself, 'Okay, wait a second. I need to slow down my business because everything is about to turn upside down,'" Kabaker remembers. "I had to have a lot of really difficult conversations with my team, and push out our launch date about two, three months. That was really challenging."
Plus, up until that point, she also had been working with one factory on production for Almost There, but, when the pandemic hit, it pivoted entirely to PPE production, so Kabaker had to find a new production partner. Still, she was able to find a new manufacturer and launch in the summer.
Almost There plans on releasing new products in "drops," based on learnings from what's selling and on what fabrics are available seasonally. (Already, the brand has two clear best-sellers: the Coco and the Betty.)
As for what's next, Kabaker is working on influencer outreach and finding ambassadors that can "evangelize" the brand, as well as securing funding for the company (it's primarily self-funded with "a little bit of friends and family money along the way" and this point, she says) and identifying opportunities for servicing the size 14+ community both in the U.S. and abroad — so that we can all feel good about getting dressed.