No One Wanted to Dress Me. So I Started a Fashion Line

Shoshanna Gruss shares the inspiration behind her groundbreaking label.

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I developed early, which to a ten- or eleven-year-old is totally scary. I went to an all-girls school, so I was lucky in that way, although girls were not that easy on me. I was dealing with older girls saying, "You need to wear a bra," and I was just horrified. Even back then, I felt like there were these moms who thought I was too sexy, or sexual. I was like, "I was born this way; I didn't do this on purpose."

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I would go shopping, and nothing worked on me, from age 13 until I started my line, really. I would walk through stores like they were museums. I thought things looked beautiful. The preteen clothing either didn't fit me at all or looked so overtly sexy that I couldn't get away with it. So early on, I realized I had to come up with my own style, that I did not have a trendy body, so trends were not going to be my friend. I had to figure it out.

Obviously, there was no Internet shopping. What existed in the late '90s felt very homogeneous in style. It was sort of 90210, Melrose Place styles, and the waifish Kate Moss look. Dresses had no shape. They all made me look kind of dumpy, and I had to have everything altered; and I had to do things like sew beads onto my bra because they would show through, and I wanted to make it look pretty and intentional. Especially with swimwear: I had all my bathing suits custom-made. My mom found this place. The quality was really just so-so, and they were insanely expensive, but at least I could wear a bikini that was sort of like a bra top, and a cute bottom, and I felt good in it.

What existed in the late '90s felt very homogeneous in style.

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I went to UCLA and graduated in 1997, and while I was in California, I worked in a boutique called Tracey Ross. It was the coolest boutique at the time (though nothing in it fit me). Sure, there was Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, but there were very few independent lines. There was no Scoop back then. There was no Intermix. There was, like, Tocca, and Anna Sui, and, obviously, Betsey Johnson, but it wasn't the array of designers that it is today.

While I worked at Tracey Ross, there were a lot of young girls who came in to show Tracey their designs, and sometimes she would buy them, try it out, give them a shot; I know this planted the seed in my head. I guess I had envisioned that to have a clothing line you needed $100 million, and factories, and a thousand people working for you, and then I'd see these girls who had these cute ideas, who had made some samples, and then they did a production of maybe 30 pieces, 40 pieces, 100 pieces.

As I stood in the store, day after day, I wanted to be able to help women feel beautiful, and celebrated, and not walk through a store wondering: Why doesn't anyone want to dress me? So I moved home after graduation, and one day that summer I just had this epiphany:Why don't I start a line of clothing that is more inclusive of more women's bodies? I know what's not out there, and I know what I want.

It was the perfect recipe to start this. The line was to address many different body shapes, by making sure dresses were bra friendly. I used boning or unique design construction to do so. More than anything else, I was thinking about woman bodies as I designed.

More than anything else, I was thinking about woman bodies as I designed.

I did an internship in a factory for a few months and learned the trade, then I came across a place called Total Control. What they did, it was all in-house, they had pattern-makers, they had production people, so everything was done in one place. That was how I started. I found a multi-vendor showroom and bartered with and borrowed from everyone. In the showroom, Bloomingdale's had come to see a different line, but they also saw my line, and they liked the concept, and they thought they'd try it out.

When I launched, the fashion industry's response was entirely negative. It was this: "She knows nothing, less than nothing." I was coming off of dating someone super-famous, so there was a ton of cattiness from regular people too. But not from the buyers. The buyers took it really seriously, and even more so because it sold.

And it sold really well. We shipped November 1998, and it was Black Friday, and I think we sold 68 pieces that afternoon in New York alone, at the Bloomingdale's there. That's not what a normal sales day is for someone like what I was at that time. We were in ten stores that November, and then 70 by spring of 1999, and then 150 by the next year.

Then, when we launched swim, in 2000, which was two years after the dress line, it was such a much bigger success than the dresses, and it hit such a nerve because we sold tops and bottoms separately. It was the first time any bikini line did that. We did A through triple-D, which nobody in the contemporary market was doing. I remember sitting down with Bloomingdale's, or Saks, and they're like, "We're not selling these as separates, it's crazy." I said, "You don't sell a bra and underwear as a set, why on earth would I? Just try it, I'll take back every piece if it doesn't work." And it did, it sold. Now, I think, almost all bikinis are sold as separates.

The conversation around fit and bodies is totally different than it was when I started. It's different. It literally is a different world. There's more ready-to-wear that people are really going to wear, and I think that there is less of the anti-woman fashion. But to this day, I'm defensive about women's bodies. I'm defensive about my own body. Because people still say things like "Boobs are in this year," or "Athletic bodies are in," or this or that. It shouldn't be in or out. What about everyone else who doesn't have that body type, they should just wait until their body type comes into style? You're born with basically who you're going to be, and it should all be inclusive, all the time.

As told to Jessica Grose

Shoshanna Gruss is the founder and creative director of Shoshanna. She lives in New York City with her three delicious kiddos

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