Monif Clarke, Founder & CEO Monif C. Plus Sizes, on being Invited to the White House as a Female Entrepreneur

When Monif Clarke initially launched her plus size clothing range in 2006, she would pitch her design ideas to the major retailers, only to be told again and again that no-one would purchase her clothing: it was too trendy, too colorful, too sexy and their plus sized customers weren’t that fashion conscious.

Monif knew these retailers were missing a huge untapped market. As a plus size fashionable woman herself, Monif wanted clothes that are glamorous, trendy and/or classic, colorful and flattering.

Her competitors at the time believed that plus size women want to hide their curves and troublesome areas so what they offered was boxy, drab and unflattering.

Rather than being discouraged by the retailers’ disinterest, Monif decided to sell her clothes herself. She launched Monif C. Plus Sizes comprising an e-commerce site, a boutique in Manhattan and a wholesale business with retailers across the U.S, London, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Jamaica, St. Maarten, Bahamas, and Bermuda. 

Fast forward 6 years, after $500,000 in sales in 2010 and an estimated $850,000 in 2011, and Monif has been featured in Crain's New York Business, Fox Business America's Nightly Scoreboard, The View, ABC News, Glamour, InStyle and Lucky.

She has partnerships with Ideeli, Overstock, One Stop Plus and Sonsi. Macy's, Nordstrom's, Saks and Zappos have approached Monif on carrying her collection.

We talked to Monif about the power of articulating your goals; how the rejection of the major retailers turned into a blessing; and on being invited to the White House.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Monif C. Plus Sizes and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

MC: Monif C. really fell into my lap. I actually went to college for Mathematics and Computer Science and I was convinced that I would use my education to start a non-profit centered on getting children access to accelerated math/science education. After doing that for a few years and not feeling like I was fulfilling my purpose, I took some time off and took a trip to London to visit some family. While there my cousin, who was involved in the fashion industry, took me to one of the factories she worked with.

When I walked in and saw the clothing, I immediately thought, wow why doesn't someone design clothing like this for women my size? I heard her say, why don't you do it? At that point she planted a seed in my head and a year later, Monif C. was born.

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

MC: At Monif C., we design stylish, fashion forward clothing for plus size women. One of the main differences that sets us apart from our competitors is that I myself am a plus size woman. I am really designing the clothing I want to wear. Also, we create clothing that is a sexy celebration of curves. We do not aim to cover plus size women in drab black, grey, and tan, we are providing the kind of clothing you see in high end fashion magazines designed and tailored to the plus size woman's body.

TNW: Who are your customers?

MC: Our target customers are plus size women ages 18 - 45. What’s beautiful about our collection is that we believe in creating timeless clothing with a twist so you'll never find anything overtly trendy. We believe our clothing works for stylish plus size women regardless of their age.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

MC: Some elements of our marketing strategy include partnering with vendors that cater to our target market, social media, and brand positioning. Our most effective source thus far has been social media. In particular

YouTube has been tremendous for us. About 3 years ago we started uploading "guerilla" videos of myself showcasing our collections.

We usually shoot them in our showroom and have customers try on the clothing so women can see them on different shapes and sizes. My original objective was to convert existing customers into more frequent customers in that they would get an email from us, go watch the YouTube video and then go to Monifc.com and shop. Although that does happen, I completely underestimated that women that have never heard about Monif C. would go to YouTube search for plus size clothing or plus size swimsuits find our videos which would then convert them into customers.

TNW: What is next for your company?

MC: We are very excited for the next phase of Monif C. This spring customers will have numerous ways to shop us including a great partnership with Nordstrom. We also have partnered with Sonsi.com, which is a subsidiary of Charming Shoppes to retail our collection.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

MC: It's probably has been said over and over, but I believe strongly in research and to continue to educate yourself at every stage of your business. It is astonishing just how much information is available online that can answer practically any question you have about running a business, so before you ask someone a question, research it yourself first. I also believe in reading business and self-development books, I probably read about 30 books a year myself.

Lastly, I believe strongly in articulating your goals out loud as well as writing them down. I believe something happens when you speak your goals into existence and that has been very powerful for me.

TNW: What does your day look like?

MC: I'm usually awake by 7am and spend the first hour of my day mediating and praying to get focused for the day. Three times a week, I meet with my boxing trainer to exercise. In the first 5 years of my business, I put everything on hold for my business and it took a toll on my health so now no matter what I make sure to get my exercise time in. Then it's off to the races with email, conferences calls, and design meetings. I usually don't finish my day until 9pm or so.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

MC: The major retailers taking us seriously have been one of our biggest challenges. When I first started Monif C, fashion-forward plus size clothing was nowhere to be found so when I had meetings with the major department stores they'd say, your clothing is nice but the customer won't buy it. They had every reason in the book, plus size women want to lose weight, they don't like to show off their bodies, they don't like bright colors, etc. In my heart, I knew this wasn't true because I am my customer and I knew that if I was looking for stylish plus size clothing, there had to be women just like me looking for the same thing. So after being rejected by every big box retailer, we decided to take a leap of faith and put out money to manufacture product and hope it would sell through our e-commerce site, Monifc.com.

What seemed like an obstacle turned into a blessing. By going direct to customer, we've built a dynamic customer base. We have extremely loyal customers that shop with us year after year and who have become advocates for us with the major retailers.  

Recently we had a conversation with a retailer that came as a result of customers tweeting their corporate account asking for them to carry our line. We will now be selling with them in Spring 2012.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

MC: Wow, there have been many which I am grateful for!

I think one that stands out was being invited to the White House for the Women's Entrepreneurship Conference. It was great to be in that room with so many outstanding women. It was a real treat!

TNW:  What is the best career or management decision you have made?

MC: The best management decision I made was hiring staff. There was a time when I was doing everything myself, shipping boxes, doing my own PR, picking up rolls of fabric from vendors just to save money on freight. Although it was great to bootstrap in the beginning because it saved a lot of money, there comes a time when you have to hire staff so you can better manage your time and use it to work on growing your business, not just putting out daily fires.

TNW:  What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you at the beginning?

MC: It is very important for a leader to set the tone in their business, particularly in a business like mine where we deal with customers daily. Customer Service is very important to the livelihood of any business especially when a complaint by someone about your business posted on a blog can hurt sales. At Monif C., we believe in always give the customer the benefit of the doubt even if it costs us. We also believe in acknowledging any mistakes we have made. I tell my staff, our customers are our number one asset and if we do something to screw up, we need to own up to it. I remember one time even driving 45 minutes to Brooklyn one night to hand deliver a customer a dress because we messed up her shipping and she had an event that night. Iknew it was our responsibility to fix the issue and we did. Creating a strong company culture is at the top of my list of leadership lessons.

TNW:  Do you have any role models or mentors?

MC: My fabulous mentor is Lisa Price of Carol's Daughter.

I couldn't ask for a better mentor, she is amazing as a wife, mother, and businesswoman. Sometimes when I have major decisions to make I think WWLD (What would Lisa do?)

I've been blessed to have her help guide me and she has been very vocal about some of her own pitfalls, which is helping me to become a better businesswoman.

For more information visit www.monifc.com or visit the showroom at 325 W. 38th St, Ste 207, New York, NY 10018 

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