Over the past five years, fashion-world darling Emily Bode of Bode has earned endless accolades for her rigorously sustainable menswear that is equal parts character and soul: jackets embedded with old pennies, pants fashioned from antique quilts, and sweaters adorned with elaborate vintage appliqués. Her team has upcycled everything from Cracker Jack charms to hundred-old bedroom sheets scored at Parisian flea markets, in person, which is to say they’ve had to think pretty creatively over the past year. Here, she talks about how virtual work has changed the way she thinks about her business, the clarity that arrives from slowing down, and how Bode stays organized amidst the chaos.
Your line is known for rediscovering traditions and sourcing unusual vintage objects. How did you do that without working in person?
So we’re just getting back to outdoor markets but a lot are still closed. Throughout COVID, I’ve been really reliant on talking to my antique textile and vintage dealers. I used to see them in person throughout the year, so we were constantly messaging or FaceTiming about products they’ve found or are receiving. We’ve been getting individual handkerchiefs but also large orders. I actually purchased, gosh, probably close to a million buttons. A couple hundred thousand of them were pearl from a factory that had closed down.
Our industry has experienced a real trickle effect. If i'm not selling, it means I can't source and so we can’t make anything. It's better for us to keep up the momentum we've always had so these people can also sell their products. A lot of dealers who’ve had successful businesses for 50-plus years were totally destroyed because they don't function digitally. So we’re finding different ways to work. Like ok, since not everybody uses eBay or Etsy, can they get their family members to send us pictures? Everything is changing for sure.
What are the biggest challenges your team has faced working remotely?
At the very beginning of COVID, selling things wasn't a priority. We had all these products that were literally frozen on sewing machines, and the factories couldn’t go back to work. Or, if they could go back to work, they had to take all of our stuff off the machines to make PPE. Our priority was the physical and mental health of our employees and what we could do to support them. It was allowing people to take a day at home or attend protests or have open conversations within the business.
On the product front, it’s been a real collaborative process. We didn’t have an e-commerce team. We had our retail staff, who then kind of transformed to ship and pack orders and talk to clients and give everybody updates on what was happening.
New York apartments aren’t known for their spaciousness either.
Right, in the city, it’s not like you have a whole house where roommates or partners can spread out and go into different rooms. They might be in the same room on speaker. We actually had a couple of instances where we hired roommates or partners—people who had lost their jobs but were living with our employees or in a pod with them so they felt comfortable being in a car or room together doing spreadsheets, packing, or coordinating pickups and drop-offs, since our cutters we’re working from home but our sellers weren’t or vice-versa.
Our illustrators are still working from home most of the time. There are five and they each go in once a week. That’s a team that I feel like is going to continue to work from home for at least a little bit.
It was just really inspiring to see how malleable our teammates were and how malleable we were as a business during the first few months.
What technology has helped them stay connected?
So we have a product called senior cords, and we interview customers for them. Senior cords are rooted in an historic tradition that started in the early 1900s. The idea was that college seniors at Purdue would draw on their own corduroys or each other’s—everything from inside jokes to their class schedule to like the car they drive, whatever. We’ve invigorated that tradition. Our illustrator team connects with customers over Zoom or email to source images and all of those are organized over Dropbox. We also use Dropbox to share our brand imagery, including runway photography, with Vogue, The New York Times, and all the other publications we work with.
On a personal level, how has your creative process changed over the past year?
It’s interesting because I felt like I could get back to a place where I could really process things. I spent a lot of time thinking about clothing and the world in which I wanted to make it. I was living with my fiancé in his childhood home, and that was an inspirational space for us. In an early collection, I showed a representation of his childhood greenhouse that he had built. My brand is such a collaboration between the two of us, and so once I was in that space, and I was working physically in the greenhouse again, I become inspired by the way we were living in that space and by his relationship with his family—his mother and his father and all their family heirlooms. I really honed in on the narrative I feel most passionate about telling. It's about emotion and the domestic space.
What other shifts have you noticed in yourself as a someone who runs a small business?
That time allowed me to be more confident in the choices that we made at the very beginning and still make today. We’re a company that was founded on slow, organic growth. And it’s okay, actually even smarter, to grow this way. Overall, I think smaller—or maybe more grounded—brands did well because they didn’t have to rely on wholesale or investors or warehouses.
It’s also given me more confidence in our team. The team we have right now is the best we've ever had in that people are excited about how adaptable they can be and how their skill sets can change.
How flexible do you think their work experience will be moving forward?
I think it will be quite malleable. One thing that we've been doing is looking at everybody's jobs—they all wear so many hats now—and where we we have room to fill positions. One of our employees wants to move to LA, so we’re trying to figure out if we have space there. We really want to work with what our teammates want to do and the skills they have as we bring on more employees and grow the business.