If you walk into an Otherwild boutique in New York or Los Angeles, you’ll find an eclectic mix of artsy goods — posters, dishware, apparel, and homeopathic remedies. But the retailer is known best for one signature item: “The Future Is Female” T-shirts.
The original design was made for Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, which was opened in 1972 by Jane Lurie and Marizel Rios. In 1975, photographer Liza Cowan took an iconic picture of musician Alix Dobkin, her girlfriend at the time, wearing it.
The slogan lasted through the decades as an empowering statement for all, as female-identified bodies and rights remained under attack. But in 2015, Otherwild cofounder Rachel Berks remade the tee after seeing an Instagram post that caught her attention. Berks liked the motto and quickly made 24 shirts with the same slogan. They sold out in 2 days. She made more. And soon her shirts were a significant driver of a social media hashtag, #TheFutureIsFemale, that is still going strong on Instagram and has now become a mainstream symbol, worn by celebrities and civilians alike. It has also sparked numerous debates about the binary nature of gender and about the necessity for more inclusive discourses in mainstream feminism.
Berks sees the ongoing success of this T-shirt as a simple win that helps her do more with Otherwild retail and design projects. In this edited and condensed Q&A, hear more about how she hopes to support her creative community, how she thinks about new projects and the tactics that keep Otherwild’s Instagram on-brand.
So why did you start your business in 2012? I originally opened Otherwild with a business partner, although she’s no longer involved. She actually had the idea to open up a store. Her name’s Marisa Suarez-Orozco. We were both graphic designers working within a community of queer-mostly artists in Los Angeles, and we were really interested in creating a space that showcased the work of people within that community. So some of them were herbalists, some of them were designers, some of them were more fine artists, but who had more of a utilitarian product or object that they were making. We initially launched as a retail store and graphic design studio, which is still what Otherwild is, although it has evolved a bit from its original intent.
What has your growth strategy been like since you started? I started with really no money, and we worked with everyone on consignment. So it was really like … the idea from the beginning was really like, “What can I do with very little?” And of course, that takes trust, and generosity, and mutual respect from the different designers that I was working with. So it would mean saying to a friend, or a friend of a friend, “If you give me this work, I will do my very best to sell it, and I will pay you in a timely fashion.” I quickly developed a reputation for holding up my end of the bargain. So people continued to trust me, and then new people would trust me because they would hear that we actually were good on our word. I’ve always been very, very careful in terms of what I will spend my money on. For example, with the “Future Is Female” shirt, when I first made that shirt, I made 24 shirts. I’ve always, anytime I launch a new design, I will do it really, really carefully, and I won’t overproduce. Our whole operation is still very, very small. We have a team of about ten people between our New York and LA store, and even though we have a wholesale business, and we have a pretty robust online business, we still do all of our operations out of our storefront in LA. So I’ve really tried to keep it truly a small business, while also growing incrementally, and responsibly, and ethically. It’s really about finding a balance between those things.
As you’ve grown, what is something that has been really worth spending money on, for you? For me, what’s really been worth spending money on is sort of twofold. It’s like really good staff that I can trust, so that I can focus on the bigger creative picture of Otherwild, and what I want to do next, and what I want to create next. Then also, just trusting in what I’m creating, and putting money into that and taking risks. Taking chances in terms of putting out new items, putting out new lines, being willing to spend the money on them, and see if it works.
What do you look for when you hire? Well, 99% of the time, or maybe even 100% of the time, I hire people through people I know. So my manager has been with me since when we were opening, and then we hired him one day a week. He was my girlfriend’s student, undergraduate student, and he wanted a part-time job. At the time all I could afford was to have him one day a week, and then when he graduated from college three years later and he was looking for work, I was lucky to receive a grant from Los Angeles’ Creative Economic Development Fund to help me grow the in-house lines that I was developing, including “The Future Is Female” shirts. So at that time, I was able to offer him a full-time job, and he’s still with me. So that grant… are there other good resources that you’ve tapped as a small business owner that have helped you? I would say I think one of the greatest things that happened to me was, right after my partner decided to leave the business, I was randomly invited through the world of Instagram to go on a retreat with other shop owners. It’s one of the best things I did for myself, to see other business owners, even if they were working in a very similar field, as my allies and not as my competitors, and to sit down and just talk shop.
Since then, it’s now evolved into a Facebook group where every day we’re talking. There’s probably like 50 of us in the group, and we just talk about really boring things, from what kind of point of sale system we’re using to what kind of employee benefits we offer to really bigger-picture, like, life-crisis moments of, “Retail is so hard, do I really want to do this? Can you help me figure out how to evolve my business, or grow my business to the next place etc.” So that’s been an incredible resource. Then I think the biggest thing for me otherwise, that’s not necessarily a resource, but it just really feels crucial to how I’ve been able to grow my business, is finding this thing that everybody wants, you know? So my partner — when I say partner, I mean life partner, because I don’t have a business partner anymore — we talk about it. Her mom’s owned a gallery in Miami for many years. And she sold these hand-blown glass flowers, and they were her bread and butter. People would always come in, and even if they weren’t buying paintings or sculptures, they’d buy glass flowers. So the glass flower, the thing that people are always coming to me for, has been “The Future Is Female” shirts, and I hope to be able to find other glass flowers during the span of my career. But that’s something I’m always thinking about.
Tell me a little bit about your social media presence and strategy.
I feel like I wouldn’t be able to be where I am if it weren’t for Instagram. I think that I started my business at a time where everyone was really turning to social media and looking for a more organic relationship to brands, businesses and shopping. Then, I experienced — certainly with the “Future Is Female” shirt — experienced that going viral and just kind of watched the way that helped my business grow. Is there anything that you really try to do in the content that you share, or that you think is important to avoid? Basically everyone that works for Otherwild, when they open the store, they have to post something on Instagram to just kind of say that we’re open. So it’s never just one person’s point of view. It’s me as the owner, but then it’s also Brandon as the manager, and Hex and Andre, and Emily, and Salima, and it’s all these different voices who I adore and trust, and they are all very creative people, and interesting people, and so I think that for me, sort of trusting in other people to tell the story of Otherwild, to understand the story of Otherwild and do that has been really important.
It seems that your community — whether that’s the artists that you’re sourcing from, the community you have on Instagram, the LGBTQ community — undergirds a lot of what your store has been able to do. How do you think of your store in relation to community, and how do you hope to build a community around what you’re doing? It started within a very small community, and that community has expanded to include people on social media, a diverse roster of artists and designers we work with, going from a business that was completely owned and operated in every single function by myself, to being a group of all of these incredible people who work for me. I give them a lot of creative freedom and allow them to have their own voices in a variety of ways, from planning events and workshops with the space, to art-directing photo shoots for the company, to designing newsletters for the company. So yeah, I think community is really important to what Otherwild is, and I think that what the community that Otherwild is sort of becomes bigger all the time, and broader all the time, but is definitely focused I would say on LGBTQ, and artists and designers.
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