Starting your own business doesn’t always mean starting with all the answers. When Korri Burton opened Uncommon Closet, a tailoring and custom clothing business, in 2017, they made some mistakes. Employees quit, tensions ran high, and Korri worked until burnout.
Fast forward to 2022 and Uncommon Closet has a 5-star rating on Yelp and delivers an important niche in the tailoring industry. We spoke with Korri to unravel how they conquered the challenges of being a young entrepreneur and created a safe space for LGBTQ+ customers with their business.
Be the space you wish to see in the world
“I started this business because my fiance is a trans woman,” Korri shared. “She’s 6’3” and has broad shoulders. So we were looking for dresses for her and we just couldn’t find anything. There was some stuff that would kind of fit, but mostly, if she wanted to wear feminine clothing, it had to be sleeveless. It was just really disheartening.”
Korri worked at another tailor in Chicago at the time but didn’t feel their chosen family, friends, or partner would feel welcome there. What they needed was a place where anyone could come in, be treated with respect, and not be judged for their appearance, size, or gender identity.
“So I was like—in the most optimistic, queer, audacious way—I’ve been working at a tailor shop for five months. I went to grad school for costume technology. I’m gonna just quit my job and start a business.”
The choppy sea to success
Korri started their business in an artist loft occupied by another tenant in an 11-by-17 foot room. While they were eventually able to move to a larger space, the pandemic shut down operations for two months—and weddings, the bread and butter of any tailor shop, wouldn’t pick back up until 2021. The team spent 2020 sewing masks, hoping the world would return to normal again.
When things started looking up, Korri wanted to make up for lost time, accepting every client they could, turning no one down. But their lack of experience as a business owner with a normal workload quickly became a hurdle.
“Oh, dear god. Now we’re drowning,” Korri said. “It was really rough. I ended up losing some of my key employees, which was really hard. I upset a lot of people, and I will be honest about that. It was a really hard year. And on top of that, I had life things as well, and it just all piled on. I definitely was going through burnout, and there was just a point where I was coming to work and would dread it. And after my assistant manager at the time quit, I was like, oh, I really messed up. She made some suggestions in her resignation letter that I really took personally and to heart.”
Turning the ship around
Knowing they had to make a change, Korri took action. The following have been key to their transformation:
- Hiring a business advisor
- Hiring an assistant
- Learning how to hire staff who are a good fit for the shop instead of “panic hiring,” or filling the position with anyone who’s available, regardless of culture fit
- Working on communicating their needs and understanding staff needs
- Regulating the flow of work
- Implementing standardized training
- Surrounding themselves with experts they can learn from
- Admitting when they don’t have the answers
As a young entrepreneur, it’s invaluable to learn and grow—but you have to be up for the challenge. “Until recently, I was the youngest person in the shop, which is a little difficult to deal with emotionally,” Korri said. “It’s hard being the youngest and being like, ‘Yes, I am in charge, and I am experienced, and I know what I’m doing.’”
Rather than accept their youth as an unavoidable obstacle, Korri opened up to feedback, advice, and the experience of their team, which inevitably guided them to the success Uncommon Closet experiences today.
Creating a new normal
A large part of Uncommon Closet’s success comes from its ties to inclusivity and providing a safe LGBTQ+ space. Sometimes this means having the conversation about personal pronouns to normalize the act of intentionally avoiding misgendering people. Other times, it means very clearly branding your business as a safe space.
“I’ve found trying to be low key and under the radar is cute,” Korri said. “But for as much as there is always that underlying fear of somebody going to spray paint my windows or do something to the shop, I would much rather be very loud and intentional about being queer, about this being a queer space. That is very important to me because it shows my clients that they can be who they wanna be when they walk in the shop.”
This mission is felt by customers, such as Yvette C., who recommends her own massage therapy clients to Uncommon Closet for their tailoring needs.
“There aren’t a lot of queer-friendly tailors or alteration places. I have a lot of queer clients that come in telling me, ‘I really wanna go to a place that’s not gonna judge me because I wanna get these skirts hemmed.’ Now I have a place to send them. Now I know they can go to Korri, and their team is gonna take care of them and make sure everything’s okay.”
Photos from Uncommon Closet’s Yelp Page; interviews by Emily Washcovick
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Korri and Yvette, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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