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Self Employed by Design

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Marla Duran, Owner of Marla Duran Designs, based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has been a NASE member since 2000. Her primary reasons for joining were for the great benefits and health insurance options. Marla’s company designs and creates women’s clothing; she gained notoriety for being on the Television show Project Runway in 2005.

What inspired you to enter the field you are in?

Essentially, I fell into what I do. I began as a potter’s apprentice in the early 1970’s. I was a college student in Washington, D.C. and took a pottery class. Immediately I was hooked as I discovered I loved working with my hands. I started sewing a few years later. I had my son in 1978 and started making baby clothes. I was living in Los Angeles and found a store that was interested in what I was creating. I eventually moved back to my hometown of Allentown, PA. I decided that creating clothing was going to be my profession as working for myself felt natural.

What challenges have you faced in your business?

Some of the biggest challenges I have faced has dealt with domestic fabric suppliers going out of business. I no longer have access to domestic fabrics. Some of the fabric suppliers I work with are interested in volume, and as a small business I find it harder to access the materials I desire.

How have you overcome these challenges?

I have overcome these challenges based on a piece of advice that I often give when asked, “Be prepared to work hard, dedication is necessary for success.” In working harder to find the materials and being dedicated to my craft and my business I have found out that the fabrics are harder to find but still exist. I travel to New York City a few times a year to attend fabric shows and find the materials I need. I also attend fabric shows in Paris to find fabrics that are really special.

When did you notice that your business was starting to take off?

My business picked up and got more serious in 1993 when I got a rep in New York City. I started showing my work at trade shows and developed a following of stores who carried my work in their stores.

Tell me about the experience of being on Project Runway.

I was on Project Runwawy for its second season in 2005. The experience was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I had no idea what to expect, as I hadn’t seen the show. I knew there would be challenges, and I thought I would be good at using my spontaneity. I was unprepared for the pressure and for the constant scrutiny of the cameras! There was no letup, the cameras were always rolling. We were told, when to sleep, when to eat, when to cross the street! What I loved about being on the show was the critique in the work room. I am self-taught, the feedback really helped me get better at my work and helped shape the designer I am today.

How has Project Runway impacted your business?

Having been on the show, I have had many people recognize me as a contestant all over the world. This has proven to be both fun and a bit surprising I had no idea the show would have had such an impact on pop culture. As a result, I have found many people take a stronger interest in my work when I am participating in art fairs around the country. I have become known as “the one who was on Project Runway”. It certainly hasn’t hurt my sales. I think it has given me recognition and legitimacy as a designer.

How do you market your business?

I have participated in trade shows in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas to market my clothing to stores. I started participating in juried art fairs in 1996. I eventually moved the majority of my marketing and sales to the art fairs. I discovered I enjoyed meeting the women buying my clothes and the feedback was invaluable.

Do you work with any online retailers?

I am not currently working with any online retailers. I seem to drag my feet when it comes to working online as I really enjoy the process of meeting my customers in person. I have many loyal customers who I have met over the years and they email me to see what’s new. I will send images and if interested, I send the piece in the mail.

What’s the best thing about being self-employed?

I enjoy the challenge of being my own boss. I can make my own schedule and take the time I need for my personal life. On the other hand, I feel that my commitment to my business is 24/7. While there are less administrative restrictions, there are always new challenges to face. I enjoy being able to see the results of my efforts fairly quickly and having a lot of freedom to act on my decisions.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a client?

I know women feel great wearing my clothes; they are comfortable, flattering to the body, and have a distinct look. That is very rewarding. I was at a prestigious art fair showing and selling my clothes. A fellow artist told me I was a consummate professional in the way I dealt with my customers; it was very rewarding to receive that great compliment.

Which NASE member benefit is most important to you?

I enjoy the reading the newsletter and learning about the experience of other small business owners. Additionally, in 2013 I was selected to be a member of NASE Member Council. We met in Washington, D.C. and talked about various challenges we face as self-employed small business owners. I was able to provide feedback about the various resources available to members at discounted prices and how they impact our businesses.

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