They were three moms working in the Southern California rag trade, and they wanted it all: family, career and time for themselves. But after years of juggling their home and work lives, they concluded the Cosmo girl mantra was inherently flawed.
"We saw each other in a similar position: close to 40, with kids and unhappy with the corporate world," says Jean Butler-Boren, a junior-line veteran and Mission Viejo mother of two.
They didn't want to ditch the 20-plus years of work experience they each had earned, but full time at the office was no longer an option because they wanted to spend more time with their children.
Instead of choosing, they have redefined their professional status. They work as a network to supply freelance services to a host of international companies in the burgeoning action-lifestyle market.
They design. They make patterns. They find fabrics and trims. They oversee production, both domestic and foreign. All from the comfort of their homes.
"They pretty much do it all," says Leonard Marcovitch, vice president of Filmar, the Canadian licensee for the O'Neil surf brand. "It doesn't matter what needs to be done--from outer-wear jackets to shorts--they put it together for us."
In the beginning, no one knew whether the fashion-industry moms could earn a decent living or whether they would blemish their reputations. But as word got out about their services, they found they were in such demand that they had to turn down business.
The reason, besides the quality of their work? In an effort to reduce overhead, companies have increasingly downsized their staffs while adding divisions.
"Businesses want to limit their costs, but many of them are doing it without considering how it'll affect their ability to function," says Butler-Boren, 44, who estimates that a company would have to spend $500,000 a year to put the team of three on staff. Instead, firms pay by the project.
They Simply Won't Work for Some Companies
Both sides win, Butler-Boren says.
Their success allows them to live by their golden rule: Work only with people they like.
"We won't deal with unscrupulous companies that treat their employees unfairly, whether it's on the payroll or in the office. We decided this as a group," Butler-Boren says.
After being hit by downsizing five years ago at the junior brand where she was employed, Butler-Boren decided to take advantage of changes in the garment industry--before they took advantage of her.
She transformed a spare room in her home into a work space and printed business cards billing her JBB Designs as a "full-service resource." She's since been able to deliver a collection from inception to production, creating alliances with contractors in China, Canada and throughout the U.S.
She's done this with help from her friends.
Soon after starting her business, Butler-Boren was in a grocery store when she ran into Heather McRae-Parks, a 42-year-old apparel and swimwear designer who lives with her husband and their 9-year-old daughter in Laguna Niguel. McRae-Parks was enlisted to provide design services.
To handle production, they called on Dawn Pion, 44, of Mission Viejo, who'd quit her job as a production purchasing manager for a surfwear label to spend more time with her daughters, ages 3 and 9.
"Like Heather and Jean, I decided I'm not getting any joy out of the job and the kids don't deserve it. That was it," recalls Pion, a former swimwear model who focused her career on purchasing, overseas production and sales. She is still a sales representative for a T-shirt line and a freight company that specializes in the apparel trade. The team occasionally enlists the freight company.
As for the workplace rituals they could be missing as freelancers, they've found a way to include them in their schedules. Take Friday-night happy hour, the traditional time when employees get away from the workplace to blow off steam. The team gathers for margaritas in Butler-Boren's home, where her husband serves as bartender. There, they discuss business, review designs on models--including Butler-Boren's teenage daughter--and exchange tales about their children.
The moms, who live within six miles of one another, bounce ideas and conversation off each other like lifelong girlfriends.
With so much talent and insight, why don't they start their own label? The perks of freedom speak for themselves:
Freelancing allows them to create a line without the risks of owning a company.
They can pass on the tasks they each hate because there's always someone else who doesn't mind.
"We like to pick and choose," Pion says.
They don't have to endure sexism or ageism. The surf and action sportswear industry is fraught with owners who believe that women can't design men's board shorts and that no one older than 35 can lure youths to a junior line.
"For some companies, it's part of their image to say they have someone young in-house designing the line," McRae-Parks says.