New York Comic Con 2014. I was determined to be one of the first people to get this limited edition Sailor Moon t-shirt that had been announced by Viz Media on Twitter a few days before. During my more than two hour wait in line for the con to officially open, I decided to put on some lip stick and I was approached by this beautiful young woman who asked to use my compact to touch up her make up. We talked about make up, the con and of course her cosplay. She was wearing this interesting dress which she changed three times while we were on line. Later that same day as I walked the show-floor I bumped into this young woman again at a booth covered with pictures of women in dresses like the one she was wearing and she introduced me to the designer, Danielle Ward. Owner of Little Petal, she designs and creates custom convertible dresses that are comfy and sophisticated. These dresses are unique recreations of characters from comics, manga, anime, film and even video games. As someone who, at the time, hadn’t cosplayed but wanted to, I was stunned by the concept. One dress, multiple styles. I put down my deposit immediately. Danielle is so amazingly creative and talented that I just had to find out more about her.
Check out my talk with Danielle below!
Disclaimer: Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Marlena: Prior to starting Little Petal what did you do professionally?
Danielle: Retail. I’ve been in retail since I was sixteen. Full time, sixty hours a week. My first job was Party City actually. When I started Little Petal though it was alternative wedding dresses and then I switched over to the convertible dresses because I wanted a product that everyone could wear, not just girls getting married. When I first moved to New York though to go to Pratt Institute I worked at St. Marks Comics which helped me want to have a fashion company based around comic books.
Marlena: What inspired you to start you own business?
Danielle: So my dad has always had a plant-scaping business so its in my blood. It’s just me, I don’t have anyone else to answer to other than myself and working for someone else is not nearly as rewarding.
Marlena: Why the name Little Petal?
Danielle: Oh interesting. No one ever asks me about the name actually. Little Petal is what Tulip’s father in Preacher calls her in literally one panel. Preacher was my favorite comic book series for a very long time and so I named it after Tulip because she is such a bad-ass which is a fact that people do not know and they think that it is a dainty name, but its really a hidden hardcore name.
Marlena: I love the concept of “cosplay” convertible dresses, its like having an endless supply of dresses inspired by your favorite character and/or fandom, but has a design request ever stumped you?
Danielle: Uh yea, definitely. You guys ask for some crazy things. I mean I always end up figuring something out of course. So the one’s I get stumped on are when the costume is only one color and I’m like, “I don’t know how its going to look more than just a black dress.” And then once an awhile, like at Dragoncon this year someone asked for the Stargate from Stargate SG-1. So there have been times at convention when I will say,”Ok, put down your deposit and then I will figure this out.” And then we’ll email back and forth about the design because my brain cannot possibly think up a design at the spot at a convention.
Marlena: What about the choice of fabric? What made you choose jersey material?
Danielle: Its rayon jersey, its not cotton jersey which is what I was originally going to use–it tends to be too thick and too sheer. The fabric needs to have a certain kind of stretch to it to get fully around your body. The way that the straps are for my dresses is that they need to be doubled. There has to be a front to them and a lining, while most convertible dress companies its just one piece so there has to be a certain weight and thickness to it that is not too much or to little. Also its insanely soft. It feels like your wearing pajamas.
Marlena: Little Petal is one of the few body positive and size inclusive geek chic brands. Did you start the brand with the goal of spreading a body positive message to the fandom community?
Danielle: When I started I think I was like, ” Who wants a dressed based on a character?” I was selling mainly to my friends and so my friends of different sizes were like, “Ok I want Black Canary, I want Wolverine and I want Wonder Woman.” And I like the idea of using just my customers as my models because you guys look ultra happy in your dresses. I like the happy looking model more than the serious duck face looking one. To me why would I want to buy clothes if you don’t look happy in them? So first I wanted to make sure that I knew how to make clothing for all different sizes of women and then once I realized that this was important to people I made sure to highlight this so that people know that we are body inclusive. The dresses are custom made to your measurements. I don’t size my dresses because I don’t believe in sizing. I don’t believe women come in standard sizes.
Marlena: Recently an Instagram post of young plus size woman dressed as Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad went viral due to the negative response to the cosplay attributed to her size. What are your tips to people who avoid cosplaying certain characters due to body image struggles or fear of negative responses?
Danielle: Sometimes women will come to my booth and they look at me and say,”Of course this looks good on you.” And then Leanna will literally say, “Excuse me.” And she’s fly as f**k looking, she looks better in the dress than I do. [laughs] With my dresses it doesn’t matter what size you are or what size the character is. My customers are my models and once in a while I have a customer who cannot model a dress so I ask someone else who can. I either ask someone who is already coming in to model if they can model a second dress or else I will ask one of my friends if they can model a dress that has their same measurements. Recently I asked someone to model a dress and they said they would but they were hesitant saying ,”These are my measurements, but that’s not really what that character looks like.” I really don’t think about those things at all, just look at my website. It does not matter at all. I have plenty of Ursula’s that are 28 inch under bust and I have plenty of girls who are Harleys with a 42 inch under bust. For example, my Wonder Woman dress, I’ve had a girl purchase one who is 4’11” and I also had a gentleman who bought one who is over six feet tall. He’s using the dress for drag which is really cool. So there is a super wide variety of body types and sizes; it doesn’t matter what the character looks like, just who do you want to be. Who do you see yourself as?
When people come to my table it is extremely overwhelming because of the pictures featuring a bunch of pretty girls in pretty dresses and its very bright compared to a lot of other things. White walled, bright and everyone looks happy. So I tell them look up from the table, close your eyes for a second, don’t think about what you are seeing in front of you just think about who you would like to dress as, who do you feel that you are. We’ve even begun to tell people that they don’t have to choose a character we have, you can just pick a character later. I will measure you so that I can have your measurements but choose your character later and email it to me.
Marlena: What has been your biggest challenge as a small business owner?
Danielle: It definitely changes as your company grows. At first it was hard to even sell them because the price tag is pretty high. I know that it is compared to other companies that offer nerdy dresses and apparel. But they are one of a kind, handmade, quality pieces. So at first it is hard to sell your product when you are a small business but then the more photos on my booth, the more product on my website and then more people no longer question that this is something that they want. People just get it now so that part is no longer that big of a deal anymore. I think it is still a little hard for people to understand that it is just me here. I’ll be done with a convention and all of a sudden I have 50 orders, which is great, yet very overwhelming. As someone who is pretty OCD and doesn’t shy away from talking about depression and things like that, its very hard decide on who’s orders am I doing first. Which ones make sense to do first based on colors because the way I have my fabric is by rolls and I don’t even have every color I could need. More than half my orders are for new designs and it takes a lot of time to design these new designs, then to go to the store to buy the new fabric and just to keep going back and forth with customers.
I don’t think people sometimes realize how time consuming it is to do the communication to all of them. I love talking to all my customers but it is a lot of work for one person. An insane amount of work goes into owning a business. Editing and posting photos, running Instagram and Facebook; if you notice my Facebook barely gets updated. I’ve started updating my Instagram everyday because it is a little bit easier and Facebook is kind of a terrible social media network for small business. There’s also a ton of “business-y” things like taxes for every convention. There’s a lot. Owning a small business is an extremely easy thing to get burnt-out from. And then once you start getting burnt-out its very hard to recover from that without feeling like a total failure. I’m used to having a 4-week turnaround but now my turnaround is 10 weeks or longer, and its a constant stock pile with more orders coming in.
Marlena: What is your experience with men looking at your dresses when you’re at Cons?
Danielle: I do have a couple of male customers. I haven’t had any to come into model yet, but soon I will. Usually men come by the booth, and they ask, “Do you make anything for me?” And first we say, “Yea we make dresses if you want to try one.” Most of the time they say, “I don’t want a dress”. To which I respond, “Well then no because everything in the world is for you.” That said, my company is super LGBTQ inclusive as well. I try very hard to get my trans customers to model my dresses and I get so heartbroken because most of them will not. Which I totally understand because the online world is just so vicious. Every one in a blue moon a troll will come in and post something negative on the photos which is totally not ok. We don’t tolerate any negativity on our social media pages.
Marlena: Have you ever thought about having a meet up to have all your fans and customers come in to do a group shot to maybe get those customers photographed?
Danielle: So I do “Babe of the Week” posts because it is not as intimidating as coming in to model and its not published all over the site or the booth. It is a blast on Instagram and Facebook. They are kind of my little love letters to my customers because you’re all so cute. Hopefully it makes everyone feels included and better about everything. I just love seeing photos of everyone in my dresses. Not everyone sends me them which makes me sad. I don’t think people realize how much it means to me, it means a crazy amount to me.
Marlena: When I heard “pockets” I was like, “SOLD!” I think that is one of the best parts of Little Petal dresses because I actually cosplayed at New York Comic Con last year and my dress had no pockets so the entire day I was with my brother like, “Can you hold this? Can you hold this?” It was the most irritating thing ever. Dress pockets are such a novelty.
Danielle: Its very time consuming to put pockets on these dresses so I didn’t used to do it. I only used to put pockets on my dress. I am cold all the time so I stand with my hands in my pockets at conventions and girls would literally jump over the table at me screaming, “POCKETS!” To the point that I had to start offering them and so I slowly started to do it. One of my customers who owns multiple dresses, she ordered a dress and asked if I could put pockets in the dress. I was like, “I can but I would have to charge more.” and she said, “I do not care at all, I want pockets in this dress. You should just tell people it does not matter. Tell people you will charge more for pockets. Just do it.” Girls freak out for pockets. Its funny, John Barrowman did the exact same thing that all of you do when you put on the dress, which is you twirl in it and then put your hands in the pocket. You always forget that there’s pockets. Always. One hundred percent of the time, you guys forget and then you always go, “There’s pockets?!” Its the best.
Marlena: I saw that you’ve recently started selling hoods. Does it have to do with a specific design or is it meant to cater to women who wear religious head-coverings like a hijab?
Danielle: So I started making hoods because you guys have been asking for them for over a year now. One of my customers ordered a Jessica Jones dress, based on the Netflix series so I was like how can I make this character look more like the Netflix series. I felt like she needed to have a hood to make it really look like her and the customer really wanted once so I was like, “I’ll make a hood for you. You’ll be why I’ll invent it.” But yes, it could be used for a head-covering, they are pretty big.
Marlena: Where do you see Little Petal in 10 years?
Danielle: Hopefully I’ll have people working for me, if not I’ll be dead. [Laughs] I’m sorry that sounds bleak as hell. I definitely want to expand and make more items. I miss making other things; I used to make corsets and the like. Bow ties…random items that you wouldn’t think of to make as nerdy items. I like the idea of evening wear or cocktail dresses that are actually inspired by cosplay, nice coats for example, just building a brand on more garments.
Marlena: Is there anything about yourself that you’d like to share?
Danielle: I am a hermit and I don’t leave my house other than to follow this cult-like Halloween-circusy band around named World/Inferno. I follow them all around and I’ve seen them about 200 times. I do their merch as well now, but before that I wasn’t, so that’s the only time I leave my house. Rebecca was their old violinist and she is the person who asked me to make a solid color convertible dress three years ago. Yeah, that’s a weird fact about me.
I can’t wait to show you my first Little Petal dress that Danielle has been working on. It will be featured on the blog very soon so stay tuned for that.