A love letter to Austin
Mallary Carroll's clothing lines and stores celebrate city's DIY spirit
Two years ago, Mallary Carroll took a leap. She left the retail security of working at By George and opened her own store, Good Company, on West 12th Street. In February, she opened up a second store on South Congress Avenue.
"I'm already thinking about No. 3," she says from the South Congress store.
In between, she's grown her SBJ Austin clothing line, started a second line that shares the Good Company name and been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.
"I'm super inspired by this city," Carroll, 44, says about Austin. In May, it will be 10 years since she and husband Jason left Nantucket Island after the bust that took away the tourism industry there and with it the restaurant they owned with Jason as chef.
"I know what it's like to fail," she says. "I learned the value of working for someone else and getting a paycheck. It's super important to make sure we're successful."
After being in Nantucket from 1994 to 2009, Austin felt like the right choice.
"Austin felt super DIY," she says. She thinks about P. Terry's and By George and Kendra Scott, and all the fresh, innovative businesses that have grown out of Austin.
"This community of women supports other women," Carroll says. "You can feel it."
She says she loves to travel, but there's nothing like Austin.
"Austin loves Austin," she says.
She and Jason picked up their young family, which included infant son Jude, and hoped for a fresh start in Austin. (Daughter Rose would come five years later.)
Their only Texas connection was her mom, who had eventually settled in Houston, though Carroll grew up with her dad in Michigan.
Moving to Austin wasn't easy. The bust was starting to roll into Austin as well, and Jason Carroll couldn't find a job as a chef. Mallary Carroll, who had retail experience in Nantucket, landed at By George, where then-owners Matt and Katy Culmo took Carroll under their wing.
"We were so broke," Carroll says. "I mean, broke, broke, broke." They lived in a tiny two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, and often they were short on money each month, especially when they had to move out of that apartment and into an 850-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house in East Austin.
Carroll began taking strips of fabric and weaving them into scarves. By George agreed to carry them, and they sold. It kept the Carrolls afloat until the scarf sales stalled.
Carroll says they needed to make an extra $300-$700 each month. "We had to have that money," she says.
She designed a universal dress that looks good on a size 2 up to a size 14-16. "In retail, fuller-figured women couldn't buy off the rack," she says. "I think that's a bunch of crap. 'I'm going to dress this woman.'"
She called it the Ellen dress and her line SBJ Austin, which stands for Sweet Baby Jude.
It's a dress you could wear to work, to the carpool, to dinner, she says.
She wanted all women to feel good in it. "We are all so hard on ourselves," she says. One of her mottoes: "You be nice to you." Another: "Love love."
She hired a seamstress to make the dress. The first six, she says looking back, were terrible, but they sold in a day at By George. She had another 20 made, and they sold in three days.
They sold about 1,000 Ellen dresses that first year. "Our lives totally changed," she says.
And it went beyond what one hired seamstress could do. She borrowed $3,000 from a friend to hire a Dallas production shop to make the Ellen dress. Business outgrew that shop, and now the Ellen dress and all the other women-named dresses, pants and shirts in the SBJ Austin line are made in Los Angeles.
Two years ago, when SBJ Austin wholesale was doing well, Carroll decided to take the leap to a brick-and-mortar store. A real estate agent found the old Kick Pleat store, which felt so big — too big — but she stood in the space and knew it was the right place to start.
She gave By George three weeks' notice, and the day after her last day there, she flew to Atlanta for the International Gift & Home Furnishings Market to shop for furnishings for the store.
She hired Chandler Hedequist, whom she had worked with when she brought SBJ Austin to Round Top's markets, as her director of operations.
Hedequist says Carroll challenges her to be creative. "She would come in: 'So, I have an idea.'"
"We're talking twice a week," Carroll says.
"More than twice a day," Hedequist says.
Hedequist took the leap. "It's fun to be a part of something that feels like the sky's the limit," she says.
And she appreciates that Carroll has made this collaborative. "It's a rare opportunity in retail to be able to work with someone who shares all their secrets with you," Hedequist says.
SBJ Austin and Good Company now have 11 employees. Carroll's time working retail has taught her how to take care of people well. They don't work on commission. Everyone is in sales, but she asks them what other skills they want to have. One builds the website; one likes to do inventory. They each get to travel with Carroll for a buying trip.
"I'm not a control freak," she says. "I'm big on, 'What do you think?' 'Do you like this?' It's my vision, but they have a lot of input and autonomy. Nobody is just a salesgirl."
One thing she's realized, especially after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, is that everybody is replaceable. "I could get hit by a bus," she says. That's why she asks for input and shares what she's learned in retail with her employees. They need to know the business, she says. "If you do decide to take a leap, I will celebrate you," she says, just as the owners of By George have celebrated her.
She called her store Good Company because we all want to be good company, to be welcoming and inviting.
"We love to entertain. We love to have people over," she says. "We have wonderful people in our lives, here and in Nantucket. We're super, super fortunate."
That mood of being good company extends to the store.
"Women come in and stay," Carroll says. "We know about their lives."
In addition to SBJ Austin lines, she stocks lines such as Sea New York, Harvey Faircloth, Love Binetti, 6397 and Megan Park. And while the SBJ Austin line retails for $200-$500 an item and features Italian fabric, she added a less expensive line, which became Good Company and retails for $148-$164.
She launched it while doing surgery for breast cancer, chemotherapy and reconstruction.
Even though people told her their horror stories, she remembers thinking, "It's going to be OK." And what she would tell people instead of the horror stories is "that it sucks, but I did it. You can do it. I did it and I'm a baby, big time."
Every three weeks when she had chemo, she was at the store when she felt good; when she didn't, she worked from home. The staff took her off the schedule at the store during that time.
She says she just kept going. She kept thinking about the next store, and the next design for SBJ Austin or Good Company.
And while she dreams big, she has had perspective. "I'm not a perfectionist; I'm not a control freak," she says. "We're just selling clothes. Yes, I want them to be beautiful; I want customers to be taken care of. The only thing I would freak out about is if customers weren't taken care of."
918 W. 12th St.
1714 S. Congress Ave.