One summer night in 2015, Michelle Giles couldn’t sleep. She kept envisioning images of tunic dresses, cropped jackets and gathered skirts. So Giles did what many creative types with a bout of insomnia do: She sketched out her ideas on paper.
The Toledo native’s late-night inspirations eventually turned into a women’s clothing brand, Shay & Coco, a brand that is now on the verge of selling nationwide.
Giles launched the company with two friends, sisters Sarah Layton and Stephanie Miller, last fall.
Shay & Coco’s first line sold at more than 40 boutiques across the West Coast. It now has morphed into an “at-home boutique” experience where saleswomen, called “style mavens,” host parties with friends who try on clothes and order from the comfort of their living rooms.
Right now there are style mavens selling Shay & Coco in multiple cities in California, Washington and Ohio, and the company is expanding to other states way beyond Giles’ roots in the Northwest.
Toledo isn’t an epicenter for fashion, but Giles said she was always obsessed with clothing.
“Clothes are a passion of mine. Fashion is passion of mine, and it always will be. I love dressing women and making them feel good and look good,” said Giles, 38, who now lives in Kirkland and also has another full-time job in marketing at Southcenter mall in Seattle.
After graduating with a marketing degree from Washington State University in 2001, Giles moved to Los Angeles where she studied visual communications at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles. She went on to marketing in the retail and coffee industries, but it wasn’t until recently that she finally launched her own fashion firm.
“I’m non-conventional. ... I’ve never been able to put myself in a box. ... Once I get something in my head that I’m going to do something, it’s really hard to detour,” Giles said.
It wasn’t long before Giles and Layton, 37, founded Shay & Coco. Miller, 36, then joined to handle warehousing and shipping.
On evenings and weekends, Giles often drives to Toledo to meet with the sisters to review designs and talk business.
The owners say they want to “make comfy sexy” with a host of contemporary and classic looks geared toward women in their 30s to late 50s. The fabrics and patterns are reminiscent of those at Nordstrom or Anthropologie, but at lower prices.
“We believe you should be able to have fun with fashion, make it your own, individualize it and get creative and mix things up,” Giles said. “So that’s part of what we’re trying to do: teach women how to style for their everyday lives, not only work and play but also date nights, Sunday brunches and girls’ nights.”
The three entrepreneurs — all working moms — try to design Shay & Coco’s pieces for functionality and versatility. For example, a wrap skirt can be worn as a maxi skirt in the office or switched as cover up at the beach.
They also avoid mass-producing their clothing to ensure customers get something unique. Typically each item is produced only about 250 times and is never made again. Some patterns, such a green floral romper in this spring’s collection, are exclusive to the Shay & Coco brand.
Usually Giles sketches out an idea and has a friend create a prototype that a real model can try. The business partners tweak the style, fit and pattern until they’re satisfied.
Their first collection was produced in the U.S. However, to reduce prices the clothing is now manufactured in China, Giles said. But as their business grows they hope to make more products in the U.S., she said.
Their clothes are by no means “fast fashion” either— the kind of clothes you might find at discount stores that favor trendiness and low prices. For Giles, sourcing comfortable, quality fabrics is a must, so prices aren’t bottom-of-the-barrel but they’re not as expensive as some designer boutiques or department stores either. A blouse, for instance, can be anywhere from $40 to $68.
A salesperson or “style maven” earns 20 to 25 percent commission, plus other perks. Shay & Coco maintains an inventory and takes care of the shipping and distribution.
The at-home model proved to be so successful that the owners decided to make it the main focus of their business instead of selling through boutiques. Now Shay & Coco is sold in only two boutiques (one in Seattle and one in Longview: Posh on Commerce). The business model is similar to Stella & Dot jewelry as well as Cabi and LuLaRoe clothing companies.
Layton was the first to host a style session for Shay & Coco because she already had experience with a similar model through LuLaRoe. Two years ago, Layton took her daughter Grace to a style session and was amazed to see how the young girl with a chronic medical condition “blossomed” while wearing new kids clothing. Grace, 6, fell in love with fashion, and Layton began selling the brand as a fun project with her daughter to help build her self-confidence. Now Layton hopes to continue the project with Shay & Coco.
The owners say they hope their entrepreneurial example can inspire their own daughters and other girls in the area to be brave enough to break out of the mold of what’s expected for young females from small towns.
“When we grew up it was common for you to be pushed into college to become very (normal) like a teacher, a nurse. And so for me with my three little girls, I want them to .. know it’s okay to try follow their passions and dreams and (make) that the new normal,” Layton said.
Giles and her partners say they want to “make comfy sexy” with a host of contemporary and classic looks geared toward women in their 30s to late 50s.