We continue our series of inspiring women with Jennifer McMullen, owner and designer of Dishy Duds Designs. Jennifer’s company is full of things that make you smile. In addition to some amazing baby, boy and girl product designs, Jennifer makes one-of-a-kind handbags too. Her fun, creative and open approach to life, family and art shows in each of the products she sells. Dishy Duds also donates clothing and money to many organizations; most recently Jennifer has worked with Mercy Corps to donate a percentage of profits to efforts in Sudan and she started her Darfur awareness campaign in March of 2006. As Dishy Duds grows Jennifer has learned a lot about developing a business you love and finding balance as you do it; she shares some of her insight here with us. Her unique background and flexible approach to business (accepting a certain level of things you cannot control) has made Jennifer a success with her work and family life, and a model for us all to aspire to.
Save the Planet Dress designed by Jennifer, Dishy Duds
Jennifer started out with… Biomedical Engineering?
Jennifer has a degree in biomedical engineering and went to school to design artificial joints and human organs. She writes, “My senior project was to design an artificial liver using pig cells. This sounds funny to me now that I type it out, but it’s true.” Jennifer worked as a manufacturing engineer when she graduated and met her husband, John, at the job. Jennifer went on to get her master’s degree and a certification in ergonomics and gradually built up her own ergonomics consulting business. Jennifer continues to work as a consultant and enjoys the creative design in the field related to processes, tools and equipment in factories, a creativity she shares with the ongoing growth and development of Dishy Duds.
Jennifer and her boys.
The family moved to Portland for John’s work, and now Jennifer and her husband both work out of their home. Her two boys, Abe (almost 6) and Leo (almost 3), enjoy the flexibility Jennifer’s work schedule allows. She writes, “Our day consists of Cheerios, tricycle rides, an occasional viewing of Wonder Pets, blowing bubbles, making cookies, catching worms and bugs and caterpillars, and singing songs (Leo is partial to Steely Dan) loudly. I typically do the internet side of my business early in the AM, before the boys wake up and just recently added a laptop to my kitchen w/wireless, so I can do e-mails as I’m cooking dinner. Being a work at home mom means being the ultimate multi-tasker!” Describing a very “buzzy” house, Jennifer says she often designs new patterns for Dishy Duds on the floor while Leo draws his own patterns. When Leo is engaged independently in a project Jennifer sneaks off to “cut a pair of pants, or sneak and draw out a couple of sizes for a new pattern!”
Abe and Leo will soon have a little sister. Jennifer and John started the adoption process last September and will travel to Africa early next year to bring their daughter home. Jennifer writes, “We decided to adopt from Ethiopia because the need is so great there, due to children losing their parents because of the AIDS pandemic. There are great needs in many other countries as well, but Africa is very close to our hearts. Honestly, I wish adoption didn’t have to exist, and I think about what her birth mother must be going through right now. I wish for sustainable food programs, medicine distribution, and educational assistance for third world countries, so that people are given the chance to thrive versus struggle, and families could ultimately stay together instead of being pulled apart.”
The Start of Dishy Duds
When the family first moved to Portland Jennifer had a difficult time finding work as an engineer. She found it the perfect opportunity to “try something more creative and artistic…” Jennifer adds, “I broke out the sewing machine and got to work!” At first, everything at Dishy Duds was made one-of-a-kind and sewn by Jennifer. Sewing was a great outlet for Jennifer as a full-time at-home mother, and she found it was an important way to “maintain that relationship with yourself” that can unintentionally disappear at home. Jennifer approached the growth of the business a bit tentatively at first, slowly investing more in fabric and ramping up production. When one product really gained in popularity Jennifer was forced to make the jump to hiring help to meet demand. Jennifer began to donate 10% of her profit to Mercy Corps International at this stage in the growth of Dishy Duds. She writes, “In a sense, this was my motivator to move forward and produce more with my business. The feeling that I was working towards something and contributing to something larger that I was very passionate about, made it OK to take risks, as if I were partner with their organization. I hired a few seamstresses to produce my designs and went from there. It felt good jumping into the water even though I was worried I might drown!”
Jennifer now manages all marketing, website maintenance, accounting and retail accounts at Dishy Duds. Jennifer adds, “I create all of the patterns and choose fabrics and trims for the design, work on samples, tweak the design, and then work with professional seamstresses to develop the kids’ line.”
Dishy Duds Monster Shirts
Creativity and Dishy Duds
Jennifer can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t interested in crafting and creating. Her mother infused Jennifer’s childhood with the idea of “doing everything yourself that you can… about the experience of appreciating how things were made.” Tending to a huge garden, learning about flowers and cooking and sewing were all a big part of her childhood and Jennifer shares this creative life now with her own children. She writes, “I try and inject a bit of creativity into everything I do… it keeps me sane! I mean, you can even get creative while cleaning the shower if you think about it; for instance, I like to listen to Elvis and try and write stuff with the shower cleaner! I think you’ve got to make fun in this life, or things become just way too daily. I like to mix it up. I go crazy if things become stagnate. I like to keep it in motion.”
Jennifer’s kitchen is orange, and the kids’ playroom is turquoise and tomato soup red with stencils of owls, sparrows and robins all over. In this colorful, happy abode creativity flows: “I enjoy pushing the limits of crafting. For example, sewing crepe to cotton to sequins to vinyl. I’m a bit of a rule breaker and although I make a lot of mistakes and many people look at me like ‘you can’t do that!’ But, I just *have* to try! If someone tells me ‘no,’ it makes me think no one has really actually tried and tested it, so how can we be sure? I think it’s important to take risks and be a bit fearless. You know like that saying: ‘you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did.’”
This creative energy helps Jennifer find balance in a busy life. She writes, “I dabble in a little of everything. I make art, sew, paint, go to the zoo, cook, eat lots of pizza, ride my bike everywhere, I like to run, write letters, do home improvement projects, rearrange furniture, go on hikes, explore outdoors. I’m not much of a planner, which can be a problem, but in another sense, it certainly keeps me balanced!”
Creative Risks: Inspiring
As she takes creative, crafting risks Jennifer loves to use uncommon fabrics paired with exotic touches of more textural fibers as in dupioni or jaquard. Jennifer writes of her Dishy Duds designs, “I love mixing vintage 60s dresses with Asian design elements. I like mixing it up, combining cultures and historical periods… I also try and keep everything machine washable, because I’m a mom and I understand the importance of being able to toss something into the washer and dryer!” Jennifer has a knack for understanding the inspiration of childhood. She writes, “I try and design things that kids find amusing or fun, but parents also find joy in. Because children are so flamboyant and we tend to lose that as adults, I think. It’s important to remind ourselves not to take things too seriously in life. I try and convey this with my clothing and handbag designs.”
Whether you’re looking at Dishy Duds for an eye-popping bright monster tee, the perfect diaper bag or one-of-a-kind quilted art to hang on your own walls, you can easily visualize the bright creativity imbued in Jennifer’s home and family life reflected in the items she sells. Jennifer blends her family life, business and ideals cohesively so one aspect supports the other and all are nurtured to thrive. Inspiration finds its way in, welcomed; we, in turn, can be inspired by all that Jennifer and Dishy Duds embodies.
Dishy Duds Buckle Bag
We wanted to know more, and thought you’d appreciate Jennifer’s explanations in question/answer format. Here are more thoughts on Business, Balance, Making Business Matter and Inspiration:
SMS: How does Dishy Duds as a company reflect your beliefs and ideals?
Jennifer: One premise of my business is to always treat customers as I would want to be treated, to offer outstanding customer service, above and beyond what is required. Empathy, tolerance and patience are things I place value on as both a customer and business owner. I suppose those are the values that drive my campaign in Sudan as well.
SMS: If you could go back to the beginning of your business, what would you wish you had known?
Jennifer: Patience and flexibility are key. They say it takes three years to turn a profit with a business… Doing tons of research is essential. Paid advertising can be a wash. No matter how small you wish to remain, you no longer have a hobby; you have a business. Not being shy or timid about what you’ve created is very important; be bold and proud. When you become burned out, make something just for you or make many things just because. Not feeling guilty about taking a vacation. And last but not least, staying on top of accounting.
SMS: We heard that you do lots of shows, classes, etc. Can you tell us more about this?
Jennifer: Last fall, I vended at Bumbershoot in Seattle (a three day music festival with a huge indie market), Alberta Art Hop in Portland, Crafty Wonderland a couple of times in Portland, I did a few home shows, Urban Craft Uprising in Seattle, and an independent show called “the secret society sale”… One show I wasn’t able to do, that I have done consistently for three years is the Riches at Rimskys show in Portland, at the Rimsky Korsakoffee house. If you are a crafter and reading this interview, I highly suggest taking the plunge and doing some shows. This is by far the best way to get a feel for who your customers are, reactions to your products (always surprising!), and just that interaction component is so essential. In the internet world, everything is so virtual and unemotional, meeting customers in person is highly rewarding. Don’t be afraid to go for it!
I also teach classes at the DIY Lounge in Portland. I teach a class called “Rock the Stencil,” which demonstrates stenciling techniques (on fabric), and a class called “Pain in the Craft,” which teaches the ergonomics of crafting. I’m really excited about the latter class, because I get a chance to mix my formal education with something I’m truly passionate about! I also did a sugar skull workshop for my friend’s theater group, “the stage slingers,” in Portland, as part of a Day of the Dead celebration. I like to dabble in all kinds of stuff. My new interest is Batik, I’m itching to learn this technique and do something funky and different with it.
SMS: What has made you successful as a mama who creates and sells what she creates? Are there things you have learned along the way that have made you happier? More successful (however you define that)?
Jennifer: I would say, again, being comfortable with being out of control, making up your own rules, trusting and following your instincts. Realize that every project has to be done in pieces and being patient, flexible, and OK with that. Taking time to decompress, a break, this could be jogging, going to see a movie, cooking, whatever. All of these things contribute to building self-confidence and independence, which I think a lot of mamas can experience a slight (or severe) decline in, while staying at home with the kids all day everyday with limited interaction with other adults. In my mind, this is why doing what I do, contributes to being a better mama all around.
SMS: How have you changed and grown along with your company?
Jennifer: I’ve learned that you simply cannot be afraid to make mistakes. This is how you learn and without mistakes, you tend to stand still. I want to embrace change and be more dynamic with my business. I’ve had some pretty negative situations occur lately, with people blatantly copying my designs, and at first I was super angry and out for justice and even had attorneys involved, but now I realize it was a gift in a sense, because it forced me out of being comfortable with the way things were. And now I try to look at it as a compliment (although these weren’t the feelings that came out first!) I had to work through it. And you can’t continue to grow if you’re busy being “the victim.” That’s the thing about business, it changes and grows and you absolutely must be willing to shake things up and move along with it.
Another thing I’ve learned is that you CAN have your cake and eat it too, you just need to make sure you really love that cake (your business)! We’re getting ready to add a third child to our family and many people have asked me what my motivation was or what I think my life will be like with three kids, or what’s going to happen to Dishy Duds and/or my consulting business. But the thing is, without kids and craziness and multi-tasking out the kazoo, I can’t imagine what would inspire me in this life! Being a mother and being creative aren’t mutually exclusive for me, they are intertwined. Things get nutty at times but I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I think if I had all the time in the world to myself, I wouldn’t be so inspired to create. I would be bored. In a weird way, I think chaos is where I’m most comfortable and productive. My husband has to remind me to put on the brakes every now and then. I guess what I’m trying to say is, there are no hard and fast rules to running a business and having a family; trusting your instinct is key; and when things bomb or don’t go the way in which you planned, picking yourself up and moving forward is a must.
On Making Business Matter:
SMS: You donate part of Dishy Dud’s proceeds and we saw that you made a donation to migrant farm workers. Can you tell us more about your passion related to supporting Mercy Corp’s efforts in Darfur? What about your Darfur Awareness Campaign?
Jennifer: I started the Darfur campaign in March of 2006. The idea behind the campaign was purely for awareness purposes, and donating 10% of all sales to Mercy Corps, who has a specific humanitarian program in Darfur. I was mortified to learn about Darfur so late in the game, it’s been going on since 2003! But not until late last year was it making news in the US, and even the news was skewed and not giving us a clear picture of what was going on. And that’s still the case, unfortunately. So I blog about Darfur at least once per month, which has gotten hard because not much has changed and it’s easy to become hopeless and the solution to this is far from simple. But I try and remember how brave the women are forced to be every second, and all they have is hope. So I will have hope for them and their children. They are survivors, very brave, and in photographs, they smile.
Honestly, I hope for a day when Africa doesn’t depend on food falling from the sky as a main source of sustenance for their people. I want western countries to invest in sustainable programs for Africa. Education and clean water systems, sustainable food projects. If more Africans were provided with education, there would be a much greater chance for their economy to develop. Africans aren’t looking for pity, they want to thrive like anyone else. Food from the sky is merely a band-aid for the wound, the source of struggle remains ignored. That is: the deserts are increasing each year and natural resources are depleted, and the land can no longer sustain its inhabitants, due to population stress and climate change. This creates civil war in African countries because they are forced to compete over resources that were once more plentiful. Further, the US occupies only 4.6% of the world’s population but emits about 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases, while the entire continent of Africa is culpable for only about 5% of it. I guess this is why I’m so passionate about Africa. I feel a bit responsible.
I donated over $1000 in clothing from Dishy Duds to the migrant farm workers’ children in the San Joaquin valley in California. I read an article in Mother Jones magazine and it just kind of moved me to that. I just hope they could really use what I sent. That was the first large donation I made, and looking back, it could’ve been much more effective. But you’ve gotta start somewhere I guess!
SMS: Do you have favorite resources that inspire/support your creations?
Jennifer: I intentionally don’t look at what other people are doing now, because I’ve learned that your subconscious can be tricky business! Even if you are merely drawing inspiration from someone else’s style, that can come through a bit *too* much at times. I’ve experienced this on both sides and it’s seldom intentional, but seems to pacify your natural creative instinct. I think it’s so important to go with what you feel, regardless of whether or not it seems “safe” design-wise, and draw from your personal inspirations. For me, these are typically things in nature, an eccentric or strong personality I happen to meet, colors, textures, architecture.
My family digs the outdoors and we LOVE to explore. I find so much inspiration in the simplicity of nature. And architecture, old buildings, history, studying other cultures. I try and remind myself to breathe and take it all in, and feel lucky to be in this exact spot at this moment. It doesn’t always work, but I try! I specifically enjoy things that are angular, odd, even ugly, paired with equally opposite perfectly square things. I like frayed edges but I also like daisies. I like combining colors that aren’t commonly seen together but you might randomly see in nature.
I do really like the Tokyo street style site, particularly because there are no rules! I also like Mary Engelbreit’s style– lots of mixed up colors and mish mash and oddity.
For more about Dishy Duds visit:
The Dishy Duds store, of course, and Jennifer’s blog. For Dishy Duds accolades visit the Press + Praise section of the store (celebrities love Dishy Duds!). Also on the store site: Don’t miss the fantastic links page full of (mostly indie) shops and goods (Jennifer has great taste!), and don’t forget to make your very own monster face.