BEHIND THE BIZ // ROCHELLE BEHRENS OF THE SHIRT

rochelle - the shirt - meg biramPhotographed by , featured in Refinery29

ROCHELLE BEHRENS // THE SHIRT

Tired of fighting “the gape” in women’s shirts with safety pins, Rochelle Behrens patented her dual button technology™ for THE SHIRT. A shirt with no gape! THE SHIRT was discovered by the Oprah Winfrey Show and named Oprah’s “Must Have Fashion Item of the Year” — the rest is history.

Can you give a quick history of how you came to designing The Shirt?

I actually don’t come from a formal design background. I’ve always been driven by aesthetics but also compelled by business and politics. At the University of Pennsylvania, I majored in art history and political science. In college I interned at W Magazine and at The White House. So that duality has always been a part of me. When I graduated, I moved to Washington for a career in politics, which is how I came to wear button down shirts to work every day. It’s also how I discovered that they never fit properly.

Was there a moment when the lightbulb went off and you just knew what you were going to do? 

There wasn’t necessarily one moment, but a slow steep over the course of a few years. I wore button downs every day because I thought they were the most classic way to look polished and professional. What took me time to realize is that I was undermining my own potential because they never fit right. I would always safety pin them from the inside to hold them closed over the bust, or felt uncomfortable because I couldn’t move in the way I wanted for fear my shirt would gape open. Then, I became obsessed and realized so many other women had the same issue. I couldn’t not solve it.

Once you knew you wanted to have your own line, what steps did you take to make that a reality? 

Since I had become an expert at safety pinning my shirt closed for so long, I knew how to carefully weave the pin in between the layers of fabric so it wouldn’t show through.  I took a sketch I had made based on that concept, took a shirt that I liked and headed to a pattern maker in the garment district in NYC that I had researched and knew worked for big brands that make beautiful clothing. I sat down with him and the first prototype worked! Then came the harder part. I worked on patenting my technology (and now have two patents!) and then sourcing the correct materials. For my first run of production I headed to Mood, like I was on Project Runway, and bought fabric and buttons. And I brought on a freelance production manager to monitor the production and teach me the process. Given that it was all new to me, having expert help was imperative.

Once I had a small run of shirts, I held a trunk show at my apartment and The Shirt did really well. NPR heard about the event and ran a story on me. And then The Today Show called to do a follow up piece. It was then I knew I had an idea that might really work beyond my colleagues, friends and me.  

the shirt - meg biram

What lessons have you learned along the way? 

Too many to even conjure up! Probably the biggest lesson is that the market determines a lot. If you have an idea, don’t worry about making it the most absolute perfect thing it ever can be. You can get really hung up on details that might not matter at all. Sometimes you have to make something that is good enough and put it out there. The marketplace will respond and let you know what works and what needs to be tweaked.

Any advice that was given to you that proved invaluable?

My parents who have always been my biggest supporters have always encouraged me to dream big. It pushes me to always want more for the business.

What has surprised you about owning your own business?

Just how all-consuming it is. I work a lot. And when I’m not working, it’s all anyone wants to talk about with me!

What hardships have you had along the way?

It’s hard as an entrepreneur to look at and define hardships. Everything is a hardship since you’re creating something out of nothing. But I think what makes an entrepreneur is that you always look for a way around the problem. If someone tells you no (which you’re told all the time) then you look for an alternative – which is also known as an opportunity. So, hardships are simply vehicles to new opportunities, I think.

What do you wish you would have known going into this?

That most businesses aren’t successful overnight (or even in two or three years). Someone once said to me that every business is an overnight success – it just took 10 years to get there. Growing a business is a long, slow process. Our need for immediacy in current culture runs counter to that.  

dual button technology - the shirt - meg biram

What is your process for deciding on inspiration for season of shirts? 

Our creative director, Meredith, determines the palette and the print story each season. Sometimes we’re inspired by a recent trip I took, or an editorial image from a magazine. We like to have a good range of solid go-tos and fashion pieces for our more adventurous customers.

We always design with an eye toward what would work for the professional woman, without being overly business-y. We always have the basics that build the foundation of her wardrobe (the perfect white button down, the perfect black sleeveless, the perfect ivory silk blouse for example) but then we add in colors, prints and silhouettes of the clothes she actually wants to wear. We’ve never believed that a section of your closet should be designated work clothes and that it looks boring. Our design philosophy is that our shirts and shirt dresses are the ultimate in versatility for work-to-weekend, and have the added bonus of fitting perfectly.

What have you found works for you as far as organizing your business, time, and all of those emails?

I really don’t have a method for organization. I’m highly motivated and incredibly detail oriented, so things get done.

Highlight of your career so far?

There are a few, fortunately! Of course, the most incredible moment was when Oprah named The Shirt her Must Have Item of the Year, which launched my business. And then when The New York Times ran a Sunday Styles piece on me and Inc. Magazine named me to their Coolest Entrepreneurs Under 30 list. These were all great moments that I worked hard to get to and when you’re pushing forward all the time is a nice validation.

Do you have a favorite of all of your products?

Besides the white shirt — my ultimate must-have —  I’m loving our silk prints. Every season our creative director dreams up new prints and I think they always really capture a great mood and tell a story. 

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Behind the Biz takes a deep dive behind the scenes with business owners and entrepreneurs. Read the first interview with handbag designer Blair Ritchey.