Garmental's Suzanne Kopulos on Transitioning Industries, Not Looking Back

It takes guts to start your own business, but it takes even more courage to deviate from your comfort zone and take a leap into something unfamiliar.

It's a bit like that scene in the The Last Crusade where Indy steps out onto the invisible bridge and trusts he won't fall to his death. That's the kind of bold pluckiness Suzanne Kopulos owns: After getting a degree in law, she decided to instead follow her passion and enter the fashion world.

Fast-forward a couple of years and Kopulos is running multiple businesses and being described as a "celebrity stylist" thanks to her working on clients like Beyonce and her dancers for Oprah's final show.

A more apt description of her would be a stylist-entrepreneur, as her latest venture, is also her biggest passion project. It's a snazzy web site that offers customers peeks at outfits put together by her and her staff from boutiques around town. It combats the temptation some shoppers have to buy bits and pieces and the inevitable realization that none of them actually make a complete outfit.

It's also a year and a half old now, and I gave Kopulos a call to talk about the years between changing careers and getting written up in the papers, how no experience is ever truly "useless," and what advice she'd offer to those intimidated to step out onto the invisible bridge of entrepreneurship. (You're gonna need more than a bag of sand and a fedora.)

Can you walk our readers through how you transitioned industries, because you were in law before you were in fashion, right?

Suzanne Kopulos: Right. [Laughs.] You can hear the disdain, can't you?

Yes, I heard!

Suzanne Kopulos: And I laugh because I know most people would think that -- but basically I entered fashion almost immediately after graduating from law school. I did work a little bit in compliance while I was doing some startups, like when I started my handbag line. So I did do it a little bit. I always, always wanted to be an entrepreneur and always had a huge interest in fashion. That's what I always laugh about: People thinking I'm the biggest expert in the world. It's not that; I think I have a photographic memory for fashion and shopping and labels and what I like. It's always made me happy. So, after I graduated from law school and we were studying for the bar, I was sitting there going, "Oh my gosh, this is awful. I don't want to do this, I don't want to be this." I was a criminal-defense attorney in Miami and I just went, "This is silly." Law school prepared me for law, but I think what it really does is prepare you for life and you can do so many different things with it. So I just went, "Oh well! I'm just going to do whatever law-related jobs I can to keep my head above the water while I want to start these other companies and really just live the American dream."

I'm picking up some disdain with that, too, when you say "the American dream."

Suzanne Kopulos: [Laughs.] It's so wonderful to be your own boss and lead your life with a passion for what you do. And you like what you're doing, and you feel like no other place can you actually try to enter into an industry or a job or something that you really, really love. It's just that it does. For people who have overnight success, they are the luckiest people in the world, but I do feel that it takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of luck, and a lot of really, really, really, harder than hard work.

Well, the thing about overnight success is people often forget about all the years leading up to that.

Suzanne Kopulos: Oh my gosh. When you run every aspect of your business -- unfortunately and fortunately I'm not a trust-fund baby. Nobody handed me a million dollars. Nobody's even netted me a loan. It's one of those things where it's a lot of hard work, and it's a long road, but we always say, "But when I look back, I'll say, 'Remember those tough years?'"

So in the timeline of your journey, when did you enter the fashion world?

Suzanne Kopulos: 2003 was when I graduated from law school. It was a year later that I decided to venture out, so I literally flew out to New York. I had tons of girlfriends that lived out there. I would just crash on their couches from month to month. I would just go down to the garment district and interview people, talk to pattern makers, talk to sample makers, and try to figure out what it was like to own a brand and what manufacturing in the United States was like.

How did you go from that to becoming a "celebrity stylist?" And how do you feel about being described as such in the press?

Suzanne Kopulos: No, I hate that. I was like, "Oh, God!" I do deserve to some degree to be able to say that. It's not like Fergie is banging down my door and everybody's like, "Style me!" when they come to Chicago. I work for Ford Models as a stylist. The opportunity to work with some celebrities presents itself. I got hired by the on-base team to work for her and her entire team. She's got a million stylists. I'm assisting all her stylists, because Oprah -- we had like 50 dancers and Beyonce to prepare for that. That's the kinda stuff that I get to work on.

When did you start getting those kinds of gigs if you entered in 2003?

Suzanne Kopulos: I started making handbags and I guess I'm a celebrity designer because a lot of celebrities actually carried my first line of diaper bags and hand bags. 2006 was about the first time it entered the market place, so it took about two years of research and guts, and whatever. Let's say about 2009 I was still working and I stopped working full-time for anybody except myself. Then I got this great idea to start another company, which I really, really love. That's when we started Garmental. I like styles that makes it look like a human is wearing clothes. So, I just picked up all these skills. I just absorb it all. So we started Garmental, I was signed by Ford right away, and I've been working for about a year and a half as a stylist.

What did you use from your previous experience to inform starting Garmental a year and a half ago?

Suzanne Kopulos: I think one of the biggest experiences was all of my first ventures had pretty much been solo. I think I learned in launching this new business -- Garmental is a partnership of five people, and each one of us is pretty much an expert in our field. I think the biggest lesson I learned is that sometimes you cannot do everything yourself. I think it is so wonderful that finally I was like, "Yeah, if you're the best publicist, then we're going to hire you. If you're the best editor in the city..." We have a photographer who's on staff and we have our creative team, who's a husband-wife duo. I was just like, "Oh my gosh, it's a perfect storm. Let's pull it together. I'm not going to do everything." I do a lot of stuff for my current business, and I do all this other stuff -- meetings and business and stuff. I could've built a website on my own, but it certainly wouldn't look like this. You need to know when to contract out or hire out or partner to benefit your mental health and time.

What's your primary role with Garmental if you have all these other people supplement what you do?

Suzanne Kopulos: I'm technically the style director, but I do all the day-to-day. I do anything that has to with press typically. I do all the TV segments, I pull all the clothes, I style all the looks that you see on the site, I write all the editorial you see on the site.

I'm hearing some more disdain right now...

Suzanne Kopulos: No, no, no! It's like a laundry list. We have so many people do things behind the scenes. A lot of the day-to-day business stuff lands on me. Which is fine, because that's what I want to do. We are bootstrappin'.

What was involved with finding out stores would be interested in participating in Garmental? Or do you not need their permission?

Suzanne Kopulos: All the clothing and looks that you see is our work. So what we do is we pull a look from a boutique, or we tell them what we want and they'll drop stuff off with our PR firm. Then we spend a whole day and we shoot all of that. Once a month I send out a note to all the boutiques that we started with. We knew quite a few boutique owners just being in the business. We said, "We'd like to start this. Would you like to participate? It is 100 percent free to anybody who's participating." It's not a membership. We would love if they would support us by advertising. [Laughs.] Or anything like that. But this service is really about the consumer.

Some of them do advertise. But the boutique world is very different. Boutique owners are very different. It's wonderful because they trust us and lend out all their clothes. We send them back and their stuff isn't damaged or lost. That can happen because they're not a designer. These are actually goods that we style and send back and are sold. It's very different.

If you're coming up on a year and a half, you're coming up on two years. What sort of milestones are you hoping to reach by the end of the year, or by the time you reach two?

Suzanne Kopulos: Well, before we reach two, we are in the works right now -- the fun thing is we are an original concept and there's no other website that does what we do in the country or the world. Which is wonderful. The bad news is that everybody wants us in their cities and we're too small to expand. Even better news is that Flipboard, the iPad app, has curated us. We're in their style section amongst Rachel Zoe and Marie Claire. That we can be such a small brand and able to get that kind of exposure gives us a lot of credit and makes us proud, but, our goal is to be funded. We are in the process of looking for investors and our first round of funding. We would love to be inside new cities by the end of next year.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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