Kristen Allen, a native of Maple Heights, is the president and founder of Exclusively Kristen: Chic Fashions for Larger Bosoms, a collection of fashions and accessories designed to flatter and complement the large-busted woman. Growing up, Allen had trouble finding clothing that fit properly. Her entrepreneurial spirit took over, and after a move to New York City made her plan plausable, Exclusively Kristen was born.
Allen was kind enough to answer some questions via email for us about her company, helping women and growing up in Greater Cleveland. You can check out her local pop-up shop on Oct. 21 and 22 in Beachwood.
What was the inspiration behind the creation of Exclusively Kristen?
Since I was a teenager, I've had trouble finding shirts and dresses that fit properly. So I usually wore cardigans and pullover knit shirts. More stylish woven shirts usually didn't work for me because they were either inappropriate for the workplace on a DD+ cup frame (too low cut, too tight, etc). or just plain ill-fitting.
It's been in the back of my mind to make clothes for full bust women since I was in high school, but the opportunity to do so just didn't line up with my professional and educational trajectory at the time. However, in 2012, I moved to New York City from Northeast Ohio and had an epiphany that this was the perfect time to start my dream business. New York City's manufacturers, fashion experts, trim stores, fabric wholesalers, and top fashion schools were right at my fingertips.
So I took the plunge, and it's been one of the best choices that I've ever made. Even though running a small business can be difficult at times, and the learning curve has been high, it pleases me to see the joy on women's faces as they try on Exclusively Kristen shirts and see how well they fit full bust frames. One woman, who wears a 36H bra, expressed that her Exclusively Kristen Classic Polka Dot Shirt is the first button down shirt that she's been able to purchase in years. I've always been a problem solver, so filling this void in the market - a very personal one at that - is very rewarding.
What kind of impact do you hope to have on the lives of women who shop Exclusively Kristen?
Exclusively Kristen is part of the body inclusive revolution in fashion where everyone should feel confident and comfortable in his/her clothes, regardless of body type. The average bra size in the USA is a 34DD, but this large market of women continues to be ignored by the fashion industry. Not only is Exclusively Kristen filling a void in the market, but it also supports American jobs by manufacturing in the USA. Full bust women tend to have rather dowdy fashion choices. For example, shirts and dresses usually make us look like we are wearing a box. There's no accentuation of curves and we usually have a buy a few sizes larger just to fit our bust. Therefore, I want to show full bust women that we do not have to resolve ourselves to ill-fitting apparel and that we too can have clothes that look stylish, polished, and tailored.
How did growing up in Cleveland impact you and your company (in terms of work ethic, people who may have influenced you, etc.)?
I grew up in Maple Heights, which, like many parts of Cleveland, was hit hard by the financial crisis and the overseas relocation of manufacturing jobs. I remember seeing so many foreclosure signs on the street where I grew up and hearing about family and friends who had been laid off. The New York Times even published an article about the foreclosure crisis in Maple Heights. So I saw firsthand the destruction that "made overseas"' had on the average American. As a result, I am helping to bring jobs back to America by supporting as many USA-based companies as possible. I proudly manufacture in New York City, my button distributor is based in New York City, and I'm currently working with a fabric wholesaler with mills in South Carolina.
My parents made sure that I received a good education, but after that I was on my own. I'm a bootstrapper who lacks any kind of a silver spoon and I've had to work hard for everything that I have. My father moved to Cleveland from the South for work opportunities and a better life after serving this country in Vietnam. My parents always taught me that opportunities will not fall on my lap and that I have to seek them out as well as earn them. The de-industrialization of Cleveland had terrible consequences for the city but, as a result, Clevelanders who weathered the storm have grit and a sense of pride in their city that I haven't' really seen anywhere else. Growing up in Cleveland instilled a work ethic in me that prepares me for the worst but gives me hope for the best. LeBron James said, "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have." I concur.
How does it feel to be hosting a pop-up shop in your hometown?
There's a saying that people who leave Cleveland always come back, and I'm definitely part of that trend. I've been trying to organize a po- up shop in Cleveland for quite some time. It's important for me to maintain personal roots in Cleveland, but I also want to lay business roots as well. As Exclusively Kristen grows, I want to open an office or a shipment fulfillment center in Cleveland, which will create more jobs for the city. Also, I want to give Cleveland women access to full-bust fashion solutions that I wish I had growing up.
What made you decide to partner with Marie Angelique for your pop-up shop?
Several months ago, I contacted Naomi, who is the owner of St. Louis' Marie Angelique Bra and Lingerie, because I wanted to hold a pop up shop at her boutique. She was very kind and allowed me to introduce my products to her customers in person and even asked her friend, who works at a radio station, to promote the event. Naomi mentioned that she'd held a pop-up shop in Chicago and was interested in holding pop-up shops in other Midwest cities. So we decided to hold a joint pop-up shop in Cleveland. It was a perfect synergic partnership because she's an expert bra fitter, and we both offer much needed products that cannot be found in Cleveland shops. I offer big bust-friendly attire and she offers A-N cup lingerie.
As a full bust gal, I was mis-measured at bra fittings many times during my teen and young adult years. To my knowledge, there aren't any shops in Cleveland that sell bras larger than a G cup and most only go up to a DDD. So partnering with Naomi of Marie Angelique, who offers A-N cup bras, will benefit women who suspect that their bras just aren't working for them. Poorly fitted bras is a ubiquitous issue because bra fitters will fit customers into the bras that they carry regardless of whether or not it's the correct size. I always encourage women to get regular bra fittings with a fitter who carries a wide range of band and cup sizes, preferably up to a J cup (UK size). Unfortunately, women who live in small towns and small cities may not have that option, so I am happy that Naomi is bringing hard-to-find bra sizes to Cleveland.
What are your future plans for Exclusively Kristen? What can shoppers look forward to?
Exclusively Kristen started with basic solutions for the full-bust apparel dilemma, such as tank tops with a shelf bra that actually covers the entire bust, button downs that don't gape and are fitted at the waist, and empire waist shirts with bands that rest under the bust instead of stopping at the nipple line. The products that I currently have in development are going away from basic solutions and are incorporating high fashion stylistic details, such as copper buttons and zippers. Also, there are vintage and Kimono-inspired dresses in the pipeline. At the pop-up shop there will be new products, which are yet not on the website, available for viewing and purchase. I am also developing a solution to a different fashion problem that I will unveil shortly. So stay tuned!