One of the reasons I started my website, is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a waitress who believed in her dream, took a leap of faith and found her place in Hollywood. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
From the age of 15, Renee Claire was waiting tables to earn extra cash. At the time, it was a way to make ends meet and pay for college. But as she made her way from Amherstburg, Ontario to Los Angeles, those serving skills came in handy. Waitressing at celebrity hot spots allowed Renee to work evenings and bring in great tips, while she explored the endless possibilities Los Angeles had to offer.
"I was just going to stay for six months," Renee laughed. "It was supposed to be a little break after college. But Los Angeles was a magical place to be in the '80s and I found a cottage by the beach for $200 a month. I just couldn’t leave. It seemed like there were so many opportunities to become who I wanted to be -- even though I didn’t know who that was yet."
So by day, Renee lost herself in her passions. She took all the dance classes she could fit into her day -- on trade -- agreeing to clean the studio after hours. She spent the rest of her time at her friend’s fledgling design studio, where she’d fill in as his fit model.
"I’d talk with him about how the clothes felt," Renee recalled, "and he’d talk with me about the fashion business. I loved being around beautiful fabrics and patterns. I’d been sewing with my mom and sisters from the time I was eight years old."
And those sewing skills brought Renee one step closer to the Hollywood lifestyle she loved. Though she didn’t have the money to buy the trendy clothes she longed for, Renee did have a way with flea-market finds. She could take a one-dollar dress, make a few alterations, and have a piece that looked like it belonged in a designer showroom. The crafty waitress even customized the black pants and white shirts that she wore to work.
"The restaurant owners noticed what I was wearing and they began asking me to create new uniforms for the wait staff," she said. "It was a great way to make extra money, but I’d never sewn for anyone other than myself. So when it came to measuring the cuffs, I just measured my own wrists. That didn’t work out so well for the guys! If you were at 72 Market Street back in the '90s, you may have noticed that most of the waiters had their sleeves rolled up!"
Eventually Renee went back to sewing what she loved -- creating the kinds of pretty dresses she had crafted at her mother’s side. Fascinated by vintage patterns, she’d spend hours at the library, researching 18th century images and collaging them together -- creating unique patterns and color combinations. And she began contemplating the time she spent in her friend’s design studio.
"I wasn’t his intern," Renee said, "but I may as well have been. I learned so much just by being around him and I kept thinking, 'I can do this.'"
And she soon found out that others agreed. Renee showed some of the dresses she’d designed to a sales rep and three weeks later the California waitress had $26,000 in orders. But there was one little glitch.
"It never occurred to me that I would need $13,000 to actually manufacture them!" she said, rolling her eyes. "I was waitressing at night to pay for fabrics and I had a Vietnamese woman who was sewing them for me in her family’s one-room apartment near downtown Los Angeles. My dresses were being sold in lovely boutiques and I even made it into Saks Fifth Avenue at one point, but every penny I made went right back into buying more fabrics. I was making more money waitressing."
So time passed and what was once a way to get by, had become a way of being. Twenty-four years from the time she lifted her first tray, Renee was still waiting tables.
"I promised myself that by the time I turned 40, I wouldn’t be a waitress anymore. I saw all these people around me, still living in their rent-controlled apartments and I knew I wanted more. I wasn’t sure what more was. I just knew I wanted it."
But it was the late '90s and women were beginning to wear far fewer dresses. Renee was delivering what she believed to be her very last order. And that’s when she spotted something in a boutique window -- something that would catapult her out of the restaurant business and into her future.
"There was a pair of pajamas with an Asian motif in the window," Renee said. "The pattern was very similar to the one I had created for the dresses that I was holding in my hand. I knew if the store owner was putting those pajamas in the window, they were important to her business. And I was certain that I could make a pair that would be even more special."
Renee dropped off the dresses and went directly to the city’s high end department stores. She combed the racks at Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and found exactly what she was looking for -- an opportunity. No one was making a luxury line of pajamas.
So two weeks before she turned 40, Renee took a chance on herself.
"I walked into the restaurant and gave two weeks notice. And then I packed up my black pants and white shirts and sent them off to the Salvation Army."
The next morning Renee began cutting patterns for pajamas that had the extra detail her dresses had become known for. She added piping and pockets -- creating a "boyfriend" pajama -- but using her unique fabrics to add a fun, feminine flair. And then she took an even greater leap of faith.
"I’d had my eye on a storefront that had been for rent for quite some time," she said, "but I was sure it would be too expensive. But then one day I was having my nails done across the street and I watched the sign fall off the building. I decided that was a sign in itself -- that the landlord might be ready to lower the rent!"
Her instincts were right. Renee got a deal on the space and declared the 1,200-square-foot shop the new home of BedHead Pajamas. And then she took off for a trade show in New York.
"I no longer had an income to rely on, so I relied on myself and a credit card," she said with a grin. "It cost me $3,000 to fly to New York and to secure a spot at that trade show and all I had was one rack of samples. But that day I got $20,000 in orders and collected more than 100 business cards."
And among those business cards was one from a Neiman Marcus buyer, who eventually placed an order for enough pajamas to stock every store in the chain.
"That's when I knew I was on to something great. But I couldn’t spend too much time in the 'wow' of it all. I had to get straight to the now. I had to produce all those pieces!"
But what Renee didn’t realize was that there was even more "wow" stirring in her small store. Hollywood stylists were stopping by and taking note of her vibrant patterns. And before she knew it, those celebrities she once waited on were wearing her pajamas on television.
"Jennifer Aniston wore our green ming pajamas during the entire last episode of 'Friends'," Renee said with delight. I was so excited I couldn’t even hear what she was saying. I just kept looking at the pajamas."
Today, when you see clips of your favorite celebrities in their pajamas, those stars are likely to be wearing BedHead. Renee's cozy line has been featured in more than 75 television shows, films and commercials, including an iPhone spot in which "New Girl" Zooey Deschanel dances up a storm wearing Renee's pink ric rak print. It's a perfectly fitting tribute to the waitress with a love of dance and a knack for design who landed in Hollywood and found a dream.
"I took some big risks. Not everyone would be comfortable with a credit card as their only back-up. And I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it -- not without a lot of due diligence. But I believed in myself and I needed to go out on a limb.
"Sometimes you need to let go of what you have," Renee said, "to reach for what’s possible."
BedHead Pajamas are available at retail locations in Los Angeles and New York, in fine boutiques, department stores and online at BedHeadPJs.com.
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