Sharon Bui was tired of, as she calls it, “falling out” of her dresses.
As a member of N.C. State University’s Chi Omega sorority, she was required to buy dresses for recruitment parties. Even after paying for alterations, the dresses still never seemed to fit.
And it wasn’t just her.
“Out of 120 girls, all the girls were upset,” Bui said. “Nobody felt like the clothing was fitting. When the size 0 girl and the size 12 girl aren’t fitting, that’s when you know you have a problem with aesthetic and design.”
Bui, who attended N.C. State from 2009 until 2013, was majoring in fashion textile management with a concentration in brand management and marketing.
At the same time, her friend, Kate Steadman, was studying advertising and fashion at Appalachian State University. Bui had worked with Steadman at an internship a few years prior, and they had always joked about starting a business together.
“I knew Kate’s work ethic,” Bui said. “I knew she was good at production and finances, and I was good at selling and marketing.”
In 2011, when the two were juniors, they chatted over Facebook about the idea of designing and selling their own dresses.One weekend, they decided to go for it.
The next year, with just $500 in a Wells Fargo bank account, the two then 19-year-olds started Frill, an online custom-dress company specializing in the sorority and bridal market.
In the beginning, Bui and Steadman worked out of their parents’ houses. They hired seamstresses, with Steadman doing some of the sewing and Bui helping with what she could.
“The first year we dressed five sororities; the second year we dressed 18,” Bui said. “One of our pictures went viral in 2013 on Pinterest and Tumblr. Sorority girls all over the country found out about us — and all over the world.”
Frill did $39,000 in sales that first year and $150,000 the second.
Then the bridesmaids and brides started calling, and the two launched a bridal division to meet that demand, Bui said.
In 2013, Steadman and Bui started selling jewelry geared toward all shoppers, and eventually added other clothes, mongrammed gifts and accessories.
“When we produce for sororities, we produce extras,” Bui said. “This leaves us extra inventory that we sell to anyone.”
In March 2014, Frill moved into a 1,500-square-foot office and production space near Mechanical Boulevard in Garner, where they do small runs. They also began working with a California production facility to manufacture the sorority apparel.
Last month, Bui and Steadman appeared on Shark Tank, receiving a $100,000 deal from sharks Barbara Corcoran and Kevin O’Leary, who each now own 15 percent of Frill.
The growth and attention is more than a little daunting. Frill now works with more than 100 sororoties and last year made more than $340,000 in revenue.
“The numbers have doubled each year, so it’s been hard just managing that many people,” Bui said.
Now the challenge is to be smart about expanding while also getting others to see past their ages.
“We find ourselves in a lot of situations where we try to do business, and the other business won’t take us as seriously as the next person because we’re so young,” Bui said.
But the two know there’s a need for their clothing. In an industry where showing skin often sells, they have hit upon a niche that’s desperate for fashionable clothing without the worry of a wardrobe malfunction.
Their designs are inspired by Pinterest and fashion magazines, but they work those ideas into clothes that are “classic and timeless.”
“Even if something is trending right now, they still want something that’s not going to show their cleavage,” she said.
Reach Christa Gala at firstname.lastname@example.org