At the age of two, Rebecca Melsky’s daughter Eloise had determined that she would only wear dresses. Though Melsky could occasionally talk her daughter into wearing a skirt and shirt by referring to them as “two-piece dresses,” Eloise primarily wore a closet full of dresses, which she traded for pajama sets at night.
Determined to encourage her daughter’s interests in math, science, and adventure, Melsky, a DC school teacher of ten years, started buying Eloise pajamas from the boys’ section of the store. When Melsky realized that her daughter loved her boys’ truck and robot pajamas just as much as she’d loved her girly, pink ice cream cone ones, Melsky wished she could combine the more adventurous patterns with her daughters’ love of dresses.
“I want to keep her exposed to all those topics and let her know those things are just as much for girls as for boys, but I also want to honor her own fashion choices that even as a two-year-old she very clearly has,” says Melsky.
Thus, in 2013 the concept for Princess Awesome was born: a dress company that markets garments for girls with non-traditional themes, including pirates, pi symbols, trains, dinosaurs, atom diagrams, and more. Melsky first pitched the idea to her friend Eva St. Clair, a mother of four in Silver Spring who has a background in programing and web development. When St. Clair decided to join the mission, the pair dove into figuring out how two women with no experience in fashion design or running a company would launch a children’s clothing line.
They knew from the start that they still wanted the dresses to be feminine–girly, even. They started researching fabrics, but quickly realized that the available patterns were either clearly intended for boys’ clothes or were clearly intended for quilts, making for stiff, impractical dress material.
“We feel very strongly that feminine and girly things are not mutually exclusive of science and math and dinosaurs and pirates,” says Melsky. “Girls are given the message that you can wear girly things or you can wear a shirt from the boys’ section. They’re not told that you can do science and wear a pink shirt at the same time.”
After researching fabrics online through Spoonflower–a website which connects fabric, wallpaper, and gift wrap designers with buyers–Melsky and St. Clair found some fabrics that fit their very specific qualifications: vibrant, colorful, and cute, but still clever and smart. Melsky and St. Clair discovered that the designs they liked the most–a multicolored pi symbol fabric and one with the Periodic Table of Elements–were all made by the same woman in Arizona: Elishka Jepson, mother and rocket scientist by day, graphic designer by night. St. Clair and Melsky knew they’d found their match, so they hired Jepson to work on custom designs for Princess Awesome.
But when Melsky and St. Clair debuted their handmade dresses, sewn on St. Clair’s 1948 Singer sewing machine, the garments were even more popular than they’d imagined.
“We sold about 75 percent of our stock in six weeks,” says Melsky. “We had never intended to make things by hand forever–our goal was not to create an Etsy shop–so after testing the market and finding designs that worked and that people liked, we pivoted toward figuring out how to manufacture.”
Manufacturing meant they needed money, so they set up a Kickstarter that launched on February 3, 2015, with an aggressive goal of $35,000. But Melsky says that when the online store, A Mighty Girl, mentioned Princess Awesome on Facebook three days into the Kickstarter, that’s when the funds started pouring in. By the end of the campaign, they’d raised over $215,000. With more start-up money than they’d dreamed of, Melsky and St. Clair were able to start manufacturing out of Chicago in May 2015.
They’ve since branched out to a second line of dresses–“Busy Dresses” which feature various forms of transportation–but the goal from conception through the launch of Princess Awesome has remained the same: to empower little girls.
“We get a fair number of people saying, ‘How can you be a girl empowerment company if you have the word “princess” in your name?’ And for us, we love pink. We love frilly dresses. We don’t think those things are in and of themselves bad or wrong,” says Melsky. “The issue is that if that’s the only thing girls are given the option to choose from, then they themselves are limited. And we know girls like all sorts of things, and princesses can be one of them, and that’s just fine. There’s nothing to say you can’t put a Princess dress on and go do math problems.”