Camille Newman was in a dressing room when she realized the “freshman 15” had turned into the “senior year 70.”
She was in college in the early 2000s and, after being asked out on a date, decided to hit the mall for a new outfit. But finding something cute in a size 16 was difficult.
After spending hours searching store to store, Newman faced an unsettling reality: Fashionable clothes for plus-size women were pretty much non-existent. Disheartened when she couldn’t find anything to wear, she canceled her date.
But instead of letting that moment bring her down, it lit a fire inside: Other curvy women would never feel what she felt that day if she had anything to say about it.
Fast forward to 2018: Newman is the founder and owner of Pop Up Plus, an e-commerce boutique that dishes out trendy clothing with a side of body confidence for sizes 14 and up. The company is now in its eighth year of operation.
The Beginnings of Pop Up Plus
Newman planned to pursue a doctorate in African-American studies after getting her undergraduate degree but decided to pivot to retail. She r eturned home to Brooklyn after graduating and threw herself into the fashion business.
She worked for different corporate retailers but never forgot about the need for plus-size inclusion. Then, in 2009, she got laid off.
“I said, ‘You know what, Camille? Now’s the time to try,’” Newman says.
She dreamed of opening a brick-and-mortar boutique in Brooklyn, but doing so was just too expensive. In an effort to find the least costly option, she chose to do pop-up shops instead.
For initial funding, Newman cashed out her 401(k) — and looking back, has serious feelings about it.
“Biggest, biggest mistake ever.”
But Newman also turned to microloans and business contests for funding. In 2010, she won the PowerUP! Brooklyn Business Plan competition. She has participated in over a dozen other contests since.
She calls herself a “pitching queen” and estimates she’s raised more than $100,000 over the years.
With a combination of personal savings, loans and contest winnings, Newman held the first ever Pop Up Plus event at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Green on September 9, 2010.
Though she didn’t break even, Newman refused to let that little hiccup stand in the way.
It’s About More Than Selling Clothes
Although Newman obviously wants Pop Up Plus to generate a profit, servicing the plus-size community and giving it a voice could be even more important.
“I’m passionate about the community because body image affects women in such a deep way,” Newman says. “That really was one of the main values that I had when starting Pop Up — just encouraging women to look beautiful, to feel comfortable with the size that they are.”
Having struggled to find trendy, well-fitting clothes for herself, Newman’s heart breaks when customers share their own struggles and horror stories. So she’s constantly trying to educate and convince the naysayers that, yes, these women are sexy and they deserve to feel that way.
In a fashion industry that shies away from curvy women, finding a wide variety of inventory can be a challenge. Whereas standard sizes can be sourced from upwards of 1,500 brands, Newman says, there are maybe 250 for plus-size women.
“Previously, a lot of plus-size was workwear-based, like blazers… and even bigger blazers,” Newman says with a laugh. “We believe in things being fitted on you and fitting well, and if you have to throw on some shapewear, oh well!”
The joy in Newman’s voice is palpable when she talks about seeing women transform in front of her.
“When you put a dress on a person that they didn’t think they could wear, and they really pull it off… it’s just beautiful,” she says.
Transition to Online
A big reason Newman went with the pop-up concept is because it best served her customers. Women could feel the fabric, try on the clothes before buying them and consult with others on the fit.
But as years passed, the popularity of her pop-ups started to wane, largely due to the rising dominance of online retail.
So in 2014, Newman decided to transition Pop Up Plus from, well, pop-ups, to an online store. She still does pop-ups from time to time, but not as often as she’d like.
“We are still a very small business and trying to grow in a New York City environment has been very challenging,” Newman says. “We would love to do [pop-ups] once a month — we often get requests… but financially we just can’t do it.”
In an industry as fickle as fashion, willingness to change and adapt is key to success. To accompany the transition from pop-ups to online, Newman embraced social media marketing as a way to boost her business.
Clearly, she did something right. Newman is a member of the Facebook Small Business Council and won the Facebook for Business All Star award in 2014. Also, the Pop Up Plus Instagram currently has over 80,000 followers.
Newman credits social media for a lot of Pop Up Plus’s success and international clientele.
“When we needed to drive the business, especially in 2015 and 2016, we found our most growth on [Facebook and Instagram], and that’s where we got our customers,” says Newman.
Despite the initial success, over the last year Pop Up has endured tough times on social media. New algorithms and higher prices for paid advertising have made online growth more difficult for small business owners.
It’s a setback, but she’s had plenty of those before. Newman currently has her eye on YouTube, where she hopes to find organic growth. She’s been tossing around different ideas such as how-to videos and fabric tutorials.
But ever-changing social media hasn’t been the only hurdle she’s had to clear.
Trials of Entrepreneurship
Newman comes from a family of entrepreneurs, so it’s in her blood. But she thinks there’s somewhat of a glorification culture surrounding startups. She’s all about the raw truth: “If I had to do it all over again… I don’t know if I would,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is really, really, very tough.”
Newman acknowledges that she’s made a lot of mistakes along the way, like cashing out her 401(k). But she’s also learned a lot and hopes she can help others avoid similar pitfalls.
“I started out with inventory and I tell entrepreneurs nowadays to do everything you can to test your idea with as zero dollars as possible,” says Newman. “Your whole mission as an entrepreneur is to be the leanest startup it can be.”
She puts that concept into play in the Pop Up Plus fashion consultant program.
Consultants purchase the clothing from Pop Up at wholesale and get 25% commission from sales. Pop Up handles the customer fulfillment, so the consultant doesn’t hold any inventory.
“We realized that fashion is a very local thing,” Newman says. “You know, a girlfriend sees you in a cute dress, and you’re telling her where you got it… so we wanted to offer people the opportunity to make money by wearing clothes.”
Through the consultant program, Newman is able to reach customers she might not have been able to before, and it gives budding entrepreneurs the chance to dip their toe in the retail pool without the risk of buying inventory.
Over the years, Newman has worked full-time in corporate retail while running Pop Up. In 2017, she decided the time had come to devote all of her attention to her own company.
Sales declined that year.
“The year that I leave to go full-time!” says Newman, laughing. “Really!”
Always looking ahead, she continuously works to refine the voice of Pop Up Plus. She stays relevant by expanding the product line and changing out vendors. The company is currently working towards securing a manufacturer so it can sell more products up to a size 5X.
She also hopes to grow her team from the current two to five. At the moment, it’s just Newman and another full-time employee, Michelle Charles, who has been with Pop Up for four years.
Charles used to follow Pop Up on social media. When she saw an opening for an operations job, she jumped on it. Charles says Newman’s positivity and passion for the plus-size community make this job special.
“I could come in [to work] feeling some type of way, and no matter what, I’ll always leave happy,” she says. “Her outlook is totally different; when other places are about the work, work work… she’s passionate about the plus-size industry, so it’s a totally different vibe.”
Persistence, adaptability and passion have powered Pop Up Plus through eight years — no small feat considering that half of small businesses don’t make it past five years.
The fact that Newman so openly shares the realities of entrepreneurship and laughs about her ups and downs shows that she does in fact have this in her blood, whether she likes it or not.
Not being able to find a dress all those years ago put Pop Up in motion, and she hopes that someday women won’t have to deal with the problem.
“It’s crazy how one dress can really transform your thinking.”
Kaitlyn Blount is a staff writer at Codetic.