Jun 22nd, 2021
Emma Zack is the founder of Berriez, a curated online vintage shop that celebrates curves, colors and fruit. Although they launched in Brooklyn in 2018, the seed was planted when Emma was just a teenager, frustrated by the challenge of finding fun and stylish clothes that fit her curvy body. Emma turn to secondhand shopping as a way to find what made her feel good in her skin. Berriez brings the fruits of Emma's satorial eye to others. Accessibility and representation are the core of Berriez. Like fruit, Emma wants every Berriez' customer to remember that they're uniquely vibrant, sweet and desirable at any size and shape.
Learn more about Emma.
Learn more about The Passionistas Project.
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same.
We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and today we're talking with Emma Zack, the founder of Berriez, a curated online vintage shop that celebrates curves, colors and fruit.
Although they launched in Brooklyn in 2018, the seed was planted when Emma was just a teenager, frustrated by the challenge of finding fun and stylish clothes that fit her curvy body. Emma turn to secondhand shopping as a way to find what made her feel good in her skin. Berriez brings the fruits of Emma's sartorial eye to others.
Accessibility and representation are the core of Berriez. Like fruit, Emma wants every Berriez' customer to remember that they're uniquely vibrant, sweet and desirable at any size and shape. So please welcome to the show Emma Zack.
What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Emma: Well, if you had asked me that just a few years ago, my answer would not be what it is today. But, today, it would be making fashion accessible to everyone.
Passionistas: So how does that translate into what you do?
Emma: Berriez, I source vintage clothing over size, I would say, about medium and which surprisingly not many other vintage shops do the vintage world. Like the fashion industry in general is... primarily caters toward straight sized people, which is about like sizes double zero to six, eight source plus size vintage, which is actually pretty difficult to find.
But, I try my hardest to find it lately. I've been working with independent designers on expanding their size ranges, so I can also sell small sustainable brands in sizes XL to 5s.
I understand there's people who are double zero out there. But what I don't understand is that it's more, you can more readily find a size 00, then you kind of size, XL where, where like over 60 or 70% of the population is over a size, XL.
So something really isn't adding up. So I've been trying to, you know, confront that.
Passionistas: When did this first become something that you were aware of and something that evolved into this passion for you?
Emma: It became something I was aware of since I was like 10 years old for really going back because as I was a kid, I was also considered plus size quote unquote and You know, I always tell the story of shopping for my Bat Mitzvah dress.
And I was, you know, 13, I was plus-sized, but I wasn't like, you know, above a size 12 women's 12, you know, and I, for the life of me could not find a dress. You know, I couldn't find anything in the teenager section. My mom and I went to all these stores. I remember sobbing in the dressing room. And that's when I kind of let fashion, let me down.
And I was like, I'm not, I just can't find anything in my size. You know? And then it wasn't until a few years ago that I was so fed up with it, that I was like, you know what? I'm just gonna, I'm sick of this. I love fashion. And I'm sick of never finding anything in my size. It's just absurd.
Passionistas: So you mentioned your childhood, tell us where you grew up and what your childhood was like.
Emma: I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. It's just a suburb right outside of Boston. And I had a good childhood love my parents shout out to them and, but my sister and I were both always plus-sized. So it was something that, or weight and body image and clothing was always something that we discussed in our house, whether it be positively or most of the time negatively, because even what, 20 years ago, it was not like it is today. It was very much like you're going to fat camp because you're a size 14. But yeah, I mean, I was always the fat one in my friend group, which always left me feeling really shitty. And but I always loved clothing. Like I can I've loved clothing since I was, since I, I can't even remember, but my mom says that I always dressed myself and I would play dress up in her clothes and my grandma's clothes. But yeah, I, I. I've been thinking a lot about my childhood and how that has influenced what I'm doing today.
And there's an, a connection that so strong and so powerful that, you know, I didn't even realize how much it has impacted me until now.
Passionistas: Who were some of your positive fashion influences when you were a kid?
Emma: I genuinely can't tell you any one, except for My grandma. I never met her, but my mom I was named after her and my mom swears that I am her reincarnated.
She was also a fashion-y stuff and she was also considered plus-size back in the 1940s, fifties. So she was like a size probably today. 10, maybe 10, 12. But you know, I grew up looking at her clothing and wearing her clothing. And other than that, I mean, it's sad, but I never saw anyone who looked like me in the media. So I didn't really have anyone to look towards.
Passionistas: Your mother was a role model for you as far as starting businesses. Right? So tell us about that.
Emma: She started her own business when she was I actually don't know how old she was, but it was a long time ago.
And she started her own business, founded her own company that she still has to this day. She actually just stepped down as. CEO after 30 plus years of that role. But, you know, I grew up with her and she was always working so hard and like, I just remember going. On vacations or like on the weekend she'd be responding to emails and I never understood, you know, why does she need to respond to this email right now?
And now I'm like, oh my gosh, she was just so passionate about what she was doing. And that I'm the same way I always have to, you know, I'm always doing my job, you know, even if there's a day off, but. It's just because you love it so much, but that's what I grew up with. And you know, she has such a great work ethic and she is so kind, she treats everyone with so much respect and love.
So that's kind of how I've been approaching my business. And you know, it's, it's just really hard to run a business, which is what I'm learning now.
Passionistas: What was the business that she started?
Emma: My mom, her company is called Houseworks and it's an elder care business. So she helps seniors stay at home and she actually started it after her parents both died.
And that, that whole experience really took a toll on her. And she was just like, I'm going to devote my life to this. And she sure did. And now she's has one of the best elder care companies in the country.
Passionistas: What made you decide to leave Massachusetts and come out to California to study at Occidental College. And what did you study there?
Emma: I knew I wanted to go to a small school and, just cause I like more like individualized learning. And and I saw all the small schools on the east coast and I just wasn't really vibing with them. And then I saw Occidental and I was like, oh, is just perfect. Loved the energy there.
My cousins all live around there. So I decided to go out to California. My parents were not thrilled because it was so far. But I actually went to college and in my freshman year of college, I took this class called the prison industrial complex about the United States prison system and race in America.
I learned about the prison system and I. I thought it was the most, a horror. It was such, it was just atrocious. And I did an internship with the ACL of Southern California's jails project, and that's when I decided that I wanted to go into criminology and work in criminal justice. So that's what I studied in college.
Passionistas: That's a pretty far away field from fashion. So how long did you work in that area and how did you make that transition after college?
Emma: I moved back to Boston and I got a job at the CPCs innocence program, which is part of the public defender's office in Massachusetts that helps get innocent people out of prison.
So I worked there for about two years and then got. Another job in the field at the Innocence Project in New York City, which is like the head organization. So I moved to New York City for that job for, it was four and a half years ago. And I actually only left that job in December.
Passionistas: And what did you do there? What was that work like?
Emma: [It was very difficult. So when I first started, I was more of a paralegal and I'd have, I would answer all the calls. So I'd be on the phone with all of our clients all day. And it was just very mentally draining and difficult, but I learned so much. And then I became a case analyst.
So I would analyze all the cases that came into. The project and decide if it was a case that we should pursue or not. Then that road became just so draining because I was literally reading about rape and murder all day, every day. So I moved into our communications department where I was a writer. So I wrote all of our annual reports and yeah, I worked on publications and I, I enjoyed that a lot.
Passionistas: In your spare time where you starting the fashion company?
Emma: About two years into my job at the Innocence Project, my friend and I were just at my house and I was like, and that's how I'm going to start selling vintage clothing online.
And she was like, okay, cool. So we just inventoried a few pieces that I already had and made an Instagram. And just started from there. And then, yeah, so it was really, it's funny. It was totally just, I wasn't thinking of it as a business or anything. Excuse me. I was just thinking of it as like a side hobby that would get me kind of distracted in a way from my day job, which was so mentally draining.
Passionistas: Did you start by looking for pieces for yourself, and then you'd found you just had enough that you wanted to sell? Like, how did that happen?
Emma: So I was really into vintage. And at the time, I don't know if you know about the like Instagram vintage scene, but a few years ago people or businesses started using Instagram as a selling platform to sell vintage clothing, home decor.
So I was really into this world because I love sustainable fashion. And obviously I love vintage, but I was never, ever, ever able to find anything in my size. And at the time I was like a 12, 14, so that's wild. So I would buy pieces from these other sellers and, you know, they would have, they would model the pieces on Models that were like size four and something that size for that looks oversize on that model.
I would get it and it wouldn't even go over my arm. So to make a long story short, I just kept buying this, you know, really hoping that one day I'd find some stuff that fit me. And most of it didn't. And so that was where my. First batch of shit came from. And then obviously I started to have to go and get more, but it, yeah, it really came out of just like stuff doesn't fit me.
I have so much of it. And also, I didn't see anyone on the internet on Instagram. Selling clothes for vintage for plus size people. So I was like, I'm going to just do this myself. This is it's out there. You know, it's not like plus-size people didn't exist back in the day.
Passionistas: Once you started selling on Instagram, were you surprised by how many people were connecting to what you were doing?
Emma: I'm trying to remember how it grew so quickly, but it did. But honestly people would, and I still to this day, get all these messages that are like, oh my God, I'm so happy. I found you. There's no one else doing this. This is so necessary and, and stuff, but So it wasn't really surprising because I was like, I know I'm not the only plus size person.
And again, I'm old at the time. I was only a 12, 14. Now I'm a solid 16. But like at the time I should not have been like 12, 14 and not fitting into literally anyone. So I wasn't surprised to be honest, but I was surprised at how quickly it picked up. I was not expecting what's going on now. I was not expecting that.
Passionistas: So, is that why you quit your job because Berriez became a full-time job for you?
Emma: Yes. A few reasons. I think that the work, I think I was very burnt out from the Innocence Project or not even just the Innocence Project, but that work cause I had been doing it at that point for 10 years and it was so draining.
I'm an empath. So. I'm really sensitive to emotion. So I like I take on so many emotions and it was just, I couldn't disconnect, you know? So that was a big part of it just burn out. But also I couldn't juggle both anymore. Cause you know, it was 40 hours a week for innocence project and then another 40 hours a week for Berriez because I was doing Berriez on all evenings mornings, starting at like 6:00 AM and then all weekend. So I never. For about like a year. I just didn't take a break. Really.
Passionistas: So besides wanting people to have pretty clothes, is there like an emotional mission that you have with the company?
Emma: Of course. I mean, I think it's so much more about pretty clothes it's about being able to go somewhere and not feeling defeated and like someone doesn't care about you because I, even two weeks ago, my I went and visited my mom. My mom was a size eight. I would say we went to the mall for the first time in about like, what two years here, whatever. And we literally couldn't go into any stores because nothing, there was not a store in the, in the mall that had anything of my size.
And it's like, that's so disheartening and frustrating. It's like, I don't want other people to feel excluded. It's just not a good feeling. And I grew up with it and have felt it over and over and over and over again that I want people to come in and be like, oh my God, wait. Stuff fits me. And, oh my gosh, I feel good about myself because feeling good about yourself is what's gonna help you.
Do you know, your day-to-day tasks, whether that be working criminal justice or, you know, working at a bakery or whatever you're you're doing. I think clothes are so much more than just. How, you know, they look and I've really been getting in touch with that, especially during quarantine.
Passionistas: We’re Amy and Nancy Harrington and you’re listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Emma Zack. To check out her “Curated for Curves” store visit ShopBerriez.com.
Save the Dates for the 2021 Passionistas Project Women’s Equality Summit, being held virtually this year on August 20 through August 22. For details go to The Passionistas Project dot com/2021Summit.
Now here’s more of our interview with Emma.
So they're a form of self-expression. How do you use fashion as self-expression?
Emma: I love to express myself through fashion. I wear a lot of bright pop patterns and bold prints. I wear a lot of like novelty, sweaters and shirts that. Are funny and that don't that just show that Fasten doesn't need to be taken so seriously. I think there's and I experienced this as I'm in the fashion world, there's so much of it that is so exclusive. And so like, oh, well, if you don't look this a certain way, or if you don't wear this, this and this, you're not actually in the industry. Well, that's B S you know what I mean? So I try and just wear whatever I want to wear right now. I'm wearing lime green shorts, this really weird top in this big flower necklace. And yeah. I just encourage people to not listen to the quote unquote rules and fashion. Just if you like a shirt that's really bright, but you're, you know, bigger where it, who cares, you know, if it's quote unquote flattering.
Passionistas: How has COVID affected your business?
Emma: It's been weird because before COVID, I was able to do pop-ups every weekend to make money. And during COVID, I obviously had to switch to like a a hundred percent e-com platform. So now I'm back. I'm like doing this a hundred percent e-com excuse me. And now of course, as I finally figured it out, popups are happening again. So but business, honestly, hasn't, it it's been, I've been growing, but I've been learning how much it takes and costs to grow and sustain a business.
And that's been probably the hardest part for me. And some, it just gets me so frustrated every time I think about it, which is every day. But Yeah. So COVID has not been great for business, but it's also at the, at, on the flip side, it has been great because my company has grown.
Passionistas: So now what are your future plans for Berriez?
Emma: So I've so many. This is my biggest problem is that I have so many ideas, but I also have, truthfully, I have ADHD. So my ideas are literally everywhere. I cannot sit still or focus, but my goal, all right, now, one of them is I've been, like I said earlier, working with independent women designers who are extending their size line for Berriez and these designers, the clothing is a bit more expensive than I usually sell, but that's just because all the designers are sustainable and the fabrics are all just like really beautiful fabrics and everything is just hand dyed or whatever. It may be. Everything is material meticulously crafted. And on top of that, I mean, I'm making sure that for each garment that I put out, I fit it on plus size people before it goes into production.
So that we're not just grading up from small sizes to plus sizes. It's like, we're actually going to fit this garment on a plus body. So that it's actually true to size where it's not that problem of like, Okay. Size 16 fits like a size 10. You know what I mean? Which I'm so sick of designers these days doing that because so many are like, we're a size inclusive and then their size 16 won't even go on my foot, you know?
So that's one and then two, I've been thinking a lot about, you know, I just got a studio space because I'm also. All of my stuff was in my basement and, February. So I finally moved it out of my basement. But I think that it would be really great to have a storefront because as a plus size person, it is so important to try on clothing before I buy them. And also back to the experience part where, you know, if you're a plus size person, you'd be able to walk into the store and be, find everything that fits you. You know what I mean? And not just like maybe one thing that's really stressed.
Passionistas: And I would imagine have a sales person who was supportive and understood, stood your normal trepidation about going into a store to shop for clothing.
Emma: Absolutely. I mean, probably a plus size sales person who knows, you know, who's got gone through this experience themselves and knows how to like fit the clothing on our to our
Passionistas: Do you have any desire to design your own clothes?
Emma: Yeah. And so that was another thing that we're working on is my employee Eilee Lichtenstein, who is a brilliant creative genius.
Have you ever heard of the designer, Michael Simon? He made those like novelty sweaters in the late eighties and the nineties. So he's one of my all time here. I was, I think he, his mind is like, so genius to me.
So what we've been doing is we wanted to make our own novelty sweaters, but we didn't want to produce anything new. So we've been sourcing vintage sweaters and hand felting over onto the vintage sweater. So we've been making these novelty sweaters, but that are still sustainable on vintage sweaters.
So that's been a really fun idea. Our first collection sold out in 10 minutes, which has never happened in the history of anything. He will want the sweaters. So we're working on a batch of actually like knit tanks and sweater vest for the summer. So those will be ready and hopefully three weeks or so.
And then I would love to like, start producing those in a larger scale. And then also with vintage shirts, of course. And then also using like vintage shapes that I've found, you know, and patterning those to make new stuff, but out of sustainable or dead stock materials. So I've been trying to keep the business the sustainability model.
Passionistas: So you've talked about the frustration that you felt with the fashion industry, not representing plus size people. Do you think it's changed at all? Is it getting any better?
Emma: It absolutely is. It's even the past year. There's so many brands popping up that are like actually trying, I mean I have to shout out this one brand called Wray W-R-A-Y.
And she is just so brilliant because she is making, she just started extended her size range up to 6X, but the clothing is not like, you know how a lot of no offense plus size clothing is not cute. So. She is making plus-size clothing. That's like actually wearable art. You know what I mean? So that's great.
And then, yeah, there's so many brands, not so many, but there's a lot of brands popping up and doing that at the same time though. There are still so many that aren't doing it. Or doing it so wrong, like being like, were we sell a size XXL and the execs outfits, like a large and another thing is, is that media it's, the fashion media itself is changing in that like brands are hiring plus size models. Like, I don't know if you've seen athletes just extended their sizes target. Big companies are finally getting hip to it. You know,
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to follow her passions like you have?
Emma: I would say to take the risk, but I didn't take that risk until I had fully thought everything through. And organize everything. So I think that was really important. And that was because of my parents. They were like, you want to quit your job, quit your job. How are you going to live? But, you know, it's a huge, it's a huge risk, but you're not going to find out if it works until you do it right. And if it doesn't work, then this is a whole long life ahead of you. So take the risk.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Emma Zack. To check out her “Curated for Curves” store visit ShopBerriez.com.
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Save the Dates for the 2021 Passionistas Project Women’s Equality Summit, being held virtually this year on August 20 through August 22. For details go to ThePassionistasProject.com/2021Summit.
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Until next time, stay well and stay passionate.