Jodi Arnold had an $8 million eponymous clothing brand sold at Barneys New York and other high-end stores. Then a bad economy took it down. She came back stronger, with the plus-size line Eloquii, which had sales of $20 million last year. Arnold, 49, spoke to Real Simple about failure, dreams, and transforming lives—including her own—through fashion.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and my parents were very strict Southern Baptists. I found myself questioning the norms in the South and liking different ways of dressing. With red hair and freckles, I was already different from everyone around me. I couldn’t wait to get to New York and be a fashion designer.
Did you sew as a kid?
I made a lot of my own clothes. One of my early memories is of an elderly woman across the street who passed away and her daughter coming over to say she had all this fabric. I remember going down into her basement and seeing it. To me it was so beautiful, and she let me take it all.
You moved to New York the day after you graduated from college, in 1988.
My parents had told me that I couldn’t go unless I had a job. I got one as an illustrator for a pattern company.
What came next?
I jumped from job to job every two years or so. I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do.
Until you launched your line, in 1999.
I started it on the side while I worked. At that time, there were little boutiques popping up [downtown] in Nolita and Soho, so I took my clothes around. I didn’t think it would be anything, but stores began making orders. Then, 10 months in, I got an order from Barneys for $50,000. I was over the moon. That’s when I decided I could really have a company.
How did you fund it?
I remember talking to my dad about taking $5,000 out of my savings account—that’s what I needed to get my first collection produced. He was very negative about it and said, “You need to just stick with a job.”
It was very successful, then almost overnight it crumbled.
When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, in 2008, stores immediately called and canceled orders that had already been produced. The year before had been my best ever. All of a sudden, the orders just stopped, like a faucet that was turned off. It was really scary.
How did you cope?
I don’t think I handled myself well. When you’re up against a wall, owing people money and not being able to pay rent, it really tests your character. It wasn’t so much “Will I have food on my plate?” but I had 30 employees and realized I would have to lay people off. I closed completely in 2011.
You got out of town.
I didn’t want to do anything in the U.S., so I found a freelance job in Hong Kong. I wish I could have taken a break, but because of the money situation, I couldn’t. Then the Limited offered me the job to do a new plus-size brand. It was like a light went on: Oh, my gosh, here’s where I can make a difference for women who’ve never had anything really fashionable to wear. Sixty-five percent of women are above size 14. It gave me purpose in my career again.
Plus-size fashion is something you’d been thinking about.
There’s always been a connection there. I couldn’t even wear a size 10 in my own line or shop the contemporary market. I’ve always been a bit bigger, up to a size 14 at times. When I was young and starting to design for myself, I could find ways to make myself look good, but I couldn’t go to a store and do it easily.
Eloquii has had great customer feedback.
We get letters saying, “You changed my life. I don’t have to go to an interview looking like a grandmother.” I don’t think I ever felt that the clothes I was making for size 4 girls were changing lives.
What’s something you learned from failure?
I remember feeling so ashamed and embarrassed. But wounds heal faster than you think. Later I realized that people forget your mistakes.
Tell us about your life outside of work.
I’ve given up a lot for my career. I’m not married; I don’t have kids. Maybe that would be different if I hadn’t loved this business as much. But for me that was my goal: to come to New York and be recognized as a designer, not to get married or have kids.
You’re a dog lover.
I rescued a pit bull about a year ago, and I’m just obsessed with the breed. People say pit-bull owners are the vegans of the dog world. Sometimes I think, Could I do something charitable or altruistic in the next part of my career, like start a pit-bull rescue? It’s opening my mind to think what the next step could be.