Meet the Maker: Great Lake Outfitters

It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We're reviving last year's The Maker Series, a partnership between The Cleveland Flea/Indie Foundry and Suzuran Photography, to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do. All photography by Suzuran Photography.

Q + A with Great Lake Outfitters

Great Lake Outfitters specializes in women's vintage fashion, early menswear, found objects and old-school home decor. Owner Kelly Pierce tells our market manager Sarah Wilt how she got into the biz and where she scores her best finds.

SW: When and how did you start thrifting?
GLO: When I was in Kindergarten, my grandmother and I would go out weekly to the local thrift stores, flea markets and boutiques. She has a real knack for interior design and was always updating her home. She taught me that good style and design can come from anywhere; all you need is a little time, patience, and luck. I've always held that to be true. You never know what’s out there until you go searching for it. And that’s what keeps me going.

SW: What were you doing professionally before starting your business?
GLO: Shortly after I graduated from Kent State in 2005, I had a very short-lived career as a photojournalist. I hopped around various gigs for a few years doing freelance, studio work, weddings and school portraits.  I was never fond of studio photography, but the years I spent setting up those lights, backdrops and wiping the snot from kids' noses, taught me a side to photography that I never knew. Slowly, I started to enjoy studio photography. Ideas of a working as a studio photographer didn’t seem so bad, but whatever hope I had for that was dashed in 2008, when I was laid off. Again.

SW: Why did you decide to start your own business?
GLO: I was laid off in 2008 and struggled to find work, of any kind, during the recession. Bills were piling up, debt collectors knew me on a first-name basis, and my small unemployment checks were not cutting it. I flirted with online selling for years and had mild success with it. But I'd never really worked at it. It was just a hobby. One day I thought,  what if I go out every day and find things to sell? I had nothing to lose.

I took half of my $150 unemployment check and went searching for the best vintage fashion I could find in Northeast Ohio. And I did this every day. By late 2009, I was making more money selling vintage clothing than I did in any job before. A good job offer came my way at that time, and I turned it down! For the first time in my life, I was happy about my work. Great Lake Outfitters went official in 2010, and I haven't looked back.

SW: What are your goals and dreams for Great Lakes Outfitters this year?
GLO: Continue to do what I love, share what I know with others and keep this crazy train going. Someday, I’d like to have a building to house all my treasures that's open to public, a place where people can shop, chat and hang out.

SW: Whom do you look to for inspiration?
GLO: As a creative, I find inspiration wondering the streets and neighborhoods of Cleveland. Leica in hand, I photograph the everyday. Not sure what it is, but wandering get cogs moving in my brain. Seeing what people are doing, where they're going, what they're wearing keeps me in the "now."

Chatting with other small business owners and bouncing ideas off one another is great inspiration for my entrepreneurial and biz side.

SW: How has the Cleveland Flea helped your business?
GLO: Whoa. The Flea has been huge! As an online seller, it gets lonely, sitting behind the veil of the Internet. Since last April, the Flea has given me the ability to work with customers in person, get instant feedback on products, and find inspiration on what items to seek for the next Flea. Plus, I’ve met best-of-the-best vendors, who have been the greatest support system for me.

SW: What have you learned about your business by participating in the Cleveland Flea?
GLO: For years, I was just a vintage clothing dealer. The flea has taught me about other vintage goodies that I’ve been passing up for years. I diversify my products. While the bulk of my business will always be vintage fashion, I dabble in vintage furniture and home decor now, too.

SW: What is the one thing that you will always pay full price for?
GLO: Oooh. A 1920s rayon silk, beaded and embroidered art nouveau, drop-waist flapper dress. I’m a sucker for the 1920s. I tend to pay a bit more for those one-of-a-kind dresses. I also have a weakness for bubble gum pink crepe, bows, polka dots and ruffles. If that’s all combined to one dress, watch out! It’s mine.

SW: What’s your biggest struggle from an artistic standpoint?
GLO: Time. I need more of it.

SW: What’s your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
GLO: Finding inventory. I do my very best to find the best of what is out there, but some months it’s harder to find items than others.

SW: Where can we find you?
GLO: During the day, I'm usually working in my studio, photographing new inventory, listing things for sale online, packaging orders, making appointments, fixing dresses, ironing, cleaning and planning world domination. By night, I might be at a sale or reading a book, drinking tea. On the weekends, well... once Thursday comes, it's a non-stop whirlwind of estate sales and auctions around the region.

SW: What is your favorite piece of advice, related to fashion and/or business?
GLO: Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry about what others think. Do what your heart tells you to. Persist and persevere.

SW: From where do you source items?
GLO: Estate sales, auctions and my Rolodex of liquidators, whom I bug from time to time. And of course, a few thrift stores.

SW: What kind of vintage pieces do you get really excited about finding?
GLO: 1920s and 1930s dresses, early menswear, vintage bathing suits from the 1950s. Things that are just downright funky and odd. Pink dresses with bows, polka dots, ruffles!

SW: What tips can you give to shoppers to find great vintage pieces?
GLO: Go everywhere! Estate sales, garage sales, auctions. Always ask questions. Some of the very best items were never out on sale until I asked, “do you by chance have any vintage clothing?” They'd reply, "why yes, I actually do have some old clothing,” and score!

More Great Lake Outfitters:

All photos are courtesy of Suzuran Photography