Otherwild Founder Rachel Berks didn’t set out to open a boutique shop slash graphic design studio (making her an official slashie), but when the graphic design world and a brief stint at William Morris designing presentations for fast food companies didn’t align with the vision she had for her future, she shifted gears. Otherwild was born in LA in 2012 and just opened a second location in New York this past May.
Now she’s focussed less on fast and more on building community and offering an inclusive space for the LGBTQ population. It’s the glue that binds Otherwild’s followers together and also sets her apart as a business owner. You might recall Rachel as the unapologetic force that brought back “The Future is Female” shirt after seeing the image on HerStory’s Instagram, which focusses on the herstory of lesbian imagery. She’s also committed to representing the multi-dimensional and expansive queer community.
We caught up with Rachel to talk the importance of reputation, what working with like-minded individuals means to her, and women she admires.
What’s your background? How do you end up owner of a brick-and-mortar/graphic design studio?
I studied modern dance, printmaking and gender studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and after a brief stint as a professional dancer/waiter in NYC, I went to work with my friend Stacey Mark, who was the photo editor of NYLON Magazine. While there, I assisted in photoshoot production and contributed collage, illustration and writing. After about a year, I was recruited to join Ford Models’ newly established New York-based in-house art department in 2004, promoted to Art Director for the company’s international corporate network in 2006, and appointed Creative Director through 2011. In the fall of 2011, I followed my girlfriend, artist A.L. Steiner to Los Angeles. I imagined I would build a freelance design business out in LA. During my first couple of months there, I was very inspired by the DIY spirit of LA, and befriended my former business partner, Marisa Suarez-Orozco, who was also a graphic designer. In early 2012, we conceived of Otherwild, a hybrid retail store, that would sell work by our artist + designer friends, as well as a graphic design studio.
Can you talk a bit about how NOT getting a (series of) job(s) lead you to where you are today?
When I first landed in LA, a creative freelance agency immediately placed me at William Morris, designing PowerPoint presentations for fast food companies. I was the only woman on the team, where I had to endure misogynist conversations all day in a windowless office. I lasted about a week and a half. From there, I interviewed at a slew of production companies and ad agencies, where in one interview, I found myself defending my ability to design work that was less creative, and more appropriate for corporate clients. I freelanced for a few of these agencies, until I met Marisa and we decided to open Otherwild.
Is it important to you that female founders support each other? Why?
In the Summer of 2014, I received a random email from two female shop owners, Marlee Grace from Have Company in Grand Rapids, MI and Courtney Webb of Hey Rooster General Store in Nashville, TN, inviting me to “SHOP : KEEP – – a retreat for shop owners.” It was shortly after Mari and I had parted ways and even though I didn’t know anything about these women, I booked a ticket the day I got the email. The retreat was an incredible life-changing moment, where we discovered through our total transparency that we could help each other grow our businesses. Since that moment, I’ve tried to uplift and support small business owners as much as I possibly can. Some of my closest friends are other female and genderqueer business owners… we have a truly unique connection and understanding.
You talk about working with like-minded individuals. What mindset is that? Do you think it’s important to work with non-like-minded people sometimes?
I think taken out of context, that sounds like I’m part of an exclusive clique, which isn’t the case. I’m referring to craftspeople, the handmade, feminisms, and social justice organizations. I don’t want to work with racists, homophobes, misogynists, gun enthusiasts or multinational corporations, for instance.
You’re surrounded by a pretty stellar creative squad. Who is a woman in your life who is doing something you’re proud and amazed by?
My partner A.L. Steiner is an incredible artist and activist, and her work is endlessly inspiring to me. You can see more at hellomynameissteiner.com.
Also my friend and collaborator Kelly Rakowksi, who runs the Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, mines various sources for archival lesbian imagery. Together we’ve been working on a clothing line that reinterprets some of these images. See more here.
Invest as little as possible– how did that work as a business plan?
It was really about playing it safe and working with the resources that we had. Initially, everything in the shop was brought in on consignment. The original Otherwild was down an alley on Hollywood Blvd – it was under 300 square feet and cost $500 a month. We were determined not to fail, and not being in debt was crucial to that plan. Once we felt a little more secure, we moved to a bigger space on a residential stretch of Echo Park Ave. and continued to slowly and carefully build the business. Recently, Otherwild moved once again to Vermont Ave in Los Feliz where the storefront finally has foot traffic!
To a degree you built a business on reputation– do you think this is rare? To promise something and deliver on said promise?
I think this is rare, but I think it is often true of small businesses. My dad is a small business owner and my grandfather was too, and I think through that lineage, I learned to build something that had integrity and generosity at it’s core. I think being unapologetic in Otherwild’s embrace of all things queer, feminist and small-scale shows a certain truth in who we are and what we believe in as well.
What other ways do you think you do business differently?
Otherwild has evolved from being a retail/design studio to being a social space that hosts music, comedy, performance, readings and classes in herbalism, craft, tarot and more. I’ve always wanted Otherwild to be an active space.
Additionally, Otherwild donates money from the sales of specific products to Planned Parenthood, The National Center for Transgender Equality, The Lesbian Herstory Archives and Black Lives Matter. This is an important aspect of living our politics beyond a slogan on a t-shirt.
What have you learned through the ups and downs? Breaking up with your partner, for example?
It’s not easy having your own business, you basically work all the time. When you start a business, everyone always says it takes 3-5 years, and you don’t want to believe that at the beginning, but it’s absolutely true, and you need to be willing and able to put in the time. Breaking up with my partner felt like a tremendous setback at the time, but ultimately it was the right thing for both of us.
Two stores– is that something you ever imagined? Any further plans for expansion?
I had only just left NYC when I opened Otherwild, and so I always imagined that I might come back to NY and launch a NY store. Otherwild had to be born in LA, it was very much product of LA’s cultural climate in that moment, but NY seems really excited to embrace us now. As of right now, the NY shop is a longterm pop-up which will be installed through March 2017. I’ve yet to decide what will happen after that!
Otherwild carries the work of Tuesday Bassen who just called out Zara for ripping her off. What are your thoughts on big corporations taking advantage of small biz? And how does Otherwild work against this?
I love Tuesday Bassen and her work, and I am excited to watch this particular situation continue to unfold. I feel like Tuesday actually has the power and possibility to set new precedents. I’ve always been outspoken about big corporations and their cruel treatment of artists, as well as terrible labor practices. After this latest example of IP theft, I made a personal vow to boycott multinational corporations, as wholly a possible. For me, it was not such a stretch but I recognize for some that might feel impossible. I am dedicated to supporting small businesses, artists and designers in all aspects of my life.
What do you want the legacy of Otherwild to be?
Legacy denotes history — or herstory as I might read it — and I don’t know what our herstory as humans will be. I just hope to provide those interested with inspiration, knowledge or objects that they love and cherish by being as conscious, kind and caring as possible, and by supporting the people who want to produce in this way. It’s a continual learning process. There’s book that came out in 1973 called Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by British economist E. F. Schumacher, which is the antithesis of our current ethos of growth and exploitation. Although I participate in a form of capitalist exchange, I challenge myself to figure out ways to find ethics and humanity within this model, and continually transition where necessary.
OTHERWILD LA 1768 N. Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027
OTHERWILD NY 37 Orchard St. Basement New York, NY 10002