The Depressing Reality of Being a Professional Corsetmaker

Don't get me wrong guys. I love what I do. Love it. Not quite so much that I would do it for free, but I'm not all that far off.

Short version? I live in Denver, where the cost of living puts a reasonable living wage around 50k/year. About how many corsets do you guys think (mostly) one person can make per year? I average about 50. I only get to keep about a third of what I charge, the rest goes to materials, studio space, equipment, and those assistants I mentioned earlier. That is some depressing math. In order to make 50k, my cut for each of the 50 corsets would need to average $1000. And remember how I only get to keep a third? That means we have to multiply the cost per corset by 3. So now, to make a living wage in Denver, I have to charge, on average, $3000 per corset.

Which very few people will pay. In fact, if I'm charging that much, each corset will be expected to take months of my toil. Which means I won't have time to make 50 pieces, and we have to start the sad math all over again.

Still with me? Because I want to get into this. That was the short version. Are you ready for the long version?

Let's look at my actual numbers from last year. Actually, this is great incentive to get my shit together for taxes.

In 2017, my pricing started at $300 for a basic black underbust, and horribly undercharged for bridal starting at $1200. My prices have since gone up. I actually made 21 corset commissions including several bridal, and charged $10,755 for them total before tax.

Truth be told, this number isn't really indicative of the amount of work I did, since I spent January remodeling my store and studio, February and March making one of my best friend's wedding dresses, and August making five and a half Hamilton costumes for friends for trade. I had an injury in October that kept me from working until this January. So really, this last year was pretty rough on the wallet, but sometimes that happens. Realistically, without the injury, those numbers could easily have been double. But that didn't happen, so we're gonna work with the reality instead of what could have been.

 Zero regrets. This dress would run something like 20,000 retail, and took thousands in materials and hundreds of hours in labor. Worth it 5000000%.

Zero regrets. This dress would run something like 20,000 retail, and took thousands in materials and hundreds of hours in labor. Worth it 5000000%.

 So many regrets, but dayum do we look amazing.  Aaron Burr, Maria, Alexander, Eliza (me!), and Angelica made by me, and Peggy made with my patterns and instruction. Maybe worth it? I skipped way too much sleep though.

So many regrets, but dayum do we look amazing.  Aaron Burr, Maria, Alexander, Eliza (me!), and Angelica made by me, and Peggy made with my patterns and instruction. Maybe worth it? I skipped way too much sleep though.



Anywho, that averages out to $896.25/month.

Let's take a look at my expenses now.

For materials, I spent-

$752.23 on coutil
$1277.52 on boning, busks, and grommets
$863.47in silk (Silk Baron probably knows me by name now)
$632.17 on other fabrics and laces
$113.74 in sewing equipment (no big purchases last year, just thread, paper, pattern hangers, needles, machine feet, and throat plates)
$40 on photography to promote my work (My incredible photographer was also paid in an Aaron Burr costume, so this number would be way higher normally)
$35.85 on business cards

For a grand total of $3714.98 last year. There's probably some hidden expenses I'm not counting, too.

So my take home after those expenses? $7040.02. Or $586.67 per month.

But wait! There's more!

My studio space is inside my store, which runs $1250/month, kinda a steal in Denver. I use about a quarter of the space for studio, so we'll divide that accordingly. $312.50 a month for that, or $3,750 per year.

Now we're down to $3290.02 I get to keep per year. And we still aren't done.

My amazing assistant averages $168 a week for her two days work cutting, grommeting, and some hand work; before employer taxes. These are things I cannot physically do long term, and sometimes I can't do them at all. I really wish I could afford to pay her more, she really really deserves it. Anyway, that's $8,763 per year. She does split that time between doing corsetry work and working the shop, I'd guesstimate it's about a third of her hours that directly go into corsetry, so we'll adjust that number accordingly. So $2921. However, if we don't count the 6 months I was either too injured to get her help sewing, or working on projects I wasn't being paid for, we can cut that number in half for the purposes of this post. So $1460.50.

Notice how my margins are pretty much gone? I very literally made $1829.52 last year off my work. Granted, this is 6 months of paid work, but that's still under 5 thousand a year. And yet, I'm constantly getting comments about how my work is too expensive, and such a rip off. Please, enjoy some comments that make my blood boil!
 

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 These were all from just one corset, too. 

These were all from just one corset, too. 

So! How can I even afford to keep running this business? Luckily, I have other income. My Masquerade shop brings in some decent business, and my fiance helps me through rough patches, which is way too often for my tastes.

That was depressing, right? Are you guys ready for a little optimism?

Let's talk about my options! This isn't going to be a one miracle fix thing. It's going to take several things to put me actually in the black and sustainable long term.

First thing- I've raised my prices. This was kinda a duh, especially since I'm booking over 6 months out at the moment. As of this publish date, my work starts at $400 for a basic underbust, and my bridal work starts at $3000 for a whole ensemble

I'm thinking of other things I can create to supplement my income too. I plan to teach corsetry classes locally, which will boost my income. There's some prep work that needs to go into that, which I won't get paid for. I also plan to start making corset sleep pillows and storage bags, and have ideas for a couple of cool clothing pieces that would be simpler to make.
One of my current dilemmas is that I sometimes spend 15 hours a week just answering messages asking for quotes, so I hear got a basic website set up with a price guide to refer people to, and maybe start charging a nominal consultation fee that can be put toward the final price if they go through with it. That should save some time so I can spend more actually making stuff.

Which leads me to my next point. Quantity. If I can quadruple my output things would be a lot easier. How, you ask? I could work more hours, but unfortunately that's not really a option with my chronic pain issues and insanely busy life. So how can I work smarter? Well, it's a larger initial investment, but I do finally have a line of standard size patterns that seem to fit most people well. And making standard sizes is much easier because you can batch them! In fact, I can probably make 10 basic corsets in the time one big bespoke piece will take, between fittings, searching for the exact right materials, shipping time for mock ups, waiting for clients to get back with measurements, etc. So if I can make 10 $400 corsets in between bespoke clients, I may do ok.

My other option to increase output is to outsource. Which I'm very seriously considering. I have a line of patterns that work well. I could, and may, find an ethical factory overseas and have them produced for probably less than I spend in materials per corset. However, the initial investment on such a thing is gigantic. It's flying overseas, interviewing factories, teaching them how to make my product in a way that I'm proud to put my name on, checking samples, and having things remade until they suit my standards. And then, they will doubtless have minimums, but that doesn't really matter anyways, because there are 13 size of corsets I make, and I don't want to be that asshole excluding larger sizes. So we're probably talking at least 10k between travel, r&d, and product minimums. And I tend to estimate on the optimistic side because of who I am as a person. So.... It won't help immediately. But maybe for next year.

Luckily, you guys don't have to worry about me going anywhere. I'm too stubborn to give up and I love what I do. Hopefully though, the next time you look at the price tag for handmade corsetry from a country with a high cost of living, you won't be a dick about it.