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Michelle Vella | Toronto | Authentic Self!!

I started drawing as a child - always a talented art student growing up. I studied Fine Arts in University but never pursued a career as an artist until now. In 2015, I realized I wasn’t invested in my graphic design business of 10+ years - I was 50 and looking for something new. I picked up my paint brush after almost 30 years and started painting again. I found myself painting portraits of people in fashion, finding my WIDE BIG EYES style, posting a new portrait on Instagram everyday and discovered that I totally loved this. On a walk, I made the big decision to pursue a full-time art career and DREAM BIG. Well, the universe was listening because upon arriving home, I received a call from W Magazine to live illustrate portraits of celebrities at its It Girl Lunch during New York Fashion Week. I screamed with excitement! This confirmed that I’m onto something here, and I have a future doing what I love. This was soon followed by legendary fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, who loved and wanted to buy the portrait I painted of her after seeing it on my Instagram. This turned into meeting her in person, delivering the portrait to DVF Fashion House in NYC where it hangs amongst other famous artist portraits of herself ... and that was just the beginning.

What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business? How did the idea for your business come about?

My business as an artist has blossomed since 2015 re: painting pop culture icons on large canvases – from Jackie O, Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, David Bowie, to Prince and many more. This year, I launched a WIDE BIG EYES fashion and accessories collection. Originally, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to have my own fashion line, as I dreamed of a collaboration with a major designer. During this time last year, I had a few tops made for myself and women started asking if they could purchase one. This got me thinking about the possibility of having my own fashion collection. Questions I asked myself were: would this hurt my brand as an artist?, would it hurt collaboration opportunities?, what would be my price point, would it be the same luxury market that I sell my paintings in? Well, I decided to try it out by starting with a casual tank top wrapped in a WIDE BIG EYES portrait, followed by phone cases and pillows. It wasn’t until this past September’s pop-up at Yorkville Village that prompted me to design a full fashion collection. I found a second Canadian supplier and expanded my line to dresses, jackets, more tops, t-shirts, clutches, tote bags, and scarves. It was received incredibly well, and I even had another business venture.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?

It wasn’t a smooth ride. In the first year or so, I had great successes, but it was up and down financially. There were months when I was flush with cash and some months where I had to borrow money to pay rent.

It was January of 2016 when I decided I wanted to branch out from fashion illustration to be a full-time artist. At this time, I was stressed about money as I didn’t have any fashion events booked and no portrait commissions, so I decided to make things happen. I bought some canvases and started to paint a “Lake Life Series” influenced by time spent with friends in Muskoka. It opened a door and I had an art show at a 3-day luxury event on Lake Joseph. I sold a few paintings and booked several Lake Life commissions. Eventually, I started to paint large WIDE BIG EYE portraits of people and pop culture icons which is now the main part of my business. Another hurdle I found was the higher costs of launching a fashion collection. The major difference between being an artist and a retailer is the cost of goods are higher than that of painting canvases. I found it challenging – especially the months before my first pop-upas I had to have inventory, increasing my costs months before generating the revenue. New costs included artwork scanning, printing prints, stocking clothing and accessories inventory, retail rent, PR & Marketing, and of course an Opening Night event. Here’s what I did to make it doable: I increased my credit limit, giving me an extra month to pay the bills. More importantly, I decided to have samples of everything in different sizes instead of doing a full inventory of clothing, so that everything is made to order and direct shipped to the customer. This cut my costs and financial risk considerably.

This new venture was probably the biggest risk I had taken up to now. I kept my eye on the success I envisioned for myself and thankfully my instincts and research paid off as this new venture has proven to be a great success.

What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?

I am currently reading “Know Your Value” by Mika Brzezinski, a good read for female entrepreneurs. Although it is focused on women in the workforce, there are some great lessons here for everyone. Know your value and ask for what you want, don’t wait for it to happen.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?

I have been very fortunate as my family and friends have been so supportive. They were used to me having my own business, so when I decided to change careers at 50, many were inspired by what I was doing. In the first year, when I was challenged financially, one friend who was a big supporter said, “are you sure you should be doing this and not keeping your graphic design business?”. Honestly, it irritated me to hear this. Why did he put doubt into my plan? I am proud to say that I shrugged it off and didn’t let me doubt myself. I am doing this and I’m focusing on the possibilities and my dream, not the bumps in the road.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?

Creating opportunities and not waiting to be discovered.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?

I have had my own business for over 20 years, so perhaps I would have told myself to look at being an artist then and tell myself I can be a thriving artist... but who knows if it would have led me to where I am now.

What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?

Believe in yourself, be confident, be your authentic self, focus on the positive and dream bigger than big.


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