Spending an autumn afternoon chasing a toddler and changing diapers in Central Park was not the way I envisioned my interview with the CEO and founder of popular online fashion brand, Shabby Apple. But Athelia Woolley LeSueur—who brilliantly balances the tri-fold roles of wife, mother, and CEO—thinks outside the box when it comes to work-life balance.
Few people use romantic break-ups as a catalyst to launch a company, but LeSueur did just that. After a parting comment from an ex-boyfriend—“anyone who wears T-shirts under their sundresses just doesn’t see the world like I do”—LeSueur was inspired to design a new life for herself through fashion.
With a personal mantra of embracing failure and asking herself, what can I learn from this?, LeSueur took me behind the scenes to chat about her life, her business, and how she manages both.
Shabby Apple arose out of a personal need for chic fashion with modest coverage, but did you have any idea whether there was actually a market?
I felt intuitively that there was a need, because I experienced it. For example, if you go to an office party, or a dinner party with your boyfriend’s parents, there are somethings you just can’t wear. As soon as we started selling our dresses, we immediately sold out of a whole bunch of different dress sizes within the first few weeks. Women in their 20s and 30s need clothing options like this.
In terms of the designs, a lot of your pieces skew toward the vintage and a whimsical retro look. Do you have a specific decade or era that inspires you?
1940s is my favorite. I love vintage old stuff!
Do you have a favorite old-Hollywood movie star?
Katharine Hepburn! I’ve always liked Audrey Hepburn, too. She lived in the same town as my sister when she retired. She had a great reputation and got involved in lots of humanitarian work. For example, she visited Africa to help underprivileged children. She seemed to rise above the craziness of Hollywood life and chose elegance instead.
Time for a moment of honesty. What was it really like launching a fashion brand?
It was so much harder than I had ever thought. Really, if I knew how hard it was going to be, I don’t think I would have done it. But that’s okay! In some ways, it’s good to not know what's ahead of you. You think it’s going to be fun, and it was, but it was also really hard.
What was the most unexpected hurdle?
Manufacturing was by far the hardest thing. One time, we got these navy blue dresses and the sailor buttons were all crooked. We had to rip off all the buttons and send them back to the manufacturer. My partner and I sat together for hours ripping off buttons!
With all these things on your plate, what do you prioritize?
My marriage, but it has been easy to prioritize this because my husband has gotten really involved in the business side of things. It’s so fun to have a project to do together and has been really good for our marriage! Still, I love being a wife and mother ten thousand times more than anything else I can do at work.
What is the secret to balancing being a mom and the owner of a successful company?
Setting and living by your priorities. When my daughter was born, I decided she would come before work. So, I only work when she is napping or asleep at night. The first year was really hard because, even though she napped 3 to 4 times a day, I wasn’t sleeping well at night—so I could work, but was exhausted. But this year has been a lot better. Now sometimes I have meetings when I can play with her . . . like today!
If our conversation in Central Park was any example, LeSueur stands by her commitment to prioritize motherhood while running a fashion brand. She is a larger-than-life example of someone who seems to “have it all,” but, as LeSueur points out, perhaps first the question must be, “what is ‘it’ you want to have?”