Dionna Dorsey

Amid global disruption caused by COVID-19 and corresponding stay at home orders, Dionna Dorsey pivoted her retail business to 250% growth.

Dionna Dorsey

This interview was conducted with Dionna Dorsey, founder of District of Clothing.

Dionna Dorsey started District of Clothing in 2014 as a way to advocate for the advancement of minorities, inspire social change, and embolden self-love through unique apparel. District of Clothing also features items designed to spread awareness of various social issues including racial inequality and modern female empowerment.

The global disruption caused by COVID-19 and the corresponding stay at home orders has been felt acutely by retailers, particularly small businesses facing a pivot or significant adjustment to their business model in response to rapidly changing consumer spending habits.

This interview explores Dionna’s life before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decisions she’s had to make as a business owner, and her plans for adapting District of Clothing during an unprecedented shift in global commerce.

What is your name? What is the name of your business?

My name is Dionna Dorsey and my brand is, District of Clothing.

Describe what your business was like before COVID-19 hit. What did an average day look like for your business?

District of Clothing is an online retail business. We average about 100 to 125 visitors to our site daily. We would post online via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Not always, but hopefully once a day. Typically January and February are slower months, and sales start to pick up again around March. We were still in our quiet time, I would say from an income perspective. Instead of maybe having 125 to 200 shoppers on the site, we might have 75 or 100 per day this time of year. District of Clothing is my side business, but I try to give her an hour every day.

When did you start to feel the impact of COVID-19, what happened?

I started to really feel the impact for my business in March. And here when I'm referencing my business, I'm referring to my full time business, Dionna Dorsey Design. It's a creative business, mostly a creative direction consultancy. Come mid March, I probably saw a 70 or 75%, slowdown of client inquiries and requests, but this allowed me to refocus on District of Clothing.

I needed something to even me out, and doing work does that.

I quickly realized that I needed a change. From a productive standpoint and just a mental wellness standpoint, I needed something to do and I was blessed to have District of Clothing to focus on. The sadness, the worry, the absolute terror and fear, the confusion, the brain explosion with homeschooling, the combination of all of those emotions, were creating different things for me creatively. I needed something to even me out, and doing work does that. I was constantly seeing what was happening on the news, and I needed a break from that and I also needed a way to contribute something positive to the universe during this time, and specifically to COVID-19 relief.

District ofClothing founder Dionna Dorsey pictured in a face covering and shirt from the Common Purpose Collection supporting COVID-19 relief. | Photo by Elliott O'Donovan.

How has your assessment of the potential impact on your business changed over time as this situation has unfolded?

Initially I was just thinking that I had to find a way to remain productive during the season, which would help both financially and mentally. I wondered how I could use my business to hopefully help someone else out during this time too.

I pushed up a collection that was supposed to launch in August or September, the Common Purpose Collection. The goal was to create something to support COVID-19 relief.

It took me two weeks to reach out to our community and let them know what challenges we were facing. That several of our warehouses had shut down, that we had X amount of employees that were no longer receiving paychecks, because they weren't allowed to come into the facilities.

We just wanted to let people know that we were going to get through this.

I'm just trying to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible. I noticed that a lot of our community members on Instagram specifically were sharing very honest comments under some of the posts. I had more time to check in and thank our supporters, whether it was a DM or a comment. We just wanted to let people know that we were going to get through this. That connection, even though it was digital, was just what my soul needed. I hope that it was that for other people as well.

We have some items that are made locally. We also have some items that are made in our fulfillment centers. We have centers in Los Angeles for our west coast orders and North Carolina for East Coast orders. We also receive goods from various warehouses all over the country. And every week I was getting another email about warehouses closing or limitations on goods. For example, if I wanted a blue t-shirt, I couldn't get a blue t-shirt. There was just a variety of different things that we no longer had access to. It was stressful to get emails saying, “We don't know what's going to happen next. Stay tuned until tomorrow.”

What resources, if any, helped you through this time period?

The number one resource has been our community. I don't like to say customer. I like to say community. They've just been so responsive, sending emails, checking in on us, sharing our messages, responding to them. That in itself has just been remarkable.

I would say number two, my family has absolutely been so supportive and kind. My fiance has helped me every step of the way. I did apply for PPP and got approved by the Congressional Bank. Think Local First actually sent an email that said, “Hey, apply for PPP through this particular bank, and then reach out to this specific woman and she will be with you throughout the process.” And she was phenomenal, so much so that I've actually introduced her to several other local small businesses here in Washington, D.C.

Just seeing people be vulnerable, and honestly fumble their way through this has been encouraging to me, as I fumble my way through this experience too.

The Mayor has been incredibly supportive of District of Clothing since our inception. I don’t personally know her, but one rainy day while she was giving her daily COVID-19 relief conference meeting, she wore our 51 hat. We had a huge uptick in sales of that hat as a result. The number 51 references support of statehood for Washington D.C. That got really great comments and conversations going on our social media platforms as well.

What resources are missing?

I wish that I could have been on a Zoom meeting with a couple of my fellow entrepreneurs, especially here in Washington, DC who are going through the same thing. It would have been great to just throw something out there and get 20 different responses. That would be incredibly helpful.

Dionna Dorsey managed to avoid some of the challenges other retailers now face thanks to her decision to keep the brand online-only. | Photo by Elliott O'Donovan

How has this experience changed District of Clothing?

How has the pandemic changed us as a business? I don't know if I have the answer to that yet. I think maybe that's still in process. As of last night, we're still about 112 orders behind.

Every day is something new. Some days more people are able to come into our fulfillment centers. Things have definitely slowed down tremendously. But we are still trying to forge ahead. We're still trying to encourage our community and to be supportive of them during this time, just as they've been with us.

Our turnaround time has changed. Three to four weeks now. As of yesterday, we were filling orders from April 20 when usually we get things out of the door within two to four days.

I never wanted to have a brick and mortar.

We do occasional pop-ups during the holiday season, as well as during the summertime but primarily we are an online business. This situation has confirmed to me that I made the right decision to stay online, as opposed to expanding to brick and mortar.

What has been the most difficult thing you have dealt with so far?

Obviously, from a pandemic perspective, it would have to be all of our friends, family and neighbors that have lost their lives. But from a business perspective, the delays have been challenging. I would say 95% of our community has been incredibly understanding. I let people know about delays once they place an order, thanking people directly for taking their time and spending their hard earned money. This is a really challenging time and we really appreciate their business. We also have a big banner on the website letting folks know, but there's always a few who are just not flexible with delays.

We just have to constantly remind people that we’re not Amazon, we're a small business, and we're working with humans.

Has anything positive happened for you personally or for the business as a result of COVID-19?

We had a 250% increase in sales in April. And I have to check for May but I would say we're probably at least 200 to 210%. Putting more focus on my side business has led the way toward profit and productivity for District of Clothing. We've also increased our social media activity and now have over 11,000 followers on Instagram, which is great.

I’ve received a ton of thoughtful and kind messages, emails and DMs from our community. I had a Zoom party for my 40th birthday. There were 56 people on the Zoom. Everybody had something from the District of Clothing on and it was very heartwarming.

Dionna Dorsey advises other entrepreneurs who are struggling with the pandemic, whatever you can do right now is enough and be content with what ever that is. | Photo by Elliott O'Donovan

Have you been following the reopening process in other states, how does that make you feel?

I am a very cautious person. I value humanity. I understand that states have to value the economy, but I don't think the economy works without healthy people. I believe in a slow reopening. I also believe there's just a variety of ways that you could do it. Georgia scares me. Many states scare me, but I think Mayor Bowser and her team are doing a wonderful job being very cautious here. I think they've been incredibly supportive of small businesses, and communicative, which has been great.

What have you learned from this experience?

Our main message is about encouraging people to go from dreaming to doing, we want to encourage progression. This experience has reminded me to continue doing that.

Whether it was a lot or a little, it was enough.

I think as entrepreneurs we get so overwhelmed with the day to day, and it is okay to take a step back and be content with the work that you've done. Whether it was a lot or a little, it was enough. I think that was probably one of the biggest things that I've learned through this. This is a pandemic, this is not a productivity contest. You're doing the work, be content with what you're doing. You're doing the best you can.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Our Common Purpose collection is now supporting the efforts of the World Central Kitchen. Which as of yesterday, has provided over 10 million meals, fresh meals to actual humans. I would just encourage other business owners to be comfortable and content with wherever they are during this. Your productivity does not have to look like someone else's. So this is our story. This is my story, but I hope that whoever's reading this feels encouraged. I hope that comes through in a  positive and encouraging way, because this is really, really, really, really, really hard.

Wake up every day, brush your teeth at whatever time, you know, and try to get it done.