How a KC Plus-Size Thrift Store Found Its Niche, Helped Community during COVID
It’s that classic entrepreneur story: start a business, survive a pandemic, get featured on national television.
We’ve all seen it time and time again, but KC’s very own Alesha Bowman of UnLESHed+ has lived it.
“It just kind of happened,” Alesha says.
But she had to work to make it happen. Find out how Alesha leveraged her determination and drive to make her plus-size resale clothing business a reality and help the community.
Building a business around a need – and a passion
Some people envision themselves as business owners from a young age. Alesha was not one of those people.
“Honestly, I never saw myself as an entrepreneur,” she says. “I always loved fashion. And I’ve loved thrifting since my grandma took me when I was in third grade.”
Alesha earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising, then went on to get a master’s degree in higher education. Her career took her to Indiana. But after six years of what she thought was her dream career in higher ed, she was still unhappy. It was time to reassess.
“In that process, I realized that fashion has always been my polestar – going to thrift shops, shopping for parties, shopping for school,” she says. “So that’s where it started.”
Alesha kept her day job. She started UnLESHed+ on the side as an online resale shop. But it’s always been more than just a shop.
“I know plus-size bodies,” Alesha says. “I’ve been plus size my whole life, from size 12 to 26. Other plus-size women were into my style and wanted to know how I style my curvy body. And business-wise, it makes sense. The plus-size industry is a $21 billion industry. Not a lot of people tap into it and provide good, affordable clothing for us.”
Moving, pivoting and finding her place
After a year, Alesha moved home to Kansas City, and UnLESHed+ moved with her. But they both got a little bit lost. Online sales were going well, so Alesha decided to incorporate boutique styles into her inventory. But it didn’t feel right.
“It wasn’t authentic,” she says. “It had to be marked up too much, and it wasn’t going well. I was getting discouraged. But I’m good at sitting myself down and talking to myself: ‘OK, Alesha, you pivoted from the original secondhand – what is it that your customers need?’”
So she returned to the problem UnLESHed+ could solve for customers, and it opened up a new world of opportunity.
“In plus-size fashion, yes, it’s great to shop online,” says Alesha. “But not if you don’t know your measurements. It’s better to be in person and have that connection. And I knew I didn’t just want to be where they get clothing — I wanted to cater to the entire lifestyle of a plus-size person. I need this shop so they can meet me, so they can feel that vibe. So, that’s when I knew it was time for a space.”
UnLESHed+ found a home in Kansas City, Missouri, at 27th and Troost at Inner Space Yoga. This shared space helped Alesha create a buzz in the city. She started hosting events like a plus-size pool party and plus-size dance classes. Word of mouth was great, but people had trouble finding the space. That’s when Alesha knew she needed a storefront of her own.
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Growing as an entrepreneur in Kansas City
Owning a business means a certain amount of self-disclosure. This didn’t come naturally to Alesha, so she set out to strengthen that skill. The first step was joining the first small business development cohort at The Porter House KC.
“In my life, privately, I don’t share much about myself. So that rolled over to business,” she says. “I knew that you need to get out there, but I just didn’t do it. In the cohort, I walked in just wanting to share our story and get more publicity. But during the process, I learned so much more.”
Alesha also took advantage of the Kansas City Public Library H&R Block Business & Career Center.
“They have a person who works with small businesses and helps them find resources,” she says. “I worked with Hadiza Sa-Aadu on ways to build revenue. I’m against loans because I have student loans, so I’m not interested in loans. But we were finding other ways to increase revenue, get sponsorship.”
All of this learning coincided with UnLESHed+ finding a new home at 39th and Troost. Preparations were in full swing for a grand opening/second anniversary celebration. Then COVID-19 derailed everything.
Keeping it real and relevant during a pandemic
As the pandemic and mandated closures went on, Alesha was like many entrepreneurs: a little bit depressed. But she knew she had to do something.
“We started doing story sales on Instagram, and made them fun,” she says. “We amped up our Facebook Live sales as well. We did virtual dance classes, too. We were still trying to connect with our audience even if it wasn’t making any sales.”
Alesha was engaging with her audience in authentic ways. So those people were there when she put the call out for a good cause.
“When the protests happened, a lot of our followers wanted to support and be a part of the cause, but not everyone is a front-line person,” she says. “I had a friend who was making care packages for protesters. I put it out there that we were collecting donations, and it spread like wildfire.”
UnLESHed+ raised about $1,000 to make care packages and to donate to other local causes. This service to the community raised the shop’s profile and garnered it about 100 new social media followers.
“By the time we were ready to reopen in late July, people were ready,” says Alesha. “We were flooded the first few weekends. People were coming in to say, ‘Thank you.’ And because we were rallying around our customers, listening to what they were looking for and what they needed, we had that buzz, even after months of being closed.”
That buzz also meant UnLESHed+ was featured in a story in U-News at UMKC. Soon the story was syndicated and next thing she knew, Alesha was on the phone with someone from Ellen DeGeneres’s show. What she expected to be a video call with a producer was actually a surprise interview with Ellen herself. In addition to the publicity, Ellen also gave Alesha money to cover her shop’s rent for the next year.
It was a surprise, and most entrepreneurs don’t get that lucky. But Alesha recognizes that it takes acts big and small to strengthen a small business.
“The universe was working in a way to support me,” Alesha says.
Looking ahead and giving back
In addition to being a clothing maven, Alesha is also a licensed hair stylist. Ultimately, she’s looking to bring hair and other services under the UnLESHed+ umbrella.
“The goal is the first ever in the world one-stop shop for plus-size women,” Alesha says. The space will include a salon with larger seating, room for dance classes and areas for local vendors who also cater to plus-size women.
Alesha is dreaming big but aware of how she got where she is now – and she’s mindful of the responsibility.
“Being the first person in my family and one of the first from my neighborhood to go to college and graduate, I kind of just got this title of being a role model,” she says. “People gave to me when I was growing up – from my hairstylist to the candy store lady down the street. People were always pouring into me, so I feel it’s important to do the same, not only to the community but to the young folks who are coming up in the inner city as well.”
For anyone dreaming of starting a business, Alesha has specific advice.
“Follow the idea,” she says. “I don’t mean go spending your entire savings from the beginning. Start within your means. For me, within my means was starting in my apartment. I took a certain amount out of my check each month and put it into my business.”
But Alesha is careful to note that you don’t need the best of everything when you start out.
“You’re probably going to mess up,” she says. “Just start wherever you are with however much you have. Start there. Explore. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too, because at least you won’t have any regrets.”
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