Ap0cene stands as a dynamic virtual marketplace and community dedicated to championing designers who align with their ethos of sustainable luxury fashion. Founded and operated by trio Ariel Arakas, Elissa Rumford and Sam Walker, the platform serves as a beacon for the modern era of fashion. My enthusiasm for the fashion industry led me to their doorstep; intrigued by their innovative approach in providing a global platform for emerging designers. Ariel and Elissa shared their journey and advice.
Bijoux: Ap0cene was founded in New York, right? What’s the story behind that?
Arakas: Originally, before acting as a business, it was kind of just a hobby and a feature account. Me, Sam, and Elissa were all working at the same New York based blockchain company because that’s kind of where our background is. We were all working in tech – not so much fashion – except for Elissa, who did some social media marketing for fashion companies. We realized that we just really enjoyed working together and we also just happened to share a love for emerging fashion. So, after working together for a few months and spending a lot of time staying up late, talking about all of our ideas for how all these cool tech initiatives that we’d been learning about could be applied to fashion, we decided that we wanted to quit our jobs and take Ap0cene seriously as a business. So that’s what we decided to do.
Bijoux: So how recent was the move to Richmond for you guys?
Rumford: We moved back at different times. I moved back in 2020.
Arakas: Yeah, me and Sam both moved here right before the pandemic, and Elissa moved back right after the pandemic. I think we were all feeling the need for some more space that we could really grow into. It’s difficult to start a business in New York when you’re dealing with physical items that need physical space, because the real estate costs are just so prohibitively expensive. Given that me and Elissa both went to VCU, we’re familiar with the Richmond art scene and thought this would be a good place to have a physical location.
Rumford: When I was a student, it was hard finding really interesting fashion jobs and internships in Richmond. You know, we were thinking it would be so cool to tap into a talented community like VCUArts and have internships for students as well.
Bijoux: Speaking of being alumni and already having a background with the Richmond art scene, how would you say your experience with bringing Ap0cene to Richmond has affected the company?
Rumford: I think our general creative community is very international. We’re Collaborating with people in Richmond and we’re collaborating with people all over the place. It’s been really interesting seeing how emerging some of the Richmond creatives are. I think that, even when I was in school, it’s gotten even more cutting edge and people have even evolved further. So it’s been really cool to see how Richmond has grown in the art and fashion space.
Arakas: I also think that a lot of really cool businesses or even art scenes and music scenes tend to come out of the outskirts of industrial areas in big cities because it’s cheap, it’s grungy and it allows for all of this creative energy and interesting things that happen. Unfortunately, I feel like at this time those cities don’t have those kinds of spaces anymore because they’ve all gotten so expensive, gentrified and built out. I think that it’s very different doing it here than in, say, Brooklyn, where those spaces don’t really exist in the same way anymore, at least not at an accessible price point.
Bijoux: I almost ended up going to school in New York instead of Richmond. I’m glad I didn’t, now that I understand everything. So what kind of challenges would you say that you faced growing the company and how have you kind of pushed through them?
Arakas: I’d say a really big one is working capital. I think it’s no mystery that women founders face more challenges when it comes to getting capital for their business. So, unless you come from a wealthier background – you have a trust fund or you happen to have some sort of connections – it’s difficult to grow a business. We knew that going in, but still decided that we’re passionate enough about this, that we want to try to overcome those odds, even though it has been incredibly difficult. Every time you level up in success, the overhead costs of your business will also grow. So it’s like, “great, we have more money coming in, but now we have more expenses going out.” It’s this crazy seesaw trying to figure out how to balance that and we struggle with it every month or even every week. I think we just get through it with sheer willpower.
Rumford: Yeah, because when we first started, we didn’t have a huge investment to start from. We built things on our own and figured it out as we went, which can be hard, but I feel like we get our business from the inside out now. When we are growing, it’s happening more organically, which has been great because some companies will raise a ton of money, grow really fast, and then end really fast.
Bijoux: How much would you say technological innovation in the fashion industry contributes to your success?
Arakas: I think, if we weren’t able to build some of the tech products we have to automate a lot of our workflows, it’d be much more challenging. when we first started, we hadn’t built out the tools that we use now. We did everything manually and didn’t have the amount of staff that we’d need to handle that. So because we have a background, we’re able to build tools for us and our designers.
Rumford: We get a lot of word from our designers about how working with us goes a lot smoother than working with other brands because of the technology that we have. It helps give them time and offers them tools to help with their businesses.
Bijoux: As far as your innovative technology, would you say it’s just for operating or is there more stuff for specifically the designers to use?
Arakas: So currently, it’s really about automation for us and designers. But, it also helps with things like payouts, removing the manual human element so there’s less room for error. Recently, we’ve been working on tools that are more for the designers’ production. So we’ve got some pretty interesting tools in the works, but it’ll probably be about another year before they’re ready for release.
Bijoux: Okay, that’s so cool. In lieu of that, how would you recommend one enters the fashion/art industry?
Rumford: There are so many different ways you can go about it, depending on if you want to be a face, an influencer-led brand, or to be in the background; you should just start somewhere, instead of feeling like you need to have everything prepared. I think that sometimes the only way to make it happen is going for it.
Arakas: I also think you have to be honest with yourself about what kind of career you want. If you want to work in fashion, and you’re looking for stability with regular salary benefits, then I think the tried and true method of starting with several good internships, getting an entry level position, working your way up, that’s going to be a little bit more stable in some cases. But, if you’re passionate, and want to express your creativity in your work and not have someone directing where you’re putting it, then I think entrepreneurship is the way to go. But, be prepared for the reality that it will be insanely long hours, you won’t see if you want to sleep the first year, maybe a tiny bit more the second year. It’s going to be a strenuous journey, you’re going to be thinking about your business 24/7 and you’re never gonna stop thinking about it. So that’s just the reality you have to be prepared for.
Rumford: If you’re on an entrepreneurial route, something that has been an awesome process is – and this might be common sense – but utilizing social media, narratives and storytelling. I think there are a ton of talented designers and artists in the world that just don’t put themselves out there; they’re not able to make a living from their art.
Arakas: Elissa is an amazing storyteller and exceptional on social media. I’d also say, if you’re starting your own business and you feel like you have certain talents, but maybe not so much in other areas, such as social media, then definitely team up with somebody that has the skills you don’t have.
Rumford: Yeah, that’s important. We meet a lot of designer and business duos, and they seem like they benefit from each other’s talents.
Bijoux: Speaking of networking, how much would you say that networking has contributed to your success? Also, do you have any networking success stories that pushed you forward, outside of just the usual promotional work?
Arakas: I think our networking is probably one of our biggest strengths. This business was born out of passion, so we’re naturally excited to connect and talk with other people working in similar spaces. We’ve forged a lot of deeply personal relationships, and that’s something that you might not even really be able to see from the outside. We have personal relationships with our designers, influencers and photographers that we work with and it’s made a big impact. It’s really easy to see a corporation and assume that it’s a board room full of old white guys that don’t care about fashion, just using data analytics to decide what they’re going to do next. Being able to talk to people in person and convey your passion, I think that type of relationship is always going to be much stronger than distant relationships via email.
Rumford: Also, in the beginning when we were first starting Ap0cene, we made a huge effort to go to Fashion Weeks and that kicked [things] off. As we built Ap0cene on social media it was always very community focused, so going to hubs like Fashion Week, it was beneficial for starting the process of building our community.
Bijoux: So on a more individual note, what does a typical day to day look like with building Ap0cene?
Arakas: That’s a great question because I feel like our day to day looks so different every day, especially when we have so many ongoing initiatives. We’re currently in the middle of renovating a new warehouse space. We could be waking up and meeting with electricians, then answering emails, it’s kind-of all over the place. But I think some consistent threads are that we spend a lot of our days corresponding with various vendors, partners, potential investors, going through inventory, shipping orders and Elissa is always working on social media.
Bijoux: Do either of you have any advice for people who kind of want to take a similar career path?
Rumford: I think it’s really important to get experience working with freelancing, whatever it is. Gather your experience ahead of time in different ways. Ariel and I built a lot of different skills over time, not even knowing that all these random skills would come together and be useful for building Ap0cene.
Arakas: Also just to keep it grounded; realistically, save some money first. I think an ideal situation is that you save enough for six months of living expenses before you, you know, decide to quit your job and dive headfirst into your business. I mean, some people, maybe they’re not in a position where they have a lot to save, they’re feeling ready to take the leap and they just go for it; and that’s great. But, it’s always good to save. You never know what’s gonna happen, especially in the first year.
Rumford: Yeah, and keep those freelancing gigs warm. In the first year, you might need to have subsequent income. Always be able to have something to fall back on.
Bijoux: Awesome. So aesthetically, what would you say you look for when you search for designers, because I feel like pushing the envelope is like so broad, and you seem to have a really good idea of what you’re looking for.
Rumford: It is. There’s always a balance that we’re trying to strike between pushing the envelope, but also being somewhat wearable. I would say that we do have some pieces that are very Avant Garde. But in terms of the stuff that sells, to be honest, it’s between something that’s really cool and unique but still wearable, you know what I mean? A big visual language we can talk about is this element of decay in conjunction with this kind of reborn aesthetic. It’s a broad style with more colorful, and whimsical elements that are modern with also aspects of futurism, so a lot of chrome and things that feel a little bit like Sci-fi. So those kinds of like three aesthetics meld together into what I would say is the overall Ap0cene aesthetic.
Bijoux: Is there anything else, either of you would like to speak on? Anything I didn’t ask or some things you’d personally like to cover?
Rumford: So we are constantly looking for designers. We onboard new designers every week. A huge criteria that we look for is people who are making efforts to have sustainable practices in their brand. It [the criteria] is extremely visually curated as well, which I think that’s kind of obvious when you look at the social media website. I remember I said this, and so many people make fun of me for saying this, but I always ask myself when we’re picking designers to stock: “Does this push the boundary, or is it just a normal, everyday,run of the mill piece? We’re looking for designers that are really pushing the creative boundaries.
Arakas: And there’s a lot of talented VCU fashion students out there. So if you feel like you meet that criteria, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
Graphics by Sydney Folsom