Dechel McKillian’s foray into fashion is like something out of a movie. “I didn’t always know I wanted to work in fashion,” she says, laughing, “I was actually pre-med at UCLA. I studied psychobiology and was on track to be a doctor.”
After graduating, Dechel prepared to enter a medical program. But before that, she needed a break. “I wanted to take a year off so I spent the time working in a small boutique in Venice, California.”
“I always loved fashion but I’d never looked at it as a career,” she continues. During her year off, Dechel took a class at the Dominguez Hill branch of Cal State and met a teacher who set her on her current career path.
Dechel prepared to enter a medical program. But before that, she needed a break. “I wanted to take a year off so I spent the time working in a small boutique in Venice, California.”
“This teacher offered me the opportunity to go to Europe for a fashion tour with another class,” Dechel says, “The trip opened my eyes; I didn’t know that this realm of fashion even existed.”
From there, Dechel says, she was hooked. Four years of medical training aside, she had to follow her passion.
Fast Fashion Fails
Pictured: Galerie.LA’s flagship storefront.
Seeing the versatile roles in the fashion industry lit a fire in Dechel. Once she got back to the US, she made up her mind to let go of her medical aspirations entirely. Landing jobs as a stylist for various celebrities convinced her that she was on the right path.
For Dechel, Galerie.LA is borne out of her passion for the environment, and her belief in “shopping your values.”
For years after that, Dechel worked as a stylist to the stars, going on tour with the likes of Lil Wayne, the Black Eyed Peas and Lionel Richie. But after a decade, she was ready for the next adventure.
“I wanted a lifestyle change but wanted to keep doing fashion. I also felt a need to be socially responsible,” she says. “When travelling to all these countries, I saw the effects of fast fashion on the environment and the people making the clothes.”
Dechel explains the concept further:
“Fast fashion are the big box retailers who are constantly producing clothing. When ever you go into these stores, there’s floors and floors of clothing and the next day all the clothing has been replaced,” she says, “These stores are over-producing clothing for our consumption which has a terrible effect on the environment. I wanted to make sure that if I did something new, it would have a positive impact on the world.”
In 2015, Dechel started a fashion blog called Galerie.LA to highlight sustainable brands in the US and other countries. It was an instant hit, and in early 2016 she opened an e-commerce store to sell products from those same sustainable brands.
Last year, she took another plunge and opened Galerie.LA’s first brick and mortar store in downtown LA.
Activism Through Fashion
Pictured: Galerie.LA sign out front of Los Angeles location.
For Dechel, Galerie.LA is borne out of her passion for the environment, and her belief in “shopping your values.”. “It all about sustainable consumption,” she says, “When you look at fashion, sustainability is about the entire supply chain. From the people working in the factories making less than a dollar a day, to the cheap clothes that are discarded after being worn only once. Like food, you consume the products you buy, even if they’re clothes.”
Opening a store was a big decision for Dechel, but thankfully she had a wealth of diverse fashion experience. “I felt very comfortable with the experience I had. I did just about everything. I worked in retail, I’d been a personal stylist, styled e-commerce and red carpet shoots,” she explains, “And that’s what helped me to start my own business.”
Stores are over-producing clothing for our consumption which has a terrible effect on the environment. I wanted to make sure that if I did something new, it would have a positive impact on the world.
Galerie.LA approaches sustainability with an aim to educate. The business’ website allows customers to select clothing based on which values resonate with them. There’s an option to pick items made with vegan, recycled or eco-friendly fabric. Visitors to the site can also choose clothing made locally or by international artisans.
“That level of transparency isn’t something you get in one of the big retail stores. Instead, you just get a tag that tells you which country the clothing was made in,” Dechel says, “You don’t actually know who’s making the clothing and what causes you’re supporting.”
Beating The Statistics
Pictured: Galerie.LA’s front desk.
Opening the business hasn’t been without challenges. It’s an uphill battle to spread the message of conscious consumption in a society that is very much into fast fashion. “With sustainable fashion, the conversation is actually about slowing down from all the buying and caring more about what you’re putting in your closet and on your body,” she says, “When you’re having a conversation that isn’t mainstream, there are certainly some challenges, especially in the American society where we’re trained to always want more.”
Being a black, female business owner in a predominantly white industry also means Dechel has had to work twice as hard to get to make Galerie.LA successful. “I might have been a little naive about how much my identity meant,” she says, “When you look at the statistics, being a black woman definitely works against me.”
She’s right. Less than 1% to 0.2% of venture capital funding is ever given to women founders of color. On that, Dechel simply says, “I don’t ever let being a black female stop me. I don’t put that in my mindset even though it might be in other people’s minds. My being a black woman shouldn’t determine anything.”
The lack of readily available funding has caused Dechel to be more resourceful than others might be. “Everything with Galerie.LA has been very lean,” she says, “For instance, I was producing the editorial-type shoots myself so I didn’t have to spend the funding set aside for that.” Dechel also does most of the work herself, outsourcing some aspects of the work to freelancers or her trusty web design team.
She even takes on the daunting task of handling her own accounting and paying the vendors herself with the help of Veem.
“We use Veem to scale our payment system with vendors,” she says. “With Veem, the vendors get a weekly payout.” Dechel discovered Veem when she was looking for other ways to scale her payments. “I was using Paypal as well as bank transfers both of whom has ridiculous conversion rates and charged very high fees which came out of Galerie.LA’s commission.”
These fees were adding up quickly as Dechel had to send payments to nearly 40 vendors every single week. After finding out and signing up for a Veem account, Dechel couldn’t have been more pleased with her payment process.
“It’s very easy to use, a no-brainer really,” she says. “Even when my vendors do something wrong, customer service from Veem has always been great and very fast. Whenever someone runs into a problem, I just contact my account manager. We’ve all been very happy to discover Veem.”
With Veem handling her payments, Dechel is able to make big plans for the future of Galerie.LA. “We want to stock as many sustainable vendors as possible,” she says simply, “This means we’ll be dealing with a lot more products and a lot more sale and revenue
As a result, Dechel currently processes 80% of her payments through Veem and is transitioning the remaining 20% as well.
With Veem handling her payments, Dechel is able to make big plans for the future of Galerie.LA. “We want to stock as many sustainable vendors as possible,” she says simply, “This means we’ll be dealing with a lot more products and a lot more sale and revenue. Because we pay our vendors on a weekly basis, through Veem, I’m confident we have the capacity to do this.”
It’s a long way from being a pre-med student at UCLA. But Dechel McKillian appreciates her decision to leave the medical field more and more each day. “I do what I love,” she says, “Even in hard times, I’m still doing something I love, something I believe in and something I’m passionate about.”
Dechel has advice for other would-be business owners who are nervous about taking the first step. “Just start,” she says, “Do your research in small, incremental ways and look into running your business while doing other job or other things. But don’t wait. Take the risk.”