For her entire adult life, Allyson Sensenbaugh has loved going shopping for cute clothes.
Yet when she examined her purchases more closely, she usually found details she would have changed. “I kept a sketchbook,” Sensenbaugh said. “I would draw how I would have done things differently or what I would have added.”
In 2016, Sensenbaugh finally took her decades of drawings and turned them into real-world clothes she wanted to wear — clothes she hoped other women would want to wear, too. With no formal design training, and only a beginner’s understanding of the fashion industry, she launched AliMadi Fashion from her home in Prior Lake.
“My dream job has always been to design clothes,” said the 45-year-old entrepreneur.
More than two years later, Sensenbaugh’s company is making a name for itself. AliMadi clothes are available direct-to-consumer through AliMadi.com and, through Saturday, at a pop-up shop at Macy’s in Los Angeles. Sensenbaugh landed the coveted spot after winning a design contest through Poshmark, one of the world’s largest online marketplaces specifically geared to buying and selling fashion.
At the Los Angeles pop-up, Sensenbaugh’s designs are displayed next to big retail names — Cindy Crawford, Bose speakers — marking a new level of success for the Minnesota upstart.
‘I was supposed to aim higher’
The shift toward a fashion career started with Sensenbaugh’s 40th birthday. At the time, designing and selling her own clothes weren’t top of mind. Sensenbaugh only knew she wanted new opportunities and experiences out of life. She started casting about for ideas, for what came next. “I looked at a lot of opportunities and did a lot of research for six to nine months,” said the Bismarck, N.D., native.
Nothing struck her right away. “When you put something out in the world, it will start speaking to you,” Sensenbaugh said via phone last week. “But nothing was speaking to me and I couldn’t figure it out.”
Then it hit her: She wasn’t destined for any of the practical paths she kept exploring. “I was supposed to aim higher.”
Even though designing clothes was a lifelong passion, Sensenbaugh never imagined it could be a plausible real-life venture. That is, until she went flipping through one of the style magazines that teetered in a pile on her nightstand. She came across a how-to article on starting your own clothing line. “I ripped the story out of the magazine, hung it in the closet, walked by it every day for a month, and always thought, ‘Could I do this?’ ” she recalled.
One day she walked by and something shifted. “Can I do this?” became “I’m going to do this!”
The article explained how to dive into the fashion industry, Sensenbaugh said. The first step? Start sketching. Sensenbaugh had already mastered that part, thanks to all those redesigns of her various purchases.
Step 2 was “go to school for fashion design.” That one was less of a slam dunk.
A marketing major in college, Sensenbaugh was a mother of two with a full-time job. Going back to design school simply wasn’t realistic. So she turned to Google and YouTube to learn everything she could. “I’m completely self-taught,” she said.
Sensenbaugh took a big step in 2016 by hiring a Chicago-based company that serves as a liaison for upstarts like hers. They introduced her to the fashion world, helping her make connections with patternmakers, seamstresses and American manufacturers. “That helped me get off the ground,” she said.
As Sensenbaugh launched her initial line later that year, she saw herself heading down the wholesale route. “I wanted to sell to boutiques and stores,” she said.
But after attending a trade show in St. Paul, she realized she didn’t love the wholesale business model. “I wanted to have more control over pricing,” she said. “Plus, I love getting in front of my customers and learning what they are looking for.”
So she poured her energy into e-commerce, selling directly to fashion lovers via her website. Today, a visit to AliMadi.com brings timeless styles with creative flourishes — some fun floral prints, bows, the occasional well-placed stripe.
The most recent AliMadi collection was launched just before Thanksgiving 2018. A few days later, Sensenbaugh noticed an announcement about the Poshmark contest, with a chance for designers to land their designs in its Macy’s pop-ups. Contestants needed a minimum of 15 styles and five pieces available in each style. Thanks to her new collection, Sensenbaugh had just enough to enter.
Normally, designers must pay to place products with Macy’s, but contest winners got the placement for free. And that’s how AliMadi, a Minnesota label with a sunny vibe, made its way to Los Angeles. As she spoke by phone recently, Sensenbaugh remembered telling her husband: “I had a feeling I would end up on the West Coast or in the South. Half my collection is very springlike.”
Laine Bergeson Becco is a Minneapolis-based writer.