Kelly Dempsey climbed the fashion ladder on season 14 of the hit show, “Project Runway.” The only self-taught designer that season, Kelly made it to the finale and showed off her fearless, unique style and creative approach to clothing. Show mentor Tim Gunn has even gone on record in a 2015 interview saying she had the best collection of the finalists. Her humor and realness, along with her nickname Kelly from the Deli, helped solidify her following.
Following her success on Project Runway, she launched her business, Rack Addik. Her unique take on streetwear, filled with interesting blends of patterns and fabrics, stood out in a crowded space. She takes pride in her approach, always trying to incorporate thrift store finds to normalize used clothing and not contribute to the waste seen with fast fashion.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly, a native Massachusettsan, shifted her business plans and got to work on masks to donate to first responders, eventually donating thousands of masks.
Read on to learn more about Kelly and her approach to business and fashion.
This interview has been gently edited for clarity.
GoDaddy: What's the elevator pitch for your business? Describe what you do.
Kelly Dempsey: I create unconventional fashion that is fun and makes you feel good! Clothing is one of the first things someone sees when they meet someone so it’s important to spread those sparkly good vibes around!
GD: What inspired you to start your business? How did you get it started?
KD: I grew up in a really small town where I wore a lot of hand-me-downs that I would find from the local thrift store. I would get picked on in school for wearing the other kids’ “used clothing” and I remember it was a really hard thing for me to deal with considering that is all I had to wear.
I also really liked wearing thrift store clothes as I always had fun rummaging through the 50 cent bins!
At the same time, my mother turned half of our house into an actual craft store and we even had hours on our front door. My mom would make anything from wind chimes made from silverware she found at yard sales to wreaths and such.
I was about nine when the bullying happened for the second-hand clothing, so instead of dealing with it and being a victim, I took the tools from watching my mother turn trash to treasure and started recreating all my hand-me-downs.
I felt such a spark of empowerment that I was able to figure out a way to overcome the bullying with the means I had that I believe this is where my passion is derived from.
I still love working with thrift store clothing in hopes to normalize it and also save our environment in the meantime as fast fashion makes up 10% of all humanity's carbon emissions.
GD: What successes have you had so far? What impact did they have on your business?
KD: I would say my greatest success would be Project Runway. From getting on the show to getting to runner-up, all while being the only self-taught designer, is something I will always be super proud of.
Immediately following, I launched Rack Addik and the recognition from Project Runway definitely catapulted my brand right from the start.
I was never a business owner so it was definitely a learning lesson, and still is!
I can honestly say I have had a lot more “failures” than successes throughout my career but all “failures” have a purpose in order to grow and learn. Failure is just a way to redirect you to where you should instead be focusing on.
GD: Where do you see your business in five years? 10 years?
I see Rack Addik expanding and creating a strong inspired community of people wearing what makes them feel good, not constrained to any labels, and feeling empowered by what they are wearing.
GD: What is your favorite thing about what you do?
KD: My favorite thing about what I do is I get to create freely and be my own boss.
It has been a learning process and will continue to be, but I am grateful for every bit of it.
GD: How has your business changed since the onset of the pandemic? How has the response been from customers?
KD: My business definitely changed very much as soon as the pandemic hit.
I had a 2020 plan to create a purse line and had everything lined up ready to go until I learned about the mask shortage. I put my plans on hold while I organized over 100 volunteers to help me sew masks remotely for frontline workers nationwide.
Collectively, we donated over 3,000 masks to first responders.
I created a Google doc with the list of hospitals, police stations, and immune-compromised people in desperate need of a mask. Each volunteer had access to the document so we all worked collectively to cross off and get out as many masks as possible.
Also, as soon as the protests happened after George Floyd’s murder, I created a black sequin mask and donated 100% of the proceeds to The Conscious Kid, a nonprofit that helps educate our youth about racial equality.
I made each mask myself and raised over $2,000 for the Black Lives Matter movement.
GD: What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
KD: The most rewarding part of what I do is inspire others to also follow their heart and believe anything is possible.
Getting to where I am without a college degree, very limited funds, and zero connections was not easy but I always believed I would make a career out of doing what I love.
When we align with a specific intention on what inspires us, it's important to stay in that creative energy flow as much as possible to attract situations, people, and anything else to help us grow and thrive.
GD: What is your favorite piece you've made and why?
KD: That's a hard question, but I would have to say the Brooklyn Bridge dress I made on "Project Runway", mainly because of the risk I took making it as well as the short timeframe I had to complete it.
GD: Who is your ideal customer and why?
KD: My ideal customer is someone who doesn't worry about what others think of them. They live by the beat to their own drum and wear clothing that elevates their mood.
They understand the importance of slow fashion and appreciate how we are all different, so wearing unique pieces is a fun way they can express themselves.
GD: How do you find new customers?
KD: I believe customer service is the most important aspect of running a business as word-of-mouth spreads incredibly fast.
I take a lot of pride in each and every person that has ever bought a piece from me as I put a lot of love into everything I put out.
I also find giveaways are a great way to generate new followers and can also be a lot of fun.
GD: How do you keep your customers coming back?
KD: Great customer service!
I always try to go the extra mile when I can to let the customer know how much I appreciate their support.
This being not only my livelihood but also a craft I greatly enjoy, their support really does mean everything to me.
GD: How has social media helped build your business?
KD: I am so appreciative of Project Runway as my social media has grown greatly after my season aired.
Instagram is a great platform I use to promote new designs and updates I have going on with my brand.
GD: What is your studio set-up?
KD: I used to rent out a studio to design out of, but once space opened up at my home, I was able to relocate my studio there.
I love having my studio at home as it makes it super convenient whenever a creative idea may spark up.
Plus, the commute is great!
GD: Describe your day-to-day work routine.
KD: Working from home was definitely challenging at the beginning as
it can be really easy to get distracted with household obligations throughout the day.
I have solved that issue by filling out an hour-by-hour outline the night before showing what my workday will look like so there is no time for distractions.
Also as simple as it sounds, even though I am not leaving the house, getting dressed for work really helps shift that mindset from leisure to work mode.
GD: How do you relax outside of work?
KD: I love being active and in nature!
I often drive to the beach even in the winter and walk the shore listening to my favorite podcasts.
I love to learn a lot about the power of our minds and how we are all creators of our reality.
It's important to shift our mindsets to look at positives in order to set us up for success.
I hope to in the near future teach about this topic in some way to help empower others.
GD: How do you balance your work and personal life?
KD: I have always worked odd jobs and looked at them as steps to get me to where I want to be regarding work.
I am super grateful I am in a place now where I can create art for work and wake up every day doing what I love.
When I am not working I am relaxing and learning ways to keep growing so I can assure success in my future.
GD: Where do you turn for inspiration?
KD: To get inspired, I like to take a walk somewhere outside listening to something motivational. My mind just takes off with all sorts of ideas most of the time.
Also, a fun trick I do that helps artists is that if I see something that inspires me, even if it is a crack in the cement, I take a picture of it.
Put a folder together of all the pics that inspired you in some way and made you feel a certain way. Flip through that book when you need inspiration and that should totally help spark something.
GD: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
KD: Trust the process.
Sometimes when things don't work out, they are actually coming together.
Also, it’s important to never think you know it all. The second you think you know it all is the second you stop growing. Always know there is so much more to learn, so it’s important to keep an open mind.