I met Lesly Washington several years ago in New Orleans, when she was known in some circles as DJ Tea and Cupcakes. She’s a pretty unforgettable figure: in addition to having one of the best DJ names ever, she has an infectious smile, a joyful and energetic personality, and always seems to be doing something groundbreaking that combines business and creative projects. It’s been a while since I saw her in person, but I knew from social media that she had moved to Atlanta a few years ago and now runs a super cool online vintage store.
I was curious about what else was going on with her, especially because recently, I’d seen a lot of information about her rapidly expanding retreat business. So I messaged her out of the blue and asked if she wouldn’t mind sitting down for a chat. It took us a while to connect, as apparently at the exact moment that I contacted her, Lesly was going through some pretty big life changes, as you’ll see below.
In our conversation we talked about the skills and motivations that have shaped her entrepreneurial spirit, what she sees as the political importance of her business ventures, and her plans for expanding her reach as an Atlanta-area Ladypreneur.
Elise: What are you doing now with Tchoup Vintage and how does it fit into the rest of your life (personally and professionally)?
Lesly: I founded Tchoup Vintage in 2013 but in 2018, decided to focus my energy on the business and trying to open a physical concept store in Atlanta. Basically I wanted a place for people to hang out, have coffee or a drink, shop, and maybe [have it] be an event space. I was super proud of it and I really wanted it to happen. [To get there,] I quit my job and started freelancing while also working full time on Tchoup Vintage.
Then in fall 2018, I got to the last stage of finding the store location. And…things were a struggle. As I was looking at all these retail spaces I was getting lots of racism and sexism from landlords, and it just made me feel terrible. After reflecting, I decided to table the physical store and step back into the job market to see what happened.
I started job hunting in November and got a job in February. And it’s great! It’s everything I want in a job. But until then, I was spending all of this energy interviewing and I was super exhausted, so I made plans to move back to New Orleans in February. But then I got the job about a week before I was supposed to move.
So when we first got in touch about the interview I was getting into a new apartment, a new neighborhood, and generally going through lots of changes. It’s all great, but it’s been a lot! However, I’m super happy to stay in Atlanta. I mean, I wouldn’t mind moving back home, but I don’t feel like I’m done with this city, you know?
Elise: It’s super awesome to hear that it worked out. I’ve been in the middle of a job search, too, and it is exhausting. You put yourself out there, and think that you’ve got something to offer that someone might want or need. And then when you don’t see results it makes you feel so vulnerable!
Elise: Tell me a little more about what you’re doing right now, including how you’re balancing this new job with what’s going on with Tchoup Vintage.
Lesly: My new position is Digital Marketing Manager and Strategist for this agency. I come from a digital marketing background and have been doing that for the same amount of time that I’ve been doing Tchoup Vintage.
I went to SCAD for Fashion Marketing and Management with a minor in Graphic Design…which was so interesting, but the major itself was more advertising-based and less about fashion. It was about business. So from school my whole career ventured off into the eCommerce thing. I started working for a really awesome company and was there for four years as a Digital Asset Manager. At first I was like, “I don’t know even know what this is!,” but I discovered that it was a lot of working behind the scenes, managing all the digital assets, including maintaining websites and doing coding on the back end, as well as project management. It was awesome!
So I’m doing something similar for [the new company]. I’m kind of a…digital unicorn is how my boss describes me [laughs]. Which I didn’t know was a thing! Because if you’re always on the back end of things in the tech field, you do specialized things — like you just do marketing and that’s it. For me, I’m right brained and left brained. I love lots of data and information but I also love the creative process! So I understand SEO, I understand graphic design, I understand strategy. So I’m doing that for them and they’re really cool and chill.
Now with my schedule, it’s pretty flexible, but I’m basically working 9-5, or 9-4, Monday through Friday, and then usually when I get home, I try to do stuff for Tchoup Vintage. My usual schedule is that I come home, I handle online orders, I post on social media, I’m taking pictures of new items — like things I can do quickly. And then I schedule things like the models and photo shoots for later.
And I make a schedule for the year and my goals, and I plan out my shows — I ask where I want to go this year. I have the shows that I know are successful, and will have the best results as far as crowds and profits, but then I leave space for any new ones that might pop up or that people might tell me about. So I do those, and I’m basically prepping for a market or festival pretty much all of the time during the season. Which is right now — I have a show next weekend. So yeah, that’s kind of everything and…basically, I’m kind of a one-woman team, doing everything [laughs]!
Elise: Yeah, wow! Do you have anybody that ever helps you with the store?
Lesly: Oh yeah! I’ve had a couple of interns over the years and they’ve all been super great. And right now, I have an assistant but she’s more project-based. It’s kind of like “Hey, I’m doing this photo shoot, can you help me shoot it or pull some clothes for it?” Or if I have a show, she’ll help me pull some clothes for that or travel to the show to work it with me and help me with strategy. She’s really awesome. And she also helps as needed with things like SESH, and the retreat I did in December. And we’re talking about doing a photoshoot in the future because I need to start working on a lookbook for Tchoup Vintage.
Elise: Cool! I would love for you to talk more about SESH and how it relates to your business. Tell me where SESH came from, what the retreat was all about for you, and how (if at all) it relates to Tchoup Vintage.
Lesly: There are a lot of moving parts! SESH actually came in last year while I was freelancing, with me being like, “Okay I’m doing this thing by myself…but I need the support of creatives who are doing the same thing, and specifically women of color doing the same thing.” Because when I was looking into meetup groups — around Ladypreneur things or just anything that revolved around creativity — they were just people I could not relate to. You know, it would be like older women who were super established and in their late 40s, and they’re meeting up on the other side of town. And that did not resonate with me — I could not relate.
And a lot of spaces were mostly white spaces. And there’s a lot of…well, we all have struggles as Ladypreneurs, but with women of color we have a different set of struggles that non POC people have. We’re regularly marginalized and discriminated against based on how we look and on top of that, as a person with their own business, like trying to get a loan, and…pretty much everything else is against us. And so for me, I was like, “I’m not seeing this space, and if the space does exist — I found one Meetup group -— the person was charging like $50 for each session and I was like, “That’s terrible!” This is supposed to be about support and community, and not primarily about monetizing.
So I was like, “Why don’t I just create it myself? If this is what I want to do and what I want to see, why not do it myself?” And also, I’m not making as much money [as a freelancer], so I was thinking about how I can be resourceful so I’m not putting myself in a hole. And I know a lot of people in Atlanta, and we work together at festivals and markets and stuff, and I just felt like I had the resources to do this, so why not just try it out?
I decided I was going to do it in my apartment, cap it at like 7 people, and try for once a month and just see how it goes, developing it as it happens. And the point was to address common struggles of POC Ladypreneurs. Things like: “Okay, how do you self care when you’re running your own business?” or “How do you really pay yourself when you’re freelancing and just trying to make a living?” All these questions that you want to talk about when other people are going through the same thing.
And gosh, it grew so fast and I was…I’ve never felt that way about anything before. I was like, “This is awesome!” It was a support system for me but also a support system for all of these ladies. And the feedback was, “This was so needed,” and “I look forward to coming here once a month to meet new people and get help and figure out how to….” With each SESH we would basically rant about what we’re going through. Like trying to get resources. We’d also share resources. And when there was someone in the group that didn’t know how to do something, there was a person there that did know how to do it to help them.
Elise: That’s so great!
Lesly: I know!! It’s so cool.
Elise: Okay, so when you did the retreat, was the idea to figure out how to monetize based on how SESH had developed?
Lesly: Yes, so the retreat was called “FemmeFluence”; I didn’t feel like it should be called SESH, because that was like a small session. I felt it needed another name. So for SESH, I didn’t want to put a big price tag on it, because it’s still in my apartment, and it wasn’t about the money. But then I was selling out within two hours of posting about it. So I just thought, what else can I do? [At the same time] I was in the middle of planning for my concept shop, and I was not self-caring, and we talked a lot about self care with SESH.
So I started looking for wellness retreats. And at first I wanted to see what I could do to take care of myself and get away. But then it was the same situation! All these retreats are yoga retreats — I mean I love yoga but that’s not what I want to do the whole time. And they were like $2000! Ridiculous, and not accessible to everybody. So was like “I’m going to try to create this and I feel like it would have a lot of interest.” And then, I thought okay, why not something on a bigger scale? So I capped it off at 15 people, and we had twelve people sign up. And it was…I realized that this space is much-needed. I offered payment plans, to make sure that people who wanted to attend could attend. I got a lot of feedback and I felt really good about it…I think I planned it for about two months.
I just feel like it’s so important to self care, especially for women in business, when it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with customers, technology, social media, etc. — stuff that’s so exhausting at times, and for me I didn’t feel like I had what I needed to handle that. And that was a common theme in our SESH sessions: before the retreat we had at least eight sessions, and everyone kept talking about being so exhausted, not being able to keep up, you know?
I’ve always been that person that says I just want to create the things that are not being done and that I would want to see. If they aren’t being done, I just do it myself. I just figure out a way to fill that gap.
Elise: Totally! Yeah, on your website you mention that you opened Tchoup Vintage as a response to…essentially, the direction that vintage has gone. Like overpriced, boutique-y spaces. Does that goal resonate with how you approach your retreat business?
Lesly: Yes, I’ve always loved vintage and growing up in New Orleans, these vintage stores like Funky Monkey showed up and it was so cool. Everything was cheap and super cool. And I’ve been into vintage clothes since I was 13, I’ve always collected them. And with the store itself…. Well, I knew I wanted a business — I wanted something. And my dad had passed away, which was terrible and sad, and I wanted to make sure I was being productive, as a way of distracting myself and keeping myself busy, but also doing what I always wanted to do, which was to have a business.
So I was like, “Okay, I know how to build a website; okay, I know how to do all of these things, so why not just try to do it!” But it also came from frustration, that yeah, every time I go to a vintage shop nothing is over a size 2…and I was like, “This is not what I want.” I know that when I would shop for myself, I’m not seeing this type of vintage online or on Instagram. It’s just all these things that I wasn’t seeing. You know, I’m curvy, but not like super curvy, so why can I not find jeans that fit or a dress that is a size 10? These should not be hard to find.
And it’s just not seeing as many women of color in general running a business…yeah, six years ago in Atlanta there weren’t that many women of color entrepreneurs, which was surprising. And it’s a very black city.
Elise: Wow! It’s so against the common perception of Atlanta as this sort of “mecca,” especially for black professionals.
Lesly: Yeah! I wasn’t seeing myself in those spaces. And then people would tell me like, “Oh, you’re inspiring me to do my own thing.” And we would talk about the possibility of doing their own thing or business, and how it’s okay to do it!
With women, with women of color, when you don’t see yourself in a space, it can be terrifying to do it yourself. And at first I was like, “I just wanted to sell these vintage clothes and be on my way.” But then I have people now who say, “I’ve been following your journey…and it’s nice to see where you came from with the store,” and also people ask me when the retreat is coming up again. It’s all happened in a way that I could never have imagined.
And as for the retreat, it was definitely a highlight in my life. I was putting…I don’t know…it’s just, it was so unconventional because…I don’t have a yoga background, I’m just an advocate for self-care, but I started this thing and I was like, “What am I doing?? I have no credentials!” [laughs]. But it was something that brought me joy and was super rewarding.
And I never felt that with Tchoup Vintage. With Tchoup I know I’ve done a lot, but I’ve never had that moment of like OMG this is super amazing…actually doing something that’s… helping people, that’s admirable, I guess. And while Tchoup Vintage is about doing stuff — like for the environment — the impact of SESH and working with women of color to talk about their traumas, their businesses…it’s super powerful.
Elise: I know — I have tears in my eyes! The whole project sounds so beautiful, and to have this space together…it’s awesome. And yes, with clothing, there are politics to it, but it’s not as immediate…not like being in the same room lifted up by each other’s presence.
Lesly: Yeah, and it’s funny because I did feel like the retreat might get a little…somebody might cry…and they definitely did! Because I was like, “Okay, let’s talk about what we did in 2018, what we’re proud of and what we feel we failed at and know wasn’t good. And let’s talk about goals for 2019 and figure out how we can change things.”
And at that point I was realizing that I would have to give up on this concept shop for a little bit. And that concept shop for me would have been a highlight in my life after years of having only the online space. And — I don’t know — it kind of just hurt my feelings, because I really wanted it to happen and it couldn’t happen then. So yes, I ended up crying at the retreat. And it was really hard, but…in a way I’m talking about putting myself out there in a vulnerable sense…and I didn’t think I would. I mean, I’m pretty open, but I didn’t think it would get to that point. I thought we would just laugh and talk and discuss business. But it turned into something way different.
It was all so awesome, and I’m a little sad right now because I haven’t had a SESH since the retreat in December — only because I didn’t know what was going to happen! It was January, and I still didn’t have a job. The retreat was beautiful and I was proud of it but I also…at that point I needed some self-care from my self-care [laughs]. I wasn’t inspired to do Tchoup stuff at the moment. I put it aside and focused on finding a job, thinking about how to survive.
A lot of change happened for me in 2018, and I just wasn’t used to it. My whole life I’ve had a plan for everything, and in 2018 things just happened, and I took these routes that I’m not used to, and that made me uncomfortable [laughs]. To not have control over these things, it was just kind of weird.
Elise: Yeah, it sounds like such a roller coaster!
Lesly: Oh yes, it was definitely a roller coaster: lots of emotions, lots of crying, just keeping my head above water for a year.
And it’s weird, because it has taught me to have a budget, stick to it, and be conscious of what I’m spending it on…and to save it and be conscious of what I’m doing with it. And to be conscious of everything in general. For instance, I would go to therapy, like, every other week when I had a job, and while I was doing the freelancing thing it was maybe once a month, then every other month…. And I just wanted to go to therapy and talk about all these feelings, but I couldn’t afford it. I was just trying to figure it all out, but it worked out in the end.
Elise: Yeah, with Dismantle…we’re not quite in the same place, because we’re not as established as you. But there’s this thing of figuring it all out with the unknown, where things might go, and how that fits into our budgets and spending when there’s not much coming in but we really need to grow to keep it all going. It takes a lot of creative planning!
Lesly: Yeah! You have to be super resourceful, and figure out what you can do without paying money for something, and then figure out where your money is going.
Elise: It’s so funny how the universe works, catching you in this moment of transition and excitement but also…the unknown! Like where are things going from here?
Lesly: I’m…I don’t know! I’m kind of a fan of not sharing much before things happen [laughs]. But…I will say that Tchoup is in the process of being expanded and rebranded. So be on the lookout for some fun new developments!
Check out Tchoup Vintage at http://www.shoptchoupvintage.com/
Follow Lesly on Instagram and Facebook @tchoupvintage
Note: Due to an error the first interview response has been reconstructed from notes. The rest was transcribed from a recording and has been edited for clarity and length.
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