With the rise of fast fashion in recent decades and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, remaining small businesses face challenges of existing in an oversaturated, fast-paced consumer landscape. In spite of the challenges, people like Courtney Rivenbark, owner and creator of Cococlem, persist with their small businesses, focusing on sustainable, ethical products that make a positive impact in the fashion world. As a size-inclusive, made-to-order clothing brand with all fabric prints designed by Rivenbark, her business is truly unique to her.
Courtney Rivenbark, a 2020 UNCW studio art alumna, began her size-inclusive swimwear business before attending UNCW. This decision was based in her desire to surround herself with creative people. She wanted to expand and improve her artistic skills, focusing on ceramics as well as exploring classes in costume design and art history.
The idea for Cococlem sparked in 2018 when Rivenbark took on a 100-day art challenge. To ensure a finished drawing each day, she started making repeat patterns. Rivenbark recognized the designs would work well for fabric, leading her to pick up sewing again as she experimented with them.
“I don’t want to just have a clothing brand, I want to design the fabrics,” Rivenbark said. “I don’t know, it just feels more me.”
Rivenbark used her fabrics primarily in swimwear because she saw an area of clothing lacking in size diversity.
“There’s a huge gap in the swimwear market where it’s just not very body neutral,” she said. “There’s just a lot of ill-fitting swimsuits for a lot of bodies if you’re not one size. So, I kind of wanted to challenge myself in that way, to make something better.”
To create the best fit, Rivenbark works extensively with models of all shapes and sizes, fine-tuning the clothing patterns so that they can be the perfect fit for as many bodies as possible. In addition, she works with clients to create custom orders.
In this new age of technology, she is one of many small business owners using social media to their full advantage in a world of fast-paced fashion trends and consumerism. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram play a critical role in Rivenbark’s success. Her social media focuses greatly on her artistic process, showing her methods for illustration and pattern-sizing. This transparency is one of the main proponents of her success online.
“I think being self-taught, I don’t really have this huge ego around keeping things a secret or keeping things in my bubble” said Rivenbark. “There’s still so much that I don’t know that I wish people would share.”
In being transparent about how her business works, Rivenbark hopes that “maybe if I share, someone else will share with me.” Through the platform and her honesty, she has been able to create a community of artistic colleagues, clients and like-minded people, entering a new sphere of business as an “artfluencer.”
Her presence on social media as an artist and business owner striving to create more inclusive swimwear has given her the chance to hear the stories of people who don’t have access to swimwear made for their bodies.
“I’m really thankful that they’re open with me,” said Rivenbark. “People feel comfortable enough sharing their experiences with me because they see that I’m trying to, I guess, change things.”
Another facet of Rivenbark’s success, within her business itself, is the uniqueness and humor of her prints. She regularly applies the mentality of “opposites attract” to her art. Whether that’s making seemingly opposing objects that have rhyming names work together or playing with the representation of shapes, Rivenbark loves the dichotomy of everyday things.
“I don’t really know, it’s just kind of a stream of consciousness, and trying to make connections with either shapes and words or colors,” she said.
Her artistic inspirations range widely but are truly visible in the vibrancy of her prints. Using subject matter like Apple computers, she is interested in looking beyond the initial interpretation by placing the subject matter in satirical, humorous prints.
“I think I’m also inspired by advertisements too, and definitely vintage prints, bold colors, graphic art, and pop art from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and very much critiquing advertisements,” Rivenbark added.
Her prints feature swans and tampons, angelic almond milk versus demonic whole milk and saintly sanitizer, all with the objective of “trying to look beyond what is there.” The candor and playfulness of her prints has gotten her swimwear featured in publications such as British Vogue.
Owning a small business that strives for sustainability doesn’t come without its challenges. As a one-person show, Rivenbark has to perform many jobs. She is in charge of illustration, design, production, marketing and more. All of these are fulltime jobs in themselves. One of the biggest challenges that Rivenbark faces is the small size of her business and the resulting impacts on budget and resource accessibility.
“Because North Carolina is a huge textile hub, there are these giant factories who have amazing sustainability initiatives,” said Rivenbark. “It’s hard to partner and work with these textile mills when you’re such a small business and so you don’t have access to really incredible technology. You don’t have a bunch of money up front to pay for higher minimums.”
As someone who stirs so many pots, another challenge that Rivenbark faces is time.
“I hope that I can get to a place where I’m able to take my time and really allow people to indulge in my vision,” said Rivenbark when considering one of her main goals.
Now located in the Durham area, Rivenbark looks to hire people coming out of local university design programs such as those at NC State University. She hopes that bringing in employees with new skills will improve her company, as well as give her the time to invest in her creative process.
In dealing with these struggles, she shared a valuable piece of information for all studio art majors and aspiring business owners.
“Just don’t quit and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and if you feel like you need to quit, that’s a sign that you need to pivot,” she said.
Like most things, however, the challenges of owning a small business come with great rewards. When asked what these are with Cococlem, Rivenbark’s face lit up.
“You get really high highs,” she said. “I want to say TikTok because I’ve made such an incredible community on there, I’ve learned so much about designing for different bodies. I’m really, really lucky that I’m able to creative problem solve but also use my art to solve other people’s problems. I think that’s the greatest joy, honestly.”
In spite of the challenges, Courtney Rivenbark’s vision of size-inclusivity, stream-of-consciousness prints and sustainability brings a positive light to the lives of so many people. As she expands her products to include items for all seasons, including an exciting new collection of printed socks, the future of her brand looks brighter than ever.