I like to think to have pretty good business acumen. Over the years, as online shopping evolved from the reindeer-sweatshirt & swarovski-crystal studded HSN your grandmother's cherished, into a hip, artsy outlet for the ber -crafty, I devoted a lot of time- and editorials- on how to shop with minimal risk. I've also written countless reviews for good, ethical online businesses- unfortunately, as The Backporch Boutique (AKA BackporchThreadz on Etsy) so clearly showed me, even the well-schooled can fall victim to bad business ethics & chicanery.
As an artist & writer, it's always been important to me to support independent artists, and if in doing so, I stumble across a good find, I'll review it- I don't take remuneration or free products; and my reviews are not bought. From a personal standpoint, I'm equally motivated by artists who make an effort to incorporate green & environmentally ethical practices. [continued below]....
..... The Backporch Boutique is a home based, one-woman shop owned by one Jaime Flannigan-Cool, of NC.
Between her personal website (http://thebackporchboutique.com/
Etsy Shop (http://www.etsy.com/shop/Backporchthreadz?ref=seller_info
and Artfire Studio (http://www.artfire.com/users/TheBackPorchBoutique
Ms. Cool has spawned a small empire of down-home nostalgia & feel-good hippie apparel. Her clothing is a cross between Little-House on the Prairie's Laura Ingalls Wilder & 1960's flower child, Joan Baez, all handmade by Ms. Cool, whose hippie/farm life antics are inter-woven throughout her site with marketing brilliance. From her about me section ("The bus came by, and I got on,thats when it all Began".. she gleefully squeals!), to the cutesy, purposely, un-polished garment descriptions, peppered with one-liners like YAY for gauchos! and ohhhhhhh peacock wonderfulness going on here y'all- and our favorite: Holy cuteness..need i say more? this skirt is a showstopper y'all! , Ms. Cool sure knows how to sell it. Even the garment's names are cleverly well played efforts at offering you the hippie dream: care for a pair of Hug a bear Capri's? Darhma Gaucho's more your style? Maybe you're more of a woodland sprite top sporting, Cotton Cowgirl in the Sand Skirt type?
And to showcase all her wares, Ms. Cool has taken her amateur photographic skills, with the nearby Pisgah National Forest scenery, to photograph the goods on the best bare-faced, middle-aged-hippie-farm-girl-with-dreadlocks model karma can buy. We're treated to an endless array of the anorexic model, who's eyes have bags as deep as pockets beneath them and as much expression as a dead fish. Doing her best to look as bored as possibly, the model goes skipping across river rocks in hemp sundresses & poop boots & leans against dirty, rusted out cars & condemned trailers in the woods. While the clothing changes from frame to frame, the model's poses do not: she alternates between holding her dreadlocks out on each side, a la pippi longstocking, & standing vacantly with her arms out & fingers splayed like some kind of arthritic palsy victim. Maybe she's pouting b/c she's hungry. Or maybe she's just mad she's getting dirt on her $400 dress..
As a package deal, Ms. Cool certainly has sold her hippie image, and she has a tight clique of Phish-following, hemp wearing, legalize-marijauna-crusading followers that fawn over her as their crafty-goddess elite, viciously attacking any outsider who might be less than thrilled with her work. A word of warning here, folks: keep your mouth shut unless it's opening to spew syrupy-sweet praise, or the Goddess will blackball you from ever buying from her crafty pack of hipster, home-steading, seamstress minions
Sadly, I bought the dream, hook, line & sinker.
Ms. Cool had perfect feedback when I first found her, save one mysterious neutral sans comment from buyer (but Ms. Cool made sure to weigh in on this blatant negligence of gratitude, noting the mystery buyer made fast payment, but then quickly denouncing them for daring to want their items shipped overnight). Having somewhere in the park of 150 positive reviews, I overlooked the one neutral- one thing I consistently tell people is that sometimes, despite their best efforts, there's customers you just cant please-but the whole speaks louder than the part, and it was this that made me foolishly overlook that neutral review with the scathing come-back from the seller.
According to Ms. Cool, all her items are high quality, made by her, and the fabrics dyed by a sister shop on Etsy. She assures they are all fair trade and certified organic, though no stamp, symbol, or supplier bears proof of that. Guess we'll just take her word.
Going by her websites & photo's alone, Ms. Cool does have a certain Je ne sais quoi about her style. She carries 2 kinds of product: ready made and made to order. The small line of made to order items consist primarily of skirts, sundresses, and occasional tops; her one of a kind pieces are of the same genre, but embellished with some applique. Undoubtedly, they photograph well- I spent a good deal of time looking at her past sales in addition to her current stock, and even I was hard pressed to find an unruly, red-headed stepchild amongst them. Her applique work is quite lovely, and if you have some serious cash to part with, they can also be quite extensive. The patterns are simple, your basic gaucho's & hippie skirts, & adorned with pockets she tops with those ever-popular tree branch buttons one sees all over etsy. Prices are high though - some $400 for a simple hemp dress with a bit of applique- and just under $100 for a backless top with simple structure. Guess Ms. Cool missed the anti-greed memo issues by the hippie nation.
I first contacted Ms. Cool in late March, 2011, to inquire about a possible custom order for her apron top style shirt. Apron top's are pretty simple in terms of pattern- an open back shirt that consists of a horizontal bodice & a vertical drop panel beneath it; two straps cross over the shoulders and lace through two sets of loops in back to keep the shirt on. There are a few variations on the pattern, but all are simple, and often recommended to novice sewers as a good, easy first project.
I had not heard back from Ms. Cool after several days, when I emailed her again to also ask about her Evolve dress. She replied that day (the irony of the increased potential sale & her sudden interest was not lost on me) and I sent her some sketches, b/c I wanted to know if she could shorten the bodice on both garments, to make them more of an empire-style waist. Empire waists are simple to do and any seamstress worth her salt ca do one; to be sure she understood what I wanted though, I also referred her to two of her past/sold items in which she'd done the exact kind of empire waist I wanted.
Ms. Cool assured me she could do them like that, and I told her to just let me know the price total- the she promptly dropped out of sight. I waited about a week, and finally emailed her, politely asking if she was still interested in doing the order- she emailed me back and said she was, and would put up the listing that day. A couple days later (4-06-2011) she finally got around to it, I immediately made payment in full- just shy of $200.00- telling myself that it was worth the extra money b/c quality items will last years (they were to be done in hemp, and hemp is an incredibly durable fiber).
She emailed to say they would be sent in 2-3 weeks; this was also stated in the custom listings she made for me, as well as on her shop's banner. The day after I sent her my measurements again, along with several color options I would be fine with, in case one was unavailable.
Aside from that, all communication ceased once she received payment. In retrospect, this should have been another red flag, but I didn't pay attention. I started looking for a skirt to buy that would go with the top I ordered when it got close to the due date for shipping- which is when I noticed that Ms. Cool was adding new items to her shop on a daily basis. These weren't from her made to order line, either- they were items she'd made and was selling off the rack. At that point, it did strike me as a little odd- we were quickly approaching the fourth week since my payment, and I hadnt heard from the seller. Etsy allows you to see the seller's sales by date, and between the feedback dates of her past sales & her sales page dates, it showed she had only one other order ahead of me.
Yet any of the new items she was listing had descriptions in which she said she'd just finished making the item, or photographing it that day- call me crazy, but it seems to me that filling past-due, paid for orders should take precedence over not-yet purchased, not yet ordered items. It wasnt just the time lines though that I was feeling disconcerted about: in the past, anytime I ordered something handmade, the sellers were incredibly communicative- for example, last year, I bought a ring and the seller was engraving it for me with a name and a small design. Without being asked, the seller sent me updates every day or so, and photo's of the work so far. She even sent me a final photo to approve, before she shipped it.
Ms. Cool hadn't done anything of the sort- and even though the dress and shirt were technically items she sold regularly, the small change in the waist style made it a custom order, and one for which I had really stressed how important the empire waist part was..
Nevertheless, it was the fact that they were so late that finally nudged me to email her- so you can imagine my disbelief, when several days later, she emailed me to state she'd be starting them the following day. No explanation, no apology; just that. Alarms were now going off, and all those little red flags I'd ignored started to get awfully bright- but I decided to let it go, and rested easy in knowing that, at minimum, i'd be getting some cute clothes- eventually. I was that confident in her work just from her photo's and conversation, and in being so, I forgot how simple it is to make oneself look good when you're the one doing the photo shopping, the editing, and the posting.
The weeks continued to stretch by without word or delivery, and so again, I emailed Ms. Cool, asking if she had sent them yet. She hadn't, but she did say was almost done. Since she was shipping to my UPS rental box, I asked if she could please email me when she did ship, b/c I didn't go down there a lot. She said she would. I never actually did hear from her. It was a call from the UPS shop to say the packages were there, that finally tipped me off that she'd sent them, in early July.
The items arrived i unsecured in a ridiculously huge box, (so much for green practices;). When I opened them, I was in disbelief.
Neither the dress nor the shirt had the empire waist we'd agreed on- For those who don't know, an empire style waist is higher than a normal one- in our correspondence, the seller agreed to make them so that the empire waist started just below the fullest part of my chest. Because the seller was working with my specific measurements and not a general size, this should have been spot on- but she hadn't even gotten them in the ballpark of an empire. When I tried them on, both items' waists ended just above my navel.
The waist, as it turns out, was the least of it's problems. When I went to try on the dress, I asked my fiance to lace the straps through the loops in back and tie them. That's when I started to notice the quality of the dress was beyond shoddy.
The straps were unfinished at the ends- she hadn't hemmed or sewed them; they were just cut, and extremely frayed- so frayed in fact, that we couldn't pull them through the loops to close the dress.
The dress has a small band around it, beneath the bodice- the band was uneven; ranging from heights of 1/2 , up to 2 1/2 in some places. There was no symmetry behind the variations, it was just crooked.
Beneath the band, the seller was supposed to have some gathers- but the gathers were wildly uneven; ranging from 1/2 wide in some places, to 4 wide in others. In the front of the dress, she appeared to have gotten bored with the gathers halfway through, leaving the right side free of any gathers at all.
Ms. Cool's signature Evolve dress is a simple style- the ruffled hem around the base is the one element that takes it from plain to cute- caveat being, mine didn't have one. The dress ended squarely and abruptly. The pocket was oddly placed- higher up on one side than the other, and the exterior stitches of it were crooked; overlapping in some places & loose in others. There was a loop closure tacked on to the dress that the button was meant to go through, but like the straps, she'd left the ends of it unfinished and it was already fraying- any attempts to wash the dress would have caused it to detach completely. The button, which was cute- a big round coin shape made from the branch of a tree- was unfortunately, very large and heavy- which made the pocket itself sag open, effectively making it counter-productive in purpose. The button had been sewed on with only two threads, one of which was already broken- I was surprised the button was still attached at all.
But the back of the dress was by far, the worst of it. It's difficult to describe without photographs, so i've uploaded some for you:
Basically, the dress is open in the back, the straps cross over the shoulders, lace through two loops on each side, then tie. There is a small section of fabric at the top of the skirt, which is gathered & has elastic inside, to keep it from gaping open & giving everyone a view of your knickers.
The problem was, the underside of the dress was a complete wreck. The dress was not lined- and the fabric used felt less like a hemp blend, and more like a light weight linen, with a large, open weave. It's very see-through, and very thin- and the underside of this one is a network of crooked, overlapping stitches that skip off the fabric's edge in some places, & lie loose in others. If you were to pull the hems apart lightly with your fingers, many of the seams come apart with ease. The section of gathered fabric was sewn so poorly shut that the elastic is spilling out on each side, leaving white edges sewn intermittently with the dark brown fabric of the dress itself. There is one section that appears to have been accidentally cut or sliced; it hangs precariously down the middle of the back, threatening to disarticulate the entire stretch of the center seam if you pull on it.
As I mentioned, the dress was a dark brown color. A good seamstress always lines any exposed stitches, but Ms.. Cool skipped the lining, and used a bright white thread to sew; this shows through on both sides. A lot of handmade clothing shops add a purely aesthetic stretch of visable, wide-mouth straight stitches over the structural, hidden ones; to give it a more handmade kind of appeal. Some use decorative stitches that are shaped like leaves or butterflies- but again, these are decorative. Any stitching that's atually holding the garment together is tucked into french seams or linings.
Alas, the visible exterior stitches on this dress were not meant to be aesthetic- they're meant to be structural; and as such, should have been done in a brown color. Doing them in white only makes them glaringly obvious, and they are far from straight or decorative.
The apron top was significantly better in terms of quality. It didn't have the empire waist I'd asked for, and it was missing one of the applique's I'd paid a pretty extra penny for, but overall, it was salvageable. The fabric was very thin- I've worked in fashion for years, and i'm pretty adept at knowing their individual hands- if this was hemp,it was was a cheap, low grade blend, and most certainly NOT the kind that you'll get your money's worth out of. The top is open in back, like the dress- but without a skirt to close it off, this means the underside of it is visible, too. Ms. Cool failed to line the shirt as well, and again used that bright, white, elementary sewing thread, but the seams were decidedly less crooked for the most part. There were a couple loose threads, the applique was snagged and coming loose in one small section, and the underside where the pocket was sewed on was a dizzying mess of haphazard threads- but overall, I knew it could be fixed.
The dress, on the other hand, was not- or so I would find out. The next morning, I stopped at the tailors to see how much the alterations would cost me. The tailor smiled at me consolingly and said You get better. Need time After I explained that these were not the sad fruits of my first sewing class gone wrong, she examined the shirt closely and said she would be able to shorten the bodice to an empire waist, but it would require her taking the whole shirt apart, re-doing the seams, cutting the top, and reattaching the loops and straps. B/c the fabric was a hand-dyed shade, and therefor, we had to work with only what we had, it would cost a little more than usual, she said.
Then she picked up the dress. Oh,.. no... no... no... she tsk'ed. She turned it over, stretched it across the counter. More oh's, and more tsk's. Finally she shook her head. I cannot. Not good. No fix. You bring me new fabric, I make you dress you want, kay? She smiled broadly. Sighing, I packed the dress back into my bag, and let her take my measurements for the shirt's alterations. I started to explain again what the shirt's bodice was supposed to look like; emphasizing the term empire waist, and pointing to various parts of my body to indicate where it should fall. She interrupted me, pulling my arms down while she measured. Yes yes, I know. Empire waist. I'm tailor you know, not stupid. Now still. Stand a still.
The next day, my shirt was finished- it was exactly what i'd originally asked Ms. Cool for, and it had been deconstructed & reconstructed in less than 24 hours from scratch. A marvel.
Cheered by this, I tried two other tailors to see if there was any hope for the dress. Nope. Not structurally sound enough to risk alterations was the general consensus, and after the last tailor and his staff, disbelievingly cooed sure , when I explained it really wasn't the love child of my first attempt at sewing, I decided to give up. That night, I drafted an email to Ms. Cool, listing the litany of issues with the dress. I attached photo's that illustrated the numerous structural flaws the tailor' had pointed out, and asked her how she wanted to handle this.
My first email, I will admit, was a bit curt- not disrespectful, but not syrupy-sweet either. Normally, I'm pretty easy about this kind of thing- you catch more flies with honeys, right? Plus, no one wants to have to read a detailed list with photographic diagrams of their mistakes; I know I don't. I probably should have waited to email her, but the whole thing was beginning to really put me o edge- the ridiculously late items with no reason or apology; the absolute lack of craftsmanship- and the total opposite of what i'd ordered- it was all too much.
The next morning, I got a condescending email from Ms. Cool that said she was sorry I wasnt happy, and that she did not do refunds after 30 days of purchase, and she suggested I check her policies page before ordering again.
Needless to say, I was fuming. In fact, I had checked her policies page- both when I first ordered, and again before I emailed her about the problems. It stated she didn't take returns unless the mistake was on her end- that was all. But I went back to it to check, and sure enough, now it said the 30 days thing. It also showed she'd last updated her polices July 20th, 2011- the day AFTER I emailed her (bless Etsy's software for showing that).
SO what to do? Apparently not much- Etsy states it's their policy to not get involved, and that I should work it out with the seller- and if that fails, I can always leave feedback. But the seller does't want to work it out- so next, I contacted my credit card company. They advised this was between me and etsy.
Before I jumped the bag and left negative feedback-which can hurt a budding shop's reputation- I decided to give Ms. Cool another shot. I wrote a second, more gentle email, apologizing if I came off harsh in the previous one, but still explaining firmly that the issue remained, and that I wanted to try to resolve it as amicably as possible. I again offered her the opportunity to remedy her mistakes, and stated that I would like to return the dress in exchange for a partial refund, or in exchange for the dress I originally ordered. I even stated I'd prefer to have the dress, but that whichever she preferred would be fine.
If Ms. Cool had done either, I'd have happily left her positive feedback, and written her a positive review. I told her I the second email, that I understood people are human, and as such, make mistakes- and that I believed it was not the single incident or mistake that determined a person's ethics, but the way in which they handled it that did. I then said that this was obviously not her usual repertoire, judging by her other positive feedback, and asked her to please sincerely ask herself if this was honestly work she would stand behind with pride.
A person with any kind of ethics or good business sense, would have replied, in my book.
Ms. Cool did not.
That night, I wrote a short feedback & rated it negative. I did not swear, say anything disrespectful, or anything of the sort- I simply stated that the seller sent the items late, and the items sent were not what I ordered, and I terrible quality. I also provided a link to a photo album on photobucket with the images of the dress.
This was on Monday. This afternoon, I got an unsigned email from an anonymous box stating that they'd had the review removed, and good luck trying to find someone on Etsy to sell to you.
Apparently, Ms. Cool is the handmade kingpin, and she has spoken.
I checked, ad it appears that Etsy did remove the feedback. I was flabbergasted- there was othing in the review that was outside the norm, or should have led to it being removed- and etsy never bothered to tell me they did it I the first place. I set an email to them, asking why, but have't heard back yet.
But this really makes me wonder- HOW MANY TIMES HAS MS. COOL SUCCESSFULLY HAD NEGATIVE REMOVED? Her 100% score I relied on as an honest indication of her business reputation no longer holds the weight it once did- and that surely would explain a lot. Of course, Etsy makes money off Ms. Cool- every time she makes a sale, they get a percentage- meaning it's not profitable for Etsy to have her real feedback score shown- I it was, I wouldnt have been so quick to buy from her. This to me, was the most clear example of Ms. Cool's chicanery- SHE knows she sent a poorly done dress, yet she still was sneaky enough to get Etsy to hide it for her.
In all my years reviewing, I've never had someone who was completely unwilling to remedy their mistakes. I've honestly never had anyone make as many as Ms. Cool did, and in so many different sectors (quality, shipping, details, items significantly not as described). It's usually one or the other, and the seller is almost always willing to fix it. I wasnt trying to get anything out of this that I didn't pay for- as I told her, all I really wanted to do was return the dress in exchange for the one I ordered; accepting a refund was my second choice, in the event she didn't want to make another dress.
I'm not out there to write bad reviews, or pick apart people's work~ if anything, my goal is to help give them a little extra publicity, b/c they do good work. I've written very few negative reviews. And this is the absolute first that came out in the end with no real solution. I truly hope that future shoppers will be extraordinarily careful about ordering from this woman- she is a thief, a con woman, and doesnt deserve to be called a artist whatsoever.
But please don't just take my word for it: i've uploaded photo's of the dress she sent, which you can view yourself here: http://photobucket.com/backporchthreadzRipOff?albumview=slideshow