This story begins and ends with a single skirt.
While many clothing brands concentrate on branching out, Lauren and Mariel Armstrong are twirling in the opposite direction and focusing on just one thing. It is a simple idea and a simple name, and they have built an entire queendom on it: the Partyskirt.
With a cinched waist and playful pyramid silhouette, the garment can be worn on youthful teens and working women, both with heels and a blouse or sneakers and a T-shirt. Made in Vancouver using high-quality silk taffeta, the Partyskirt comes in two lengths and an array of colours and prints that change with the seasons. There’s an inherent jovial quality to the piece, and it is designed to celebrate the everyday; indeed, you certainly don’t have to go to a party in order to wear a Partyskirt. It’s not about where it’s donned, but rather how it feels.
Like most businesses, this one was created to fill a need. The Armstrong sisters wanted a versatile wardrobe staple that they could dress up or dress down, so they designed a little number and asked their artistic mother to sew it together. “We never even named it,” says Lauren. “It was just like, ‘Here’s your party skirt!’” Soon they each had one in a different colour and were stopped everywhere they went. “When we both wore them out, it was crazy, the attention we got,” Lauren continues. “Everyone was like, ‘Why are you wearing these skirts? What’s the occasion?’ It really sparked a conversation.” They started making the odd skirt for friends and even set up a website for fun, letting word spread organically. To their surprise, they received a flood of emails from as far away as Australia; still, it was years before anything commercial was done. Lauren moved to New York to work at Hermès, and Mariel was employed by Brian Lichtenberg in Los Angeles. In December three years ago, though, once they were both back in Vancouver and seeking their next project, they decided to strap on their boots—make that their party shoes—and give it a go.
Within the year, they were designing a special collection for Teen Vogue and selling skirts across North America. Now they have nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, a collaboration with Keds under their belt, and a client base that includes Kelly Ripa, Jillian Harris, and the Fox television show Scream Queens. Those are some pretty large accomplishments for two women under 32. “Every day is a learning experience,” says Mariel. “We’re still trying to teach ourselves as we go.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Lauren (31) and Mariel (27) look something like the walking incarnate of a pool party: bright, spirited, beautiful, tons of fun. With pristine, long blonde hair, bright eyes, and warm smiles, they carry themselves with equal parts playfulness and poise. Their strong sibling bond is evident from the second they set foot anywhere; Lauren picks a stray string off of Mariel’s jacket, while Mariel instinctively orders a croissant and delivers it to her sister. “We are very close—we’re basically attached at the hip,” Lauren says. “Mariel knows when I’m hungry before I’m even hungry.” Mariel agrees: “She’ll say something in a certain tone and I’ll go, ‘Oh, you’re hungry, here’s a granola bar.’ She’s like a baby: she needs to eat every two hours.” The sisters do everything together, whether it’s work-related or not, and though they have separate apartments, they are located across the hall from each other. It’s all part of their charm, though, and they know how to use it to their advantage. A major component of the Partyskirts appeal is the bubbly, glamorous women behind the outfits: they’re the embodiment of a Pinterest dreamscape. As such, Mariel and Lauren are all over the Partyskirts Instagram feed and website, captured posing and frolicking in the colourful attire that gave them their fame.
“That’s the cool thing about our business in this time, is that it couldn’t have existed 10 years ago if we tried because everything is done through social media,” says Lauren. “A blogger wears [a Partyskirt], and that converts into so many sales. It’s all about building those influencer relationships. It’s such a small world through any sort of social media: you can find out who knows who and make it happen. I think it helps that we’re sisters, that we have a partner in this. Any time I feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I would never put myself out there like that,’ I just know I’m doing it for Mariel.” They are big fans of keeping things in the family, and have often called on their brother, who was born in between them, to help where needed; as for their skirt-sewing mom, who grew up designing her own clothes but ended up working in the lumber industry, she is really “living her dream through us,” says Lauren. When the sisters were flying to Toronto to film an episode of Dragon’s Den (to air next year), their mother asked to come along and ended up modelling one of the skirts for the Dragons. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a family trip without a little parent-induced embarrassment: “She was super chatty,” says Mariel. “They mic-ed her!” Lauren smiles, adds, “We forgot to tell her not to talk.”
Overall, though, the Den experience was a positive one, forcing them to hone their elevator pitch and feel comfortable talking about their numbers and projections. “Never in my life of wearing high heels have I had my ankles shake,” Mariel recalls of facing the Dragons. For Lauren, it was the reality of what they were doing that hit her once they started filming. “I didn’t even think about not getting a deal until I got into the Den,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Holy moly, I have not even thought this through!’ I think that’s what we do: we just go for whatever. We say that I shoot for the moon and Mariel drives the spaceship.” Mariel pipes in. “I’m always like, ‘No, no, we’re not doing that,” she says. “‘No, that’s not possible, that’s impossible, no, we’re not going to Mars tomorrow.’” But that doesn’t mean shooting for Mars one day is out of the question—it’s more a matter of when and how.
Every step that Mariel and Lauren take is calculated, from the partnerships they pursue to the colours they choose each collection. The empire they run is entirely self-made, and while they seem to sprinkle fairy dust wherever they go, they are also incredibly grounded and wholly in charge of their brand. They learned how to run their business from the ground up, sourcing fabric, finding the right manufacturer, running budgets, even packaging and shipping the skirts themselves in the early days. Now that they are established, it’s about expanding at a healthy and controllable rate. “We’re at the hurdle in our business of: how far do we want to jump?” says Lauren. “It’s about taking steps that are manageable. So we definitely have some big goals, but it’s timing them out—because I think if it’s too big too fast, that can hurt you big time.”
Most of Partyskirts’ sales are done online (though they are carried in Vancouver at Lynn Steven), so the duo is currently looking at ways to reach audiences in new cities and see about being carried in some bigger retailers. What’s not on the agenda, though, is a permanent venture into other items. “People ask us all the time, ‘What’s next?’” says Lauren. “And we’re like, ‘There’s nothing next! They’re just Partyskirts!’” As the company continues to grow, the sisters are being forced to loosen the reigns on the entire operation; they have two other staff members now, and are beginning to understand the value of trusted employees. “A challenge is letting go of control and realizing that we’re at a point where we need to have people help us,” says Mariel. “But Partyskirts is our baby—it’s something that we’re so emotionally connected to.” Of course, even a beloved child can be annoying at times. “It’s exhausting,” says Lauren. “Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Wow, if I have to see another skirt…’” Mariel nods. “There’s always just one colour where you’re like, “I would pay to not see that colour again,’” she says, estimating that she has 300 Partyskirts in her closet—all colour-coordinated, of course. She even made a Partyskirt out of a potato sack once, just to see what it looked like (pretty cute, apparently). That’s how Mariel and Lauren work: in a harmonic mixture of youthful experimentation and steadfast organization. It’s the inexplicable synthesis of cocktail hour and business lunch. And they have just the thing to wear to both.
UPDATE, December 2018: the Armstrong sisters have moved on from Partyskirts.
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