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CURATED FOR CURVES: EMMA ZACK ON HER SIZE-INCLUSIVE VINTAGE SHOP BERRIEZ, MANAGING UNDIAGNOSED CHRONIC ILLNESS, AND NAVIGATING THE FASHION INDUSTRY

Interview by Hayley Cranberry Small
Published in SICK issue 5, 2023

Hayley Cranberry Small is a ceramicist and cartographer. She creates functional sculptures that are both dramatic yet delicate—severe yet sensitive—recognising the natural beauty and organic forms of nature and the body. Hayley lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her dog, Greta. @puppysmalll

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Emma Zack was working full-time at a criminal justice non-profit when she became frustrated by the lack of plus-size representation in the world of vintage fashion. Instagram was becoming an increasingly popular platform for selling vintage and secondhand clothing, and Emma found herself purchasing lots of ‘oversized’ pieces advertised on thin models, only to find them ill-fitting and non-returnable. “I figured I wasn’t the only person who wanted to shop for vintage on Instagram but wasn’t able to find their size,” Emma says. So, she took some photos of herself wearing these pieces and posted them on Instagram to re-sell. Soon after, Berriez was born.

“Berriez is your go-to spot for size-inclusive sustainable fashion,” says Emma. “We sell vintage, one-of-a-kind reworked vintage, as well as clothing and accessories from emerging designers.”

Since launching in 2018, Brooklyn-based Berriez has been featured in the New York Times, The Cut, Nylon, and more. In 2022, Ace Hotel asked Emma to organise a fashion show during New York Fashion Week, which she threw together in just 40 days. Using the theme of ‘vices’, with looks representing weed to gambling to gluten, Emma worked closely with several designers to bring Berriez’s first fashion show to life. “I’m definitely not a sewer,” she says, “but I would like to call myself a designer, or at least speak that into existence.”

In an interview with Hayley Cranberry Small, Emma discusses her experience of starting a business while living with multiple undiagnosed chronic illnesses—which she speaks publicly about for the first time here.
—Olivia Spring 

Hayley Cranberry Small: Hi Emma! It is so exciting to interview you about your vintage shop ‘curated for curves,’ Berriez. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you find yourself fitting into the chronic illness and disability community. How does Berriez’s commitment to inclusivity include not only plus-size people, but also those in the disability community?

Emma Zack: My undiagnosed chronic illnesses started flaring up when I was 17. Over the past 14 years, I've been in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices trying to figure out what's wrong with me, and to this day, I still don't have an answer. What I do know is that I can’t remember the last time my body felt ‘normal.’ To briefly recap some of my chronic illnesses: I have IBS, arthritis in my jaw, carpal tunnel in my wrists, extreme middle back pain, chronic tonsillitis, potential Crohn's disease and endometriosis, migraines, and the list goes on. I also struggle with diagnosed ADD, anxiety, and depression. However, even though I have some diagnoses, my doctors and I believe these to be part of an overarching autoimmune disease that hasn't yet been identified.

Although this is the first time I am speaking out about being a member of the disability community, and in fact needed assistance in realising I am a part of this group, I’m certainly not ashamed and feel excited to reflect on this as a small business owner. As I'm running this business mostly on my own, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything, even if I'm feeling sick. My goal for myself this year is to focus on my health and continue searching for answers and treatment. However, with Berriez growing, I’ve struggled to fulfil this goal. I don't even think that my friends know how shitty my body feels—but, then again, I'm stubborn and have trouble accepting help and compassion. I realise that to be a successful business owner, I need to shift my priorities and learn to prioritise myself.

My younger sister is a fierce disability advocate. I often consult her about issues within the disability community and how I can make Berriez more accessible. I realise that Berriez has more work to be done, and I will continue reflecting on how to make the disability community feel seen and welcomed, especially as I am part of it myself.

HS: Can you tell us a bit about a day in the life of a chronically ill, self-employed person? What are the benefits of self-employment? What parts do you find yourself needing help with?

EZ: The great thing about being self-employed is that I can move at my own pace. While I don't take sick days very often, I am able to move slower on days when I do feel sick. I definitely struggle with creating boundaries for myself. I really need to go to the doctor, but I keep putting it off because it's time in the day that cuts into Berriez. The biggest thing I need help with is asking other people for help—delegating tasks, especially if I’m not feeling well.

HS: The fashion world is often filled with a lot of toxicity in terms of women’s appearances, sizes, and body types. I know that even just working tangentially in fashion can place you in a world of pettiness. What do you find are some of the hardest things about being involved in the fashion world as a plus-size and chronically ill woman?

EZ: It's hard working as a stylist in the industry, especially working with brands that aren't size-inclusive, knowing the brand will never make pieces for you. I do love being fat and styling other fat models—so often stylists will show up to set and won’t have clothes that fit a plus-size model despite being given the model’s measurements. For me to show up on set with clothes that I know are going to fit the model feels good, and it’s what plus-size models deserve. I once modelled for a reputable magazine, and one of the only options they had for me was a metallic balloon dress, whereas all the other models were wearing Prada and Miu Miu. I want to offer plus-size models as many cool options as straight-size models are offered.

I think my background in criminal justice—not in the fashion world—has given me a unique perspective. I don't really follow high fashion—why would I? These brands don't make clothing for me. Finding designers that care about having a diverse range of body types in their clothing is what fuels me and keeps me focused. I also don’t follow people or brands on the internet who make me feel bad about myself or question my goals for Berriez.

Image by Lydia Hudgens

HS: I love that Berriez does a lot of collaborations with other brands. Can you walk us through a typical collaboration? What is the key to a successful collab? What have been some of your favourite collaborations?

EZ: Collaborations started as a way to make things and create imagery with my friends in sizes that weren't typically offered. I often work closely with my friend Laura Cerri of Shop Journal on making her pieces exclusively available in larger sizes at Berriez because they're so damn cool. Up until recently, I've mostly collaborated with friends, since communication is key to a successful collaboration, and communicating with friends is easy; however, I'm trying to expand outwards. With new designers, I have a consignment contract to make sure that the other vendor knows I'm serious and am going to pay them in a timely manner.

For reworked vintage collaborations, I often source and supply the materials; however, if it’s an emerging designer who has their own materials, I work closely with the designer to ensure that the sizing is accurate (plus sizing is a hot mess). I have so many favourite collaborations, but most recently I've loved working with Fyoocher, a designer based in Canada who makes corsets out of deadstock fabrics. She sent me a batch of 10 and they sold out in a week, before even putting them up on my website. That was so cool!

HS: Who are some of your favourite clothing brands and designers? Who would be your dream collaborator?

EZ: I try to only shop from small designers' vintage or reworked vintage. I love wearing my friends’ clothes like Shop Journal, THE SERIES, House of Tame, and abacaxi. My dream collaboration is with KkCo or Brain Dead—I believe they share the same women's designer and I'm absolutely obsessed with her work, but she doesn’t make above a size XL. I'm hoping to reach out to her soon to do an exclusive extended-size capsule with Berriez—let's manifest this y’all.

HS: Is most of Berriez’s business done through online purchases, studio visits, or pop-ups? As a business owner, what seems to be the most fruitful (!) method of sale?

EZ: This year we've pivoted to in-person studio visits as the sole source of our income. I almost shut down at the end of last year because I wasn't making any money and that's because online sales have been slow. Pop-ups are also an amazing source of revenue, but as you can imagine, they are exhausting. They require a lot of physical activity and the emotional work of communicating with so many customers at once. I really love pop-ups though because they've strengthened the Berriez community and allowed me to meet online customers IRL.

HS: How do you make sure you don’t overwork yourself or burn out, while still being able to support yourself?

EZ: I completely burnt out at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. I was so depressed, and I really didn't see how Berriez was going to succeed. My assistant at the time said, “Let's just host in-studio shopping appointments and see how they do.” But, like I said earlier, I'm stubborn AND I'm a perfectionist, and I didn't like the way the studio looked. I needed to make money, so I sucked it up, and it happens to be going well! Hopefully, in the near future, I'll be able to upgrade my space to something that I'm more proud of.


Image by Meghan Marshall

HS: As someone with an undiagnosed chronic illness/es, do you have any tips for those within the disability community who would like to turn their frustrations into motivation? What are the first big steps in using frustration as a push to create?

EZ: There's nothing more frustrating than being sick for 14 years of your life and not knowing how to get better or what is actually wrong with you. Taking breaks and setting boundaries are essential, and not feeling guilty for taking them or making them (I need to get better at this). With Berriez, it was (and is) so frustrating not being able to find my size, but I didn't let that send me into a frustration hole. Instead, I flipped it to a positive: ‘Okay, if no one is finding these sizes, even though I know these sizes are out there, and there must be other people who want them too… I’m just going to find them myself.’ When I made this decision and I quit my full-time job, I had no fucking clue how hard it would be. It’s been a roller coaster—but you just have to keep pushing, searching for answers, and doing what you feel is right for you.

HS: If Berriez was music, what would it sound like? If Berriez was a more traditional visual art form, what would it be? What other art or non-fashion-related artists do you feel inspired by?

EZ: I'm a jazz girl through and through, so of course I'm going to say that Berriez is like jazz—specifically an upbeat yet soft Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck piano piece. Their pieces are colourful, thoughtful, playful, and expressive—I'd say Berriez is all those things, too.

If Berriez was a more traditional visual art form, it would be abstract art like Miró—colourful, imperfect, and representative of all shapes and sizes.

Apart from fashion, music is my first love and will always inspire me more than any other art form. Music is what gets me through my days. Music is what helped me focus on completing this interview. Music is what motivates me to schedule my doctor’s appointments. Music keeps me grounded. Without music, Berriez wouldn’t exist!

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Follow Berriez on Instagram @shopberriez and www.shopberriez.com.

This interview has been edited and condensed.