BARNEGAT – Marcia Arnsparger Santiago was planning a trip to New Orleans recently to celebrate the next stage in her business growth when she found herself.
She was only going to be away for three days. But she was there, packing her bags as if she was picking up and moving.
“I’m like, ‘Why do I have this huge suitcase?’” Santiago said. “Literally for three days. I’m upstairs taking stuff, taking it out, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God it’s going to be 80 degrees, I don’t need this shirt. ” I can not help it.”
Santiago is in the right line of work. She owns KlosetSlayer, a fashion company whose avant-garde designs have found their way from her home in Barnegat to reality shows, influencer accounts and, in September, New York Fashion Week.
It’s a type of story that follows your dreams and actually has a chance to come true. To get here, Santiago quit her job as a surgical technician and bounced back to her quiet suburban street, Atlantic City’s gay bars and Manhattan’s fashion district, fitting in perfectly.
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And she got into it, designing clothes not for the models on the Victoria’s Secret show, but for everyone. KlosetSlayer’s Instagram page features models of all races, sizes, and gender identities.
Honey Davenport, who competed in “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and has 121,000 Instagram followers, said she told Santiago her fashion line was “really great, really, you know, urban fashion.”
“And she said, ‘Really? If you love her, would you walk for me and my fashion week show?’ And I was like ‘Absolutely’, ”Davenport said.
Santiago, 42, is in the middle of a whirlwind. Her husband, Jamaal Jackson, is battling a type of blood cancer. And they have a 7-year-old son, Baylon, whom they transport to karate lessons and baseball and soccer practice.
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KlosetSlayer sells its products online and Santiago designs the clothes; working with seamstresses, tailors and outside fabricators to make the clothes; and occasionally ship the final products from his home.
The company, which started in 2014, has achieved around 25 sales per day and $ 100,000 in revenue per year.
“I love to see people feel good about themselves,” Santiago said. “You could see someone completely transformed with makeup and outfit. And that’s the best feeling ever.”
KlosetSlayer’s unlikely journey
Santiago grew up in Altoona, Pa., And got into fashion early on; her closet was the one her friends would go and loot, she said.
She started taking classes at Penn State University in Altoona, studying to be a surgical technician, but she always wanted to leave rural Pennsylvania.
She took a job at a Galloway hospital, which paid more than jobs in Pennsylvania. She moved in with a friend. And they spent their weekends in Philadelphia, New York, and the Jersey Shore.
In 2012, Santiago met Jackson, who had a business in New York City selling equipment designed to stop high-rise fires. They got married and settled in Barnegat, halfway between their jobs.
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Santiago said the job of a nurse was difficult. She spent hours on her feet handing instruments to surgeons. Meanwhile, Jackson got to see his passion for design and suggested he start his own line.
“It’s all about taking that leap of faith,” Jackson said. “I’m all about taking risks. How would you know if you don’t try? I said put all the cards in and run with it.”
Santiago called his company KlosetSlayer, reminding her of all the times she was told she “killed that outfit.” And she set out to pitch her line to influencers, refusing to take no for an answer.
Her big luck came from Mark Dahl, co-producer of the annual Miss’d America drag contest, whom she had met at Brass Rail, an LGBTQ bar in Atlantic City.
The two first clashed. Dahl accused her of being a drag queen; Santiago had a few choice words for him. But Dahl appreciated that Santiago returned his zingers right away.
They eventually became close friends and bonded in fashion. And he asked her to make a tuxedo jacket that he could wear on the Miss’d America red carpet.
“She spoke to me on my terms,” Dahl said. “She broke all those walls right away. And she just gave me that smile.”
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How to sell red sweatshirts
Since then, Santiago has tried to break through other walls as a woman of color in the fashion industry. And she received support from advocates like Honey Davenport, who changed her mind in Santiago when she felt like giving up.
“I was raised by five women, five women of color,” Davenport said. “And I just saw how hard it is to survive in this world and how underestimated their beauty is. And I just feel like I’m supporting anyone who has a dream and the motivation that already has to overcome the struggle to be a person of color and a woman, I mean it’s important to me. “
Santiago continues to grow the business, convincing influencers to wear his designs. She said she might one day open a brick and mortar store, possibly in Toms River.
But for now, she’s content to work from home, where she can help Jackson get through cancer treatments and raise Baylon.
The strategy seems to be working. Santiago received 300 orders for red sweatshirts after Puma, a reality TV star with 411,000 Instagram followers, wore a red KlosetSlayer sweatshirt on the VH1 show, “Black Ink.”
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And Santiago booked a trip to New Orleans to celebrate after Norman Freeman, a comedian with 1 million Instagram followers, wore a trainer-sized KlosetSlayer for social media videos that went viral.
How does she convince them to work with her? Looks like they don’t really have a choice.
“I literally keep going, keep going, keep going,” Santiago said. “And they’re either going to be fed up with me bothering them or they’re going to say yes.”
Michael L. Diamond is an economics journalist who has written about the New Jersey economy and the health care industry for over 20 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]