Marlie Madison’s Ashley Sosa On Challenges Of Running A Plus-Size Boutique

We’ve already established that Dallas has a depressing dearth of fashionable plus-size clothing, but that doesn’t mean there aren't boutiques that sell the fashion-forward clothing that plus-size consumers are practically dying to buy. As we mentioned last week, the Marlie Madison Boutique is one of Dallas’ most popular boutiques, and its founder Ashley Sosa is working around the clock to continue to grow her business and increase the availability of plus-size clothing for her local customers.

On top of running her business, Sosa is practically a single mom of two boys, even though she’s happily married. Her husband works in the oil and gas industry, which means long stints away from the family in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. She also lives with lupus, a sometimes debilitating auto-immune disorder. Still, Sosa is impossibly energized by Marlie Madison Boutique.

Sosa never really intended to be a plus-size boutique owner. In fact, she’s nowhere even close to plus-size herself. After years of working in retail in fast-fashion shops like the now-defunct Gadzook’s, Sosa became a stay-at-home-mom in 2013. “I’m a busybody,” says Sosa. “I started seeing girls selling cute stuff on Facebook, and I thought that I could do it better than they were.” She started Googling how to file the paperwork to open a business and where to find vendors. Most important, she had to figure out how to run a boutique.

“I’ve always done things the hard way, and sometimes that’s very costly,” Sosa says. The first-ever Marlie Madison sale was hosted at a house party, much like you’d see with Tupperware or Avon. A friend opened up her doors, and Sosa dragged in two rolling racks of clothing, her entire inventory at the time. From the beginning, people at the house party asked her if she would be stocking larger sizes.

The thought hadn’t really occurred to her, and the boutique opened without any plus-size options. “Wherever I see a need, I’m going to try to fill it,” says Sosa. “So that started the search. I’ve been able to encourage several of my vendors to make plus-size items, or offer more plus-size options. When you can spend $100,000 a year with someone, they’re more likely to be responsive.”

The challenge really came when Sosa had to figure out how to stock her boutique. When purchased at wholesale, clothing is sold in “packs,” which generally offer two or three of an item in each size, from small to large. Plus-size packs are sold separately, XL-3XL, often with just one 3XL in each batch. “I’ll have 30 extra-larges, just to have one 3XL,” says Sosa. “The 3XLs sell out really fast, and I’m left with all this extra stock.”

Not surprisingly, some plus-size customers were pissed that the most popular styles sold out quickly, and they weren’t afraid to be vocal about it on Facebook and in reviews on Marlie Madison’s website. “People email me constantly asking for a certain dress in a 3XL, and I want to sell it to them, I really do,” says Sosa. “I don’t make this stuff right now, so I’m limited in what I can offer.” As a result, she’s in the process of figuring out how to start producing her own clothing in all sizes.

Fans also weren’t happy that many of the items “ran small,” a standard that is impossible to nail down, even for the biggest of clothing retailers. The sizing disparity struggle is real in the fashion world, particularly in the plus-size section. Women frequently have three or four, even five different sizes of clothing in their closets, and that is especially true in boutique clothing. “That’s the struggle, and exactly why we really need clothes in-store for people to try on,” says Sosa. “I really want to open a big store with a small showroom, and a back area where we can produce our own stuff. That way, we can tailor stuff for people and offer more of what is needed.”

In the meantime, she’s working on building a loyal fan base for when that day comes. To do that, Sosa uses Facebook to poll her 120,000-plus fans on what they’d like to see in the boutique. She’s also organized a “size chart panel,” where users sign up for email alerts to provide their feedback on the reality of plus-size sizing standards. She’s also reinvesting as much as she can in her business and trying to get the word out to customers who don’t even know she exists.

Sosa’s boutique is largely online, much of it driven through Facebook, which means that she has to spend a hefty sum every month on ads to ensure that her fans are able to see posts from the boutique. A Facebook algorithm change earlier this year made those ads even more necessary. “Sure, we have 100,000 fans, but I would post something, and only 300 of them would even see it, much less be able to buy anything,” says Sosa.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, Sosa operates two retail locations — one in Plano at Marketplace Boutiques and another at The Plaid Peacock in Roanoke. The operation is tiny, with only three employees — Sosa, and two employees who pack and ship online orders. Both are sort of like antique malls, except with brand new, boutique merchandise. Individual booths sell everything from bath salts (the legal kind, not the drug kind) to bathing suits, and Sosa must consistently drive between the two to restock merchandise, freshen up the display and pick up her earnings.

Despite these challenges, the future is bright for the Marlie Madison Boutique, and those customers who don’t even know that these kinds of options exist for plus-size shoppers are crucial to its success. “When people do find us, I can’t tell you how many emails I get from people thanking me for selling these sizes,” says Sosa. “I’m not in this to become a millionaire — yet — I really just want to bring my husband home.” 
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Amy McCarthy