If you already suffer from a bad case of Instagram envy, you definitely do not want to follow Caitlin Garcia-Ahern. As a traveling fashion curator, Caitlin models her upcycled clothing in places that most people have only seen from their computers. With an unwillingness to let go of any of her passions, she’s managed to live a life full of fashion, travel and sustainability all while making a profit. She is the perfect example of living life by your own design, and we are thrilled to share a glimpse into her journey.
Location: Maui, Hawaii
Secretly Obsessed With: Taza chocolate
On My Nightstand: My most recent knitting project, photo of the Milky Way, Tom Robbins books, Lonely Planet’s 1,000 Ultimate Adventures, coconut and lavender oil
Last Thing You Read: Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
How did you get started?
I first started sewing in high school through a sewing program called UrbanCouture. One of the projects that year was to go thrift store shopping and turn old garments into one new piece. I used a bunch of old nylon running suits and created a dress that ended up selling for $200. I’d always loved finding old treasures at thrift stores and yard sales and tweaking them a bit to bring some life back to them and make them more current. Making and selling that piece was huge inspiration to start upcycling clothes professionally.
While at university, I opened my Etsy shop, Refunktion, where I started to sell vintage, handmade and upcycled pieces. During that time; my Etsy site had not been my main focus, so it had a slow evolution. After graduation, I decided to travel to Cambodia to become a teacher, which was an amazing decision for multiple reasons, one of which is the impact of different cultures on my design esthetic.
When I returned stateside I was able to fully focus and press forward with developing Refunktion as a brand with the influences of the experiences and people I’d met abroad. I started working with a very talented photographer, developed social media accounts and incorporated my pieces while doing styling work with other brands. I just recently started a new project, Floating Spirits, which explores fashion, travel and photography. It’s been an amazing journey, and it keeps getting better.
What key elements played into your success?
The single most important element of my success was staying open to new possibilities and exploring my different interests. While I had an interest in fashion, studying sociology opened my eyes to the many economic disparities of the world, and inspired me to travel and work toward making social and environmental changes. I decided to move to Cambodia to teach, and it has been one of the best decisions of my life thus far. Living in another country, learning the language, history and culture and forming relationships with its citizens opens your eyes in ways that aren’t initially perceivable.
I arrived alone, with no housing or anything arranged, only having communicated with the principal at the school via email. Overcoming challenges like seeking medical care in a developing country and encountering a burglar in my own house have given me confidence to pursue any project fearlessly.
I find that people in their early 20s often feel pressured to pick one career path early, and stay the course. I feel the exact opposite. There are so many things I want to explore and accomplish in my life, and I know if I plan accordingly, I can do them all.
I’ve always kept an open mind about my endeavors and with the conscious thought that I could pick something, go with it and always change later. Giving yourself the freedom to change your mind and start something new will open you up to a whole world of new possibilities.
What’s the best piece of advice you received?
You can fail at something you don’t like, so why not work toward something you do like. I’ve found it’s pointless to get bogged down in the fear that something might not work. I think my personal fears as a young entrepreneur come from student loan debt and not making enough money to pay them off. Young entrepreneurs deal with any number of fears stemming from taking on more responsibilities, but you can’t let these fears inhibit you.
Instead of being discouraged by my financial barriers, I work tirelessly to seek out options that do work for me financially, and still allow me to pursue my interests. Do what you love and be the person you are, and all the little things you’re stressing over will eventually fall into place.
What struggles did you face getting to this point?
Honestly, the hardest part of this journey has been finding the motivation to stay committed to my path and various projects. I constantly need to remind myself that these projects are giving me the opportunity to live a life rich with new places and experiences.
Not having a 9-to-5 job can be a terrifying reality, but when you realize you can support yourself doing something you love, you have to go for it.
Who was the biggest influence in your professional life?
I know it’s cheesy, but it’s my mom. Although we have different professional interests, she’s always demonstrated the importance of perseverance and how enthusiasm about what you do can make your dreams come true. She is in her 40s and still actively pursuing new career paths that suit her interests as she grows.
I’ve never been the type of person that could dedicate myself to one thing for the rest of my life, and I think if you have more interests, you should pursue them. Don’t waste your time doing the same monotonous work and wondering what pursuing your dreams could have done for you.
While my mom has a fulfilling real estate career, she’s always made a point of supplementing her work with creative part-time career choices like being a yoga teacher and starting an essential oil blend business.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The summer after my junior year of college I interned with a nonprofit micro-finance fair-trade organization, Nest, in New York City. I worked with sex trafficking victims in Queens, teaching them how to operate a co-op jewelry business, which was incredibly rewarding.
We were able to assist women in terrible situations and show them an alternative to their current lifestyle and help them find independence, safety and happiness. Also, a good portion of our time together was spent making jewelry and dancing to Latin music. I was able to combine my passions for serving others and fashion and see tangible results from my hard work. What more could you want from a job?
When do you feel most successful?
In regards to Refunktion, I feel successful when I make authentic connections through social media. It oftentimes feels awkward posting photos of myself modeling things I’ve made, but when I garner genuine interest from customers it makes me happy to do it. A great example is when I was vending at a market in Maui and made an Instagram post offering a discount on a Refunktion purchase to anyone that came to the market and mentioned the post. I wasn’t aware I had many Maui followers, but I wanted to test the waters. Sure enough, a total stranger who follows my account came and purchased two items. She said she’d been wanting to buy them for a while but hadn’t found a good time to stop by, so it was the perfect opportunity to do both. That sale felt like a great success.
It’s also a huge compliment when friends want to buy things I’m creating. I know many people who start by selling to friends, but for me it was the opposite – most of my sales the first few years were to random buyers on Etsy. It feels really good to know that I’m creating things I can now share with the people I love.
What advice would you give to girls looking to enter your industry/space?
I think your 20s is a wonderful time to be an entrepreneur and take risks in your life. In your early 20s, most people have very few ties, and if we test a project or idea and it doesn’t work, we don’t have much to lose. If it works, you will find a joy and fulfillment that can only come through something you create, which is an amazing feeling. All job fields that I’m involved (fashion design, styling, film making, social work, hospitality and teaching abroad) have required me to take some form of risk, and require more to push myself further. Taking these risks and pushing myself have become critical to my success and my happiness, and the realization that there are no limits keeps me striving for more.