Athena Wang was stuck at home during the height of the pandemic when she noticed the boost in confidence she gained from dressing in oversized sweaters as opposed to the crop tops she would typically wear out. It was a lightbulb moment: in June 2020, she turned her quarantine epiphany into an online fashion brand.
A little more than a year later, Watermelon Apparel has opened a pop-up store in Downtown Santa Barbara. At 20 years old, Wang cut the grand opening ribbon for her new brick-and-mortar store last weekend at the Paseo Nuevo mall.
“It was just extremely overwhelming because I look in the mirror and I still see me as a 20-year-old college student, not even an upperclassman yet,” Wang said, “but then at the same time I see myself wearing a pantsuit and looking like a businesswoman.”
The brand focuses on creating oversized sweatshirts with an emphasis on comfort and body inclusivity. Most of its designs present names of trendy cities or states in stylish fonts on pastel, California-inspired color schemes.
Wang said the name Watermelon Apparel is a tribute to her father, who, before she was born, had made a living in rural China by selling watermelons during the summer. He’d wake up for work at 3 a.m., she said, and wouldn’t return home until 10 p.m.
“When my dad was younger, every meal was a problem for him,” Wang said. “With the heat and then the extreme hours and everything, he was still able to push through again and again.”
Starting a business at 19 years old wasn’t intuitive for Wang, an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. She was taking classes toward an economics degree, but nothing in them had taught her how to be an entrepreneur, she said.
So, she relies on her own research, having taught herself everything from how to obtain business licenses to paying payroll taxes and offering employee insurance. What she could only figure out through trial and error, however, was how to balance school, a social life and a business at the same time.
After taking a quarter off from her studies, Wang learned to block out her schedule on an online calendar to keep chaos at bay. And as online sales grew, she adapted by expanding her manufacturing capacity as well.
“When I first started, I had like $300 or $400,” Wang said. “I bought a heat press machine and then I also bought some plain T-shirts, and I just designed everything at home.”
She spent the first two months generating revenue from the homemade clothes before sending off her two most popular items to be made at a manufacturer. As sales continued to surge over the past year, Wang gained the funds to produce more of her inventory in bulk. Today, all of Watermelon Apparel’s designs are sent directly to the manufacturer.
The money she made from online sales enabled her to sign the two-month lease at Paseo Nuevo. Feeling “nervous, excited and extremely overwhelmed,” Wang said she’s eager to bring the brand to a wider audience in the Santa Barbara area.
“I'm really proud of myself,” Wang said. “At the same time, I know it's a lot of responsibility put on my shoulders for the employee wages to the girls. They're counting on this money to pay tuition. So I know I need to keep working, not just for me but, also, it’s a social responsibility.”
Brenda Cornelio, 20, is an old friend of Wang’s from high school. Having supported Wang throughout her journey with Watermelon Apparel, Cornelio said she’s unsurprised at the brand’s success.
“She's just a very passionate person that's so motivated,” Cornelio said. “When she puts her mind to something, it's almost as if you can consider that being accomplished because she uses all of her resources and does everything that she can.”
When Wang was creating each individual clothing item by hand, Cornelio would take on a share of the tasks to help push the products out. And after the brand secured a physical location this summer, she drove several trips from Palo Alto to Santa Barbara to help paint and set up the store.
The day of the opening felt “very surreal” to Cornelio, who said she was overwhelmed with happiness at seeing the milestone realized.
“It was this whole online thing in the beginning and it was super cool,” Cornelio said, “but then to see an actual store and then to see her open it, I think that was so amazing.”
Wang hopes to use the summer location to collect more feedback on customers' preferences and suggestions, something she said is easier done in person than over social media. After the lease is up, she plans to pack up the store and pivot back to the web, integrating that feedback into Watermelon Apparel’s products and customer service.
But if in-person business booms over the next two months, Wang said she may consider hiring a professional manager to keep the store running while she goes back to school full-time.
“Something that I really appreciate is people just supporting me in person. Some of them even came to the store and said, ‘Oh, I heard it’s a 20-year-old running the business. I just want to come and show my support,” she said. “It's a constant reminder for me that people have faith in me and therefore I need to keep trying and keep working.”