When I dialed in to interview Rachel Parcell — fashion blogger, entrepreneur and apparel designer — I was dying to know: What does a fashion influencer with her own clothing line at Nordstrom wear on a Thursday morning in the pandemic? So I was disappointed when her assistant switched the call from video to audio at the last minute. Later, Parcell confessed that she was still wearing pajamas. At one point her then-6-month old baby, who had been sleeping next to her, could be heard fussing in the background. “I changed the call from video because my kids were so hard to get out the door,” she said as she soothed the child. “I haven’t even brushed my hair yet.”
And yet, Parcell was also fresh off a plane from a Maui vacation. She was working from home in the mountains of Alpine, Utah, in her new 14,000-square-foot mansion, which has too many chandeliers to count, where she’s now in the process of installing a full-size indoor basketball court. All of this is documented every day on her social media accounts, which boast over 1 million followers. And that’s part of the appeal of Rachel Parcell — she’s relatable, but also not relatable at all. What she sells is a lifestyle brand that says, “I’m a mom, just like you!” but it’s also aspirational, and inspires a certain amount of envy — as many influencers do. But Parcell’s success now allows her, or requires her, to do it on a larger scale than most.
Parcell brands her retail lines — which include an RP Rachel Parcell women and children’s clothing line as well as a home goods line — as “elevated” living. She describes her customer as someone who “wants to make her life look and feel beautiful in multiple ways, whether it’s a dress to wear to a wedding, lipstick or a tablescape for the holidays.”
But life hasn’t been glamorous lately, and there hasn’t been much need for any of these things for a while now. Hosting, getting dressed for anything outside your house — even lipstick — became somewhat obsolete over the last year. That left Parcell in a rough place last spring. She had the bad luck of dropping her spring line just as the world was shutting down. “We had the worst timing in the world,” she says. If the collection had launched even a week earlier it would have been better, she says. On the evening of the launch, as the country went into lockdown, the decision was made to discount the dress collection — Parcell’s signature item — before it even hit stores. The industry was falling into chaos. “It was a struggle,” she says. “Industry experts had never seen anything like this. A lot of people in the fashion world freaked out.”
While apparel has been hit hard across the board, Parcell’s clothes — which are known for feminine looks fashioned with lace and ruffles — were in a particularly poor position for a new life of home schooling from the kitchen table and working from the couch. The traditional feminine aesthetic that launched Parcell onto the fashion scene in a blaze of glory a decade ago was suddenly a liability.
Fashion influencers are a dime a dozen now, but Parcell came up before Instagram, when they were still called “fashion bloggers.” When she started her “Pink Peonies” blog, she had a vision for how women would shop on the internet that would prove prophetic, and very profitable. She provided links to everything she wore. Women clicked through. And clicked through. They shared the links with each other. Parcell’s following grew. By 2014, when she was just 23 years old, she sent a shockwave through the fashion industry. For the first time, bloggers entered fashion’s “Million Dollar Club,” an industry list that had traditionally been made up of celebrity designers and models who make over a million dollars a year in appearances and endorsements. But in 2014, at the top of this list was a blogger from Salt Lake City, of all places, named Rachel Parcell.
“That’s part of the appeal of Rachel Parcell — she’s relatable, but also not relatable at all.”
Industry publication Racked ran the headline, “Random Fashion Blogger from Utah makes $1 Million a Year.” Backlash rolled in swiftly: In Observer, a former Vogue staffer, in a piece titled “Million-dollar bloggers give fashion a bad name,” described Parcell and bloggers like her as a mere “self-promoter” who was “more a marketing shill than arbiter of taste and style.” She was accused then — and sometimes still is now — of being materialistic, vain and self-promoting. Clearly, she had cracked something that industry bigwigs had not.
Parcell started blogging in 2010 when she was a newlywed attending Utah Valley University as a graphic design major. Parcell was only 19 when she married her husband, Drew, also a UVU student. “Drew said, ‘You need to get a job until we have kids,’” she says. Ironically, she got passed over for a job at Nordstrom, so she worked as a receptionist for her grandfather. There, she pulled up her computer and wrote blog posts, designed her site, made a logo and learned how to code on the back end.
These were back in the Wordpress days, and Parcell, like a lot of young women in the mid-aughts, posted a lot of personal journaling and lifestyle stuff, but people kept asking what she was wearing and where she got it. So she told them. Pretty soon the blog was about clothes. Parcell’s husband poked fun at her, and, yes, complained about taking photos of her for the blog. “‘I don’t understand what you’re doing,’ he would say. ‘Who are these women on the internet; is anyone even looking at this?’”
This was in a distant — now seemingly quaint — time when the only place for women to find outfits already put together and planned for them were in fashion magazines, like InStyle. And here was Parcell, posting photos of herself in her suburban Utah neighborhood wearing J.Crew and Sam Edelman shoes and those big, bubbly statement necklaces (and she often had a Louis Vuitton bag thrown over her arm, or donned a pair of Dior sunglasses). It didn’t hurt that she was conventionally attractive and apparently had the means to procure a designer bag, or swipe one from her mother.
Parcell owes much of her success to a woman named Amber Venz Box who, from her apartment in Texas, saw the same trend that Parcell was seeing at her grandfather’s receptionist desk. Women wanted to know what to wear, and they wanted to get it with a click. There was a need, and women like Parcell were filling it. Now the trick was to monetize it. Venz Box was engineering her own startup, which eventually became RewardStyle. It provided “affiliate links,” where content providers like Parcell would get a cut from every sale that came through from their site.
Parcell still remembers the first time she saw money hit her PayPal account from her blog. “When RewardStyle reached out to me I didn’t know if it was real, or if it would sell anything.” Two months in, Parcell saw an extra $500 in her account. “I was in school full time, we lived in a teeny basement, and I was like, ‘Oh my heck I have $500!’” Parcell kept it to herself, and splurged on a pair of Tory Burch flats she’d been coveting. The next month there was $1,500 in her account.
Now, Parcell has transformed her blog success into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that she runs out of offices in Utah and New York. In 2019, she fulfilled a lifelong dream when she launched her own brand at Nordstrom. She has a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Bluffdale, Utah, that serves as the company’s headquarters, including a design center, conference rooms, photo studio, and shipping and fulfillment center. By all rights, Parcell is a successful businesswoman, and she just turned 30 in January.
But the fashion industry didn’t learn to embrace her, even as she became a designer. Industry publications have described her collections as “unoriginal,” finding her array of pastel dresses traditional and predictable. But the fact remains that Parcell has had her finger on “flyover state style,” and in the early years of her blog, the number of followers that clicked through to buy clothes from her site (“conversion rates”) often put big-name coastal influencers to shame.
She sells what might be called “church chic” — refined looks for baby blessings, weddings and pulled-together looks for Sundays that don’t show a lot of skin and can transition to a date night. There’s a huge market for that in the U.S. that has gone largely untapped by high fashion.
Parcell’s success is remarkable, but it’s been harder for her to own, than, say, for the startup tech guys next to her in Lehi, Utah. A 24-year-old multimillion-dollar female entrepreneur is hard to come by, much less in Utah Valley. People weren’t sure what to make of her.
“Older men, businessmen, would come up to me at parties and they would say, ‘How much money do you make?’” she recalls. “It was always so awkward. They were asking because they didn’t think mine was a real career, they thought it was a side hobby or a game. People didn’t ask my husband that question.”
Parcell’s husband, Drew, who worked in insurance, stopped being mildly embarrassed about her taking photos of herself for the internet, and started helping her build her business. He even took over child care for a short time when their daughter, Isla Rose, was born. “We were a good team,” she says. “He was like, ‘I thought you were crazy, but you’ve caught on to something. Go for it.’”
In fact, one of the things that Parcell seems most proud of is being able to help her husband pursue his career dreams and take a risk by leaving his insurance business to pursue his passion for real estate and construction. “I told him, ‘My business is in a great place, it’s steady. You’re so talented, so do what you love,’” she says. “We both do our thing and meet in the middle.”
It’s a middle space that Parcell has learned to be comfortable with, even though there wasn’t much of a model for it when she was growing up. “Growing up it was to be a mom or have a career, there wasn’t a lot of in-between in Utah. If there is another woman reading this, you can do both. Especially a girl in college deciding on a career path, you don’t have to make that tough choice.” She’s endured a certain amount of mom shaming, too, from commenters noting when she’s traveling away from her kids, to criticizing her choice to hire a nanny. But Parcell sees her career as a plus for her children, too.
“I love that my daughter sees that you can have a career and she doesn’t know any different,” Parcell says. “My daughter will say, ‘When I grow up I want to work at RP!’ I tell her, ‘You can have your own company!’ In the morning mommy goes to work and daddy goes to work, and the kids go to school and we all work hard and tell each other about our days. I like that my son and daughter see that.”
As hard as the pandemic has been on moms, Parcell is also hopeful that it’s going to help businesses become more family-friendly. “I’m grateful because I can nurse my baby while I’m on an executive conference call with investors and don’t have to fly to meetings.” When she had her second child, her son Jackson, her schedule was intense and she traveled a lot and hated leaving her kids. Since having her baby Ford, nine months ago, she’s been with him the entire time. Her sister has been her nanny and lived with them in quarantine. “This will pass, our kids will go back to school, the way we do business will be different. It’s much more time effective and easier on moms to juggle it all.”
This year has also marked a big change for Parcell’s career. Following her intuition again for what will come next, she took a big risk and broke her exclusive agreement with Nordstrom. She will now focus on direct-to-consumer sales and sell directly to her customers. It seems like a natural fit for an influencer who maintains constant contact with the women who buy from her. “I feel that’s where the future of fashion is,” she says. “I can make the design choices that I want and tailor to what the customer wants, not what the Nordstrom buyers want.”
She takes a breath. “This might be the worst decision in a pandemic, but I gotta keep moving forward.”
Lane Anderson, a former staff writer at the Deseret News, writes about inequality and social and family issues. She is based in New York City with her husband and daughter, where she is a lecturer at New York University. She is co-writer of the Matriarchy Report newsletter, which reports on issues and solutions for raising kids in the U.S.