Anna Metselitsa is the 30-year-old female founder of Haute Rogue, an online boutique with a large following and designs sold in stores like Saks Off 5th and Neiman Marcus. It would be quite an achievement for any business owner, but is especially sweet success for an immigrant entrepreneur who came to the United States with just $300 in her pocket.
Metselitsa left Belarus for America in 2007, ultimately finding her way to New York City. For 7 years she waitressed and worked odd jobs to survive — and to save for her dream of becoming a fashion designer. That dream came true in May 2014, when she launched her online shop.
To say her start was a struggle is an understatement. Metselitsa slept on a warehouse floor by night and ate cheap fast food by day. But Haute Rogue grew. Though Metselitsa declined to disclose annual revenue, she says that, today, she has 11 full- and part-time employees and ships between 5,000 and 10,000 units per month. Haute Rogue sells products through more than 800 stores throughout North America. People as far-flung as Australia buy her feminine, fashion-forward outfits online, and she’s now dreaming about expanding into stores on other continents.
Metselitsa credits her success to one simple fact: “I didn’t give up.”
An Immigrant’s Dream
Metselitsa was born and raised in Minsk, Belarus, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t an easy childhood, she recalls. “People struggled to pay their bills and have enough food on the table,” she says. Her family lived off of government assistance and purchased only the bare necessities. On top of all that, she was bullied in school, she says.
What kept her going was a passion for clothing, cultivated early on by fashion magazines, which she bought whenever she could. But poverty meant her everyday wardrobe was hand-me-downs. There was one pair of jeans she mended repeatedly, stitching them until they couldn’t be fixed anymore.
Metselitsa found low-cost ways to look good, though — even if her creations didn’t last long. Once, “I painted my jeans with acrylic paint to look like watercolors,” fashioning them after a pair of pants she had seen on a television show. The then-teenager was “so proud” of her accomplishment — that is, until it rained. The paint immediately began to run, and she had to rush home through the storm to change.
The young creative yearned for more opportunities to design clothing, and had always felt she belonged in the U.S. “I had this dream” of coming to America and thriving in the fashion world, she says. So her family helped her get an education in Belarus that included English and economics, although women there are typically expected to “go to college, marry and have kids.”
Two years into college, Metselitsa knew it was time to make the leap. She flew to North Carolina in 2007 with just $300 to her name, then juggled two jobs to save up for her move several months later to the place of her dreams: New York City.
Quickly, she found out the hard way how expensive it is to live in the Big Apple. “I had never seen a shower on top of a toilet before,” she says of one apartment she saw. Eventually, she found a room through Craigslist and spent the next 7 years waitressing and hosting at restaurants, working multiple jobs at a time to get by.
“I was determined to stick it out,” Metselitsa says. She saved every penny she could — her sights set on one day beginning that career in fashion.
Eventually, that dream became an entrepreneurial one. “I got sick of working for other people. And my bosses weren’t always the nicest people,” she recalls. But opening a brick-and-mortar boutique would be costly. Instead, she thought, “Why don’t I try to start an online store?”
Though she had studied economics in college, Metselitsa faced a steep learning curve when it came to running a business. She bridged some of the gap by teaching herself site design and coding using online resources. Initially, she sold clothing made by other designers, while also working on designs for dresses and shirts featuring ruffles, flowers and other delicate accents.
All her efforts were bootstrapped with savings she had carefully accumulated over the years. To stock her designs, she ordered small batches from other brands, often 6 to 8 months in advance. And to get the word about about her new fashion brand, she leveraged free social media accounts. She ran her show solo, which meant sleeping only 1 to 2 hours a night that first year, she says.
Getting help from a bank was impossible due to Metselitsa’s age and lack of experience, she says. “When you’re a young entrepreneur and you have no business background,” getting a loan is tough. Banks wanted collateral, but she didn’t have any to offer, and they asked what money she could put on the table. “If I had cash, I wouldn’t ask” for a loan in the first place, she quips.
For 2 years, she struggled to keep her business afloat, reinvesting any profits she made back into Haute Rogue. She also transitioned into selling her own clothing in that time, while finding several small New York City boutiques to sell her colorful designs. Then, in 2016 the tide turned — the business received its first big order, from fashion giant Forever 21.
Metselitsa invested more in the business to meet that demand, securing an office space and warehouse and partnering with a wholesaler friend to stay on budget. She and her friend tagged and packed each item themselves — an arduous task, but “we made it happen. It was our first big account.”
Making Her Mark
Since then, Haute Rogue has grown with each passing year. In addition to its online shop, its clothing is sold in stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Off 5th and Urban Outfitters across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. And its online presence has surged — she now has more than 77,000 followers on Instagram and 15,000 on Facebook.
Today, Metselitsa still worries about cash flow, and works hard to make sure Haute Rogue always has the money it needs to grow in a measured, smart way.
She has big dreams for expansion. New opportunities are in the works — though she declined to discuss them — and she has visions of Haute Rogue looks hanging in European boutiques down the road.
Whatever the future holds, this immigrant entrepreneur knows that she has the grit needed to power through — the same grit that fueled her as a poor teen half a world away, dreaming of a fashionista’s life in New York and “determined to make it one day.”
Related: Read more stories about immigrant entrepreneurs