The first one to greet us at the door of designer Alexa Coughlin’s studio space is her dog, Domi. Seeing as the entire studio is named after him, it’s fitting he gets to decide if we’re welcome or not. “He’s a big lover boy,” Alexa says reassuringly, climbing onto a pink couch next to Domi, or Rat Boi, as she affectionately calls both the dog and her line of small-batch intimates and accessories made right here in downtown Ventura, California.
As she cuts fabric for a new skirt design, it’s hard to imagine Alexa working for her dad’s small fishery in Hawaii or slinging handmade body chains with her best friend while studying environmental science, not when this current dream looks so fully lived in and realized. But Alexa says finding her purpose was an exercise in both patience and luck, proving sometimes good things come to those who refuse to settle.
As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, what my path or calling might be, and it was something that honestly really bothered me. I was actively searching for something that would give me that sense of purpose and identity I’d been looking for my entire life, but it ended up finding me instead. I think I always had all the pieces in front of me—creative, entrepreneurial, environmentally-minded—but could never quite fit them together to form a picture of what I could actually do.
Growing up in Hawaii, you’re raised with a lot of respect for nature, so I studied environmental science in college, but the jobs available to you in that field of study are really analytical and serious, where you’re doing things like testing the dirt outside of gas stations to make sure no chemicals are leaching into the ground. I knew I needed something more creative, so I ended up working for a documentary production company that made environmental films which really seemed like the best of both worlds, a total dream job. But that’s the thing about dream jobs—if you’re using up all your energy and creativity to build someone else’s dream, what’s left for you?>
That job ended up feeling pretty toxic, and it didn’t take long before I started to feel burnt out and unhappy. I needed to do something fun for myself so I started making scrunchies in my garage. My friends kept buying them off me and telling me how cute they were, so I made an Instagram page and it took off almost immediately. Saving up six months of living expenses, I decided that’s how long I had to test this business out, but I think even if I didn’t have that safety net, feeling trapped somewhere you don’t want to be can really inspire you to figure things out.
“It was like the universe showing up and giving me a little pat on the head and telling me it was time.”
My bosses didn’t believe me when I told them I was leaving to pursue a scrunchie business [laughs]. They figured I was jumping ship over to Netflix. I definitely had a moment where I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? I’m crazy, I’m actually a crazy person.’ But the day I gave my one-month notice, one of my scrunchies was randomly featured in an issue of Teen Vogue. It was like the universe showing up and giving me a little pat on the head and telling me it was time.
Shortly after that I joined a women’s business accelerator program where they help you write out a business plan, so I felt like I had the structure I needed to not panic about trading in seven years of stability for this question of what to do all day. I had to find a sewer to help me with production since I wanted to keep it local, and I met up with so many different people I’d find on Craigslist at random Starbucks locations. They’d do a test project and I realized so many people advertising themselves as sewers literally couldn’t even sew! I finally found a woman and she was amazing, but she ended up getting breast cancer and had to take a break to care for herself (she’s cancer free now). Then COVID started. I’d been set to drop a line of silk dresses but with the uncertainty of the pandemic and losing my sewer, I got nervous. I felt a lot of financial insecurity, like everything was falling apart and suddenly there was this looming threat of having to figure out what to do with my life again.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be successful without a ton of luck, and sometimes when luck arrives you’re not quite ready for it.”
I did what I knew how to do. I joined a sewing brigade in Ventura and started stitching medical masks for the hospital and my friends who were working as first responders. Once those people were taken care of, I opened up masks to my community—I was one of the first people to offer them and because I was an independent contractor manufacturing locally, I was pumping them out really quickly while everyone else was waiting for supplies from overseas or from these big factories. Sales from masks ended up funding the growth of Rat Boi in ways I never could have imagined.
I don’t know if I believe in divine timing, but I was really lucky. I don’t think it’s possible to be successful without a ton of luck, and sometimes luck arrives when you’re not quite ready for it. When people say to set yourself up for success, I think what they mean is to make sure what you are doing is something you’re so in love with and so passionate about that it doesn't matter how messy the process is. That’s why it’s so important you’re chasing the right dream, and knowing that means looking inside for that validation and not outside yourself.
After the masks, I started with a line of cotton basics. I wasn’t looking at what anyone else was doing and just getting inspired by my own nostalgia— I used lace trim and rosette details that reminded me of owning a Sears bra as a teen and it just so happens both of those became major trends shortly after. It was another right time, right place, domino-effect moment. We grew organically on social media; I had no strategy other than to be authentic. I had no money so I was taking photographs of my friends in front of a backdrop in my driveway in their underwear.
I’m constantly dealing with production issues and I’m constantly overwhelmed, but I’m always learning. I’ve learned so much about sewing, it’s amazing to see the machine that literally knits fabric we make clothing from. It’s an insane device! I think the more we know about the pieces we buy the more we think about how we vote with those dollars. Doing things the responsible way is hard, I’m not going to lie, but my customers have my back because of it. Every day I question myself and what I’m doing. I’m like, how do I be someone’s boss? My friend told me to think about the Mac Miller lyrics: ‘It’s hard to be the boss but somebody’s gotta do it’ [laughs].
“My dream for others is that they never feel so trapped by a job or a relationship or a place that they don’t get to become their real, authentic selves.”
Something I really struggle with is asking for help, even though I’ve received so much of it. I’m terrified to put people on the spot when I convince myself I can just do the worst jobs myself. I’m afraid of things falling apart without me, but the reality is that whenever I leave for a few days everything is fine. Something I’ve been grappling with is that Rat Boi is part of all my most important relationships—I’m not proud of that. My next dream is to take Rat Boi mainstream. I’m not sure what that looks like or if I can even pull it off, and I know that means my role with the brand could change. That’s exciting but scary to think about because this is my life, this is my child, this is my dream. So much of this brand is me for better or worse—who am I without it?
For the first time in my life, I know 100% who I am and what my purpose is. My dream for other daydreamers is that they’ll be recognized and appreciated for their creativity, that they can find the happiness that comes from being able to share that part of themselves with people. My dream for others is that they never feel so trapped by a job or a relationship or a place that they don’t get to become their real, authentic selves. That and world peace [laughs].”