BARNEGAT – Marcia Arnsparger Santiago was planning a trip to New Orleans recently to celebrate the next step in her company’s growth when she caught herself.
She was only going to be gone for three days. But there she was, packing like she was picking up and moving.
“I’m like, ‘Why do I have this huge suitcase?'” Santiago said. “Literally for three days. I’m upstairs taking stuff in, putting it out, and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be 80 degrees, I don’t need this shirt.’ I can’t help myself.”
Santiago is in the right line of work. She owns KlosetSlayer, a fashion company whose edgy designs have found their way from her Barnegat home to reality shows, influencer accounts and, this September, New York Fashion Week.
It’s a follow-your-dream type of story that actually has a chance at coming true. To get here, Santiago left her job as a surgical technician and bounced among her quiet suburban street, gay bars in Atlantic City and Manhattan’s garment district, fitting in seamlessly.
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And she has made a go of it, designing apparel not for Victoria’s Secret runway models, but for, well, everyone else. KlosetSlayer’s Instagram page features models of all races, sizes and gender identities.
Honey Davenport, who appeared as a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and has 121,000 Instagram followers, said she told Santiago her fashion line was “really dope, really, you know, urban fashion.”
“And she was, like, ‘Really? If you like it, would you walk for me and my fashion week’s show?’ And I was, like, ‘Absolutely,'” Davenport said.
Santiago, 42, is in the middle of a whirlwind. Her husband, Jamaal Jackson, has been battling a type of blood cancer. And they have a 7-year-old son, Baylon, who they shuttle to karate lessons and baseball and soccer practices.
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KlosetSlayer sells its products online with Santiago designing the clothes; working with outside seamstresses, tailors and manufacturers to make the clothes; and occasionally shipping the final products from her home.
The business, which began in 2014, has grown to about 25 sales a day and $100,000 in revenue a year.
“I love to see people feel good about themselves,” Santiago said. “You could see somebody just completely transformed with some makeup and an outfit on. And it’s the best feeling ever.”
KlosetSlayer’s unlikely journey
Santiago was raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and she took to fashion early on; her closet was the one her friends would raid, she said.
She began attending classes at Penn State University in Altoona, studying to become a surgical technician, but she always wanted to get out of rural Pennsylvania.
She accepted a job at a hospital in Galloway, which paid more than jobs in Pennsylvania. She moved in with a friend. And they spent their weekends in Philadelphia, New York City and the Jersey Shore.
In 2012, Santiago met Jackson, who had a business in New York City selling material designed to stop fires in high-rises. They married and settled in Barnegat, halfway between their jobs.
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Santiago said the nursing job was difficult. She spent hours on her feet, handing instruments to the surgeons. Meanwhile, Jackson could see her passion for design and suggested she launch her own line.
“It’s a matter of taking that leap of faith,” Jackson said. “I’m all about taking chances. How would you know if you don’t try? I said put all the cards in it and run with it.”
Santiago called her company KlosetSlayer, reminding her of all the times she was told she “slayed that outfit.” And she set out to get her line in front of influencers, refusing to take no for an answer.
Her big break came from Mark Dahl, co-producer of the annual drag pageant Miss’d America, whom she’d met at the Brass Rail, an LGBTQ bar in Atlantic City.
The two initially clashed. Dahl accused her of being a drag queen; Santiago had some choice words for him. But Dahl appreciated that Santiago would give his zingers right back.
They eventually became close friends and bonded over fashion. And he asked her to make a tuxedo jacket that he could wear on the red carpet at Miss’d America.
“She spoke to me on my terms,” Dahl said. “She broke all those walls right away. And she just gave me that smile.”
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How to sell red sweatshirts
Since then, Santiago has tried to break down other walls as a woman of color in the fashion industry. And she has had support from advocates like Honey Davenport, who changed Santiago’s mind when she felt like giving up.
“I was raised by five women, five women of color,” Davenport said. “And I just first-hand have witnessed how hard it is to survive in this world and how underrated their beauty is. And I just feel like me supporting anybody with a dream and the drive who has to already overcome the struggle of being a person of color and a woman is, I mean, that’s important to me.”
Santiago continues to build the business, convincing influencers to wear her designs. She said she might one day open a brick-and-mortar store, possibly in Toms River.
But for now, she is content to work from home, where she can help Jackson through cancer treatments and raise Baylon.
The strategy seems to work. Santiago got 300 orders for red sweatshirts after Puma, a reality star with 411,000 Instagram followers, wore a red KlosetSlayer sweatshirt on the VH1 show, “Black Ink.”
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And Santiago booked a trip to New Orleans to celebrate after Norman Freeman, a comedian with 1 million Instagram followers, wore a KlosetSlayer waist trainer for social media videos that went viral.
How does she convince them to work with her? It doesn’t sound like they have much of a choice.
“I literally keep going, keep going, keep going,” Santiago said. “And they’re either going to get tired of me bothering them, or they’re going to say yes.”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.