Part online fashion store, part philanthropic organization, and part vehicle for its founder’s own emotional healing and personal development, BunnyJack is a unique NYC-based enterprise with a backstory nearly as curious as its name. The latter is inspired by the Velveteen Rabbit and a beloved Jack Russell Terrier who together taught their owner about real love.
BunnyJack.com, an online shop that sells pre-owned couture and high-end fashion, defies luxury retail norms in two major ways: All 700+ items for sale were purchased by its founder, Maryana Bilski, for her own personal use, and the measure of its success has less to do with making a profit than with creating a better society “one purchase at a time.”
Through trial and error, Bilski is learning how to balance her role as a business owner with her personal mission to “plant the seed of goodness” in others. One dreary day in January, I visited her cozy, aromatic Manhattan office filled with exquisite pieces by the likes of Alaia, Lanvin, Celine, Chanel, and nearly 100 other premier designers that once comprised her personal wardrobe and are now for sale through BunnyJack. Over tea and pastries she shared the story of how BunnyJack came to be and her frustrations with social injustice, feminism, and fast-fashion.
AWT: What drove you to start BunnyJack?
Maryana Bilski: The idea for the company came to me after I moved back to New York and 275 boxes of my stuff arrived from Switzerland.
I had been living there for 13 wonderful years doing architectural design projects for my partner’s company. During that time, I was fortunate enough to travel the world. I bought a lot of beautiful, well-made garments and accessories. I’m a visual person and have always been attracted to exquisite materials and appreciated good handiwork. If something is beautifully stitched, it’s like a piece of art.
I enjoyed every single piece I bought, but seeing the 275 boxes arrive startled me. I realized that I had been buying material things to try to fill a void inside me. So I decided to sell everything and use the money to better the world.
My life in Switzerland ended very abruptly and tragically. Everything that I had associated with myself, with my life, was cut away. I lost my sense of self and it left me with this feeling of emptiness. It was one thing to lose my partner, but it was another thing to lose [my dog] Jack. Losing Jack was really traumatic for me. Afterwards, I started doing whatever I could to try to ground myself.
I still enjoy nice things in life, but the material world is empty. It’s time for us all to wake up and think about what we can do to contribute to humanity. We have so many problems, not just in Africa and India, but here in our own backyard. Education is one of them. The idea that someone can’t afford an education or that kids can’t concentrate in school because they are hungry … People forget them.
AWT: How do BunnyJack.com, the for-profit business that sells your personal inventory of designer clothes and accessories, and BunnyJack Gives, the charitable foundation, work in tandem?
Maryana Bilski: For each sale on BunnyJack.com, 20 to 50 percent is donated to BunnyJack Gives, our foundation. I determine the exact percentage to be donated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account an item’s popularity. For instance, the Hermes Birkin bag is a difficult piece to obtain, so I will put 50 percent of the sale into the foundation.
The foundation supports a number of local charities and gives to individuals in need.
It’s not necessarily about selling items for a profit and then setting aside a percentage for charity, it’s more holistic than that. I call it “planting the seed of goodness.” If we keep watering those seeds of goodness with kind words or actions, they grow and start to radiate in others.
My goal is to figure out how to build this small platform into a larger entity that can really help those who are less fortunate. That famous saying keeps coming up for me: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” I am trying to discover how to get to the fishing part! How can I give people that life-changing kind of help? That’s my goal in life. Literally.
AWT: How do you choose which charities to support?
Maryana Bilski: I like to work with small mom-and-pop operations. For instance, there is a guy out in Brooklyn who cooks at home and brings food to homeless shelters. Those are the people I want to find and support. The larger nonprofit organizations that pay Hollywood celebrities to be the face of their causes don’t make sense to me. I want my money to go directly to the cause, not to high salaries, etc. And I prefer to have interactions with the people that I’m helping.
Most people think extreme poverty, child abuse, or rape only exist in faraway places, but there are children going to bed hungry down the street from here. We have to make our own communities healthy, build a solid foundation here, before we go helping everybody else. That’s why I prefer to support local charities and people within my community.
AWT: With about half the items for sale on BunnyJack.com priced north of $1,000, you are currently targeting a wealthy clientele. Do you plan to sell more affordable items in the future?
Maryana Bilski: I do not believe we are necessarily targeting a wealthy clientele. We target conscious consumers who care for the environment and human life over fast fashion. It’s about quality over quantity and the idea that less is more. These items will not last only one season, but for years.
AWT: If you are only selling your own stuff, aren’t you eventually going to run out of merchandise? Have you considered morphing into a consignment store or a more sustainable business model? Where do you see BunnyJack headed?
Maryana Bilski: The business is coming to the point where it has to morph into something else, and I’m not clear on how to do that. I don’t want to be just in fashion. My wish is to create a platform for people to become part of a circle of giving.
I have considered selling other people’s items as well as my own, sort of a consignment model. The consigner would take a percentage and choose which charity the proceeds from the sale of their items would support. For instance, if your grandmother died of ovarian cancer and you wanted to donate or sell her designer clothes through BunnyJack, we would find a small grassroots organization supporting ovarian cancer research or helping patients, or we might even find someone suffering from the disease to give to directly. I like the idea but I don’t really know how to make it happen.
I’ve been blessed with the means to start this company. I’ll probably lose everything I have, but I’m willing to risk it if it means I can touch people’s lives.
AWT: You were a successful creative director in Switzerland, but you didn’t have any business experience before setting up BunnyJack. What has it been like to learn as you go? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?
Maryana Bilski: The journey has taught me a lot about myself, and that we need more awareness about how everyone can contribute towards the betterment of all people.
One problem is how to realize all my ideas when I don’t have much help. When I started out I had four to five young people helping me, but none of them knew more about business than I did, which was scary! I thought it was an opportunity to plant the seeds and then see them grow, but it just didn’t happen that way. Now I only have two people helping me, but one is out on maternity leave so it’s just me and a photographer for the moment.
One of the best things I’ve done for the businesses is getting on 1stdibs.com [an online marketplace for art and antiques], which just recently started including fashion. It’s great for me because it enables me to access a much larger market than I could develop on my own.
Anything on the digital side has been especially challenging for me because I don’t understand it. When my computer freezes, my instinct is to pick it up and shake it [laughs]. Social media is also so hard for me to navigate because I get turned off by the fakeness of it—most images are digitally manipulated, and feeds aren’t real, they’re curated. Now I’m finally working with an agency that wants to focus on telling my story. I think the only way the business may work is if people hear my message about doing good out there.
AWT: I get the impression that caring for others has long been part of your personal ethos. How did your consciousness of other’s suffering and your desire to help them develop?
Maryana Bilski: Since I was a child, I’ve always felt in my heart that I wanted to better the world. I give to whomever I encounter in my daily life. For example, I’ll buy books for a young college student who can’t afford them or I’ll pay for someone’s MetroCard so they can get to and from work. But it’s not just about money. How many of us walk past the people cleaning the streets and don’t stop to say “Thank you” or “Good morning”? Most of us just walk past them staring at our phones and don’t even acknowledge them.
I’ve experienced all kinds of realities. I didn’t grow up in a privileged way. I was one of six kids and my single mother struggled to raise us. It was not until I met my partner that I led a very privileged life. He was very well off financially, but never arrogant. I was very fortunate to be with him for 14 years. That’s why I feel the need to extend my privilege to others. I have basic necessities that others don’t and that makes me upset.
I don’t judge people and I don’t want to tell anyone how they should be, I just want to show them that we all have potential for goodness within us. We all have the innate ability to be compassionate, but sometimes it gets buried.
AWT: You’ve mentioned the world shifting. How do you feel about the direction it’s taking?
Maryana Bilski: Recently I wrote a little blog post on Martin Luther King Jr., whom I admire so much. He came before the world was ready to hear his message about equality and was willing to fight and die for what he believed in. Today, once again we are starting to segregate ourselves again along the lines of wealth, skin color, political persuasions or whatever instead of breaking down the barriers between us and learning from one another.
That’s why I am an anti-feminist feminist. I believe we should take down the barriers that separate us. And I believe in our innate qualities as women. We are natural caregivers. We are carriers of life. These things I believe are our strongest attributes and they’re being silenced in a way.
No society will change until all women join hands and say enough is enough. We need to hold hands with people even if we don’t agree with them. And that’s not going to happen until we break down the barriers that keep us apart, including feminism.
AWT: The fashion industry has been criticized for exploiting the garment workers in developing countries. Fast fashion retailers are among the worst offenders, but some luxury brands don’t have the best records either. As a consumer, do you pay attention to where things are made?
Maryana Bilski: There’s absolutely nothing okay about manufacturing in countries that don’t respect human rights. I’m not trying to discredit anyone, but American designers should not produce their collections in Third World countries. They make the argument that they are giving jobs to people who would otherwise have nothing, but typically the factory owner cuts as many corners as possible to increase his own profits, so he hires children whom he can easily exploit. Sometimes they are strapped to machines working 12 to 14 hours a day to make the things that we see in the shops here. I know, I’ve toured those factories.
We have to be more conscious about our choices on a global scale. The problem is the lack of options that are affordable and ethical.
AWT: Would you care to offer any parting thoughts?
Maryana Bilski: So much of the truth of our world is buried under lies and corruption, so why shouldn’t many more of us discover ways to be authentic? Start with simple actions of care, because money is not the only answer; compassion, comfort, truth, kind words, actions, and love will change this world.
This interview originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here or read How Women Are Leading the Sustainable Fashion Movement.