By Richard Oceguera
Subject: Vincent Cuccia of Planet Pepper
Name of Company: Planet Pepper
Owners: Vincent Cuccia and Alex Bartlett
Doing Business Since: May 2010
Number of Employees: 5 including 3 part-time employees
Location: 257 39th Street, New York, NY | www.planetpeppernyc.com
What is Planet Pepper and what services do you offer? Planet Pepper is a unique studio that offers American-made custom design and off the rack outfits for drag queens, eccentrics and performers of all sizes. Some people compare our bold, colorful and dramatic designs to Pucci and Lacroix from the wild 60s. If you want to look outrageous or liven up a room come talk to us.
What is Planet Pepper’s mission? Our mission is to provide out of this world costumes and clothing for the party clowns of the world. Because, who doesn’t love a party clown?
You just did work for the famous comedienne Lisa Lampanelli. How did that come about? Alex, my business and life partner (also known as Pepperica Swirl) was the 25th Empress of the Imperial Court. As the Empress, Alex was asked to select the headline entertainment for the Night of a Thousand Gowns event. His first choice was Charro but she was booked. Second choice was Lisa Lampanelli but he never thought it would happen. Turned out Lisa was available and we couldn’t believe it! That naturally led to designing an outfit for her appearance and we created this fantastic tuxedo dress. After that event she lost significant weight and she came back to us and asked for a new gown. Specifically she wanted to emulate the Madonna / Marilyn Monroe material girl look. And we only had one week to turn this around! So Alex rose to the challenge and whipped up a fabulous pink peaudusoir gown. We pride ourselves on being fast and reliable. (photos of Ms. Lampanelli in this Planet Pepper creation are featured in the current edition of In Touch magazine.)
When you think about your business, what keeps you up at night? Nothing keeps me up at night! I’m a very heavy sleeper. I’ve slept through fire alarms. But what really worries me? A couple things: keeping Alex’s creativity flowing. He’s the designer here so how do I keep the pool fresh and inspired? We’re a partnership. So I try really hard to encourage him and keep him happy. How do you do that? And I really need to keep myself happy too. I don’t want to get burned out and tired of this business. So really it comes down to motivation and management style. Planet Pepper is still very wet cement in many ways so I’m trying to think about how to manage my team now and what that will look like in 5 years. I want Planet Pepper to be a fun place to work.
As a business owner, what’s been your greatest challenge and how did you surmount it? Creating legitimacy for Planet Pepper. Most drag queens sew their own stuff or go to a neighborhood seamstress. It’s just how the community is used to doing it. But that’s not reliable or fast. So we have to battle that old model to educate drag performers that a better alternative exists. Then there are the fashion designers who so often snub us. It’s as if the design work we do is illegitimate. But the most shocking source of negativity comes from the LGBT community. We’ve been told, ‘you’ll never make money from the gay community. They’re too cheap, unreliable. You’ll see, gay men are dogs.’ And this is coming from gay people! It all points to creating legitimacy. So we are proving all of them wrong. We incorporated, we purchased insurance, started a merchant account and we established a design studio in the garment district. Our location says fashion, legitimacy and we’re easily accessible for our clients. The press has been very kind to us and business organizations have also been supportive. Our business plan has won awards in three different competitions including the Business Outreach Center Network’s (BOC) Entrepreneur of the Year Award. And we’re only two years old! BOC is an amazing organization and I can’t say enough about them. They taught me how to put my business plan together.
You’ve been a member since 2010. What keeps you active with NGLCCNY? There’s a lot that keeps me active. At my first M3 I met Jeremy Bellman of L7z Group and we chatted. I’m used to traditional networking events and assumed we’d do the requisite card exchange. But he didn’t offer his card to me. This really surprised me. When I asked him if he wanted my card he said, “Here at the NGLCCNY we don’t exchange cards. We build relationships first.” Right then I knew this was a different organization and one that I wanted to be a part of. It was refreshing.
As a member of the Chamber, what value do you derive? The people. It’s a really diverse, good group of people. There aren’t the usual crazies who attend networking groups doling out cards, chasing you around the room. It’s a credit to you, Richard, and who you attract.
Everyone makes me feel recognized and appreciated. You can’t get that in a typical business group. I’ve cut out all other networking events and do all I can to get people to M3s, including my students. I tell everybody about NGLCCNY. For me it’s not financial, what I get out of it is the opportunity to introduce my students to the art of networking. And every one of my students has received warm leads! It’s one of the best networking experiences in the City.
And you’re a teacher too? Aside from owning Planet Pepper I teach public speaking and business communications at Kingsborough College in Brooklyn. I’ve been there as full time substitute for almost two years. We’ve had one of the highest graduation rates of all community colleges in the country and within the CUNY network. I love teaching and have a strong commitment to communication – it’s the essence of everything.
What do you do to keep your saw sharp? I do a lot of research and I talk to a lot of people. I’m a great listener. I ask questions like, “What did you do to become successful?” I talk to HR people about resumes and what’s changing in business. I go see lots of drag shows to keep current. There are only two questions in business: What do you want? And what do I want? This is how we will know if we can make this work together. So I am always asking these questions.
Chocolate or Vanilla? I’m a chocaholic. I tell my friends I’d make the worst spy. If you dangle a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in front of my face I’ll tell you anything.
Richard Oceguera is CEO of Merchant Mart USA and the founding President of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce New York. He’s an Entrepreneur, Visionary Community Leader and Media Personality. Follow him at www.RichardOceguera.com and @RichardOceguera on Twitter.