Friends & Associates' Matthew Edelstein on Making the Move from Stylist to Designer

Veteran stylist Matthew Edelstein launched online magazine Contributing Editor in 2008 as a place where his friends could create the kinds of spreads they wanted to see in magazines but never got the chance to produce. Friends & Associates, Edelstein's three-season-deep contemporary collection, is an extension of that idea. The stylist-turned-designer works with his talented network of friends—and yes, associates—to create the punchy collection, currently available on Shopbop.com as well as Friendshop.us. I visited Edelstein's Garment Center office—which he rents from his accountant!—a couple of weeks ago to talk business.
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Veteran stylist Matthew Edelstein launched online magazine Contributing Editor in 2008 as a place where his friends could create the kinds of spreads they wanted to see in magazines but never got the chance to produce. Friends & Associates, Edelstein's three-season-deep contemporary collection, is an extension of that idea. The stylist-turned-designer works with his talented network of friends—and yes, associates—to create the punchy collection, currently available on Shopbop.com as well as Friendshop.us. I visited Edelstein's Garment Center office—which he rents from his accountant!—a couple of weeks ago to talk business.
Photo by: Eli Schmidt

Photo by: Eli Schmidt

Veteran stylist Matthew Edelstein launched online magazine Contributing Editor in 2008 as a place where his friends could create the kinds of spreads they wanted to see in magazines but never got the chance to produce. Friends & Associates, Edelstein's three-season-deep contemporary collection, is an extension of that idea. The stylist-turned-designer works with his talented network of friends—and yes, associates—to create the punchy collection, currently available on Shopbop.com as well as Friendshop.us. I visited Edelstein's Garment Center office—which he rents from his accountant!—a couple of weeks ago to talk business.

Fashionista: Let's talk about your career as an editor. How did you get there? Matthew Edelstein: I grew up in a small town, Bellingham, Washington, which is north of Seattle, and I've always--really since a very young age, second, third grade--I wanted to be in fashion, and I was interested in dresses. At that age, at that time, the only thing you think of being in the fashion industry is being a fashion designer. So all through middle school and high school I was like, "I'm going to be a fashion designer, I'm moving New York, I'm going to go to a school to study fashion design." My first month in the fashion design program my sophomore year I realized, "this is absolutely not the right fit, I don't like this at all, this is not how my brain works." It was all very technical, pattern making, drafting.

So I transferred to another program at Parsons called design market, which is sort of fashion-business catch-all degree. I did loads of internships, and I ended up at W magazine as an intern my senior year. Even before I graduated I got hired as a fashion assistant to Michel Botbol, who was the fashion director there at that point. He and I worked together for four years. We did all kind of amazing editorials at that time, W was that sort of special, never-before-seen fashion magazine.

Michel got hired at Bazaar when Kate Betts started, so we worked there for a while. Michel left, I stayed, and I worked at Bazaar for a while after that. I went from there to J.Crew as a stylist when Mickey Drexler started very early on in the reinvention of J.Crew. That was an amazing experience, Mickey is an icon, phenomenal, one of the most amazing people I've ever met in this business. And working there was really interesting. From there, I went back to magazines. I became the fashion editor at Details, and I was there for four years.

And after Details, you went freelance and launched Contributing Editor. I went freelance because I needed to do other things, as we all do at certain points in our careers. It becomes a lot about like, "you can't do this, you can't do that," it's a lot of rules. So I went freelance which is amazing, daunting, and terrifying and every possible feeling you can imagine. There's an amazing sense of freedom, being freelance, because every problem is your problem. You're not putting out other people's fires. You're on a different job every day, so it always feels fresh, you don't feel weighed down by these ongoing office politics, especially at a magazine which gets very intense.

Looks from the Friends and Associates summer 2013 collection.

Looks from the Friends and Associates summer 2013 collection.

Then I started Contributing Editor with a very old colleague of mine—he's not old but we've work together for a long time—Ryan Schmidt. He's an art director, so he comes from that side; graphic design and magazine art departments. We had talked for a long time about harnessing this new talent and things like that and we wanted to do an online magazine at a really high level, showcasing all of these amazing up-and-coming talents in the fashion industry that don't get exposure in printed publications because those magazines are really locked down by precious few artists, whether it's photographers, writers, stylists, all that kind of thing. We did it in a way that was at a high level, I think, because that's the only way we were trained, we worked on top magazines so we took that experience and applied it to the internet, which was also not the norm, and often times isn't the norm even today.

Were you able to make it a business? You know, we were never really serious about turning it into a business because it starts to go to a different place, and you lose that creative anything-goes voice. Any rule we had ever heard at a fashion magazine--"You can't do that at this magazine"--we would say, "We absolutely can do that at this magazine because this is our magazine." Once you start trying to monetize it, the business side chips away at that freedom, and we just wanted to put something really beautiful out into this world that was as creative as it could be. If somebody had offered us a million dollars to advertise on the site, sure, no problem. But to really get into the nitty-gritty of selling ads, we're creative people, we're not ad sales, it just wasn't where our heads were at.

So how were you making money? In the meantime I was building my freelance career, and just thinking about what I wanted to do in the next step of my career, which leads to Friends and Associates. I'm the creative director, I steer the ship, and I'm ultimately responsible for delivering the product on time, managing the process all along the way, and sort of—I kind of think about the brand and where we want to take it and what's right and what's wrong and all these small little details. Then I bring everybody else on board and we talk about it and where it can go and what feels right and what feels wrong. So there are people who are involved a lot, there are people that are involved a few times a season, there are people who are involved once a season, but I just never wanted it to be about one person's name on the label. I'm not a designer in the classical sense of dictating fashion from the top of the mountain. I just wanted it to be about team spirit, fun, work with your friends, and it's also kind of a funny take on a law firm.

Is Ryan pretty involved in this as well? Ryan is the art director, the graphic designer. He lays out all the catalogs, he designs all the hang-tags for me.

Another look from the Spring 2013 look book

Another look from the Spring 2013 look book

How did you go about setting up the actual business? I have an investor, and he and I have known each other for a very long time, and it's been something that we've spoken about for years and years and years and years. Eventually we will have to bring on other investors, because you know, to grow business you have to have a lot of money. My accountant works down the hall, he's our CFO, he rented this office to me. My sample room is across the hall. It's a very sort of, a little bit of a village mentality in the Garment Center, and I really like that. Our showroom is across the street. I like to keep it really local--we think global and act local. The specifics of setting the business up always comes in fits and starts. There is no blueprint, it's kind of like running around and dealing with issues as they come up. You know of course you have to talk to the lawyers a lot and set things up in a really precise way in the legal sense and the financials have to be worked out, but things come as they come, and solving problems is a huge part of what I do here on a daily basis. I deal with production, I deal with design, I deal with the art direction. I have to think about everything that goes into this brand from a creative standpoint, like designing clothes, getting hangtags printed, dealing with spreadsheets, emailing China, dealing with fit issues--every single thing that goes into creating a brand from scratch goes on in this office.

How many hours a day do you work? I'm never NOT working. I'll wake up in the middle of the night and have a panic attack, and see that there's an email from China and feel like I have to answer it. It just never really stops.

Do you like it so far? It's what I've always wanted to do, so I'm happy to have the opportunity to do the thing I've always dreamed of doing. It's very hard when you're in the middle of it to see the forest for the trees. So I have to take myself out of this once in a while to say, wow, you're in a third season, you're getting amazing press response, there are really great things that are happening here. And then two minutes later it's like a meltdown of something else, so it doesn't last long and you don't have that luxury, and I don't know that you maybe ever have that luxury in a business like this, it's very fast.

Are there any brands or people in the industry that you look up to? You know it's funny, maybe it's because I've been in the business so long and I started so young that doing this, I don't really look in the industry and say these are people I want to emulate or these are businesses I want to emulate, because I want to do my own thing. But people that I think about a lot in the way that they approach their business is somebody like Steve Jobs, this obsessive attention to detail and product, making product that has an emotional connection. Walt Disney is somebody else that I think about a lot as a really long-term fascination of mine. Building a brand, making people happy with that brand, telling a story, driving these points home over and over again and having like, it's a world--a sealed world, this product, and this brand stands for something in that world. That is how I approach what we do here. Sure, we make sweaters and dresses, but I don't only want to be making sweaters and dresses, that's not interesting to me. What's interesting for me is building a world around those sweaters and dresses. Because everybody makes sweaters and dresses, it's not groundbreaking, what we're doing here, we're not reinventing fashion. But what you can connect to people about is personality, a narrative, really connecting with them on an emotional level.

Who is the Friends and Associates "girl," then? I think about a lot of different girls. I think about Alexa Chung, I think about Sofia Coppola, I think about Cara Delevingne, always a kind of like masculine-feminine, cheeky personality, but still she has a bit of a chicness too. But it's never uptight, it's never fussy, it's just kind of a breezy attitude.

If there was one thing that you've learned over your career, what would it be? I always feel like the only thing that ever comes into my mind when I'm asked that question is, follow your dreams. Do what feels right in your gut because that is for the most part going to get you the best results. You always get into trouble when you do something that doesn't feel right. And we all have to compromise and we all have to sacrifice, but you can't compromise and sacrifice so much that it doesn't feel like it's coming from you. So for me that's the biggest lesson that I've learned. Whenever I did something in my career that really was like, "this doesn't feel right, I shouldn't be doing this," but for whatever reason I found myself doing it, the outcome was not good.

Shop the latest Friends and Associates collection at Shopbop.com.