Cynthia Vincent Reflects on 10 Years in the Biz, Being an 'Entrepreneur at Heart' and the Politics of Partnerships

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent. That's some serious staying power in a very fickle industry. To celebrate the occasion, we caught up with Vincent--who is also credited as the original creative lead behind contemporary mega-brand Vince--in her Los Angeles showroom.
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent. That's some serious staying power in a very fickle industry. To celebrate the occasion, we caught up with Vincent--who is also credited as the original creative lead behind contemporary mega-brand Vince--in her Los Angeles showroom.
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent. That's some serious staying power in a very fickle industry.

To celebrate the occasion, we caught up with Vincent--who is also credited as the original creative lead behind contemporary mega-brand Vince--in her Los Angeles showroom.

Vincent puts out a dizzying six collection a year. But she remains unfazed. "Luckily it doesn’t stop,” she said.

Vincent can churn it out. She put together her first Twelfth Street collection in two short weeks, a time frame that would make even Project Runway contestants sweat. “[In 2003] I was planning to travel for a year, but Fern Mallis, who was then the director of 7th on Sixth, called me and said, ‘We’re doing Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, we’re coming to LA and Mercedes-Benz wants to sponsor you.’ I said there’s no way I’m not doing this.” Vincent took her personal savings and in 14 days pulled together a collection for the runway. Twelfth Street was born. Growing up in '70s suburban LA as part of the self-professed 'weird' family in the neighborhood, Vincent describes her childhood as a "sort of cloudy, magical, fucked up upbringing." “I always think of American Beauty,” Vincent said. It’s that rich, vivid and even imperfect setting that has helped define her point of view, earning her a cult following. Upon the line’s 10th anniversary and a new partnership--Twelfth Street was acquired by The Gores Group in November 2012--Vincent is ready to reflect.

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How did you get started designing? My mom taught me how to sew and make patterns at the age of six--on an industrial machine that you would get you arrested now for child endangerment. We would go to the couture department at Buffums, which was the Neiman Marcus of the day, and pick out pieces. My sister would stand and watch outside the dressing room, and my mom would tell me to “hold it up honey”, and she would sit and draw the pattern and we would go home and try to make it. You’re known for your sweaters, and have brought back a few favorites in your 10th anniversary collection. When you become known for something like that, is it a pain to know that you always have to do that? It’s two-fold. It’s formulaic so it’s kind of easy. But then the challenge is, how do I make that new and interesting? I’m constantly running around the studio, “Do you love this? Even though you own this piece from seven years ago, would you buy this?” I’m the customer too, so if I’m not loving it, then how do I expect someone else to love it? You began your business in third party retailers before launching e-commerce and now flagship boutiques. Do you see a difference in what will sell in each? It’s very different, the pieces that our buyers would gravitate to will be completely different from the best sellers at our retail store. At the retail level, the buyers come with an idea of who I am. In the retail store and online we can express things more. It’s very interesting to see how the broader audience accepts more from me. Do you have more retail stores planned? We’d love to do more. L.A. is an interesting place--it has to really be the right location. That’s been challenging, but we’re constantly looking. E-commerce is also a largely untapped market for us. International is also hugely important, because we see a lot of international traffic on the website and in our retail store. 25 to 30 percent of our sales are international--England, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, and the Middle East. They’ve just found us organically. You’re now on your 10th Anniversary with Cynthia Vincent, but your first company was actually Vince. What was behind your decision to leave and start fresh? They’re very different brands. When we started Vince everyone said we were the dream team. Me as the designer, this manufacturer, this sales team, this merchandiser. Incredible, right? But I quickly understood that wasn’t for me. It’s an amazing business but it was not about just bottom-line and money for me. At the end I need my autonomy. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I need to have my creative outlet and my vision understood. So who better than me, right? Do you feel it’s important for the creative head to be involved in the day-to-day decisions? I do. There was a model we worked with before, where I was sort of separate from some decisions and it clearly wasn’t working. In terms of cohesion of the line it needs to have a point of view and the DNA needs to be throughout.

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In November Cynthia Vincent was acquired by The Gores Group. How is that changing things? There was a lot we hadn’t really capitalized on in the old partnership. When people aren’t seeing eye-to-eye you can’t move forward. Now I actually have people in senior positions taking charge of e-commerce, retail, marketing... I have a president who understands product and is running it, so I can take a step back from all that stuff and just be creative. What was that acquisition process like? They did so much research and due diligence before actually investing that it prompted me to look back at the last 10-year history. That’s actually how the anniversary collection came about. They also interviewed my buyers and customers. It’s kind of scary when someone tells you they want to interview this store, this director, this president. You don’t know what they’re going to say, but it was incredibly positive. Hearing these stories of how I’ve been through their lives with this or that garment, it was really thrilling and energizing. I’ve been so entrenched in the business, and kind of fighting, that I didn’t ever stick my head up and go, “wait a minute, we’ve built something really amazing here.” What kinds of things came up that surprised you? That they saw consistency, that there’s a strong point of view, and that it continued to be a very important brand. When you’re doing it you’re not always sure. You always want to grow the business or want it faster. There’s always this whole, “Are you doing the right thing?” There was a lot of questioning in the past so it always put me on this path of just keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it. It was nice to stop spinning for a moment and be able to reflect and think about where we want to take this. And where do you want to take it? I want to do a lot of things. I want to bring back the shoes to where they once were. There were some inconsistencies in production, and it’s just such a crowded market now. Being able to bring back the product is a bigger challenge but I’m up for it. Also adding more categories and collaborations, possibly a swim or cabana collection. I’ve been asked so many times by buyers and customers but there has always been resistance on my part. I would love to do jewelry. And I would love to do more retail. Interior design, home accessories, textiles... This is me [gestures to her showroom], I love interiors.

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You’ve learned a lot about chemistry of partnerships. What words of advice would you give to someone in the creative field on that? Make sure you’re involved in all aspects but really have a great team behind you. If I were to change anything, it would be to not separate myself from the bigger picture. You don’t need to do the day-to-day business but you need to know what’s going on. You need to have your decisions, your point of view, and people who believe in you. The term authenticity comes to mind… That’s been a word I’ve been really embracing, to show my authenticity. I think I’ve held back a lot, maybe done what I’ve thought people wanted versus what I really believed in.

Melanie Bender is a seasoned brand and marketing strategist who has created approaches for Sephora, Topshop, Louis Vuitton and W Hotels. Find her on Twitter at @melliebe and online at melaniezbender.com.