California, modernist, cool. And lots of print. Trina Turk products are pretty instantly recognizable, whether we’re talking shift dresses, bedding or special edition Barbies. It’s a level of identifiability that designers in today’s fractured market crave. “We try to express the optimism of California in every product we do,” Turk tells us. But, as she is quick to point out, “You can get a printed short for $20 or $2,000. What we do as a brand has to have value.”
Launched in 1995, the Los Angeles-based label has grown from a dress collection started out of Turk’s own living room to a near-empire of Ready to Wear, home, menswear and accessories, bringing in more than $60 million in annual sales and licensing deals with Banana Republic, F. Schumacher & Co., and Clinique.
All evidence points to the namesake’s business savvy, despite Turk having a strictly creative training–design school, followed by 12 years at other fashion labels. Turk has seen her share of speed bumps along the way: a partnership gone sour, the rise of fast fashion knockoffs, September 11th, and an economic recession. Per Turk, making it in the industry has as much to do with weathering the storm as it does creativity. “It requires stepping back from the fantasy of what the fashion business is, to the reality of it, which is a highly competitive industry.”
Beachside at Nobu Malibu–for the launch of the Malibu Barbie by Trina Turk collector’s doll in partnership with HauteLook–Turk opens up about sticking to her guns, social media addictions (she Instagrams herself at @TrinaTurk) and why jumping in the deep end can be a good thing.
How did you get your start?
My mom is Japanese and made a lot of our things growing up. She made our clothes, drapes, pillows, Christmas decorations. I always saw her sewing, so of course when I was old enough she taught me how to sew. It wasn’t so much about “fashion” as it was about making things.
How did “making things” progress into a career in fashion?
I studied apparel design at the University of Washington–not a school known for its fashion program. I worked for other people as a designer for 12 years, starting off as an assistant and eventually becoming a design director. I talked a lot about starting my own line, but it took me a long time to psych myself up because I had this security–my job, health insurance, 401K. Those practical concerns that were sort of excuses not to do it, the real reason being that it was terrifying.
So what was your first step?
I wouldn’t actually recommend this to people, but I never did a business plan. I was naïve–“I’m going to start an apparel company”–and had no idea what I was getting into. Maybe that was a good thing, because if I had laid it all out it would have been scary. I started the line working out of our house, and we got into great stores with the very first collection–Saks, Barneys, Fred Segal… It was 1995 before the internet had kicked in, and was really a completely different landscape. It was possible for somebody working out of their house in LA with no employees and no financial backing to get into these major retailers. I don’t know how easy that would be right now.
What has it been like to be in the industry during a time of such dramatic change?
Since I’ve been in business there’s been the rise of the internet, online shopping and fast fashion. There was September 11th, which was devastating for retailers. Everybody basically stopped shopping. And then the recession of 2008. Weathering these things from a business standpoint is a big challenge that doesn’t have anything to do with creativity.
And how did you weather those challenges?
We had a very definable brand and really stuck to our guns. Our clothes had a certain look and we were not trying to be everything to everybody. In difficult times, that becomes even more important, because people understand who you are as a brand and why it’s meaningful.
Has having that identifiable brand left you vulnerable to knockoffs?
If you want to go out and buy a geometric printed short, you can get one at Old Navy for $20, at J. Crew for $200, or at the designer level for $2,000. Right now, everyone in the market is competing against each other on some level, so what we’re doing as a brand has to have value.
Retail expansion is a big focus for you right now.
At a department store or specialty boutique, to a certain extent you don’t have any control over [the way your clothes are presented] unless you’re a big brand with enough money to pay for real estate in the stores. In our own stores, we’re presenting the brand the way we want it to be seen. You understand what the brand is about within a minute of walking in.
How important is social media to your brand?
Obviously very important, and we’re in the beginning stages of harnessing that. I personally am very addicted to Instagram (@TrinaTurk) and I’m actually posting myself. It’s a window into what’s going on in culture, which is important to a designer. If you look at our feed you can see the connection to what ends up coming through in our product.
You seem really involved in both the business and creative side of the brand.
When you start out in a very entrepreneurial way, you become involved in everything, whether you want to or not. Some designers only have the creative side of their brain. I’m fortunate to have a little of both, and that has served me well. I’m interested in the business side, maybe to a fault because I want to know everything that’s going on.
What’s a typical day like for you now?
The past few months have been serious product development meetings, which are my favorite thing. We’re working on shoes, towels, activewear and handbags, which are all launching in 2014. We also do fittings and meet with our fabric and print studios every week. There’s a lot going on.
Looking back, do you have any regrets?
When we started the company, there was a third partner who came on to handle production. Over time our relationship became strained, but the company had grown to the point that we couldn’t afford to buy her out, which was an interesting situation. After looking at all of our options, we realized the best way out was to find a private equity partner who would buy out of her chunk of ownership. That makes it sound simple, but it was a very long and tense process. It would have been better to have hired someone to handle production than to have them be a part owner of the company.
Mr. Turk is gaining steam. What’s been behind the menswear push?
It started as a creative expansion. We began doing menswear in our Palm Springs store 10 years ago, but in a very small way with no rhyme or reason. I think our mens customer felt a little deprived compared to the attention womenswear was given, so now my husband, Jonathan–who I met in design school–has taken that over. The market is exciting right now. Men are wearing color and print; they care about accessories; they’re wearing more body-conscious clothing. Men have really stepped it up, and the vibe that Mr. Turk is about is much more mainstream now.
Where do you see the brand in 10 years?
I want to complete the lifestyle that we’ve started. We want to be able to dress and accessorize our woman and man from head toe, and contribute to their home.
Melanie Bender is a brand and marketing strategist who has worked with Sephora, Topshop, Louis Vuitton and W Hotels, and is a co-founding partner of innovation and communication firm Post+Beam. Find her on online at melaniezbender.com and on Twitter at @melliebe.