Honor's Giovanna Randall Is Making Beautiful Clothes With Integrity

It hasn't been easy.
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Dhani Mau
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It hasn't been easy.

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Designer Giovanna Randall captured the attention, and probably some of the hearts, of editors and buyers early on in her design career, thanks to a winning combination of enchanting, subtly theatrical runway shows and truly beautiful clothes -- all made in New York -- of practically unmatched quality among ready-to-wear designers.

The designer ditched med school to go into fashion design -- something she had always felt a compulsion to do -- and there is thus a clear passion and intuitiveness in much of her work. 

It's that authenticity, I think, that has resonated with the roster of cool, talented ladies -- think Zosia Mamet, Aubrey Plaza, Jenny Slate, Sarah Sophie Flicker -- who have consistently been turning up at red carpet events in her clothes.

But for Randall, Honor is about more than just making pretty clothes and putting them on pretty people. We recently spoke with the designer about how she founded her label, why she opened a store so early on and what's next.

I know you made a career change before getting into fashion, but was it something you were always interested in?

Fashion has always been part of who I am. My mom taught me to sew when I was three years old but it never occurred to me to become a fashion designer as a job until I had done a bunch of other things. While I was a pre-med student and I had a bachelors of fine arts in music and performance, I was always making clothes, but it took me a long time to realize that you should really do what you do naturally and that if you're lucky enough to do who you are for your job then, you should. The more work I put in [to design], the more energy I got out of it, and so I knew it was the right fit and I just kept going from there.

Honor's fall 2014 runway collection. Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images

Honor's fall 2014 runway collection. Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images

What was your goal in creating Honor? What did you want the line to be?

I knew that if I was going to be in this industry, I had to feel like I was doing something responsible -- you know, environmentally, helping the global economy, it wasn’t just going to be a frivolous pursuit. So I felt like making everything in New York was an important part of the DNA of the brand. I wanted a brand that had the integrity and old world kind of craftsmanship that I'd always associated with clothing. My great uncle was a tailor and he learned to sew in Italy and I learned to sew from my mom who learned from him. I wanted to start a brand that almost felt like it was a rediscovered old brand from the past that was reawakened. All my fabrics come from Europe and everything is made and produced here.

Has that been a challenge -- making everything here?

It’s definitely a challenge, it’s more expensive. And it’s hard to find people that are comfortable with domestic production -- it took a while to get our team together but I think we’re in a good place right now. Factories around here are more interested in doing things for development of samples -- they are set up for production but it’s not as common to do development and production in New York. But it’s also great that it’s right here, so there’s never that big unknown factor. The communication is clearer here, we can always check on things while they’re happening.

How did you fund the line in the beginning?

I was lucky enough to have the support of my family. I think the biggest challenge for me was not about funding, but it was about how to do this. In school you learn how to make clothes, you learn how to communicate with factories, you learn the bits and pieces, but you don’t really know how to put it all together, and I think that was the biggest challenge really was just understanding how to get on the calendar, and because we are such a small business, just to coordinate it all and watch it from beginning to end and go from development to production. When you have the same pattern makers making development as production it can be hard because they’re going between your collection that’s going down the runway and the collection that’s going into stores. Things like that have been really challenging for me more than the funding. With funding comes a lot of pressure. Without funding, you have different challenges but I think it’s equally challenging.

Would you say those have been the biggest challenges in running your business?

That, and also getting out of my own way, believing in my vision and just staying with it. It gets better every season, there’s that beginning and there’s that first initial seed that I have for a collection and then there’s a lot of doubt and confusion that seeps in before I get to the final product and I think sometimes I wish I could just minimize that doubt and stay focused on that vision. It’s challenging getting the support of the fashion world and there’s so many great designers out there and the market’s really saturated and I think getting the support of retailers and getting them to take the plunge and buy into the collection has been hard.

The market is really saturated, especially in New York. How have you been able to stand out?

If you look inside one of my garments, you see a lot of detail and a lot of special finishes and sumptuous linings and a lot of handwork. You may not notice it from far away, but I think if you look at it up close, you’ll notice there’s a difference from most of the clothing that you see, but there are fewer American designers that are doing a semi-couture kind of thing. My stuff is much more detail-oriented.

What type of girl inspires you? Who is the Honor Woman?

There are definitely muses -- dead and alive: Barbara Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, stylish grandmas everywhere, my grandmother who passed away, my grandmother who’s alive... mostly I’m looking for multi-dimensional, strong women, who are comfortable in their own skin and they’re confident and fashionable and interesting but they also do a lot of something and I feel like they’re not afraid to get dirty.

Zosia Mamet in Honor. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Zosia Mamet in Honor. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

There have been some really cool (famous) girls wearing your clothes lately. What are your thoughts on celebrity dressing -- is it something you pursue or think is important?

I think it’s really nice, these women are scrutinized and photographed so often... The celebrities that I do consistently dress kind of discover the brand on their own and request it and that’s such a compliment. I know some of them personally and they’re really strong, interesting women, they’re not just pretty faces.

What celebrities would you like to dress that you haven't?

Emma Stone, Elle Fanning, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett...

Great list. Another thing you've sort of become known for is your gorgeous, somewhat theatrical runway shows. Is it important for you to create something memorable and how do you come up with new ideas each season?

It is. I started the brand with Rachel Fleit and we both have a love of theater and her background is actually in producing live theatre and film and I think it's really fun for us because I have an inspiration every season and I tell her what it is and we get to come together and collaborate on creating sort of a mini live show. We also do an annual film usually in spring.

Do you see the shows and films as ways to promote the brand, or illustrate your vision? 

I feel like it really is such a great way of taking it to the next level and really sharing where I’m coming from and telling the story and kind of getting this closure on the story, and it’s so satisfying. I feel like fantasy can be real life. I feel like I don’t make clothes that are unwearable. They’re wearable clothing, they’re special, but then I love creating this world that they’re in that is fantasy and showing that to my audience.

You opened a store really early on -- shortly after launching the brand. Why did you decide to do that?

I felt like I’ve seen so many new brands get lost on a rack in a wonderful department store where you really didn’t get a story of what a brand was and I felt like if I was going to do this I really wanted my brand to have a home and feel like an experience and I wanted people to understand the world that was Honor and not just a few pieces. The store was actually meant to be a pop-up store and then it just sort of stayed because I fell in love with it. It’s been a difficult journey. That path is full of many obstacles and there are definitely things about it that I feel like maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but I’ve learned a lot from doing it.

Has there been one moment or milestone that made you feel like you had finally made it or this was finally a legitimate thing?

I definitely think the moment was, the first time we got on Style.com on the official drop down was like a big deal for us because Honor’s been in business for five years and that was my third spring collection and it was the first one that everyone knows. I thought the one before that was really good, the fall collection, and we just kept trying and trying and trying [to get on Style.com] and it was like, OK, now they believe that we’re actually going to be here for a while, so it was a really great moment.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start his or her own line?

I would say you need to have to do it, you can’t just kind of want to do it. It’s like having a baby, it’s hard to give it back after you have it. For me design is a compulsion, it’s something I can’t deny, I have to do it. If I could work for someone else and just be happy going in and helping make their singular unique vision come true then I think it would be a lot easier but I feel like I must get my clothes out there. If you really feel like that, you should stay true to who you are and don’t try so hard to impress other people and have faith in what you really want to get out there and just stick with it and try to be as focused as possible. I think I’ve learned over the years that the smallest idea can become a really great focused collection; if you have too many ideas it gets confused and muddled and it doesn’t feel confident.

What's next for Honor? Where do you see the brand in five to 10 years?

I hope that the brand is a worldwide recognized brand, but continues to have the same level of craftsmanship and integrity that it always did. I hope that in the distant future, I’ll be making or producing more here and maybe even making fabric in New York.