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.
Petra Langerova is not afraid to take risks. In April 2013, the designer left a high-powered job at Gap to become the first head of design at Everlane, an upstart online-native retailer that specializes in contemporary basics. But Langerova's career in risk-taking started long before that, when she set eyes on New York for the first time during a study abroad trip from her native Slovakia. She was 21 -- and never looked back.
"I was studying architecture in my third year and I came to the U.S. at 21 and made a trip to New York, and did not go back to Slovakia. I fell in love with New York, I still remember the image.
Basically I had to start over. I was very interested in costume and design, I applied to school, and it was Parsons. I did not know much about it, but I thought fashion would be the closest thing.
Everything was different in New York. English was not an issue, but I didn't know anybody, I had to support myself, working and studying, it wasn't easy. I worked over 40 hours a week waiting tables. I'd come home at 3 a.m., do homework, go to school at 7 a.m., take double shifts on the weekends. It's fair to say I didn't really sleep for four years. But it didn't bother me that much, I was so enthusiastic.
Our junior and senior years we get mentored at Parsons, and I got picked by Narcisco Rodriguez. He's a high-level designer with a very small studio, very hands-on draping and creating garments. Maybe it gave me the wrong perspective, I thought it was how all companies worked. Now, at Everlane, I see a lot of parallels with how Narcisco was thinking and sort of the reflective space he took to pause and look at things quietly and examine every single line and just chisel and really perfect. I think that sensibility, I draw a lot from it -- taking a moment to pause and think, to keep things pared down and minimal.
After I graduated [in 2002], I had to find a company that would give me a visa, health insurance, whatnot -- unfortunately [Rodriguez] wasn't able to do it. His company was transitioning, and so I sent my resume out. I accepted an offer from Tommy Hilfiger collection, working primarily on the runway show. That was great, understanding something small scale versus large scale, how much control a designer has in that kind of environment. The general public perceives designing something as very personal, but that's such a small part of the design industry. If you design for a company that's large, like Tommy, there's a certain demographic you design for, those averages you need to make either on color or weather or how many countries you are going to ship to. That's what dictates the design box in which you can move. I was there for five years and learned a lot about the business. I left around 2007.
After Tommy I went to J.Crew, which was fantastic, mostly because it was extremely like working for a small business again, the way the company was managed. We were one of the few companies that still worked with small Italian mills, so we were able to create all these fabulous fabrics from scratch, creating luxury goods at a democratic price. It definitely created a breeding ground for creativity, people were very excited about it, they lived and breathed it. I worked in women's wovens, handling dresses, separates, doing a capsule woven collection, all the novelty skirts and pants and all of the suiting, novelty jackets.
[J.Crew CEO] Mickey Drexler, he was one of my biggest mentors, even though he wasn't a fashion designer, he's a merchant that understands product, really the genius that made J.Crew so desirable. Overall, it was a very great experience. I think when I got there we hit the peak, but it went a little bit over the top, really a bit too exclusive and maybe not as understandable for everyone. A lot of companies caught up to J.Crew's design and started copying it; when I was leaving, there were slight shifts, trying to rebrand. J.Crew's success was its own detriment, how many people wanted to copy that success.
Then I went to Gap International for three and a half years as a design director. It was a very different job in the sense of what is the designer's role… I spent an enormous amount of time on factory relations, worked with a large team of designers, mostly supplying clothes for the French and UK markets. I was traveling constantly, understanding all the markets, what do people look like, what do people wear at what time of year. There was a lot of financial pressure, a lot of responsibility to generate revenue, always a lot of calculating. It was hard to be creative, because in my head I'm counting all the zeroes when designing. That was my role, more larger scale thinking about the entire assortment and seasonality, how much faster we should be moving a category, should we have certain things on a floor, basically what are your winners and how is the line tiered so that everything has a fair chance.
I was craving to do something more creative. I had a fair estimate of what my future would be if I should continue along my path, progressing up an imaginary ladder, becoming less and less in touch with what my passion really is or why I even started. This was not why I wanted to do fashion.
I heard about the Everlane opportunity through someone who worked with me at Gap who was already working at Everlane as head of product. He almost tricked me into it, sending me emails asking what do you think about this, what would you change about this. Then they were really looking for some designers, and one thing led to another. It was a completely different challenge, a startup, you don't always know if it's going to work out. Internally I felt it was the opportunity for me at the moment, even if meant starting completely over, I wanted to look back and say I tried. The company wasn't even a year old, I hadn't heard of it. There wasn't much on the website, very few items, very pared down, but I think everyone responds to Everlane, it has a clear differentiation factor and bold message as to what it's trying to achieve. There are so many websites with so many images; somehow this managed to speak to me very clearly.
I have now been at the company for a year and a half working from New York, and only recently have we opened an office in SoHo, which is fantastic. It's been a drastic change, being a one-person design team and hands-on with all the design. I worked remotely [in Brooklyn], while the rest of the team has been in San Francisco. For the first year I worked in my brownstone in Bed-Stuy, and I got to sit down and reflect and be quiet, it was so needed, but coming to the end of it, I was going completely mad.
I walked into this minimal DNA of the company and happily adopted it. I strongly believe it is the highest form of design in the sense that there is so much truth and simplicity. It also allows us to deliver great quality, really just architecture something minimal and chiseled and functional, and think about what is the actual value we are giving to customers, how long is it going to last, how many people are going to be happy with it. It needs to be essential, familiar, but also of the moment. It needs to look fresh all of a sudden. As a company, we like to keep perfecting what we already created, so once we've released a product it doesn't stop, we get a lot of feedback and just keep updating. We're also now doing seasonal color palettes, and as we move into more categories, we're thinking about the whole outfit. So now we think, what is the counterpart to the silk top that she is going to wear, how are we moving all the angles together as a lifestyle brand? One day it will be completely natural for us to have furniture or sheets or plates, sort of leveraging it from all sides, the aesthetic.
When I start with a category, say outerwear, I always think of the classics. So we start with a trench, what are the defining elements that make it a trench, and what is everything we can live without, what's not essential, and then what would make it most desirable, what is the proportion that's relative right now that would speak to a really wide audience. That's how we recreate styles the Everlane way.
When I joined the company, it had a very male point of view. Most of the people handling the product were men, and they were creating things they were interested in wearing for themselves. But shopping is mostly done by women, that's where the biggest opportunity is, and we had to shift the mindset that comes with that, with how women shop. It's not always rational, there's not always a lot of data behind it, we can't always clearly predict it. There's a lot of impulses you have to create products for, sometimes women need to have something but they can't say why.
To me it's really beautiful how people who have never done fashion have attempted to do it from a very fresh perspective. Coming from fashion, you can bring a lot of expertise, but sometimes it becomes very formulaic. It's nice to see a smart group of people that can tackle problems very quickly, but can also innovate. You know, I was worried about the industry and its future. The industry is a dinosaur, something that's not been innovated, fashion is just kind of staying the same, primarily because we are constantly expanding into emerging markets and countries that can do cheaper and cheaper production, which forces even less innovation in machinery. There's a constant demand of general public wanting things cheaper and cheaper, and now you have to go to a country that hasn't even built a proper factory yet. The most clear way out of it is educating people about what it really takes to make things, what is the real cost behind things, the real challenges the industry is facing. There needs to be a partnership between the consumer and industry, and we need to hold hands to figure out what is good for us including the environment.
I now have one designer working under me who I worked with at Gap. I felt very strongly about hiring a senior designer, building the team from top to bottom. I don't mind taking out the trash and doing photocopies, it's about expertise and people being able to respond quickly, to know what they're doing. Hopefully very soon we'll be able to start training some great young talent.
My advice for young designers would be to get off the Internet. I feel like in fashion, we start to look at clothes, shop for clothes, when it's so much more about how clothing is a) created and b) experienced, how wind gets through it, how light gets through it. Just looking at pictures and 3-D models, you completely miss the full potential that clothing can give someone."
This interview has been edited and condensed.