Passion Vs. Skill: What's More Important When Launching a Fashion Start-up?

The founders of The Arrivals, Stowaway, Jack Erwin, Ringly and Tracksmith weigh in.
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Dhani Mau
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The founders of The Arrivals, Stowaway, Jack Erwin, Ringly and Tracksmith weigh in.
Fashionista editor Maura Brannigan with the founders of Stowaway, The Arrivals, Tracksmith, Jack Erwin and Ringly. Photo: Fashionista

Fashionista editor Maura Brannigan with the founders of Stowaway, The Arrivals, Tracksmith, Jack Erwin and Ringly. Photo: Fashionista

Our 2015 "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York last Friday was one of our most well-rounded yet. In addition to panels on wellness, media and growing a young fashion label, we brought together a few of the buzziest online start-up founders to discuss all that goes into launching a successful fashion or beauty brand online.

One of the most striking differences between a more traditional fashion label and some of those launched online over the past couple of years is that, oftentimes, the founders have little if any design experience and yet are still able to make a major impact on the market and raise millions in venture capital. Which begs the question: Is having a specific skill that important when launching a brand these days?

"It's all about passion," Lane Gerson, co-founder and co-CEO of men's footwear line Jack Erwin, said early on in the discussion, which was moderated by Fashionista Associate Editor Maura Brannigan. 

"Anyone can learn anything at anytime," said Julie Frederickson, CEO and co-founder of Stowaway, which offers beauty products packaged into manageable sizes to take on-the-go. "I have no design experience but I taught myself to sketch because somebody had to do it." Similarly, Kal Vepuri, co-founder of stylish direct-to-consumer outerwear brand The Arrivals, had no fashion experience, nor did his co-founder Jeff Johnson. He argued that when you have a mission and passion in pursuing that mission, you just figure it out "no matter how hard" it is. "It's just the step in the process," he said, even if it's a challenge that takes years to figure out.

In addition to outsourcing the actual design and production to those with experience, Vepuri said he focused on getting as much feedback as possible from people with more fashion knowledge than him. "We get feedback from social media," he said. "Strategically, we have people come into our office for feedback." And when reaching out to press about the brand initially, he sometimes emphasized the fact that he and his co-founder had no fashion experience, transparently weaving that fact into the brand's story. (We bit.)

Being passionate and working hard to overcome challenges regardless of skill level is a quality many of them look for in potential employees, too. While Matt Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Tracksmith, advised prospective start-up employees to identify and "be great at an important skill" that is "critical to the brand," other panelists emphasized being enthusiastic, productive and having the right attitude and personality. "You can learn what you need online, but it's really hard to train the attitude of, 'Sure I'll be accountable and get stuff done,'" Frederickson said.

Christina Mercando, the founder and CEO of Ringly, said she looks for people who seem genuinely interested and curious, not just about the tasks they're given but "to learn other parts of the business" as well. Vepuri says one of the interns he wound up hiring went "out of their way to add a personal touch to every personal interaction." Vepuri also stressed the importance of personality, noting that his co-founder is always looking for someone he would describe as cool, "in terms of somebody you want to spend time with, somebody you want sitting next to you."

"Start-ups are really culture-led early on," added Taylor. "Dynamics are so important."