How Marissa Webb Climbed the Ranks at J.Crew and Stays True to Her Design DNA

Hint: it involves working really, really hard.
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Chantal Fernandez
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Hint: it involves working really, really hard.
Fashionista's Lauren Indvik and designer Marissa Webb at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday. Photo: Fashionista

Fashionista's Lauren Indvik and designer Marissa Webb at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday. Photo: Fashionista

In theory, Marissa Webb should have more time on her hands since she transitioned from creative director to creative advisor of Banana Republic two weeks ago, but the designer's eponymous line is filling any void. "It's giving me more time to focus on my label's own growth, my team and opening the [first] store, we have so much going on," said Webb on Friday at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference, where she spoke with our Editor-in-Chief, Lauren Indvik. "What happened to those extra hours I anticipated? They're still not there."  

Webb went on to explain that she's always had a rigorous work ethic, which she attributes to the fact that she and her siblings were adopted from Korea when Webb was four years old. "I had zero connections [in the fashion industry] and it was really about working hard," she said. Webb originally attended Rutgers University to study psychology before transferring to FIT to focus on fashion illustration. "I don't regret it, I enjoyed the courses and learning about people and I think it also carved out a lot of the way I interact with people," she said. "But I wanted to be creative in a different form." At FIT, Webb said she had "24-hour days" as she balanced school with internships, freelance jobs and waitressing. "It’s really important to take your education very seriously and get out of it as much as you can," she said, "and also really being involved in the industry while you're going to school."

While still in school, Webb freelanced at Donna Karan and interned for Polo Ralph Lauren, where she went on to work full-time at after graduating. It was the beginning of a design career in big corporate companies, though Webb explained that wasn't what attracted her to the job. "It was more about being comfortable with the people I work with at this location," she said of Polo, adding that she never experienced a eureka moment about the kind of career she wanted to pursue, but instead followed her gut and the opportunities presented to her. "It was never that tada! — this is what I'm going to do and this is the only thing I'm going to do," she said. "You have to be willing to make mistakes and willing to try things out as you go."

One thing Webb was clear about, however, was her willingness to work very hard. When asked for her advice for interns, Webb said, "Work your ass off and make sure that you're giving it 150 percent. An internship is not just an internship. I constantly remind my team and myself and anyone who is trying to get to the next level, it doesn't matter if you're bringing someone a coffee, it doesn't matter if you're plunging a toilet. I've done it myself when I first started my company." She said the opportunity to intern is one of the most important stepping stones in a career, and recommended young people prove their worth through every task. "You're not going to be given more responsibility if you don't show that you want it and ask for it," she said. 

A recurring theme throughout Webb's conversation was the importance of valuing her team and treating everyone as equals, regardless of one's title. She remembered a moment while working at Polo Ralph Lauren that the designer himself addressed her at a meeting. "Ralph was looking at [a collection on a wall] and he turned around [said], 'What are you wearing? Why don't we have more of that kind of stuff up here?'" said Webb. She was struck by the designer's willingness to take inspiration from anywhere, even the $3 thrift store pants she was wearing that day. "It doesn't matter what your title is, treat everyone equally."

Webb's work ethic and understanding of management skills proved essential when she joined J.Crew in 2000. She worked at the company for 11 years, rising through the ranks to become head of women's apparel and accessories design. "I just loved what I was doing and I just kept doing more and more," said Webb. She described her mentality as: "The more I can show I want to do it and I'm not complaining about it, keep tossing me stuff and I'll keep on doing it." It led to a steady series of promotions. "I had no fear knowing that I've never done this, but I'll figure it out," she said, remembering when she was assigned to create sweaters despite having no experience in the category. "Having that kind of tenacity is important."

Webb's tenacity helped her dive into the difficult task of starting her own brand after leaving J.Crew, which was an idea that had been lingering in her mind since graduating school. "There's a lot of learn in the industry — how to manage teams, how to manage daily activities, because you can't have a team of hundreds of people right away," she said. "Someone else coming right out of school might have those resources, I didn't." She met her financial partners and investors through friends, and said her positive relationships with them are extremely important to her. 

As far as the unexpected challenges of being the boss, Webb says there were many unglamorous tasks that kept her from simply sketching all the time — including unclogging toilets in her office. "You literally had to run to the corner and buy a plunger," she said. "I feel like I took human resources 101, law 101, all the basic things you need to run a company." But she firmly believes in growing her business and producing an accessible product in terms of price point. "I remember Tom Ford once saying, 'You have to decide if you're getting into this business as a creative genius artist or is this a business where you actually need to sell product?' And I'd like to think of my company as almost a hybrid of the two, because we love to push the innovation of design but at the same time we want it to accessible."

Despite being busy launching her own brand, Webb said she couldn't turn down Banana Republic's job offer when the company came calling in 2014. "There's a lot of confusion in the industry about what a creative director does versus what a designer does and there's an amazing team of designers at Banana Republic," she said. "I’ve never designed a single thing for Banana Republic, it was more about talking with the teams about visual concepts and working with them on colors, working with them on fits and giving them feedback on things." She regularly worked weekends to accomplish both jobs, and said, laughing, "There was no balance, what is this balance thing?" And as for burning out, Webb said she doesn't think about that because "I think it really has to do with your passion for it and work ethic."

And despite having worked at two of the biggest brands in the country where sales numbers mean everything, Webb said she doesn't think there's a formula to commercial success in fashion. "There are so many decks and documents about trend reports, but who really knows what sells? You can only go by last year's sales," she said. "So I try to stay true to the DNA and be persistent with what you love, but also take in information that surrounds you on a daily basis." 

According to Webb, sticking to a strong point of view and not being reactionary is the most important thing designers should keep in mind. "The big sellers are the ones who will go to take a risk, try something different and innovative," she said. "Be consistent with what you love, put out what you think is the best — don't be distracted by all the noise outside."