What It's Really Like to Launch Your Own Fashion Line

New York designer Kaelen Haworth reveals the pros and cons of starting her namesake womenswear label fresh out of school — and the lessons she's learned along the way.
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New York designer Kaelen Haworth reveals the pros and cons of starting her namesake womenswear label fresh out of school — and the lessons she's learned along the way.
Kaelen Haworth at the CFDA Fashion Incubator fall 2015 market day presentations in February 2015. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Kaelen Haworth at the CFDA Fashion Incubator fall 2015 market day presentations in February 2015. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

I remember standing in the living room of my then home-office in summer 2010, thinking, “What if literally no one buys the collection?” In my post-Parsons graduation naiveté, the thought had not occurred to me until my first collection was finished and we were ready to go into market. Even when it did, it was fleeting. I dismissed it as absurd. I miss that naiveté sometimes, but it pushed me to start my own company instead of waiting to gain more experience, and for that I am grateful.

I graduated from design school during an incredibly difficult economy – to say that finding a job was tough would be a huge understatement. I interviewed for months for jobs I didn't even want. I freelanced as a stylist assistant and did odd styling jobs with photographers and models looking to build their portfolios. I had it in my head that I needed to work in the industry for a while before starting my own business, and it held me back from taking the risk I inherently knew I needed to take. I could slowly wade through an endless sea of experience in whatever area of fashion would have me in order to feel that I was progressing professionally, or I could just take my own path and learn as I went.

Looks from the Kaelen spring 2016 collection. Photo: Kaelen

Looks from the Kaelen spring 2016 collection. Photo: Kaelen

Friends, family and some industry people that I consulted told me that starting my own line would be difficult, but I brushed it off. I wanted something of my own  freedom to make my own rules and to spend my days sketching, taking photographs, playing around in the studio and whipping up perfect confections for the fashion world to devour.

There is no greater way to learn than to start your own business. When you work for yourself, the mistakes hurt more and things that I did three years ago still haunt me  but they also still inform the decisions I make today. For instance, earlier in my career, I felt that having a bigger collection meant that I would reach a wider audience, but all that did was confuse the message and dilute the brand. Now, the collection is almost half the size of earlier seasons. I won’t try to make you a T-shirt unless it's an absolutely life-changing T-shirt. I will make you a floral pantsuit, though, because if that doesn’t make you feel something, you're dead inside.

The Kaelen spring 2015 presentation. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The Kaelen spring 2015 presentation. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Early on, I made the mistake that I think a lot of people make, which is assuming that spending more equals getting more. You can be creative and thrifty with a lookbook shoot and a presentation. People love collaborating and creating, and many want to make beautiful things, not just money. But I learned that you cannot compromise on product  if the fabric is pricey or it costs a lot to pleat a dress, so be it. I've also had to learn to listen to feedback from all of the people who see the line, and separate the actionable items from the opinions that might cloud my overall vision. Every time I meet with buyers, I take in the advice and get better all the time at sifting through noise to hear the good stuff.

One of the most difficult realizations as an entrepreneur in a creative industry is that you have to be of two minds: business and creative. When I became a member of the CFDA incubator, we were told to define our roles early in our careers. Do we want to be designer/entrepreneurs? Or do we want to be solely creative? But relinquishing control of any aspect of your business and admitting that you can't do it all is no picnic. It requires you to separate your professional goals from your ego, and that takes a level of maturity I freely admit I struggle with. That said, I know I'm better at the big picture and creative aspects of the business. If you left the nitty-gritty details to me we wouldn't have a roof over our heads at the studio. I don't do well with website up-keep and inventory control and a lot of other stuff that happens in this office, so it was a no-brainer  find help. We need a roof. It's cold!

I do sometimes miss that initial naiveté — chutzpah, gumption or, in common parlance, balls. It allowed me to show during my first NYFW in a warehouse with debris-covered floors (we were literally sweeping the nails aside as the doors opened) and walk the likes of Kate Lanphear through the collection without really worrying too much about it because, hey! I don’t know what to expect. But I feel the failures more now, and I also feel the successes more. I evolve and I grow, and most importantly, I have the ability to remain authentic. And I wouldn't give that up for anything. To be brutally honest, to be an entrepreneur in the times we live in, you have to be okay with quietly, slowly, painfully slugging it out behind the scenes until things start to work out. Would I do it again, in the midst of a recession, with little industry experience and no fall back plan? Hell yes. 

Looks from the Kaelen fall 2012 presentation. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Looks from the Kaelen fall 2012 presentation. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Kaelen Haworth is a New York-based fashion designer. She launched her line in 2010, nine months after graduating from Parsons, and was selected to join the CFDA Fashion Incubator program in 2014. Her ready-to-wear collection is sold at Intermix, American Two Shot, Ron Herman and at KaelenNYC.com