For the past couple of days, I've been lucky enough to spend time with designer Chris Benz and his team on a visit to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
We've been celebrating SCAD Style, a nine-day series of lectures, exhibitions, panel discussions, book signings and workshops that focus on preparing students for creative careers. This year's participants include everyone from Kelly Cutrone to Fern Mallis to Victoria Bartlett.
Chris' role was to give a talk on building a successful fashion brand, so he was joined on stage last night by business partner Ashley Abess, vice president of sales Kelly Stinnett, director of business development Eugene Migliaro and actress Eva Amurri, his good friend and muse (she frequently wears his dresses on the red carpet). Of course, the students wanted to know how Chris got his start--it was interning for Marc Jacobs at 17--but the designer and his crew took it a step further, explaining how the company works holistically. It was such positive conversation and the students seemed genuinely excited to meet Chris and chat with his team afterward. Here were the big takeaways: Relationships might be the most important element of running a successful business, no matter what medium you're working in. Ashley and Chris met at age 16 while attending a summer program at Parsons. Today they're business partners. Eugene and Kelly met while working at Ralph Lauren. Eugene and Chris met while working at Marc Jacobs. The company's casting director is also a friend from Parsons. "Look at the person next to you, because you will cross paths with them during your career," said Ashley.
Learning how the business works is just as important as designing great clothes. Chris worked at J.Crew for a few years after graduation, designing dresses under CEO Mickey Drexler and fashion director Jenna Lyons. "We had to deliver 16 collections a year," he explained. That experience was as valuable as the work he did while interning at Marc Jacobs.
If you want to produce everything locally, you can. About 98% of all Chris Benz clothing is produced in New York City. While his prices aren't low, they aren't outrageous either. (Dresses hover in the $1,000 range.) "Using the garment center means that we can maintain control over the quality of the clothes," said Ashley. "Anyone who tells you it's impossible [to manufacture a collection in New York] hasn't done their legwork."
A big part of being a designer is selling your vision. The team travels from Chicago to Los Angeles to meet with store owners, buyers and stylists. Chris talks to the customers to see what they love and what they think could be different. "About 5 to 10% of my job is actually designing clothes," he explained. "The rest is hitting the pavement." Fashion is a grueling industry, but don't let the naysayers fool you: It's quite glamorous, too. Chris loves fashion, and he loves his job. "It's good to enjoy what you do!"
(Full disclosure: SCAD paid for me to fly down here to cover Chris' lecture, and they also paid for my room and board.)