Last Friday, for our first ever Fashionista conference, we got five of our favorite designers and one of our favorite e-commerce startup founders to sit down for an informative panel discussion on what is obviously our favorite topic: how to make it in fashion.
Katie Ermilio, Daniel Vosovic, Reece Solomon, Kaelen Haworth, and Rachel Antonoff are all young designers with their own namesake lines (around 3-6 years old)--but they don't all run their businesses the same way. Far from it. While some have years of professional design training and experience, others just figured it out as they went along; some were able to start their lines on their own, others needed outside help.
Of a Kind co-founder Claire Mazur, who also knows a thing or two about launching a fashion business, moderated the panel, asking great questions that yielded some pretty unexpected answers. Read on for the most surprising things we learned.
You don't have to know how to cut a pattern to start your own line As Rachel Antonoff put it, "I learned while doing." The majority of the panelists admitted that they had never learned how to make a pattern and some of them still don't know how. The more important skill, they agreed, is knowing how to explain your design to a patternmaker. You have to at least speak the language. Having a really good patternmaker is also important. While a twenty-something patternmaker might be cheaper, Vosovic said he feels more confident putting his, at times "risky" designs in the hands of a 50-year-old patternmaker.
Just because you interned somewhere doesn't mean you know how to run a business. After internships with Rag & Bone and Proenza Schouler, both respectable brands that she "hoped to emulate," Solomon said she "thought [she] knew everything" about running a business, which she soon realized she "absolutely did not."
You're definitely going to make a lot of mistakes. Just about every panelist mentioned making mistakes and learning from them as an inherit part of the process of being a designer. "I basically have built mistakes into my business plan," said Haworth. "I make mistakes probably everyday."
You need a good business partner. "The best thing you can do is surround yourself with good people," said Haworth. While the panelists are all designers, their labels are all businesses with business-y stuff that needs to be handled. Ermilio admitted that is not her favorite part and that she "didn't get into design to run a business and didn't ever want to be a business owner." But, "you have to take the good with the bad and keep up with that or everything else suffers."
"I'm still looking for my Domenico De Sole [Tom Ford's business partner]. I'm still looking for a Robert Duffy [Marc Jacob's business partner]," Vosovic said, advising aspiring designers to look for people with "talent in cash flow analysis, talent in growth strategy." As a young designer, Vosovic has to do more than just design. "I'm equally left and right brained. I always say, yes I'm artistic but I'm not an artist. I'm a fashion designer and we work in a very tight schedule and budget. I'm not a fine artist who can spend three years working on something." An emerging designer has to "understand that there are restrictions that will be put on you by the industry."
"Try to find someone who has the same vision for your brand," Solomon advised.
You don't have to be a rich kid to start a line, but it helps. While several of the panelists already had, shall we say, resources that made starting a label a little more feasible, others had to be more resourceful. Katie Ermilio was lucky to have had a grandfather who was a bespoke tailor and thus had the resources to make clothing--which she did, for friends and friends of friends until she eventually had a custom business on her hands.
Vosovic's mom is a secretary and his dad is a mechanic, but he had a family friend who was a financial advisor that opened his door to him after Project Runway. "He said, 'Daniel I've known you since you were 10 years old. I believe in your passion. I believe in your talent." He was able to negotiate a contract with his financial advisor, his lawyer and his accountant before he even had a business "because they believed in what [he] could become."
"When you're just starting really analyze the resources that you guys have around you," Vosovic said.
Being on Project Runway has some hidden perks. Vosovic admitted he still gets a discount at Mood.
They really do wish they didn't have to charge you so much for their clothes. "There is a disconnect between the girl who likes our stuff and the girl who can afford it," Antonoff admitted. "There are pieces that we make that I can't afford. When I hear someone say, how dare they charge this it's like, you have no idea. The margin we're making...we don't want to be robbing you. This is what it costs to produce fairly.
Which is why collaborations are so great. Antonoff was able to reach more people with her Bass collection. And Vosovic praised Anthropologie for their collaborations with small designers, which act like a "gateway drug" to getting someone to become more willing to spend money on the actual designer's clothes.
Doing a fashion show isn't always smart. Daniel Vosovic said they put on one show that cost six figures to produce and none of their new accounts were at the show. Meaning doing a show does not always equal making sales. "You have market appointments right after the show anyway so it's like why are [buyers] going to do both? They're busy. It feels like it's just for PR," said Haworth.
Solomon used to do presentations, but now just does private appointments because the presentations didn't really benefit them enough.
Vosovic admits there's a feeling of working so hard on something and wanting people to see your work, and that it's difficult, but important "to make sure that your ego is out of it in the decision to have the show." He feels, and we agree, that of the hundreds of collections shown at New York Fashion Week each season, "half of them should never been shown."
Antonoff switched from doing presentations to a video this past season. While she missed doing a presentation, "one of the few times a year you get to invite people to the world you see the clothes existing in," the video was done for "a fraction of the cost." Though, she had "a lot of people [like Lena Dunham] helping and offering their services for free or trade or whatever." But in the end, she felt it probably reached more people than a presentation would have, since it lives on the internet forever, and plans to do it again.
Thanks to all our sponsors and gift bag donors for making Fashionista’s first conference happen. JewelMint, Maybelline, TRESemme, Skinn Cosmetics, Evologie, Iokai, Essie, School of Style, Zico and BluePrint–we couldn’t have done it without you!