“I’ve survived three Chapter 11s, I’ve had paychecks bounce, I’ve cried more than once. I’ve seen it all in this industry," says Black Halo designer and founder Laurel Berman. Now in her 10th year with the line, Berman has a job description that's a design school grad’s dream. She leads creative for a contemporary fashion house that she owns outright—with teams of pattern-makers, drapers, fitters, and now sales all under her wing. Still, the Spokane-bred L.A. native will be the first to tell you it’s no smooth sailing.
“It’s never easy, and there is no room for error. To make it 10 years is this business is a big deal,” she shares.
Among Berman’s top credits over that decade: creating the “Jackie O”, a dress so popular — a snapshot of fans: Blake Lively, Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian, Kelly Ripa — it’s earned it’s own Wall Street Journal write-up and been likened to the legendary DVF wrap. While Berman admits that having an all-the-rage piece has led some to put her in a box: “I’ve never said, ‘Well I think I’m going to be this as a designer.’ I just let it happen naturally.”
We caught up with the designer at her Downtown L.A. headquarters to talk launching, letting it happen, and why she sometimes needs to chill the f*** out.
How did you get started? I was born with a thing for clothes, not really knowing that you could parlay that into a career. I graduated with a political science degree before realizing I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So finally I decided to follow my dream to make clothes and went back to school to study design at the Academy of Fashion in San Francisco. I started working for other manufacturers, working my way up to assistant and then design doing private label. I’ve had a lot of bad jobs, and finally loved what I was doing.
So why leave to start your own line? It was really hard to leave, but my dreams were flying by me while I was continuing to just stay comfortable.
How did Black Halo get off the ground? This was over 10 years ago. One of my best friends who I worked with doing private label was going to come with me. We were starting from nothing so we had to get the cheapest everything. We picked a space in Downtown L.A. off the beaten path, and I went to auctions to buy all my equipment — sewing machines, cutting tables, and irons — from all the companies going out of business. At the last minute my friend ended up backing out, so I did it on my own. I pulled together a collection and took it over to the California Market Center to find a showroom. A lot of people passed, but finally someone was enthusiastic about it and took us on.
What’s been the secret to succeeding as a new designer? There are three wheels that are critical: design, production, and sales. If you don’t have production it doesn’t matter what you design. And if you don’t have sales it doesn’t matter what you design either because no one’s going to sell it. When I started, I handled what I was good at, which is production and design. I knew I couldn’t handle sales, which is why I looked for outside help with that.
Your Jackie O dress is one of the most iconic styles of the last decade… It’s legendary. We’ve become very well known because of it, whether it’s from it being spotted on Kelly Ripa, the Heineken commercial, or Iron Man. We’ve had a celebrity following from the beginning really, but we actually delayed signing with a PR agency because we didn’t want to be just hype. We wanted to do this organically and stick around.
Is there a downside to having such an iconic piece? Now everyone comes to us for a pencil dress, which can be limiting if you let it. But we continue to do a lot more than pencil dresses. But I guess I’m destined to make dresses.
What’s made you so successful at the dress? It’s all about fit. The most important things is to make our woman look good. Our motto is "two inches taller and five pounds thinner." We’ve also been made in L.A. since the day we started, which gives us quality control and consistency of fit and workmanship. It looks different than garments made in China.
What does that do to your pricepoint? You get what you pay for. You do pay a little bit more, but the difference in quality is there. The other advantage with L.A. production is it makes us faster. We can beat China, so we’re quicker to react to a re-order, and that’s where you make your money.
For success as a business, how important is being nimble like that? It’s critical to survival, you have to be flexible and nimble or you just die. And there is no room for error. No matter how beautiful you design it, if there’s a problem when you cut or sew it, it’s coming back from the retailer. Either literally as a returned shipment, or in the form of a charge-back. That’s the high-price of making a mistake.
Is making mistakes inevitable? Yes, so go make those mistakes while working for someone else. School teaches you nothing about this business. I love draping and drafting and illustration, but that doesn’t happen in your daily routine as a designer.
If not school, where do you learn what you need to make it? School of hard knocks, baby! I learned it all on the job. Go through the steps, be an assistant or an intern first. You have to be strong-willed and really want it. I’ve had so many people pass on me, slamming doors in my face. But each job leads to a better job.
What’s your favorite part of the job now? My sketching is fine, but I really love when the pattern-maker drapes the muslin on the form and I can start to play. “Too long, too short, tight, loose…” My gift is visual: fit and proportion. We’ll go through that process two or three times for every garment. I’m very involved in each piece.
What advice would you give to yourself at 20? Don’t give up. And don’t be so attached. I’ve had a hard time taking feedback from retailers because I feel like I’ve given birth to every piece. “How can you say you don’t like that?” We put together these beautiful collections and then it just gets edited down, down, down by the buyers. And then you have to turn around and do it all over again. We do 12 collections a year, so I get the shit kicked out of me once a month. I wish I could tell myself to just chill the fuck out, just let it go. But that’s just not who I am.
What’s in the 5-year plan for Black Halo? We’ve just made the move to take sales in-house with a corporate showroom in New York, which is a really big deal and we feel like is going to take us to the next level. We’ve also decided to increase our product range by now offering evening gowns, which have received a really positive response so far. Maybe also get back into sportswear… Maybe do soft dressing and weekend wear, something a little more casual… I would love to do more licensing… I have a shoe thing… There’s a lot I want to do. We have a lot of notoriety, but right now we’re still an indie brand under $10 million. We have nowhere to go but up.
Melanie Bender is a brand and marketing consultant with a work portfolio including Sephora, We Are Handsome, Topshop and Louis Vuitton. Find her on online at melaniezbender.com and on Twitter at @melliebe.