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How Designer Sally LaPointe Is Making It in Fashion

Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rita Ora already have this young New York-based designer on their radars. Now it's time for you to get familiar.

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

New York-based designer Sally LaPointe only opened her eponymous label eight seasons ago, but she already has the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rita Ora knocking on her door, hoping that she'll dress them. Working with her small team in an airy, stark, black and white Chinatown studio that she designed herself, LaPointe and her best friend-cum-business partner Sarah Adelson are behind one of the city's most closely watched up-and-coming fashion brands.

LaPointe's work tends toward the avant-garde, and with her sharp separates and thoughtfully constructed dresses (which have become her best sellers), her woman is strong and sexy, with a bit of a dark side. Retailers around the globe have taken notice -- Bergdorf Goodman and Shopbop included -- which means business is growing, and for a company with only four employees to its name, it also presents very specific challenges.

Just after Fashion Month, we sat down with LaPointe to learn more about her business and her advice for younger designers.

How long have you been in your studio? We moved in the end of September, so it's still fairly new. Before that we were in a really small -- probably 300 or 400 square foot -- studio, so this has helped a lot to help push us forward. We have new employees, which is exciting, so it's really enabled us to grow.

Did you go out on your own right away after graduation? I did the men's accessories for Kenneth Cole for just under three years. It was good, it gave me a lot of information, but I left at the right time because I felt like my creative brain didn't get stuck. It was a good amount of time to go, learn and then step away.

What gave you the confidence to start your own label? Honestly, I think it's almost like an ignorant bliss. I don't know if I really imagined what it would be like or what it would entail. I [always] take a step forward without really thinking about it, which is both good and bad.

When you came to New York to start your line, who was helping you? I met my best friend in college, her name is Sarah. When we graduated, we were like, "Who's moving to New York?" It was just us. She was working in the industry as well -- in children's wear -- and she took on the business side because she was much more geared toward that side of the brain, and I decided to do all the creative. So after working for a few years in the industry, we both were like, "Let's just do it." We went to Staples and got a fax machine, pencils, paper and all that stuff we didn't have in our apartment and started. It's still us, but now we're a team of four. It was two best friends, just starting something together. I think our partnership is what really made it happen.

Was it tough navigating the friendship/business relationship? Yes. She's the closest person on Earth to me, just because we've had to learn how to communicate in a way that leaves much of our emotions out of it. We have to be really, really honest. There are a lot of really not good moments, and it's not really glamorous all the time, so we had to get through that. If you can get through the first few years, you can do anything.

Fall 2014 was your eighth season showing ready-to-wear. Let's go back to your first season: What was that like? For the first few seasons, it would literally just be me and Sarah. I would design the whole thing, and she would help me figure out how to get it made. I remember I made all the shoes for the first shows, like hot-gluing flowers on all of the shoes. I think it goes back to the "ignorance is bliss" thing. I don't think I thought about it too much, but I do remember being a little bit terrified.

In terms of reception and production challenges, what kept you going during those first few seasons? My mom always called me a dog with a bone. She's like, "Whatever you do, you just pick it up and you don't put it down." So, I think it was kind of the drive of "I know I can do this," and everything takes time. I'm thankful that it's taken time. I never wanted a very rapid success. I think you have to build up and have respect in certain areas and really cultivate what you want to say.

Do you remember the first moment -- whether it was a journalist, a buyer or someone else in the industry -- who really put his or her faith in you? I think Bergdorf's was a really, really good thing for me. I met Linda Fargo -- I think it was three or four season ago, she came backstage and had just met me, and her words were just … she grabbed my hand and she held it and she told me what she liked about the collection which was really amazing. Just having her put the magic seal on it and stand behind me and the brand was huge. It was another second of saying, I know you're going in the right direction. So that partnership taught me a lot. She's also just extremely, she's good with conversation and gives great feedback, too.

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Buyers do give great feedback. Do you have a piece of advice that's been given to you that's stuck with you all these seasons? I think it's super important to not lose yourself, which kind of seems obvious, but finding that balance between being commercially viable -- 'cause we are making clothes at the end of the day -- and making sure you have your own identity. Finding that balnace is a little tough, or can be challenging, but I think that's the most important thing. I remember hearing it at the beginning, and it's something you have to hold onto.

Do you have something that you'd say is your signature? We use the words "powerfully feminine." Tough and elegant -- again kind of that fine line thing. Like, looking back, I think it was always there. It changes throughout the seasons, but that DNA is always there. It's evolved and matured.

I've noticed that your pieces tend to be on the more avant garde side. Tell me about that struggle between creative and commercial aspects when you're designing. Naturally the creative brain goes there, but I always try to pull it back and think, "Okay if I'm wearing this, how am I going to... no I wouldn't really wear that shoulder. Remove this part." Constantly. It's good to have six months with the collection, because it's like a piece of clay. I'm massaging it this way and bringing it back. There's a lot of that.

When you and Sarah started, did you seek out funding? Did you get an investor? Everything was personal. We were very lucky to have friends and family help us out, which is another great piece of advice that people have given us, too: Unless you need to go get an investor, don't. Because it's still 100 percent owned by us, so we don't have outside investors, which gives us a lot of freedom, which is great.

Who are the biggest accounts you have when it comes to sales? Shopbop's a really good one because it's online. We love our boutiques here in New York like Owen that are really fashion-driven. Curve was a big supporter of us. We were in TsUM in Russia -- it's almost like the Bergdorf's of Russia. I've never been, but it's another great department store. And we actually picked up a lot of really good accounts this season, but that's not final yet. But specialty boutiques and possibly some other major department stores.

I know you've gotten a bunch of press for dressing Lady Gaga. Have you had any major starstruck moments? Yeah, it always happens so quick. With Gaga, she would be like, "Okay, we need something Virgin Mary, white, exaggerated… and in three days." It was always fun because we'd get to be as creative as we want. That was a huge moment when the first celebrity [we dressed] was the most major celebrity in the world. That was amazing. Then people like Rita Ora -- she pulled something two days after our last show -- and Katy Perry wore something. They're all a little bit of a shock, and it happens really quick.

Have you ever hit a wall or a roadblock that you didn't think you could come back from? There wasn't one disastrous moment -- honestly having employees now has changed a lot. Before it was just Sarah and I, and a lot of the times it's more day to day. It would be some frozen moments, asking ourselves, "How are we going to figure this out? What are we doing and are we out of our minds?" Having other people to support us has just been huge. I would say sometimes day to day is really tough.

Do you have a signature piece that you carry over season to season? That's the good part about now doing so many seasons. There's definitely a signature silhouette that I think we have down, and it changes with each season. But dresses do really, really well for us and a particular style of dress does really well for us, so I know that category to push, which is helpful to me when designing. I know now, rather than just guessing.

Are there any designers or brands that you really look up to? Has anyone reached out to you? So many people ask me that, don't you have peers? But we don't get too much feedback from other designers. I would say we kind of really look up to Proenza Schouler, just because they are "New York," and they're a team of two. And I feel like they've done an amazing job with their business, and they've done a great job with their creativity. That is our role model.

You've recently branched out to designing four collections a year. Do you have any other hopes and aspirations for the brand? I think about that a lot. I would love to do... I think men's. People ask me a lot about menswear. It would be amazing. And I would love like home goods. It's going to be interesting to see the sequence of what happens, because I don't know if there would be such a demand for that right away, but I would love to. I feel like my first venture would maybe be men's, accessories and maybe even home goods. Candles and that kind of stuff.

You've already had pretty big success with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but are there any other celebrities you're dying to dress? I would love to dress Beyoncé. She's the queen, I love her. And then I also love Tilda Swinton, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.

Any advice for a young aspiring designer? I think you have to have so much commitment, and it literally takes 10 years. You have to be in it for the long haul and be really ready for it. I think the biggest key to my success was Sarah. I could have not done it without her -- she's literally half of my brain, because she works in a complete[ly] different way than I do. I think nowadays starting a fashion company you need more than just creativity. You need the total package. Between her and I, we have the total package.