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.
Two collections in, and Canadian-born Chris Gelinas, 29, has already captured the attention of mega-conglomerate LVMH -- having been named one of 12 finalists from a pool of 1,221 in this year’s inaugural LVMH prize. To win the prize would be a boon to his career, no doubt, but it wouldn't be his first big award: the Parson’s alum already scored the Made For Peroni Young Award in September for his debut spring collection.
“Peroni was great,” Gelinas said of the experience. “What Peroni afforded me was really critical funding and being welcomed into the Milk Made family.” Made wasn’t the first fashion family that he got welcomed into: He's also spent time at Marc Jacobs (he started interning there while studying for a business degree at the University of Windsor in Ontario), Proenza Schouler, Balenciaga and Theyskens’ Theory.
Only eight years in the industry, Gelinas is remarkably insightful about what he’s experienced and noticed. We caught up with him to talk about the advantages of interning abroad versus domestically, the financial burden on designers and the challenges of retail distribution.
Have you always wanted to start your own label?
I think when you don’t know anything about design the only thing you know is having your own collection. It’s kind of the naïve interpretation of fashion design so I always kind of day dreamed about this brand or this collection before I even knew what was really involved in the industry.
In my first internship in the industry while I was still studying business, it was in production so it was my first taste of the actual process, that’s when I realized that there was so much behind design than just setting up shop and having your own brand. So I tried to kind of find a balance between the two worlds of business and fashion since business was what I was studying and it seemed that was the more viable industry.
I did an internship in PR, which was exciting especially at Marc Jacobs at that time. He had every cool "it" girl, magazine and celebrity calling. It wasn’t so much working as it was answering requests. So that was very exciting but I quickly realized that as much as I appreciate the world of PR, I could never do PR. It’s just totally not me.
So then I was offered a job in the buying department. I actually didn’t know what a buyer was at that time, but I had a business degree. I could understand and navigate a spreadsheet and that’s a skill you need to start off as a buyer. So I did that for a few years, which was great because I got to understand the product and the process and all of that stuff but I still always wanted to design.
So what kind of "stuff" did you do as a buyer for Marc Jacobs?
Well at that time Marc Jacobs had 15 standalone stores. It was a lot of understanding the unique markets of each location, understanding that customer, allocating to those particular places and then just moving product around. It’s a lot of analyzing sales and if something is really not moving then maybe moving it to another store. It’s really the ebb and the flow of selling through all of the inventory.
Are there skills that you are starting to implement now even though you don’t have your own store yet?
Yeah, that was the best foundation that I could have had honestly; understanding margins, budgets, sell-throughs, open to buy, you know the terminology and the lingo and also being able to see it from the merchandiser and salesperson’s perspective.
I don’t necessarily let that dictate design but at the end of the day I’m not naïve to it. It can be a necessary evil, it can be a really crucial part of the business, but having that background is extremely helpful.
So you were in PR and buying at Marc Jacobs and then you went on to work with some other brands?
Yeah, I left Marc and got into Parsons for an associate degree, which I was really excited about. I did that in three semesters and I might be like the only person who has done that. They first told me flat out no and then they said I was going to fail.
In between that I was at Proenza Schouler, I had a few friends at Marc who had gone over. It was this great opportunity to work in this very small team of maybe about 13 or 14 people including [Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez]. It was my first experience really in design and I did that off and on really for the whole year that I was in school.
As soon as I graduated, I had been interviewing for this position with Balenciaga – you know it’s technically an internship or an apprenticeship but over at the big houses in Paris it’s basically a junior designer. I was working with Natasha Ramsey and her team and that really changed my whole design process.
What was the thing that you really ended up taking from your internship at all of these houses?
Well from my time at Proenza, what I really learned from Jack and Lazaro was seeing their vision for the entire collection. I think a lot about silhouette and the cohesion of a collection when I think about what I learned from them.
At Balenciaga it was an education in everything design. My actual design process really changed after Balenciaga because I think [in New York] you learn a process that’s very linear: you sketch something, you find a fabric and then you execute it. When we draped in school we were looking at seam allowances and all these different things and there you really just learn to be loose and fluid; there’s technicians that can properly execute a pattern, you’re just there to experiment.
From Olivier [Theyskens]? Olivier is such a brilliant craftsman; he really uses his hands. From him I really learned this amazing ability to drape and visualize things from flat on the ground.
You’re two collections in. Did you take both to market or did you skip the first?
The first technically went to market but it’s just me. I work with a salesperson, but I didn’t have the resources to say yes to a lot of the interest that I had for the first collection.
I was kind of risking this idea of late deliveries and quality below the level that I wanted to enter the market at so I thought when I do it, I’m going to do it right.
That’s a problem that a lot of emerging designers run into, right?
You know it’s a really funny industry in that all of the risk and the expenses are exclusively borne by the designer. We bear all of this immense development expense and risk, and even in taking orders from wholesalers we really get the short end of the stick in the sense that we have to put all of this up front cost into make multiple pieces. The terms are never in your favor at the beginning so we really have to work with very limited resources to try to execute at the same level as a well-run machine because we’re all delivering at the same time.
You’ve already been noticed by LVMH. Do those awards lend themselves to buyer attention?
Once we were announced in the top 12 [of LVMH], it’s been a lot easier to get a lot of people to respond to emails. It’s certainly a lot easier to get people to come out and consider placing orders; they feel less risk because they see that you’re getting validation from the right people.
Your clothes are all manufactured in New York now. Is that something you plan on continuing?
Yes, it’s a very conscious choice. Domestic is a really important thing. I’ve seen in the eight years that I’ve been here how much it’s shrunk and I think there’s amazing initiatives. I literally get to walk out this door and I can oversee the execution of things, I don’t have to hop on a plane somewhere. Even when you’re in Paris, you’re doing production out of Italy – there’s very little production happening in Paris unless you have an atelier, which is very expensive.
How did you start the private client part of the business?
Well it really started in spring when editors and buyers started asking me ‘Where can I buy this?’ ‘When can I buy this?’ and they really sort of became this CG girl. It’s really just an email and appointment. There’s a lot of trust on their end because it doesn’t have this customer history that they can fall back on, but I think these girls, these early adopters, they love to be part of the initial growth of a designer. I think that excites them just as much as the beautiful clothes they get to have.
You said you did take this season to market and it will be available for purchase. What sort of stores are you looking at now?
We’re kind of finalizing the details to having this season exclusively carried in Fivestory. It’s really cool because after meeting [Claire Distenfeld], we totally hit it off; she’s so incredibly smart. Her vision, I just love her vision of retail. I think what Fivestory offers is really in line with the vision of our product which is this really amazing experience and it’s very much quality over quantity. You go in to her boutique on Madison and it’s not wall-to-wall clothing, it’s this incredibly curated selection of pieces. Sometimes it’s an education even for me, on new designers or emerging designers because she carries so many interesting brands.
Would you do e-commerce?
We’re considering this idea of bringing the designer-client relationship back, creating more of a dialogue and a direct conversation with our clients. When we didn’t sell spring we had so much interest with personal orders, and we actually did quite a decent business in private client orders, so we’re rolling out a new facet of our website that’s going to have this interface that’s not e-commerce in the sense that it’s a ‘flat, stale, drop-down, point and click’ experience, it’s more unique, and caters to the client. It’ll be a way to work not on a custom, made-to-measure, way but we will still allow the client to have a voice.