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.
Increasingly, New York's buzzier designers are moving away from cookie-cutter show venues like Lincoln Center and Milk Studios and into spaces they can more fully customize -- a movement that appeared to have reached a tipping point during New York Fashion Week last February, with Diane von Furstenberg's and Michael Kors's defection from Lincoln Center to Spring Studios. Jennifer Blumin, founder and CEO of Skylight Group -- a nine-person company that sources unique show spaces for designers like Ralph Lauren, Proenza Schouler, Prabal Gurung and Joseph Altuzarra -- is helping to make that happen.
Blumin and her company specialize in finding unusual spaces in New York City that can be converted into event venues. She focuses on fashion in part, she says, because "fashion is what everyone follows." Typically, she'll introduce a new venue by hosting a show or two during Fashion Week -- lending that venue a certain "coolness" factor -- and then use it to host parties for Fortune 500 companies in other industries throughout the year.
Skylight did this last year with Skylight Modern in Chelsea. Skylight signed a lease for the space in Jan. 2013, and was able to get it ready in time to host shows for Rag & Bone, Kenneth Cole and Joseph Altuzarra just one month later. Afterwards, Skylight went in and thoroughly renovated the space, using photos from Fashion Week to successfully pitch it as a venue to companies like Land Rover, which unveiled a new vehicle there that April, as well as AOL and the Whitney Museum. Collectively, fashion companies account for 30 percent of Skylight's business, which is still not as much as the technology industry, which accounts for about 40 percent of Skylight's revenue each year.
This New York Fashion Week, Skylight is introducing a brand new venue in SoHo, called Skylight Clarkson Square, where both Ralph Lauren and Phillip Lim will be showing, and where Altuzarra will unveil his Target collaboration. In all, the company will host nine shows across its three venues (the third venue is Skylight at Penn Station's Moynihan Station -- which Blumin transformed into a show space from an unused loading dock and mail sorting room.)
We spoke to Blumin about her background, how she spotted the opportunity for customizable show spaces and what it takes to thrive in her field.
How did you get started?
I got started in 2000 -- 14 years ago. I was in a PR job I hated, it was super corporate, my college degree was in English. There was this crazy Israeli billionaire who kept having these parties in his 17,000-square-foot penthouse that everyone wanted to come to, and he wanted to convert it into an event space and hired me. I'm not the kind of person who takes weird leaps like that -- but it was a combination of him wanting to pay me more than I was making and how unhappy I was. So I jumped ship and worked for him while he was in Israel and got a taste of what it was like to work alone. There is no one to yell at you. The space, we called it Sky Studios, was one of the most successful event spaces at the time -- we hosted parties for Louis Vuitton and Cartier and Burberry, and launched Stella McCartney for Adidas there.
How did you approach clients?
They came to me -- the space was pretty amazing. And back then you got referrals from caterers, like Olivier Chang, because all you had to change was the food and the bar. Now you don't get business for caterers. It's much more about producers.
How far are you involved in the customization of each venue?
We come into a space as raw as this [she gestures around Mohniyan Station] and have a 10-page checklist from our client. A lot of permits are involved. There's permits from the Department of Transportation, permits for the Department of Buildings, permits for temporary public assemblies, just so much paperwork, and every single vendor that comes into the space needs a certificate of insurance. You get dirty, you work long hours, you eat M&Ms, and you have a greater understanding than you ever thought you would about air conditioning and air flow and water pressure. This business has the largest ratio of perceived sexiness versus actual sexiness there is. Structurally we deliver a functional space -- it takes a lot to get it from the raw product to a box from which [a client] can build a show or a party venue.
When did you start seeing a shift in demand towards more custom spaces?
It was probably first around 2006-2008 that the big people started to leave the tents, and people started looking for other options. And in the last year there's been a lot of press about it -- I'm not sure if it's so much that people are leaving [Lincoln Center] but that there's so many more options for them and they know how to do it. We're talking about some of the most creative people in the world -- they want to create their own environments.
How long do show sets take to build?
At the very least 24 hours. It's impossible to be a success in less than that. Ralph Lauren takes three weeks.
Have you ever had to handle a major crisis?
Not fashion-related -- Kanye West once decided to smash something. But every policy we have is rooted in a mistake. I learned very early that you actually need to spell everything out and put it in writing, because you can't assume certain things will go into certain brains because it's obvious. We once had a very sexy tastemaker event for a tequila company. It was a pool party at Sky Studios in the winter, so not swimming season. I would do the schedule of all the things that needed to be taken care of with the in-house maintenance staff and I didn't mention the water must remain in the pool. One would think that was obvious. I got a call; the maid had decided to clean the pool and emptied it. How do you get water in a pool in four hours? We had these beautiful male models, who were working as caterers, connect a fire hose to the water tower, up two flights of stairs, and we turned it on and it filled the pool in two seconds… with brown water. We ended up putting a million bottles and plastic beach balls over it so it sort of looked purple.
How are you under stress?
I'm not a stressful person in general -- it has to be a very high level of emergency to stress me out. You shouldn't be in this business if you don't handle stress well. Having stress at the top will penetrate the entire show -- there are a few notorious producers known for that. It trickles down, and everyone ends up screaming at everybody.
What keeps you in the business?
What I love is seeing a building transform, to find these forgotten spaces in the city and to see their potential and then have other people believe in the potential I've seen. That's still something that surprises me, when these major companies buy into my vision for an old, forgotten space. There's a certain amount to which I still feel like I'm faking it. And there's nothing more satisfying to me than having these companies take the bones that I've given them and then build something wonderful. I don't have the ability to build the wonderful skin on top, I can see only the bones.