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.
During New York Fashion Week, daily life becomes sort of a blur. After years of running between shows and writing reviews on my phone, my litmus test of whether a designer or brand is really going to make it is if I even remember attending their show by the time the week is over. This season, the show I couldn't forget was Degen's.
The Brooklyn-based label is run by Lindsay Degen, a knitwear artist-turned-designer with a vibrant, fun aesthetic. (Look no further than her spring collection featuring cobalt crochet trousers with a smiley face and rainbows on them for proof.) To date, the Degen label has won an Ecco Domani Award, collaborated with the Selby and most recently created wild outfits for the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, all without sacrificing a bit of its strong brand identity.
I had to know how Ms. Degen turned her line of artisan-made knit pieces (which take tons of time and effort to create) into a profitable business, so I headed over to her studio to find out. Read on for our interview and potentially the craziest story of funding a business of all time. Seriously.
How did you become interesting in knitwear design?
My grandma taught me how to knit when I was three, and then I started a knitting club in high school – it was just me and the female teachers at my high school. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I thought I wanted to go for fashion, not textiles. At RISD, where I went to school, they have two weeks where each major has a little show, so when I was a freshman and not declared yet I went to all the shows, and I just admired the work of the textiles students so much more. Then when I went into textiles, finally, I just loved knitting, so I just stuck with it.
What was that transition like, from student to designer?
Textiles at RISD is a fine art major, so I was doing these big wall pieces, basically. One day Anne Slowey came to RISD to see the apparel students work. I was modeling for the apparel students, so I ran to my locker and got my work, which, they were garments, but they were like six feet by eight feet and I showed them to her – I didn’t know who she was at the time – and she was like, 'These are so great!' So she just encouraged me to keep going, basically.
I went to Central Saint Martins for knitting because there weren’t any more courses left in knitting at RISD and I came back for my thesis, and then when I graduated I didn’t really know what to do. All my friends got jobs at like Ralph Lauren working on the computer, but I was always into hand work, not design, because my background was fine art. I cold-called this art critic who does craft-related art, Glenn Adamson – he’s now the director of the Museum of Art and Design, but previously he was at the Victoria and Albert in London – and I was like, 'I made these things. They’re all like eight feet by eight feet. You don’t know me, and I don’t expect you to email me back, but I thought I would just send them to you.' And he was like, 'These are so great, you should keep going, but maybe make them wearable.' Then I didn’t really think about it, that’s how it all started.
How did you fund your business starting out?
I got out of art school, and I had a studio, but I didn’t have something that I was working towards. I got cast on December 28 for a TJ Maxx TV commercial. Someone who I had gone to school with was like, 'We’re looking for an artsy person, and we’re not finding it. Can you please come in?' I went to the casting, and on January 2, four days later, I was in L.A. There were hundreds of people on the set. I’d never been on a set before; I hadn’t even shot my own work before. There was craft services, trailers, all this cool stuff, and hundreds of people working.
I became friends with this guy Mark. I didn’t know what his job was. I found out that he was the executive creative director on the project, but before I knew that, I was like, 'Look at this cool stuff I make!' He was like, 'This is incredible. You should totally pursue this.' So I took the money that I made from the TJ Maxx campaign, which was like $20,000, and funneled it straight into launching the business. Mark Fina, who was working at Grey Advertising, wouldn’t let me not do that. He was like, I’m going to introduce you to a PR person, that’s how I know Jeff [Ryan, her press agent]. He set up the meeting and I didn’t have time to say no.
I signed on [with the press agency] I think the first of July, and Jeff’s team was like, 'You’re showing during fashion week, right?' And I was like, 'Yeah, totally.' I didn’t even know what that entailed. I had done a few pieces for VPL for their runway show, but it’s good I didn’t know what goes into it, honestly. If I knew I had to deal with insurance and security and all that stuff, I would have been overwhelmed. At that point I only knew I needed to make 10 pieces. That’s how it all started.
What's the process of designing a collection like for you?
Each season, yarn companies release colors. For someone at my scale, you have to stick to these colors because I don’t hit minimums. There are a million colors. This is the most important part for me. The biannual picking of the colors is a huge deal. So I sit there and I think about colors that I want, and I clip little bits of them off and put them together. I’ll start to paint the colors that I like, and I’ll try to figure out how they will work within sweaters. And then I’m like, 'Wow I really hate everything.' So I’m going to probably do this three more times until I decide the colors that I want. Then once you order the yarn, you’re stuck with it, so then it’s like, 'What can you possibly do with these colors?' It really is only about color for me, and then what makes the colors do what, like color theory relationships and texture. It’s all about how color can work together to do different stuff to the knitting.
What was the inspiration behind your spring 2015 collection?
The collection was called LSDegen, and to be completely honest, where it actually started from was the combination of being so over the winter, which was terrible and was making people lose it, and my dad, who wears these really terrible Tommy Bahama shirts all the time. The combination of those two things really pushed me in a trippy, beachy way because I liked thinking about the sun and happier times.
Then as the season progressed, it got a little warmer, but all this terrible stuff was happening in the world, and I was still feeling the same way, like 'I need to escape. This is terrible. Why are people so mean to each other? Why do the police have to shoot random people? Why did those schoolgirls have to get kidnapped?' All of that awful, awful stuff [was happening]. And so that same escape idea that I was feeling just from the weather continued in different way, so then the collection got trippier and more beachy because I was thinking about the ‘60s and how they needed an escape, and it was through hallucinogens. I’ve never done mushrooms, but I really like the idea of what that might look like through knitting.
Why do you choose make everything in your studio in Brooklyn?
First of all, if I wasn’t going to make everything here then I’d basically be doing computer stuff. I’m not good at that, I’m not passionate about it. This was really my outlet for figuring out how I could make stuff and sell stuff, and keep it going. Then, once you’re making stuff, you want to be happy with feeling the materials that you’re going to be feeling for hours on end, so all the materials I use are incredibly, probably over-the-top nice, especially for baby. It really doesn’t need to be as nice as it is, but we’re touching this stuff 100 percent of the day [in the studio], so it’s more fun for us to be making really quality products. And it’s just easier for us to stand behind. You really need to believe in your product if you’re going to spend all of your time making it, and so that’s what we do.
Why did you decide to start a baby line and launch it on Kickstarter?
I wasn’t getting many sales, as you might expect. I was getting a few sales from L.A., Berlin and even middle America, but not New York. I was like, 'Gosh, everyone just wants to wear black.' Then I realized that even your ultimate fashion black-wearing person is not going to dress their baby in black, and I should just make everything little. Also my mom had been pushing me to do it for a little while, and I was ignoring her, and then I realized she was right.
I launched it, and it’s less material, it’s less knitting, there’s no fit issue because it’s sized accordingly, it’s more of an object and it’s more giftable. Everything is better about it. And it’s a lot of fun to make. I launched baby basically hoping that it would save my business, and it totally did. I rely on it to fund my adult line. The big challenge for baby is in the price point. In the baby market, everything is really prescribed based on the wholesale pricing. I was like 'I’m going to be at the top of the baby market because it’s really nice materials, and it’s really well made.' You really have three dollars give or take on the wholesale price, if you’re elevated or not. There’s not really a lot of baby stuff that’s over $110, and even hitting $110 means it needs to wholesale for $45, and if these things take two hours to make, it’s not a big margin. It’s more of a volume game. I have a sales rep in New York, and my next step is to find an Asian sales rep and a European one.
What was it like to work on the Pink section of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show? I imagine it must have been wild.
It was such a great experience. Basically what happened was, the designer hadn’t designed the Pink section yet, but knew it was about social networking. He left in the middle, and that was the only section that hadn’t been designed. I was already signed on to work on it. [Someone] was basically like, 'Can you design this section?' ... I would bring in a few pieces, and they would be like, 'Design more.' Then they’d sign off, and I’d make it. So [the Pink section] ended up being only about me, which was so sick, because that is not how it goes, normally. In fact they probably didn’t like how it ended up like that, even though it’s cool, and they should do that more with designers.
Last question! I know you teach a class at Parsons. How did that come about?
There was a film crew filming all of the Victoria's Secret fittings. The guy filming it, he teaches a class at Parsons. His class is so cool; he takes in a different person to interview each class and interviews them in front of the lecture. Each week it’s a different part of the industry, so I came in and did one… I asked him who could I talk to to teach, and he was like, 'Email this person' so I did, and then the director of the fashion department was like, 'We need hand knitting teachers starting on Thursday.' I had already tried to go through HR, as one would expect that’s not how you get in, you have to know people. I’m proud because I’m from Ohio, I don’t know anyone. I came to New York knowing no one, and I feel really proud of the relationship I’ve made and all the friends I’ve made doing this.