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How CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Nominee Tanya Taylor Is Making It in Fashion

How the young designer went from an intern to dressing the First Lady in just a few years.
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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.

Tanya Taylor is having a moment. The Toronto-born, New York-based designer has been called "one to watch" since her first collections (Taylor launched her namesake line in 2012) and is currently verging into industry darling territory. 

She counts editors like Joanna Hillman, "It" girls like Harley Viera-Newton, and even the First Lady as fans, and this year she made the shortlist for the prestigious and career-changing CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. (It just so happens that the winner and runners up will be announced tonight, and we think she has a pretty good shot of being among them.) Most importantly, retailers are on board — she's stocked at Saks, Lane Crawford, Holt Renfrew and recently got picked up by Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom. The designer says her sales have nearly tripled for spring 2015.

While Taylor, who is still under 30, certainly seemed cognizant of the positive direction in which she's going, she also has no intention of being a flash in the pan. She's just as business-minded (she studied finance at McGill before switching to fashion), thoughtful and careful when it comes to working with the right retailers as she is about building a presence on Instagram.

Fashionista recently stopped by Taylor's new SoHo studio, where we chatted about everything from how she got where she is so quickly, to what the whole CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund process is really like.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into fashion?

I grew up in Toronto and for University I studied finance at McGill University. I loved finance, loved math, and loved the idea of being entrepreneurial. I didn’t know really what that would lead to. I was missing the creative exploration I had done as a kid. I had painted a lot; my mom and my grandmother sewed a lot and I was part of this world where I felt very creative — at University studying finance, I didn’t, so I decided to go to Central Saint Martins one summer and they have this intro to fashion class that was the opposite of being in a finance class. It was this other world that I really didn’t know existed.

There’s a fashion show at McGill that I designed a small capsule collection for of six pieces that were made out of the most bizarre materials. I thought they were fabulous at the time but I didn’t know how to sew. But, I think the ambition I felt and the excitement I had to learn something new, especially in design, made me realize I should probably go to school and learn the skills I would need to be in that business. So, after graduation I moved to New York, went to Parsons and interned at Elizabeth and James. They had just launched the company a year before that, and there were three people on the design team and I was their only intern. I was exposed to so many different areas of the business — hand sewing and print development, but also just understanding how they were a commercial business. I realized that I was really passionate about it. After I graduated Parsons, I worked for them for two years as an assistant designer, where I also managed their financing for the design team, which was cool to be able to do both. But I missed doing something that felt more like my personal language of what I believed in, so I decided to leave on a little bit on a whim one day and I started this three years ago now. I was 25.

What was your initial idea of what you wanted your brand to be?

I knew I wanted to make everything in New York because that’s what I knew in terms of the development I had done before. I knew I wanted it to be an expression artistically of prints and paintings that I loved to do at home. I didn’t realize that as the collection grew, they would become more personal and they’d become more directly related to what I wanted as a woman and who I wanted to design for was very much a reflection of myself and women that inspired me. I started off being very instinctual to fabrics and silhouettes.

I missed something in the market. We’re at an advanced contemporary price point and I missed shopping that price point that still felt artistic and colorful and personal and knowing who was behind the brand. That was part of each collection.

With so many young designers in New York, showing at Fashion Week, how have you managed to stand out?

I think we’ve done things differently. Referring to Fashion Week specifically, we’ve always tried to find a way to either show the collection differently or do different collaborations that other people weren’t doing because it is hard to stand out. For the second and third seasons, we showed at the MoMa, for example. I love fine art and I think it was really cool to take the collection and put it in the environment of being an installation in an art gallery. That was something that was risky because no one had shown there and it took a lot of work to get that in place, but I wanted people to know that I was comfortable taking risks and I think young designers should take risks.

I think the quality of what we produce with the price point we have is something that has really differentiated us from other people. We work really closely with French mills and Italian mills. Every fabric is custom and thats a part of the process that I’m extremely involved in and excited by. We are such a print-heavy collection and there’s a story behind every print. There’s not a lot of people that make their own prints.

How did you fund the line in the beginning?

I have a board of investors that are a scary group of people that have excelled — that are lawyers, accountants and business professionals in Toronto. They had funded other things I knew about so it wasn’t too difficult [to find them] but it was definitely difficult to get their confidence in something that didn’t exist yet.

When I first had the idea, I had to put together a business plan and pitch them the concept and really make it a financially viable business in their eyes, which is hard because fashion is so much more emotional than other businesses. I constantly report back to them every month, so I have that accountability that has really added an extra level of responsibility to succeed, which I’m happy to have because I like to know where everything is going.

It's a lot of money to start a business and I just don’t take that lightly. I had one employee for two years and we’ve grown so much in the last year, but I do feel like I need to prove to them that I’m grateful for their support in the beginning and that I’m exceeding their expectations now.

The First Lady has worn your designs on multiple occasions recently: How does that happen and how does it impact your business?

[Michelle Obama] is so supportive of young designers and became aware of the brand and wanted to support it, so she has worn it four times in the last two months. But we’ve only ever found out on Instagram, which is the crazier part of it because now every morning I wake up and look at her Instagram. It’s not like someone from her team is going to email you like, "P.S. this is happening today."

It’s been very helpful. I think timing-wise, it couldn’t be more valuable in expanding visibility but also just having the right woman supporting the brand. Her personality, her energy and commitment to so many important projects — we love her as being this amazing ambassador, among other women, of the collection. I think the coolest thing is she’s been wearing all our prints. It makes you flash back to when you were painting them in the studio and how it ends up on her and there’s just that really exciting journey that you get to see. I get to go to the White House next week which is so much fun — she’s having some of her favorite designers come.

I think celebrity dressing is really interesting. I love seeing girls wear our pieces with their own style. This is not so much celebrity, but Joanna Hillman at Paris Fashion Week, she took one of our resort dresses she put a black turtleneck underneath and this really cool scarf — I was obsessed with it. l saw it on Instagram and thought it was so cool. It’s exciting to see how people put their own twists on it. There’s definitely girls that we would love to dress that we haven’t yet: Diane Kruger, Carey Mulligan, younger girls too. We have "dream girls" that are kind of up-and-coming like Gia Coppola or Natalie Love.

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Also exciting: You're a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which I know is a several-months-long process of challenges and events. What's it like and what stage are you in now?

[Being in a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist] is always exciting; it’s totally stressful sometimes but in a surreal way where you realize someone from Vogue’s emailing you with a timeline and you take a step back and you’re like, it’s still an email from Vogue, like you’re happy about it and don’t want to lose sight of the fact that its a very dreamlike thing to be happening.

We presented to the judges in July. From the beginning I wanted to make sure that as many judges came in as possible because I really wanted to have that one-on-one time, and the mentorship of this program is the most important thing for me along the way — to make sure that they’re giving feedback and that I’m really learning through this. 

I think it’s been a test of the team, because we’re a small group and a lot of members are new. It’s been a lot of pressure on us but it’s also made us feel like as soon as this whole thing is over, on Nov. 3, we will be the most tightly functioning group and it’s pretty cool to be able to get through all the glitches of communication and know that you can overcome anything.

Has there been a moment or milestone that made you think, Ok, this is a real business now or 'I've made it?"

We were putting the application together for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund the night that Michelle Obama first wore the dress. We had a page with all the women who support the brand and there was no space for anyone else, but she wore it and we’re like, "ahhh," cutting and pasting that shot and trying to put it in the application — it was one of those moments where you’re handing in the application with a little more confidence.

I did not expect to be a finalist this time. I thought we’d apply and then reapply next year. I had to fly back from Alaska early — I was on a family trip — to be by the phone in case Steven Kolb called. Will, who’s my first employee and my sidekick, called me freaking out. He’s like, "Steven Kolb called the office, get here. why are you late?!" I was running down the street and the film crew was outside. It was one of those things that just was the best, best moment. I had to call my husband on film and he didn’t realize the crew was above my shoulder and he was in bed. They were, like, "FaceTime your husband!" Poor guy, for the month before he kept trying to prep me for if we didn’t get it, saying "everything’s gonna be fine, we’re going do all these great things anyway," and I don’t think he thought we’d get it. And then when we did he was like, "holy shit."

He knows too much about every judge, he watched “The Fund” last season with me, every episode four times.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned so far in your career?

I think at the beginning [of starting my business] I was very nervous to ask for help from people and as soon as I started asking for help or advice — about a year and a half ago — I just immediately saw great things happen. That’s how I got to meet Paul Andrew to do our shoe collaboration. I think that’s why this [CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund] process makes so much sense to me. If someone is willing to spend some time and really give some thought to how we can grow, I think that’s an important thing for us to take advantage of. I am both designer and CEO of the company so I’m always really curious about how we can better improve business functions. Being part of the Fund I’ve reached out to people I’ve never met, like Joseph Altuzarra, to be like, "Hey, can I talk to you and have a coffee and learn from you?" It’s given me the confidence to do that, where before I was very nervous, so I just realized people will meet you and they have great things to say and I value that a lot. They’ve gone through the same thing.

What's your strategy for retail and sales? Are you selective about what stores you work with?

We’ve changed our whole sales strategy: We’ve just moved to 10Eleven Showroom. They’ve worked with DVF since 1989 and it’s run by this fabulous woman named Betsee Isenberg. She is a firecracker of a lady and I was into the fact that she’d be a part of it because I wanted this female energy around the brand; I wanted these women that know how to sell, but they also love it and they are our women and I think that immediately translates to buyers, so we’ve grown sales tremendously in the last season. Spring/summer sold as much as the entire year before, so we’ve almost tripled sales. 

It’s definitely a selective process, like we have retailers we want to work with us and we want to time it in a way that we’re not overdoing our production abilities. Because we make everything in New York, it’s tricky since there’s not a lot of factories that can do 1600 units and can deliver on time and still maintain the quality that we always have, so we’ve inched our way into growing. I think that’s a smarter way to do it. 

I think in the next three years we’ll take on more partners, but we just picked up Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom. We’re at Saks, Lane Crawford is a huge business for us; that’s already such a unit driver and that’s about all we can handle. It’s also about figuring out how to make sure that new markets aren’t saturated. We’ve never sold in San Francisco so maybe we don’t want a Saks, a Nordstrom and a Neimans all in San Francisco. We want to understand more about the customer in each area and really thoughtfully build the business.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge so far?

I’ve never managed any employees. I was in a junior role before and I had one assistant and interns, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re considering six people’s feelings and needs in their jobs while still maintaining a creative space to be able to design and build a collection. I think the hardest thing for me has been figuring out how to balance being in operations and being the designer — that’s why we applied to the Fund. One of the things we would propose if we won was to hire someone who could help me with the operations side of the business because I just would love someone who’s able to manage that a little more. I think it would help us grow.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a clothing line?

It’s important [before starting a clothing line] to work in a position or at a company that you admire and want to learn more about. I would have loved to work at more companies, I think the more internships you have, the more positions you have and ability to soak up ideas about what you want your business to become is important. It’s a hard job. Sometimes it can be glamorized as a a really easy, fun project. If you want to start a fashion business, it is a business, so you must be prepared for all of the compromises that takes. In the last three years building this, I’ve missed a million dinner dates. If I didn’t go all the way, I know we would’ve grown a lot slower, so there needs to be a curiosity at all times and an open-mindedness to people around you that have more wisdom and I would suggest just asking people questions.

I had never thought about marketability, salability, price point anything like that, so sketching something and understanding how to make it, how to get it into a store and what its price would be, that’s an entire learning curve. It surprised me how hard it is to get stores. There are stores you think your collection would be perfect for and there’s all these other factors to understand. Production is something that baffles me and requires so much time and I think also marketing and communications — now with social media and Instagram, just the consistency that’s required to make sure people understand what you’re doing and having a really strong language behind what you believe in.  You have to make sure that everything you do is in line with that.

What's next for the brand? Where do you see it 5-10 years from now?

We want to launch e-commerce in February. We get to know our customer a lot through wholesale, but I think with e-commerce it will be a really interesting tool for us to get to know them even more. My favorite part about the business is having women into the studio and really learning what they like, what they don’t like and how we can become stronger.

Our shoe collaborations have been really strong, but I see that in 5-10 years as something we actually do as a brand extension and do it in-house. We always do this little art accessory of a purse that’s so different each season, but I love that almost being a collector’s item and I see that becoming more of a staple in-house. The team, I see us growing a lot, retail growing a lot, brand messaging — just trying new things, like the Kalen Holloman collaboration we just did, I want to keep trying collaborations with artists. We’re doing a video this fall. I want to keep finding ways to express a younger, unique point of view in American fashion through different artistic collaborations. [My own] retail store? Maybe in 2019.