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Derek Lam 10 Crosby Is Expanding: Meet the Designer Behind the Label

And get a peek inside the diffusion line's brand new SoHo store.
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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.

A diffusion line has become de riguer for any designer brand looking to expand. When your clothes and accessories are priced in the thousands, there's only so many people you can reach. So, in 2011, Derek Lam, whose ultra-sophisticated clothes are beloved by many, but accessible to few, launched 10 Crosby, a slightly lower-priced, more relaxed line named after what was once the address of the company's New York headquarters.

The offices may have since moved uptown, but 10 Crosby still feels very downtown, and that's where the company decided to open its first standalone store, on Mercer Street in Soho, alongside 3.1 Phillip Lim, Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler, A.P.C. and half a dozen other designer and contemporary brands. The move comes a few months after Derek Lam took on outside investment from venture capital firm Sandbridge Capital to expand the brand's retail platforms.

Not all diffusion lines are successful, but 10 Crosby has grown rapidly and accounts for 60 percent of the Derek Lam business according to a rep for the company. In addition to the store, the line has also expanded to include shoes and handbags. It's success owes partly to its broad appeal and easy-to-wear pieces: There's a variety of two-in-one items, like a sweater sewn over a button-down ($395), and a skirt that appears layered over another skirt ($695). Pieces like this take the work out of getting dressed -- they’re styled for you. The shoes, most of which are under $500, are both cool and practical. And the handbags, like this $695 backpack and this $795 tote with an adjustable strap, are roomy and functional.

10 Crosby's perfect balance of fashion with commercial appeal is one that's hard to strike, but one that the line's VP of Design Elizabeth Giardina pulls off with aplomb season after season.

We chatted with Giardina about how she got her start in fashion, all the problem-solving that goes into running a diffusion line, the importance of working with women, and why Derek Lam is perhaps the most awesome boss ever.

What did you study in school and how did you get into fashion?

I went to school in St. Louis at Washington University. My degree is in sculpture; I had always wanted to do something that was 3-d design related and I was pretty passionate about doing fashion my whole life. Then I worked briefly for Ralph Lauren and Zac Posen and then I worked at Halston under Marios Schwab, Marco Zanini. I met Derek and he wanted me to come here and help him start the 10 Crosby line and I think it was for a variety of reasons and one of them was I had helped Halston start Halston Heritage, which now exists under different ownership, and it had been really successful right out of the gate so I think he knew I could take a brand and figure out how to make a secondary diffusion line from that. More than that, we just really hit it off and kind of saw eye to eye aesthetically and our personalities were a good match, so I came on board here about four years ago to start 10 Crosby.

What were the early conversations like about what you wanted 10 Crosby to be, and how similar or different you wanted it to be from Derek Lam's main line?

It’s a constant evolution; it’s a constant conversation we’re having about 10 Crosby. One of the reasons I was really excited about the project was we really wanted to take these great signatures that Derek had -- his really sophisticated take on American sportswear, his high level of quality, everything that exists in collection -- and figure out how to make that for this price point. We still have this sophistication but there’s this energy in 10 Crosby. So there’s a little bit of an element of the clothes being more casual, more relaxed. The other thing we’re always speaking about and have been since the beginning was this idea of a clever remix, so for us that’s always looking at things that are classic like a classic shirt, a classic kind of fabric, like cotton poplin, and how can we make that interesting without making it seem like something that’s untouchable, so it’s like, oh I really need this in my wardrobe because it really has this kind of classic energy to it but I can see that it’s designed and it’s rethought.

How do you think about the 10 Crosby customer versus the Derek Lam customer?

I’m going to use a lot of the words I just used, like she’s very spirited, she’s a little more casual, she’s just a little bit more relaxed than collection. I also think about myself because I wear both lines, so when I’m wearing 10 Crosby, and I’ll come home and maybe I’ll take off the jacket and the dress and lay it on a chair and in the morning I’ll put it away. When I wear collection, it’s so beautiful, it’s so... precious is the wrong word, but it’s just so sophisticated, so everything needs to be hung up and put back in the closet.

I think the way that people dress now is you can dress at all different levels of the market, so in a lot of ways there’s a lot of crossover between the two collections.

Did you expect 10 Crosby to be so successful and expand so quickly?

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It’s been really fun; the last four years have been the best years of my life professionally and it’s just been a really natural progression. People are really responding well to the clothes, we’re constantly learning from our stores and from our customers and we’re constantly trying new things and from that it was like, shoes really make sense right now. Bags really make sense and we’re trying not to do it too fast, we’re trying to make sure that when we’re launching something, we’re doing it right and we’re doing the kind of product that really fits and hangs well together and has the value that it needs to have and that our customers really like. Everything has happened quite naturally.

Why was it important for 10 Crosby to have its own store?

I think it’s great because having our own store we really get to show our customers who we are as a brand and really present this world. You’re going to love the store, you really see the essence of the product, you see all the details that I’m talking about, this clever remix. I think in order for us to grow as a brand we have to be able to present our own world and this is the best way to do it. We also relaunched our e-commerce a couple months ago and our website is now a very good full virtual world of who we are.

How involved are you with the retail side of things, from the website to the new store?

I have been really involved in the day to day things; with the website when there’s a photo shoot, the garments that are going to be shot and how they’re going to be shot and how they’re styled. With the store in terms of jewelry, we’re working with Jen Meyer for the jewelry and that was something I was quite involved in. When I go to the store, talking to the sales people about how it’s merchandised, more the things that are directly related to the product.

What are some of the biggest challenges involved in your job?

In our business you work really really hard. You have to be really passionate about what you’re doing. Making product and delivering product to the store 11 times a year and showing that product four times a year is constant work. I’m a really really high-energy person. So that is something that really works to my benefit, I’m naturally caffeinated like I don’t drink any coffee. It’s interesting because when I was in school and deciding what I wanted to do, I’d always wanted to be a fashion designer more than anything else and it kind of makes sense for my temperament because I like to make decisions, I like to make decisions quickly, I like moving forward, but the pace of this business is very challenging. There’s an appetite for newness all the time and you want to be a able to always put things out there that you're really excited about, so in order to maintain that momentum, you just have to have a lot of energy and a lot of passion for what you do. It’s a blessing that I get to constantly do new product and it’s really fun but sometimes it’s a little bit exhausting.

What are the best parts of your job?

It’s exhilarating; it’s really great to work with people that are passionate. All the people on my team are all women right now so it’s like we’re looking at this product from a creative standpoint and we’re also looking at this product from a really personal place of: Do we really want to wear this? Does this say something new? So it’s a constant exchange with people who really want it to be the best product it can be. Sometimes it’s like, oh my god, everybody’s so opinionated, but it’s exhilarating. It’s also constant problem-solving, which I love. How are you going to make this work functionally, how are you going to make it close the way you want it to close. But a lot of times it’s a bigger problem than that, it’s how are you going to solve the creative problems, the functional problems, the cost problems and make something that’s new and exciting at a price point that we can sell. It’s why I decided to be a commercial creative as opposed to an artist, because I love that exchange. 

What kinds of commercial things do you have to think about when designing a diffusion line?

It’s a constant balance. We divide the collection in a percentage system so that a certain portion of the collection is just pure fashion and what we’re really excited about and then a lot of the collection just comes from those key concepts -- there’s definitely things that our merchandising team says, well this has been successful for us so let’s see how we can do a new version of this concept. But what’s really important to me is that all of the things are creative and designed into so we’re never just fulfilling a merchandising need. I think when I say that I wanted to be a commercial creative as opposed to an artist what I mean by that is I like the idea of working collaboratively with people to create product that is creative but also sellable and the goal is that those two things go hand in hand, but that doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you need to just have those really strong infusions of creativity, those new really exciting pieces that you’re maybe only going to sell at your top doors. I get as excited to design the really creative stuff as the commercial stuff. I think the whole process is fascinating.

Do you ever think about striking out on your own or do you like working for a brand?

I have a very special job right now. Since I started here Derek has been so incredibly gracious; he’s just been such a great mentor. Its not even that he’s ok with it, but he’s always wanted me to speak for the brand, to do all of the interviews, so right now I have the best of both worlds. I really also creatively like designing for Derek, so I’m very happy with where I am. I don’t know what the future will hold but right now this is a good fit for me, and also to be honest with you, I didn’t know that this kind of opportunity existed because I don’t really think there’s a lot of examples of this where a designer has a designer that works for them that does one of the collections collaboratively with them and that person actually is receiving credit for it. I just happen to work for this really incredible person who is very aware of the fact that this is a collaborative process and is ok showing that to the public, which is amazing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.