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.
When both of your parents have ties to the fashion industry, you have a good chance of becoming entrenched in it as well. That's how the story goes for Los Angeles-based jewelry designer Cynthia Sakai, who started her brand Vita Fede when she was a young, aspiring actress without any formal design training. Between her entrepreneurial spirit -- she opened her first fashion business right out of high school -- and some good ol' family advice, Sakai went from selling handmade tampon cases door-to-door (yes, seriously) to counting celebrities like Britney Spears among her clients.
A far cry from the one-woman operation Vita Fede was at its inception in 2008, Sakai now employs nearly 30 people in her Los Angeles headquarters, with over 60 more spread throughout offices around the world. With the goal of becoming a full-fledged luxury accessories brand — shoes, bags, the whole nine yards — the designer still has high aspirations for continuing to grow her label.
Read on for our discussion with Sakai about how she's making it in fashion.
I’d like to hear about your background in design. Is it something you knew from a really young age you wanted to do?
To give you a bit background, my mom worked with the Fendi family out of Rome and my dad was an architect, so I sort of walked into fashion. My mom’s side really loves fashion — my grandmother loved tailor-made clothes. If you’d go into her closet, she’d have fabric shipped from Paris and everything was about getting it custom — the good quality and hand craftsmanship is a part of my family history. They believe in buying that one piece that’s special, unique and really lasts for a long time. And my mom owned a clothing store when I was young, so I was sort of raised in a clothing store. I’ve always helped customers, always gone to trade shows — in a buggy I was going to trade shows.
Then I started my own accessory line when I was 18. And our best-selling items at the time were tampon cases that I had sold to Ulta, Sephora and some other beauty stores. I remember standing in line in front of Kitson at 5 a.m. in this massive line to sell my first tampon case to them, and I did the same thing at Bendel’s. From there, I opened up my own showroom when I was 22 in Los Angeles — I had a multi-brand showroom and we used to sell to higher-end specialty stores and department stores.
Did you take a break to go to school, or did you jump right in to your business?
I graduated from high school, and I always acted when I was little so I was going to acting school. Then I decided that I really love fashion — I enjoy design and I really love to create. I’ve never been so great working for someone and I figured I should start my own business and see how it goes. I think when you’re 18, you’re not scared of failing because you’re not scared of anything. So I didn’t put much thought into it.
What was the catalyst from doing your showroom and working with other brands to wanting to really focus on your own?
I had a friend that was a showroom owner across from me, and she brought me back some bracelets from a trip to Italy that she thought that I would like. They were traditional bracelets from Ponte Vecchio in Florence. I looked at them and I thought, you know what? I could sell these in the showroom, but let me just change the color of the metal and the snakeskin and really make it current. I made some changes and sold them in the showroom. That first season, we sold about 10,000 units of them, from Bloomingdale's to Neiman Marcus. My friend agreed to do PR for me, and we got it on every celebrity possible. I was only making 15 percent commission through the showroom, and it sold so well that people came to me and asked, “Well, what’s the name of the brand?”
The first word I learned in Italian was 'vita' which means life. And my dog’s name was 'faith,' which translates to 'fede' in Italian. Then, people asked what I was going to design next. I looked at myself and I was like, 'Oh my god. I’ve never designed jewelry before!' I didn’t even wear costume jewelry — only fine jewelry. So I did some research in the market and I there was nothing out there that I would wear with my fine. So I thought I should design something — the quality is all handmade in Italy, and it looks like fine and feels like fine and it’s classic, but it has a little bit of a fashion twist to it and I could wear it with all of my fine. And so that’s how Vita started.
Starting the business when you’re 18 seems really young to think about, say, getting funding — how did you go about that?
Well, I had some money from commercials I had done when I was younger. Also, I did everything on my own. So it was really manufactured in Mexico at the time. I would take my car, I would go there and I would manufacture 15 pieces. I would pick it up, drive to Fred Segal and I would sell eight pieces, go to Planet Blue and sell the rest and then make another trip back down. It wasn’t about selling a lot of volume at the time. It was just about making something that I like. Hustling, selling door-to-door. And that’s what I did. That’s what seemed really natural for me.
Did you ever take any business classes? If not, how did you learn how to run the other side of the company?
Making mistakes every day really helped. I did not take business classes. For me, I’ve worked through my business, and I’ve learned from making mistakes. It sounds cliché, but if you make a mistake and you lose a lot of money or you lose a customer, you don’t do it again. I think that’s okay. People get down on themselves for making a mistake but that’s just growing your business. We try every day to make it a better place for people to come. We actually upgrade our signature Titan bracelet every season to see how we can make it better. It keeps me driving to make a better business and make a better product.
You mentioned your friend did your PR and you were getting your bracelets on celebrities. Is there one moment where you saw your piece on someone and you thought you'd "made it," or felt like all the work was starting to pay off?
When I first started, it was when Britney Spears did “I'm A Slave 4 U." She was at an interview and she had worn that bracelet. I was really excited because at that time that was the coolest person you could get it on, and I think she was dating Justin Timberlake — they were walking into dinner and she was photographed with it on. So awesome. It was prior to the time when celebrities were getting boxes and boxes of free stuff sent to them. They were wearing things because they wanted to wear then. I think she had bought it at a store or somebody had given it to her, and it was really cool because it was organic.
The line is produced in Italy, which I imagine presents some interesting logistical challenges. How did you first get introduced to the factory you work with?
My family had had some connections of people who knew people in Italy, but the first manufacturer that I met in Italy was when my friend gave me the bracelet. After I ordered samples, the manufacturer emailed me directly saying they’d love to meet. So that was a nice first contact into the world of artisans. We work with about seven different small factories that are generally owned by generations of families. And it’s really still hand crafted and hand done.
We currently have a headquarters in Italy and a headquarters in L.A. Italy’s quality is something you can’t replicate anywhere in the world, but it’s also challenging because it’s different cultures. It’s a different mentality — it’s sometimes a mentality that I wish that we as Americans embraced more, which is “we work to live.” And sometimes for us, we really think of living as working. And they view it working so that they can have a meaningful life; we can go on a vacation for two weeks in August, we can take two hours worth of lunchtime. It’s really a way of life that I admire very much. But it’s very challenging because they’re not working all the time. It’s challenging to get product on time.
Do you feel like your designs were received well at first, or did you have to sell yourself up in the beginning? How did you get the confidence to do that?
Well, we came out with the second bracelet in 2007, and everyone thought it was the ugliest bracelet in the planet. People hated the second bracelet. They were like, 'Cynthia, it looks like a nose ring.' I’ve always loved clean lines and having this modern, very high-shine product. If you look back at our archive, we’ve always made that aesthetic which we pride ourselves on now, which is simple, modern, classic design way before it became something the press accepted. At the time, people hated it. The challenge was going to every door and basically saying 'Hey guys. It’s going to change. It’s going to get cleaner. This is really beautiful.' It took a really long time. I think 2010 or 2011 was when the bigger fashion brands started going for a more minimalist look; it wasn’t all embroidered jeans and bedazzled tanks with stuff on them. It was simpler, more tailored — then all of a sudden then people were like, 'God, this is the best line ever.' And these were the people that really didn’t like it. So I think sometimes it’s just about believing in what you truly believe in.
Would you tell me a little bit about how you guys grew? Who was your first key hire?
I think my first key hire was my mother. When I started I had a lot of ups and downs. I had people around me that I just couldn’t trust; we had money stolen. At some point, I looked at myself and said, 'I don’t have anything around me that I really trust.' I hired my mom and she looked after the money, she looked after the inventory, and it was the first moment when I felt I didn’t have to hover over the product and the finances. And I think that’s when I really felt that I needed to have people I trust around me. But it costs a lot of money to hire people that you trust.
Do you ever find it to be troublesome being based in L.A. when most of the U.S. fashion industry is based in New York?
For sure. I think that you don’t get to network as much. You’re not where all the major buyers are, you’re not where all the major editors are. You are certainly not where all the cool fashion people are going to all the cool parties. You’re very, sort of, away from it all. But I think that’s been an advantage to us after stepping back and looking at it. Because in the beginning, I wanted to be in these places and meeting people. Now, it’s kind of nice because I go to New York every two weeks, and I meet with the buyers and I meet with the editors, but when I come back, I really concentrate on what is really important to this business — which is running an ethical, smart business and creating designs. We are happy to come to work every day. We’re doing the right thing and looking at how we can help our community. And to me, that’s what more important to me than that cool party in New York.
Have you ever hit a road block or moment in your business that you thought you might not be able to come back from?
I think that the seventh day that I was eating a Cup-O-Noodles in my apartment that I couldn't pay my rent for. I looked at myself and I was like, 'I can’t really buy any food, I can’t really pay for my apartment.' But I looked at my desk — it was a studio — and I saw orders piled up on it. I said, “You know what? There are people who believe in the product and that are willing to spend their money because they think that it's worth it." And I think that was when I decided I needed to keep on going and hopefully that stack of orders would get bigger.
Do you have a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s really stuck with you when you're going through a rough time?
What I would tell people is to really believe in yourself. You’re going to hear 'no' all the time, but at some point, someone’s going to say 'yes.' At some point, if you keep on trying hard enough and pick yourself up, someone’s going to say 'yes.' And when they do, it’s about just working harder and staying humble — just trying to make the best product you can make and just trying to do that much better the next day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.