Unless you've spent a lot of time on the second floor of its Fifth Avenue flagship in the past year, you probably don't think of Lord & Taylor as a place to find the work of cool young designers. This is why retail veteran Stephanie Solomon, the vice president and fashion director of the almost 200-year-old chain, brought in Hillary France, founder of two-year-old Los Angeles trade show Brand Assembly.
When Solomon came out of retirement to join Lord & Taylor in the fall of 2013, following its acquisition by Hudson's Bay Company, she immediately began looking for ways to freshen up its offering and attract — you guessed it — millennials. "Our thinking was that there’s too much sameness in the experience for customers," Solomon tells Fashionista. "Millennials really aren’t that brand-conscious; they love the idea of telling someone, 'I’ve discovered this new label.' Young people were moving away from big brands in ready-to-wear and into discovery."
The challenge, then, was finding those up-and-coming, under-the-radar designers. Solomon's search brought her to Los Angeles, where she and her team found Brand Assembly, a local trade show. "I’m looking through her showroom in California and it’s all these unfamiliar, really good, up-and-coming emerging designers and I go, 'Whoa, it’s all here.'" So, Solomon approached France and her co-founder Alex Repola about bringing Brand Assembly to Lord & Taylor as an in-store concept shop — and the rest is history. Currently, you can find spring good from brands we love like Whit, Calla and Priory of Ten both in stores and online.
We sat down with France to learn more about how Brand Assembly came about, her background in sales (she launched Rachel Zoe's ready-to-wear line after working for almost three years at Diane von Furstenberg) and her genuine passion for mentoring young designers. (Solomon calls her a "rarity in this industry" for her "big heart.")
How did you get into fashion?
I graduated college with a visual arts and art history major, and then I ended up in Washington, D.C., and started to look for a job that I identified with. I was trying to get in the art world, and it just didn’t seem like the right fit, so I actually took a job in retail at Kate Spade in Georgetown and at the time there were only five Kate Spade stores, so the management was really involved in the launch of that store, so I really became involved in the business of it. I found the only fashion job in D.C. working for Hecht's department stores as an assistant buyer; eventually they got bought by Macy’s and that was kind of my push to move to New York and I started on the wholesale side and really grew my career there working for Diane von Fustenberg. I also launched the Rachel Zoe collection, and by doing that kind of saw how these struggling smaller designers needed assistance. [Using] what I’ve learned from bigger designers, I had the idea with my business partner to launch Brand Assembly.
What did you learn working for bigger brands like DVF and Rachel Zoe?
I learned a lot about the business, not just on the sales side but also more on the management and operations. Brand Assembly started because we wanted to help small, emerging designers with their logistics and operations and also finances, so we started doing that but then simultaneously we launched the trade show as well.
When was that?
May 2013 is when we officially launched Brand Assembly and June was our first official trade show. When I was working at Rachel Zoe, we were here in New York, but obviously Rachel’s from Los Angeles, so I said it would be great to have a sales outlet for Rachel Zoe out in Los Angeles, so at the time I was researching and thought, maybe we should open a showroom and what’s the most cost-effective way to do this. I was just talking to some of my friends at Tibi and Jay Godfrey got involved and we were like, let’s share a space out in Los Angeles, and we did it time after time.
I’m kind of type A so I wanted to organize [the space] myself, so I was arranging the furniture and kind of making it an environment. So when we launched Brand Assembly, I said, hey, I already have these three brands that became five brands, eight brands. I could probably launch this as a real trade show because there is really a need for these designers that are New York-based that are kind of feeling the waters out in Los Angeles. And it became a trade show! And we launched with, I think 20 brands for our first trade show and now we have up to 70 brands.
What goes into preparing a trade show? Is it a year-round job?
Yes, it's definitely a year-round job. We do four markets a year out in LA and right when one ends, we are starting to plan for the next one and sometimes there is a little overlap. It’s really about finding the right brands, making the buyers aware of the brands that are participating, doing some mailers in advance, the furniture coordination. It’s pretty much constant.
Are there many trade shows in LA?
Probably a handful. But, in the premiere, contemporary market, we’re really the only one. And that’s kind of where I saw the opportunity to do that. After the recession people were more conservative with their dollars. I was seeing that a lot of people were revisiting designers they saw in New York and making their final decisions out in Los Angeles. So it gave them the opportunity to really feel secure in their buying decisions, and I feel like that is where a lot of the conversion actually happens in purchasing [products from] these designers.
How did the partnership with Lord & Taylor come about?
I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Stephanie Solomon just from my sales [experience]. I was so surprised to see her in Los Angeles in March and she just got really excited about the brand offering that we had and the whole mission of promoting emerging designers. She had just started working for Lord & Taylor, who was looking to do something really innovative on the second floor. She said she really liked the curation of the brands we did and would we be interested in partnering up to do this. We said absolutely, our mission is to promote emerging designers, and to give them an outlet that is on a larger playing field is going to be perfect for them.
I imagine that not all of the brands you work with are right for Lord & Taylor, so how do you make that decision?
Yeah, definitely. Lord & Taylor has a deep-rooted DNA. The first season we definitely tried to understand who was buying what and what the Lord & Taylor customer is looking for and also trying to introduce new customers into the store with the brands. Now we kind of call [the aesthetic] quirky-feminine. It’s not for everybody but to kind of balance that with the traditional, more printed, floral dresses and things like that with a pair of culottes.
Having worked with emerging designers for so long, what's the most common challenge they have that you come across?
It’s always a cash flow issue for them. Fashion is so interesting because you’re paying for things six months in advance before you actually get paid back for it, so there’s always that interesting space of managing cash. I always see a lot of designers overdevelop in the beginning thinking that they have to offer so much, but really honing in on what their DNA is and what they are known for instead of bringing this whole wide breadth is really the smartest thing for young designers to do.
So how you do actually find these young designers?
I’m an avid shopper so through my personal research I find what I gravitate to. I do a lot of prospecting on Instagram and other social outlets, looking at what bloggers are doing. I always keep my ear out for what people are talking about. Through the NYCEDC [New York City Economic Development Corporation], there’s mentorship programs, so I meet a lot of designers through there.
Have you actually bought into a designer you found on Instagram?
Nikki Chasin, who’s new for spring, I found through Instagram. A friend of a friend had posted this one shirt and I was like, oh I love that. It was a vintage-y grandma print but in a really feminine silhouette, so I reached out to her and said, first of all I wanted to buy it so I bought the top, but said, 'we’re also doing this shop-in-shop in Lord & Taylor' and she said she would love to.
How do you want to expand Brand Assembly?
Ideally this would be great to see grow within the Lord & Taylor brand; I’ve even had conversations with a buyer, like if we did regionals, to have local designers from each city be a part of it, so really promoting those emerging designers, not just here in New York. There’s so many in different cities that don’t have the resources to come here. That would be a long-term goal, to see that expand into other cities.
How have designers benefited from being a part of the Lord & Taylor shop, aside from getting sales?
It’s super rewarding to see someone like Michelle Kim who was here for fall was actually one of our top performers overall and she’s had people come to her just based on the success she’s had and the exposure that she’s had. To be able to grow her business... That’s the ultimate goal.