At our annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York last Friday, designers with young but already successful labels — Jonathan Simkhai, Tanya Taylor, Oak's Jeff Madalena and Cooper & Ella's Kara Mendelsohn — gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges of getting a fashion brand off the ground.
Below, they give their best advice for designers looking to follow in their footsteps.
1. Get some business experience first.
No one on the panel explicitly discouraged aspiring designers to launch their own labels straight out of school, but all four said they are tremendously grateful that they got some industry experience before venturing out on their own. Mendelsohn worked at designer and contemporary labels big and small, including Michael Kors, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Thakoon, back when it was a team of just three. "The perspective I gained from having almost 18 years under my belt before I started my own brand was huge," she said. "Not only did I understand the customer from city to city, I understood how to do a brand from inside out — how to budget, price my goods, who the best partners were in Asia, where to warehouse my goods."
Similarly, Simkhai's and Madalena's experiences in buying and retail helped them understand, in Simkhai's words, "what it takes to make women spend their hard-earned money on a garment," as well as the importance of delivery dates and timing. Taylor, for her part, said that her business degree at McGill helped her contribute to conversations about budgets and managing cash flow when she first worked as an assistant designer.
2. Find the right sales partner.
For Taylor, finding the right showroom — which can bring in the right buyers and press — was key. She found her partner in Betsee Isenberg's 10Eleven showroom in New York. Mendelsohn echoed this need, saying, "You can have the most amazing brand in the world, but if no one sees it, it doesn't matter."
3. Don't take an order if you can't deliver it on time.
Madalena, along with his partner Louis Terline, first launched the Oak label to help fill what was missing in Oak's downtown Manhattan boutique. Having worked on both the retail and brand sides, Madalena stressed that developing a timeline and meeting your delivery dates are key. If you mess up just once, you may never be able to work with that retailer again. "It's not just about getting into Net-a-Porter, but making Net-a-Porter happy [in the long run]," Madalena explained. "There is no hand-holding, [it's not okay] if you only had a 30 percent sell-through, you can't even get a [delivery] extension anymore. If you can't deliver, [the retailers will say], we don't want it."
Simkhai echoed that advice, saying he has turned down orders with new retailers because he didn't want to "burn a bridge" early on. He also advised young designers to spend time in stores where their products are carried. "[Make sure] the salesperson knows about the brand, knows what's different about it, how it's laid out," Simkhai said. "It's a big deal when a retailer decides to give a new brand a chance, to take money from another resource and give it to you."
4. Don't grow too quickly.
Sometimes designers get picked up by big retailers right away — but that's not always a good thing. In addition to not making your delivery dates, you also don't know what's going to be successful. Simkhai advised young designers to take their time and learn which products sell, then repeat them. "You need to repeat things that are successful, things people are coming to you for. It can't be something all new every season." He also emphasized making styles that are seasonless, because they can spend more time on the sales floor before they get marked down.
5. Just because a buyer asks you to make something, doesn't mean you should.
Buyers frequently give designers advice about what to make, but "if your gut says don't do it, don't do it," Mendelsohn said. When considering buyers' requests to make or modify her designs, Taylor says she always asks herself whether she'd want to see her name on it.
6. Press and celebrity is great, but it's not everything.
Taylor said her brand has hugely benefitted from press attention — especially when Michelle Obama wore her designs — as well as winning prizes like the US Woolmark Prize. But, she cautioned, press attention doesn't always equal success. "Some brands have incredible press and aren't necessarily profitable, or they're struggling behind the scenes," Taylor said. "Fashion is an interesting industry in that those don't necessarily equate."
Mendelsohn said that for her, getting her clothes on celebrities isn't usually worth the investment. "It's hard to do. I don't have the 'cool factor' that some of the people here have… I have a salable brand that does very well in stores, but my product is much more casual," she said. "Not only do you have to get a product to that celebrity, you have to make sure that celebrity's publicist calls you when she's going to Starbucks, then you have to pay for rights of photos and blast them out to everybody and hope US Weekly actually gives you a credit. Having your dress on Michelle Obama, that can change your business overnight — but you have to have the right product for Michelle Obama to [wear]."
7. Find mentors.
Taylor credits much of her success to finding mentors early on — and she wasn't afraid of reaching out to people she'd never met. "I asked a lot of people to coffee; I met people at Marc Jacobs who would suggest someone else to meet, a lawyer they thought would be great at helping me develop a business plan," she recalled. "Find people who want to support you and who get what you're doing."
8. Don't quit your day job.
Until you have the funding or your label is making enough money to support you, don't go all in. Plenty of designers build their labels on the side, working weekends while they devote their weekdays to working for other designers, Mendelsohn said.