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.
If you've walked into an Urban Outfitters, a Nordstrom or browsed Shopbop.com over the past five to 10 years, odds are that you've come across BB Dakota. There's also a decent chance you haven't encountered the brand anywhere other than its many points of sale, but that's starting to change. Originally a family-owned manufacturing business, BB Dakota became a clothing brand in 2009, though it has has barely done any of its own marketing and has been sold solely through wholesale accounts. Only over the past year has the brand's marketing message begun to take shape, and the woman leading that charge is its young Creative Director Katharine Brandes. A Princeton graduate who also studied at Parsons, Brandes joined BB Dakota after a year spent working in design and merchandising at Diane von Furstenberg. Of course, she had a distinct advantage in landing the role, as her family already owned the company. (Her mother, Gloria Brandes, is CEO.)
Right now, she's focused on taking control of the conversation around BB Dakota through the Internet, from the typical social media and native advertising fare to commissioning talented ladies like Petra Collins and Zoey Grossman to create clever, original short films.
We chatted with the Los Angeles-based creative director about the brand's marketing strategy, the (somewhat unfortunate) importance of festival dressing to its business and plans to launch e-commerce. Read on for our interview.
How did BB Dakota, as we know it today, come about?
It evolved from a family company that's been around for generations — we had factories and we made coats and leather jackets. We had this incredible backend and we knew that we had the infrastructure to create a brand. We were irritated with what was going on out there because there was nothing in this space where the clothes were well-made and not irritatingly high priced, so we launched BB Dakota with this infrastructure and that sentiment. We launched the label at a time when there weren't a lot of "bridge" contemporary brands, meaning there wasn't a lot in this price point between $100 and $200.
Who were some of your early retail accounts?
Part of why we started it was we had interest from our retailers to do more than what we were doing, so we were [hearing] from them that they'd like to see [bridge contemporary clothes]. Nordstrom was one of our big accounts that gave us this feedback.
How are you able to maintain quality while growing and keeping prices low?
We have a very good production team and I think that we solve problems well. The whole idea behind this brand is that women should be empowered to do anything in their clothes. We work in a lot of the same factories that Helmut Lang does, that Rag & Bone does, but we find that we treat every style as a puzzle to be solved in terms of what lining we use, and how to keep the stitching and tailoring quality in tact [while making] sure it's at a price that's still acceptable. We have a team in-house that has an encyclopedic knowledge of tariffs coming over from China; if something can be classified as rainwear — which has a certain amount of fabrications in it — then it's less expensive to get over, things like that.
What is your main role as creative director? What's your biggest focus presently, now that the line is quite established?
I'm still very involved in design in terms of the concept and prints and the directional pieces. We have designers in-house that do the nitty-gritty stuff, but I oversee it. I've been really involved in the past year in developing our marketing. That's been our prime focus; before this, we believed the clothes spoke for themselves, but we really didn't have much marketing. It's just such a changing world with the Internet. We think it's a really interesting time to innovate in all of that and take risks. It's such a different animal to have to control your exposure on the Internet than it was pre-Internet and so that's what we're pivoting to deal with.
We developed a content department; we developed our social media; we're doing a lot of interesting activations. We devoted our marketing spend basically to commissioning work from female artists who are doing disruptive stuff in their fields — who are outspoken, who have a strong perspective, who are feminists. We collaborated with Petra Collins earlier this year on a documentary film. Our next collaboration [is with] with this feminist artist Casey Jane Ellison. She was in the New Museum triennial recently, and she made this series of short films (see one below) and each one is satirizing branded content. It's this weird space where you're trying to entertain people, but you're also trying to advertise to them — two things at once that are fighting with each other, so she satirizes that in the series.
Why did you choose to approach marketing in this way; is it about reaching a certain target customer?
I think in today's world, where brands have to be very, very transparent, I think it's important to have a backbone about what you believe in and to take risks rather than being in some kind of middle space where you never say anything offensive, but you also never say anything interesting. I think that the clothes are for smart women; I also wanted to support smart women who were saying interesting things. I guess we could continue to buy sponsored posts from top fashion bloggers, but we don't think that's a responsible way to spend money. I'd rather be supporting artists if it can have the same effect in the end, and that's what we chose to be our direction.
What has been the biggest challenge over the years?
Fashion is so fickle and strange and you have to keep evolving. It's just a matter of always looking ahead and seeing what's going on, questioning what you're doing and wondering if it's right, so the challenge is to stay on your toes. Fashion goes at such a rapid pace and so do all of the technological advances right now that we have to keep in mind. All of a sudden we have to think about branded content and how to get it out there; all of a sudden the magazines and media outlets have their own native content studios in-house and that's changed in the last year. There are all of these things you have to consider when you decide how to distribute both the clothing itself and the marketing message; distribution is changing rapidly with the advent of e-commerce.
Do you plan to launch e-commerce anytime soon?
We plan on launching for next fall; we're relaunching our website in about a month. It's going to do a good job in terms of telling stories around all of the pieces in the collection. Right now, all of our marketing efforts are in support of our big retailers, so our website pushes to Shopbop, Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom, Revolve and Bloomingdale's.
Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman have all worn BB Dakota recently. Do you devote much time and resources to celebrity dressing?
Not at all. It's so fickle and weird — you can devote a lot of energy to it and you might get a placement you might not. What it means usually is you get an Us Weekly clipping and it's not that powerful. Also the thing about celebrity dressing is it makes more sense to put marketing spend behind it if you have an evergreen product. If we were a denim brand and we had a pair of pants we were selling season after season, it would make sense to devote a lot to celebrity dressing because people would see it on the celebrity and then be able to buy it the next season and the season after that. With our clothes, by the time a celebrity wears it, you can't buy it anymore.
Do you pay attention to trends when conceptualizing new collections?
We are trend driven, we look at the runways, we look at street fashion, we let the eye travel and find inspiration in various places, but we always think about, how do we ensure that nothing about this item is fashion victim-y?
For better or worse, BB Dakota seems to be among the brands that cater to festival season. Is that something you feel you have to be a part of?
We definitely have to think about it because all of our stores consider it. I don't know if we would otherwise. I don't think it effects the sensibility of our line that much because we would be making little high-waisted lace shorts or the kinds of things you can interpret as festival anyway.
Where do you see the line 5-10 years from now?
We're going to launch e-commerce and from there I think we will open stores in a flagship way — maybe New York and Los Angeles. The goal is to not do anything that is too conventional because I think retail is changing so much. People go to stores to have an in-store experience with the clothes, but then they also just buy online. I want it to be very experiential — and I don't know what that means yet.