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.
Despite describing herself as a very cautious person, New York designer Yara Flinn's career is marked by major risk-taking. When she didn't get into graduate school for sculpture, Flinn took it as a sign to follow her interest in fashion design and launch Nomia in 2007. More than five years later, when she felt her business was stagnating and her designs weren't true to the kind of simple but distinctive style she initially set out to create, she quit fashion week, left her showroom and PR agency and went back to the drawing board. The resulting collection was her most successful to date, and Flinn has been growing that momentum ever since. After finishing the 2014-2016 CFDA Fashion Incubator program this spring, she moved back to her Williamsburg studio to focus on her dedicated customers and building her advanced contemporary collection of sleek, slightly architectural pieces that are now carried by Barneys, Totokaelo, Mohawk General Store, French Garment Cleaners and many more specialty boutiques.
I spoke with Flinn about selling her first collection, navigating the business during the financial crisis and learning to trust her gut. Read on for our conversation.
What did you study in college and when did your interest in fashion begin?
When I was at Oberlin, I was studying Studio Art, so I was doing sculpture and sound and video installations. I used to customize men's shirts and stuff, nothing huge, and then I did an art installation that [featured] fashion. It was a cool video thing. It was clothing but it was more meant to be art. So that was my experience with fashion before then. And then when I graduated I got a job at Prada’s art foundation [in New York].
How did you get that job and what did you do there?
I speak Italian, so that was a really big help and then my stepmother's friend had the job and she was leaving it, so I interviewed for it — which obviously was very helpful, to have that connection — but I thought I had no shot at it.
Did you want to be a curator at that point?
No, I knew that I always wanted to make things. I wanted to apply for a master's program, in sculpture mostly. And I ended up applying to three places and I didn't get into any of them. It was obviously very disappointing at the time, but it was also so fundamental for me to even end up taking this risk because I really thought my path was one direction. I've always really been into fashion and I've always been specifically more into style and the way that clothing and dress communicate to society. I wrote my high school thesis on the sociology of fashion.
What did you do after the Prada Foundation closed its New York office in 2006?
I worked at different retail jobs part-time and then I started making my first collection, literally three pieces, and that's when the this whole story about Pamela Love happened. I know her through an old friend who worked at Urban Outfitters with her in 2005, so we're all friends. She had started working at Barneys and I made one linen sack dress thing and she said, "I want to wear that dress to a meeting." So she wore it to the meeting and she looked so cool in it, even though it was literally cut raw seamed at the bottom, when it wasn't cool to do that. They said, "Who makes that dress?" She basically helped me set up an appointment with them. I had to make a few other pieces last minute, but it was at a time when Barneys had a very different kind of way of buying. It was item driven, so they'd buy pieces.
How did you reach out to more buyers?
At that point it was 2007, it was a totally different time. I sold dresses from pictures that I took on a digital camera because camera phones were that bad, and I would email them to buyers and they would buy it. It was crazy, I got into Totokaelo’s first store and I sent her pictures and there was another store called Jonathan & Olivia in Vancouver. There were way fewer brands. I had interned at United Bamboo for a bit also, which was something that really helped me. Once I decided I wanted to do fashion in 2006, I took pattern-making classes, which were amazing and super hard and technical. I'm pretty much still making all the patterns.
How did the recession impact your business?
[Before 2008] I went in for another appointment with Barneys and [they said], "We're not buying this season." I was too young to even know what the conversation should be, I didn't know that I should be following up with them all the time: "How is it going? Is it selling? Can I help with things?" But it made me start working harder to get other accounts, which is great. I don't know how many I was selling to when 2008 happened, but that was a crash, almost. A lot pulled out, some went out of business and some hung out for another year or two but eventually went out of business.
Between dedicating yourself full time to the brand in 2011 and joining the Incubator in 2014, what happened?
That was a lot of struggling. I think that was a time when I had lost myself. We had PR people, we had sales showrooms and everyone was telling us different things. We did Made [Fashion Week], which was awesome, and it was very reasonably priced, they offer a lot, and we would always get hair and makeup sponsors. But it does still cost quite a bit even if you do it at a shoelace budget, like we literally were. But it's a significant cost [with] no return — I didn't feel like I was getting huge press from it and whatever press I got didn't seem like it was impacting my sales much. There became a very one-lane approach to how to make it as a young designer.
I wasn't wearing anything that I was making and that, to me, was a problem. Eventually a friend-slash-mentor told me, 'You know, you're cool, you're from New York, you dress like this, why are you making these clothes?’ He felt like I was fighting what I could be doing. I worried too much about how the run of show is going to look, and I'm just like — this isn't what my brands, that's not what I want, I want easy clothes, I want everyday clothes, I want statement pieces that people are going to wear all the time.
You decided to stop doing shows?
Fall 2013 was when I stopped doing any presentations... At that point I was depressed, it really had gotten to me, because it's emotional and it's personal. You're putting your ideas out there, they're not working. So I [decided] I'll just try [designing for myself], and then I ended up having probably one of the best seasons I've had to date at the point, in terms of sales. and I [thought], "Whoa this is crazy." Without having done a show and just reaching out to buyers myself.
Why did you apply to the CFDA Fashion Incubator program?
I've never had a business plan, I've never had to be all about my margins and my costing sheets. I had been "in business" very loosely for five years at that point and [I thought if] I can't survive this, I've got to figure something out, this is not sustainable. Then I had the issue of [paying] rent for the [CFDA Incubator] studio. They're subsidized but it was more than twice what I was paying for my studio [before]. I'm just overly cautious, I didn't realize it was an investment and it was something that we would be able to eventually pay for it if I was able to implement the advice that they would be giving me. I borrowed a little money from my parents until I could catch up.
Who is your team at Nomia?
I started with a consultant basically to help me with production and that was 2014, right when I got started going to the Incubator. That's a thing that a lot of young designers struggle with because when your units are the smallest, you get pushed to the back of the line. It's tough, you have to get in there really early and you have to establish a really good relationship with the factory. Who I have right now is our production manager and then the other person is our studio manager, basically a catch-all thing — sending our e-commerce out and organizing our shipping and doing the press pulls.
What are your goals for the next year?
I want to increase our reach on PR, our awareness. I want to do events: having an open studio maybe, things where people can come in and look at things in person. I, myself, am a very tactile shopper.
I really enjoy collaborating with people, that's something I feel I've been missing out a little bit on, so hopefully if we hire more people I'll be able to put into place all those things. Because otherwise, they're just ideas.
This interview has been edited and condensed.