With nearly a decade of experience in the fashion industry, it was only a matter of time before Elizabeth Kennedy took on the eveningwear space with her own eponymous line.
After graduating from Parsons with a degree in fashion design, Kennedy started working for Isaac Mizrahi's couture line in 2007, eventually inheriting the head designer role a few months later. In 2011, she went on to J. Mendel and soon after to Donna Karan where she worked alongside Peter Speliopoulos, former vice president of design, and Aliza Licht, former senior vice president of global communications, to launch its atelier line for red-carpet events. "In five months we need these 35 to 40 gowns done,'" says Kennedy. "I had contacts from my other jobs, a lot of sample room ateliers where they produce high-end gowns for designers like Oscar de la Renta and Vera Wang. I brought them on to develop this collection and any customs."
When Kennedy decided to launch her own eveningwear collection, Mizrahi's former president of couture, Jayne Harkness, became her business partner. (In 2011, Mizrahi had sold his business, phasing out his high-end collection.) By 2012, she started designing custom gowns exclusively for Bergdorf Goodman and in February of this year, Kennedy made her debut at New York Fashion Week.
A strong industry network has been the constant force behind Kennedy's career, proving just how essential it is to maintain professional relationships. "A lot of kids right out of school want to start their own line, but the contacts that you build at every company grows your network," says Kennedy. "All you have are your relationships and you rely on these people to get your fabric on time and get your collection sewn on time."
We visited Kennedy's studio in the Garment District to see her latest collection for resort 2017, and to talk about what she learned from working with such established eveningwear designers, why she decided to show at New York Fashion Week and her plans to expand her line.
What did you learn from working on eveningwear with such established designers that you apply towards your own work now?
With Isaac, he has an amazing sense of color. I learned the most about construction from him because we were making couture. The seamstresses and patternmakers we were working with were from a different planet. The quality and craftsmanship is stuff you don't really see anymore.
He's also a modernist, so anything that was excessive to the integrity of the design, he would question.
J. Mendel was very visual. I did a lot of illustrations for him while I was there. He wanted to see everything colored a hundreds times in 50 different variations. He also wanted to develop swatches and mock-ups for finishings in every fabric, which is actually a practice I still use now.
I didn't have a lot of face time with Donna but I was working with Peter... He had a similar approach like Isaac in terms of functionality of the garment. 'Does this make sense?' He was also very concerned about the body underneath the garment — it's Donna Karan, so it's all draped jersey and very bodycon.
What void did you want to fill in eveningwear?
I'm trying to fill a more modern, graphic aesthetic, but a classically beautiful, feminine dress that is flattering, easy to wear and comfortable. It's timeless in terms of a 30-year-old could wear it and a 70-year-old could wear it. I feel a lot of eveningwear is very — it's changing — but for a while it's been a little stale in my opinion. It's very classical, traditional and not everyone wants that, especially the younger generation. Even older women that I work with in their 60s, they want something very clean, modern and not fussy.
Why did you decide to show at New York Fashion Week after only selling to Bergdorf's?
To really build the business, we have to open it up to other retailers. I want to be able to make a larger collection and delve into other areas, like accessories or ready-to-wear. It was a necessary step but we actually couldn't afford to do that until we got our first investment in July, so February was our first show. We started with $40,000 and built it. Our business model is interesting because Bergdorf's bought off of my sketches. I also met with clients and made custom one-of-a-kind gowns for them. We were able to afford to keep the business alive because we essentially had no inventory. We finally got to the point where we wanted to make a full collection and show it to other retailers and get the volume going to build a business.
Do you know when exactly you'd expand into ready-to-wear?
A full-blown ready-to-wear collection that's shown with evening will probably be a year and a half to two years. We're actually thinking to introduce bridal before ready-to-wear. It's a huge market and we keep getting requests for it. So obviously there's a demand. We're going to do a little bridal capsule in October with Moda Operandi.
What goals do you have for this year?
For eveningwear, red carpet is really important. It's the best advertising because everybody watches the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
We're really hoping to get a well story in a major publication — that's definitely a goal for this year. Expanding on retailers definitely. We had a great first season and we're trying to hopefully get a bigger American retailer to get the distribution to help grow our business.
Your collections are all made in New York City. Is that something you want to maintain as you expand?
I really want to support the Garment District. So many designers have to go offshore for manufacturing and it's really because of prices. The mark-up for retail also impacts that. How do we still make clothing priced to be accessible but give [customers] the quality? For as long as I can, I'm trying.
Click through the gallery below to see the Elizabeth Kennedy resort 2017 collection.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Update: This post has been updated from its original version for clarification.