Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion industry.
Is building a fashion business more difficult for a woman? That depends who you ask, but despite being a largely female-focused industry, the majority of fashion companies are still designed and/or run by men. This year, for instance, the majority of CFDA Award nominees are men.
Fortunately, the rate at which women are launching fashion businesses seems to be increasing, and three ladies at the top of their game were at Theory's Los Angeles flagship Wednesday night to get real about doing just that in a panel discussion led by The Hollywood Reporter's Booth Moore, Reformation founder Yael Aflalo, jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer and La Ligne co-founder Molly Howard.
Read on for the biggest takeaways from the event, like how these women dealt with sexist bank executives and getting past self-doubt:
All three women prioritize good working conditions and happy employees:
For Aflalo, that meant creating a better manufacturing environment than the ones she saw in China while working at a different fashion company pre-Reformation, where workers lived in a dormitory at the factory and went home only one month out of the year, for Chinese New Year. "None of the people came back at the end; they didn't want to leave their family and come back," she explained. "That structure's pretty sad so I wanted to create a manufacturing environment that celebrated people more."
For Meyer, it was really important for her to "be a really nice boss and make sure there was a complete open-door policy and people felt 100 percent comfortable coming to me," she said. "You get so much more done than being tough or rude or short or annoyed or bitchy."
The same goes for Howard. "I worked in investment banking, so I wanted everything the opposite of that culture," she said. She recalled passing out in an elevator at Credit Suisse because she had pulled three all nighters, and people expected her to go back to work after that instead of going home. At La Ligne, employees are free to come and go as they please as long as they get their work done. "People who are happy do better work," she said.
Sexism happens (duh), but not all men are bad (also duh).
Aflalo recalls trying to get a commercial banking loan and sitting in meetings with "a bunch of older white dudes" who would say things like, "'It's harder for us to understand this business,' and I was like, 'Okay, so we make clothes and we sell them online and in stores; what's hard about that?' or, 'You just have a very unconventional leadership team,' and I'm like, 'Oh, 'cause they're women?'" They would also say they needed to ask their wives or daughters about it. "You feel like this thing as a woman like, 'I don't want to complain about it because then it's like I'm being complain-y.'" She ultimately brought it up to the agent that was handling the relationships with the banks. "I was like, 'I feel like this process has been really sexist, and these are three comments that made me feel like this process was really sexist. I felt very uncomfortable, and I know this wasn't your fault, but I would like you to take it back to the banks,'" she explained. They apologized, but mainly she was glad that she "didn't just have that experience and internalize it."
Conversely, Meyer's only negative male experiences have been "a few jerky husbands" buying jewelry, and Howard found that many of the men La Ligne raised money from were enthusiastic about the concept of a female-founded company with a message of female empowerment.
Asking for money is awkward.
"It's very uncomfortable. I don't like having to put a positive spin on every single thing. I tend to be a very direct communicator... you have to spin everything in a positive way; there’s a lot of signaling, framing things," explained Aflalo. Learning finance vernacular was also a challenge. Howard agreed. "I hate pitching myself; I hate having to put a spin on us; I just want people to see it and want to be a part of it and not need to be sold in a salesman kind of way."
Mentors can be successful business people — or friends.
Rather than having a mentor in the traditional sense, Aflalo relies on friends as sounding boards.
Meyer, on the other hand, still reaches out to her CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund mentor Diane von Furstenberg; and Howard has Andrew Rosen, the owner of Theory and investor in Rag & Bone (where Howard previously worked) on La Ligne's board of advisors.
Everyone deals with self-doubt, but it often diminishes with age.
"Throughout my 30s, it just got easier and easier," said Aflalo. "I try to use logic too, so it's like, okay, I know you think that you're a piece of shit, but these are all of the facts that we can lay out to prove that you're not. So I use logic — age and logic."
Meyer says that when she turned 40 recently, she realized, "All my self-doubt in my 20s and my 30s was just such a waste of time. We all have it, and it really is just wasted energy." She added: "Everybody looks like they are doing better than you; nobody is Instagramming crying in the bathtub and miserable or their shitty numbers in their company. You've got to remember that every one of us struggles." Her advice? "Don't worry about what people are doing around you; just worry about yourself and worry about how you want to treat other people and I swear to god you will succeed."