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.
That Jennifer Zuccarini has always loved lingerie shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, she's now launched two lingerie brands, Kiki de Montparnasse and Fleur du Mal, with a stint at lingerie giant Victoria's Secret in between. But what might be surprising is that she almost didn't go into fashion at all.
"When I was in high school, I decided that I didn't want to be a designer anymore and maybe I wanted to be an art dealer," she says with a big laugh. "I was like, I want to travel the world and discover artists, then bring them back and have a gallery and have parties; this sounds like the most perfect profession that anyone could do."
Zuccarini studied art history and fine arts in Montreal, but when a boyfriend pointed out that her passions clearly lay in fashion, she couldn't disagree. She packed up and moved to New York City to take classes at FIT. She worked at a few different places, but it wasn't long before Zuccarini was itching to do something on her own.
"Growing up, my father was an entrepreneur and his whole thing was, why would you ever want to work for somebody? You need to do things for yourself. That was just the way I thought about it," she says. "I worked in my family's business and I think I was just kind of in a hurry."
That's when Zuccarini's first brand, Kiki de Montparnasse, was born; she'd stay there for four years before taking a job at Victoria's Secret. But once again, the urge to have her own project would take over, which is why she launched Fleur du Mal just over five years ago. From there, the brand has grown from one of fashion's favorite cheeky lingerie brands to a blossoming ready-to-wear label, all from Zuccarini's former apartment in Soho.
We braved the five flights of stairs to Fleur du Mal's studio (no wonder so many pieces are engineered to show off a great butt!) to chat with Zuccarini about the challenges of designing lingerie, the secrets of starting your own company and what you can learn going corporate.
What first interested you in fashion?
I was really interested in fashion from when I was a child; my mom probably bought every fashion magazine. I grew up in Toronto, and I watched every fashion program, like Fashion TV, "Style with Elsa Klensch" and "Fashion File" with Tim Blanks. I asked my mom for a sewing machine when I was eight, and actually got sewing lessons at that time — which I really did not like at all. [laughs] I was like, "I hate sewing." But, from that age, I was like, "I want to be a fashion designer."
Then I worked in retail from when I was like 14, 15 in Toronto; at one point, I thought maybe I wanted to do more styling and trend forecasting, but yeah. I just always had a love for designing.
What were your first steps getting into the industry?
When I was still in Montreal, I started working with a local designer as a design assistant; that was my way of testing if this was the industry I wanted to get into, which was kind of fun. It was a small designer where you were kind of doing everything — they were fitting garments on me and I'm running around, and you're getting the full picture. When I moved to New York and I graduated, I started looking for a job, and I ended up getting a job at Nanette Lepore. That was my first job, working in the Garment Center, and they had a big in-house sample room and did pretty much all of their production in New York. I had to work 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. every day and work every single weekend — definitely a Saturday, if not a Sunday. I came from Montreal where people like close at lunch and have a glass of wine, you know? [laughs] It was a really grueling schedule, but it taught me so much. It was like hectic, like go, go, go, doing the whole Garment Center runaround — go to the factory, go to the cutter, go to the embroiderer. It was a really good experience.
After that, I was doing some freelance projects. I worked for a like, a minute with Lauryn Hill; at that time, she was trying to start a clothing brand. I was doing trend forecasting. Then I actually worked for an Italian denim company for a little while called Rifle, and I was designing denim, which I really liked.
My boyfriend at the time and I started working on a collection. Before that, we started working with Lenny Kravitz for a little while — this was when all the celebrity stuff was happening — on developing a collection, which was kind of fun. But, after a while, we realized that it was never really going to happen. He'd been working on it for years as a side project. That's when we started Kiki de Montparnasse.
Why did you want to design lingerie?
I never considered it when I went to school. It's not what I studied, but I was always inspired by designers who were inspired by lingerie. I grew up loving Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Galliano I think always had strong lingerie references, and I personally loved it. The funny thing about lingerie, it's very emotional. People that love it are freaks about it — they're like, "I have to have it." That's how I felt about lingerie.
What was the learning curve when you were working on Kiki?
It was so difficult. I was like taking out books on how to design lingerie. I think they let me do it because I was like, "Oh, I can do this. I've done many lingerie inspired things. I've done corsets." I was like, "I can totally do it!" But inside I was like freaking out. [laughs] It was a bit of a learning curve, but I found some people to help me and it was a lot of trial and error. But in a weird way, I think not coming from a lingerie background, I brought a different take to it, and it was much more informed by fashion.
Then I went to Victoria's Secret.
What was that like?
It was an amazing experience. At the time, I was thinking about leaving Kiki and I was just going to start my own thing again, but I was so burnt out from the whole experience. I was like, I don't know if I have it in me right now to go do that again; I need to take a little break.
Victoria's Secret reached out to me through a friend of mine that was at Pink. It became this really interesting opportunity. I was like, this is so different from what I've done, and I want to learn how a $6 billion company operates. I'd never been anywhere corporate. Kiki looked so glamorous from the outside, and it certainly was in some ways, but behind the scenes it was like a start-up. I went to Victoria's Secret, and my first day, I got on a private plane to go to Europe with the whole senior executive team to go shopping for three days. That wasn't what it was like all the time, but it was fun.
When did you first have the idea for Fleur du Mal?
I always wanted to create this brand, but I think through my experiences of building Kiki, and then through Victoria's Secret, it just started coming together in my mind.
After a couple years at Victoria's Secret, I was not really feeling challenged creatively. It is challenging, because it's this machine and it's so complicated and there's so many people involved, but I was like, I don't want to get too comfortable here and lose my creative drive and become something different.
I realized lingerie is a big part of what I do, and my take is really more of a fashion approach to lingerie, and I really didn't feel like there were a lot of people doing that. I wanted it to be at a certain price point; Kiki was such an amazing brand and people were obsessed with it, but it was so expensive that it was hard to get it to that woman that I really wanted to sell to. And Victoria's Secret is obviously the other side of the spectrum. Fleur was creating this amazing brand that people have an emotional response to, but having product that's a little more accessible without losing the quality.
What were your goals for Fleur starting out?
One thing was really coming back to that idea of a fashion approach to lingerie, meaning designing things that women are wearing every day as part of their wardrobe; it's incorporated and it's not like, "Oh, I have this super sexy set, but I'm only going to wear it when I go on a date." That's how most people in the U.S. relate with lingerie. I wanted it to be more [about] educating people on how to bring lingerie into their everyday wardrobe. On the other side, from an emotional side of the brand, I like the idea of like cultivating desire — this idea of our woman and who she is, how she's powerful and she's sexy and she's not afraid to embrace her femininity.
EX-KIKI DE MONTPARNASSE AND VICTORIA'S SECRET DESIGNER JENNIFER ZUCCARINI ON WHY SHE STARTED HER OWN LINE
How did you get Fleur off the ground?
I started with a business plan, which I think is such an important first step, especially if you're a creative person. Working on a business plan forces you to really build up the business side of it. When I started, I was like, I'm going to do this business plan in a month, I'm gonna knock this out. It took me probably six months, if not longer, to actually do it. [laughs] Then I had to find somebody to help me with the financial forecast: what's the product going to be and what are the price points and making it look beautiful, because I was planning to raise money to start the business. I had factories that I worked with at Victoria's Secret that I really loved, and I had factories in the Garment Center that I had worked with.
What were some of the challenges in getting a lingerie brand going versus ready-to-wear?
There's not a lot of factories that make lingerie. I think the whole fit process is more complicated — every part of it — because there are fewer people that you can work with to make samples, to do the production, to fit things with. It's more of a specialty thing. That's definitely a barrier. Then, on the sourcing side, there's tons of components to a bra. There's the elastic and the underwire casing and the gore and the bow; there's a lot of things that can hold something back.
And also, if you think about it, when it comes to working with influencers or people that you want to show in your brand. If you're strictly a lingerie brand, that's harder to achieve.
How do you approach social media?
We do it all in-house. We launched our Instagram before we even launched the brand, and I'm very involved in it. I would never say, "Oh, let the intern do our social media" — unless they were amazing at that — because, to me, it's how people discover and know Fleur. It's one of our most important connections and touch points with the brand.
How did you decide to branch into ready-to-wear?
Even from my first collection I had ready-to-wear, because I didn't want people to perceive us as just a lingerie brand, but it was more of an add-on. It's something I always wanted to do, I just needed to create the space to be able to do it; I wanted to get the lingerie to a certain place where I felt like we were ready to expand even more. So now, the last couple of seasons, we're really growing ready to wear as a separate category.
What do you wish you had known before starting your own company?
There's certain things that I spent money on in the beginning that I wish I didn't. But, in a way, sometimes you have to go through that process to figure out that you don't need it. The first shoot that we did was so expensive; I had an art director and a stylist and a set we built. I was worried about it and I wanted it to be so great that I didn't feel comfortable to skimp on anything. I trusted my photographer who was like, "We need this set," and it's stupid. [laughs] We should have just rented a hotel. It didn't look any different, and then, I had this huge set and I had to pay to store it somewhere. Eventually, I was like, "Just throw it out, I'm never going to rebuild this random set that just looks like four walls and a door."
I think that I assumed that as soon as I launched, it would be like massive — like it was just going to be like, BOOM, it's happening. Building a brand takes time. I was in such a rush, always. This is a waiting game; nothing's overnight. It feels like that for some people, or it looks like that from the outside, but it does take time.
What advice would you give someone looking to launch their own brand?
The most important thing is how people deal with adversity and things that happen that you can't really control. I think a lot of people say this, but it's perseverance and being able to have grit and not give up, because it's so difficult and fashion's so hard; it's so competitive, it's so expensive. I don't know how anyone even does it. [laughs] When you think about what it takes, there's a part of me that's like, I'm not doing that again. You almost have to go into it with a certain amount of ignorance to make it.
How do you balance running your own brand with having a life?
Do I have a life outside of this? [laughs] Sometimes I feel guilty if I'm not working literally all the time. It's hard to balance. I think at some point I have to cut off; that I'm done for the day and I'm not going to think about it, because I need to sleep or I need to exercise or I want to see my friends, I want to see my husband.
If I exercise or if I can meditate for a little bit in the morning, little things that start my day off, I'm a different person.
What do you look for in the people that you hire?
I like people that can be a bit entrepreneurial. Our team is growing now, but we obviously were a really small team for a little while. I look for people that have a great attitude that are go-getters, people that say "yes" to things — let's do that, let's make it happen, let's figure out how we can do that — not somebody who's like, "I can't do that, I don't know how to do that." if you don't know how to do it, then you don't know how to do it, but you're going to figure out a way to try to make it happen.
What is your ultimate goal for the brand?
I really want Fleur to be a global brand that is not just known, but that communicates with people in a certain way. I think the hardest thing growing a brand is to maintain what you have, the integrity of the brand — is it still cool? Is it still interesting? Is it still cheeky? How do you get it to here and still have those things? That's the biggest challenge.
I have goals for the brand with branching into other categories — beauty, accessories, shoes, home, jewelry. Those are the kinds of things that make me really excited.