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.
You would assume a career history that includes both serving as Anna Wintour's executive assistant and producing the Met Gala would set one up to conquer just about anything. That's certainly proven to be the case for Sylvana Ward Durrett, the 14-year Vogue alumna who — together with her co-founder, fellow Vogue veteran Luisana Mendoza Roccia — launched the luxury childrenswear e-boutique Maisonette in March 2017. But Ward Durrett's resume didn't come together like some form of high-gloss magic, of course. Instead, she's credited her success to a cocktail of work ethic and a keen sense of business savvy, both of which are traits she acquired in her time in Wintour's office.
To start at the beginning: Ward Durrett, a lifelong fashion enthusiast, landed her first gig out of college at Condé Nast. The part about Wintour, though, was a happy accident. ("I had about 11 interviews, and I didn't even realize I was going to be interviewing with her at the very end," she recalls. "I had a very corporate, non-fashion outfit on, which was horrifying.") She spent the next 14 years climbing the ranks at Vogue, where she eventually took over as the director of special projects. Enter the Met Gala, a production she headed up and helped make an international phenomenon, until she departed the magazine in 2016.
The Met Gala provided Ward Durrett with an excellent backbone to launch Maisonette. The idea for Maisonette, she says, came about when she and Mendoza Roccia expressed frustration with the fact that millennial-aged parents couldn't shop for their kids in the way they'd like, despite the luxury childrenswear market taking off as broadly as it has. "We wanted to solve this problem for parents," she says. "We happened to do it at a moment when the demographic and the behavior around shopping for your children changed." The co-founders very clearly saw that aesthetics and handheld, digital convenience matters now more than ever, and Maisonette was born.
Maisonette — which carries baby and children's apparel, accessories, toys, furniture and home décor — operates with a marketplace model, meaning that the site aggregates brands and boutiques from around the world onto a convenient, beautiful and user-friendly online shopping destination — like a mash-up of Net-a-Porter, Farfetch and Moda Operandi, but for kids.
Clearly, it's struck a chord, but it certainly hasn't been easy. I spoke to Ward Durrett about it all, from the most pertinent life lessons Wintour has passed along to where the childrenswear market may go next. Read on for the highlights.
When did your interest in fashion begin?
My love for fashion started with my mother. My mother was an actress and was always interested in fashion, and in more not-alternative, but more-differentiated fashion. She was interested in designers like Dries Van Noten — and Ann Demeulemeester and John Galliano — when people weren't, really. She had an extraordinary shoe collection, which is where my love of shoes started. And sadly, I grew out of them and wasn't able to steal them later on.
Did you always know that it was going to be a career for you?
In college, as I got to an age where I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I interned with Glenda Bailey at Harper's Bazaar right when she transitioned to editor-in-chief. I knew I wanted to continue on in editorial, and when I graduated college, I was applying to a bunch of different places. I was applying on the brand side — I actually had final interviews with Ralph Lauren — and then heard that there were some positions open at Condé Nast, but I wasn't aware that there was a position in Anna [Wintour]'s office. I had about 11 interviews, and I didn't even realize I was going to be interviewing with her at the very end. I had a very corporate, non-fashion outfit on, which was horrifying. Luckily, I got the job and, you know, the rest is history.
What lessons did you learn from Anna Wintour that are still relevant to what you do today?
I think about that a lot. I learned two things from Anna. The first is just work ethic. She has an incredible work ethic and she doesn't stop until it's done. She strives for excellence, and that's really something that I continue to take with me. "No" is not an answer; you fight until you get what you sought out to do. That's a really important mentality in start-ups. You just have to really want it and put your all into it, and hopefully good things come of it.
The second thing I would say is the importance of a brand. The first day you walk into Vogue, and certainly after having worked with her as long as I have, the idea of the brand is really the essence of it all. If you have a strong brand and you protect that brand and you build that brand, you can do anything. And so for us, when we started Maisonette, that was really at the core of the business. It's building this really beautiful, aspirational children's brand. That gave us the optionality to go a lot of different ways once that brand was created.
In your 14 years at Vogue, you eventually became the director of special projects. What roles did you hold in between, and how did you wind up in that position at the end?
After moving on from Anna's office, I was promoted to accessories editor, covering bags and shoes. While I was in Anna's office, I was helping out with some of the event planning, and she asked that I take that over once Stephanie Winston [Wolkoff, the former Vogue special events director] left. That merged nicely into a more all-encompassing role because when you're working on events, you're working with a lot of sponsors, building out those activations, so it was a natural next step.
Your job as director of special projects entailed, of course, producing the Met Gala. What did you find to be the most rewarding aspect of putting that event together?
Producing things is incredibly satisfying. You start with a goal or a dream and you end with a finished product, which is, hopefully, what you dreamt it to be. The Met Gala is such a massive undertaking; there are so many moving pieces and so many players and so many bumps along the road. It's really exciting to see it all come together in this one magical night and to see people's reactions to it on the night of — the way it's become this global event that everyone knows and cares about. It continues to be challenging. It's not one of those things where you get bored because every year. That's exciting — to be in a field where you're continually challenged.
From Vogue, you co-founded Maisonette with Luisana Mendoza Roccia in March 2017. From where was that idea born?
My co-founder Luisana — she also worked at Vogue for Anna, as well, and in accessories — and I had already wanted to do something together. We had done a few things together outside of Vogue. We did "Runway to Change" for the Obama campaign in 2009, where we asked American designers to create campaign merchandise. It was wildly successful, and we iterated on that a bunch of times.
We both have children, and we had this light-bulb moment when we were talking about how hard it was to shop for our children and said, "Why isn't there a Net-a-Porter for kids? Why doesn't it exist?" It's a chore to shop for your children in a world where there's every convenience online for you as an adult. When you have kids, you've hit a cliff. It's just not the same experience. We wanted to solve this problem for parents, and we happened to do it at a moment when the demographic and the behavior around shopping for your children changed.
Millennials are having kids now. They care about design. They aren't just satisfied with the Fisher Price plastic, multi-colored offering. They want to make sure that the things the kids are wearing and sitting in and sleeping in are good quality. On top of which, in the world of Instagram and social media, your kids are now part of your personal brand. The look of something is increasingly important. It's not just about function; it's about how it looks with the rest of your life.
How did you land on Maisonette's specific, very unique business model?
The children's market is incredibly fragmented. You have all these vendors, brands and designers all over the place. They're not aggregated. This marketplace model where you drop-ship and you don't hold inventory seems the smartest way to go about it because you don't have that inventory risk. The biggest problem with e-commerce is when people are sitting on inventory they can't sell. We don't have that problem. It allows you a) to scale and grow really quickly, but b) to be flexible and take risks on certain categories, and if they aren't working, there's no real cost to you. It's been a great way to learn about the market and what's working and what's not.
What challenges did you face when the business was first getting started?
The marketplace model is really, really great for the reasons I just described, but it's much more complex on the backend. People don't realize the complexities of integrating with each vendor's inventory management systems and making sure that inventory is updated. Obviously, we don't come from a tech background. We were not only female founders in the kids' space creating e-commerce solutions — we were creating a tech product. That was daunting. We had to do a lot of learning pretty quickly, and we luckily had a really great development team behind us. But that was probably the biggest hurdle, figuring out the backend and making sure it was efficient and that the system was working.
What has it been like having a co-founder, especially in Maisonette's early days?
It's so important — I would say that to anyone thinking about starting their own business, especially in this world where, you know, the start-up world is very male-dominant. We get our aesthetic implicitly. We don't have to say anything and we know that we're thinking the same thing. That has been a huge support, especially when you're questioned about your business or about the way you're going about something or the focus you're taking. It's really integral to have that support system and that person who you know is right there with you and is reinforcing the decisions.
It's an emotional rollercoaster. There's so many ups and downs, and it's exciting and terrifying all at once. To have that sense of support with somebody whom you know has that same background and taste level and instincts is really comforting.
We at Fashionista write constantly about the so-called "retail apocalypse" that's facing the market today. What has it been like launching an e-commerce operation in this harsh climate?
We've found — which has been nice as first-time entrepreneurs — that people are pretty open with their experiences in this world. There are people who are willing to share the pitfalls they've experienced. The start-up world is incredibly generous in that sense. People might think it's competitive, but because it's such an undertaking, you realize how much, how necessary, that advice is — that wisdom of just having done it before. You definitely want to pay that forward.
We've been really lucky because we've had a lot of great advisors on our side warning us about the ways [in which something] doesn't go well, and challenging us to build a solid business with solid order economics, and thinking about the health of the business versus just scaling really quickly.
The venture support is invaluable — the know-how, the mentorship. They're like your business school professors.
Maisonette stocks a huge range of big-name fashion brands with childrenswear categories, but it also carries some beautiful, lesser-known labels, too. How do you discover those more niche brands?
It's a really exciting category. It's where womenswear was about 15 years ago; you had all these independent, contemporary brands, coming up and doing really awesome things. It's exactly like that right now. You have such a breadth of options, and there's more and more every day.
Initially, [we made those discoveries] through our boutique partners. We've chosen what we consider the best boutiques from around the world, and they had done a lot of that work for us. Then, obviously, as we've grown, we have a lot of inbound interest. We have about 400 brands and designers who want be on our platform today and we're just racing to get them all up. We can be the king-makers of these very small brands that either haven't even launched yet or have a very small presence, and that's exciting for us to launch these brands and get them a real business revenue stream.
Once you go down that rabbit hole, the discovery through social media is enormous. You find these cute little Australian brands and you're like, "How do I buy this?" That's why we exist, right? We are the way you buy this!
In addition to that sourcing, what type of role does social media play in your business?
Social media is huge for us in growing our brand on an organic level. We're able to get products out there now with a shoppable Instagram. Facebook is obviously someplace we find our audience. We use [Instagram and Facebook] as performance marketing platforms, as well. That's the way people are shopping these days, where you're seeing all this product. I'm on my feed — I'm constantly getting these Instagram ads — and I'm clicking through because it's targeted and it works! Obviously, you have to have that organic brand growth, as well. That's integral to the way you scale your business. But the performance side is definitely a nice help.
With childrenwear already becoming more and more entwined with social media, where do you foresee the market going in the future as more millennials begin having children?
We're right at the beginning of massive movement in this market. Traditionally, it's been these legacy brands, and e-tailers for kids. There hasn't been a lot of differentiation. There hasn't been anything different or unique, and we're just starting to see that now which, I think, is why this is taking off in the way it has. People really see the value.
This market is growing faster than womenswear; it's growing faster than menswear. We're going to see a lot of change, not only in the types of brands that are coming up, but the behaviors. It's going to be exciting to watch, and it's certainly going to be explosive.
There's a lot of people doing a lot of different things in the market. You have your subscription services; you have your direct-to-consumer brands; and then, of course, our model, which is sort of doing it all. I think that's the solve to these parents' problems. It's making this all easily accessible. Parents are shopping online now. They don't have time to go into these stores, but we want to keep the retail model alive. We help these brick-and-mortars stay in business, and we also cater to the needs of our online shoppers. It's the way of the future, and it's exciting because it helps everyone, right?
What would you say is your ultimate career goal?
I think I'm doing it right now, honestly. It's super-hard and there are peaks and valleys, but it's so exhilarating to own something, to watch it grow. It's like having a child, it really is. You see it evolve from nothing to something you're proud of, and I think this is what I want to continue to do. I feel lucky that I found it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.