There's no doubt that spending years working behind the scenes at major fashion brands can be useful before launching one's own label. But quite often, the most valuable knowledge from that experience turns out to be what you want to do differently, rather than a path to follow.
This was certainly true for Donna Kang and Megan Wall, who last week launched Maer, a fun womenswear line of party-ready dresses and separates. After spending years in design departments at traditional fashion brands — Kang at Timo Weiland and Carolina Herrera and Wall at Michael Kors and Donna Karan — they chose to do things differently as entrepreneurs. Instead of wholesale, the line is all direct-to-consumer, which helps keep prices accessible (mostly under $500) while using high-quality fabrics; instead of topping out at a size 8 or 10, everything goes up to a 20; instead of seasonal deliveries, new items roll out, or drop, monthly. And when I talk to them over the phone, despite having worked around the clock to get Maer up and running, there is palpable excitement and energy in their voices, instead of the burnout so many industry professionals experience these days.
Kang and Wall met about 10 years ago through mutual friends in New York. They stayed in touch throughout their careers — even after Wall left the fashion world and moved to Lisbon, Portugal to be with her now-husband about four years ago.
"At one point we just said, 'okay, why don't we start talking about what we want to do with our futures?'" Wall tells me. "I had a passion for being a designer, and it was just really what made me happy. And I knew that I had taken this hiatus but I knew I wanted to go back." While Wall thought she'd left the fashion world behind, she discovered a wealth of apparel production resources in the northern part of the Portugal. Meanwhile, Kang's Timo Weiland co-founders — Weiland and Alan Eckstein — had begun moving on to their own new projects. She began looking for something new as well, and Wall was the first person she spoke with.
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They approached the development of Maer — the old Welsh word for "mayor" — thoughtfully, using their prior experiences and industry connections to guide them on what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. "As you go forward, you think about your successes and you think mostly about the mistakes and you apply things to stop you from having those mistakes," says Kang. "I feel like we have a really great team of people that we're working with that will prevent these mistakes from happening again."
"We are direct to consumer and we're inclusive sizing, so that in itself is obviously a departure from what we were doing before," adds Wall. "That in itself is also our biggest message." Kang's first experience with extended sizing came while consulting alongside her Timo Weiland co-founders with Crowne Plaza Hotels to redesign their uniforms. She learned that some employees were taking the uniform pants home to wear out because they looked and fit better than anything they could buy in their size. "We really wanted our designs to be on everyone," says Wall. "We didn't want to limit anyone."
The designers' past experiences were also helpful in getting others to work with them and take them seriously. "We feel so lucky that our reputations precede us and that we have people that believe in us just like we believe in each other," says Wall.
As they prepared to launch the brand, Kang went to Portugal for a month to design with Wall. The duo intentionally over-designed in the beginning so that they could edit the collections down from their respective locations, though Wall still makes regular trips to New York. They make their distance work to their advantage when apart, employing people in both locations to handle different tasks. In Portugal, they employ entirely female-run factories that specialize in curve-size pattern making.
The designers' thoughtfulness extends to company culture, too. "It's also very important that we found factories that had fair working conditions because if you're going to have a brand that's about being empowered and you don't start from the heart of it, it will translate into the clothing," says Kang. "You can feel it." They also want to ensure employees have a work-life balance. "I think people end up burning out and getting disgruntled if there's too much of one thing," says Wall.
However, at this stage in the business, Wall and Kang have their hands in just about every aspect — from web design to social media — but they wouldn't have it any other way. "It's the best type of work 'cause it's your own and you love it and you don't care how much you have to work," notes Wall.
The debut collection consists of 16 pieces ideal for a fun night out, from a metallic wrap dress to a ruched peplum top. The pieces are inspired by '70s Hollywood, but were also born out of input from friends and family of all shapes and sizes. Kang and Wall made sure to pay as much attention to fit and function as they did to aesthetics, from using comfortable, adjustable jersey fabrics to strategically inserting gussets to aid in breathability. They also fit their designs on a size 14, instead of a sample size. "We want people to put on our clothes and be like, 'I'm commanding the room, but I'm also really comfortable, and I can have an extra piece of cake and also another glass of wine,'" says Wall.
Right now, the designers are at work on collection two and plan to expand shipping to Europe in the near future. (The brand is only available in the U.S. currently.) "We see the brand becoming the go-to place for women of all shapes and sizes," says Wall. "Anyone that feels like they need a place to go to find a garment or an outfit that they can wear to an event or a date or anything." Still, having seen the industry's ebbs and flows firsthand, they're remaining cautious and flexible. "The way you get there changes every day and the market changes and the world changes, so we'll just see what happens," says Wall.