When Misha Nonoo first launched her eponymous label in 2011, after splitting with a partner to go out on her own, she did everything "right," according to the unwritten rules of the industry. She showed at New York Fashion Week, starting with presentations before graduating to runway shows, putting out new, often art-inspired collections every season. She wholesaled to best-of-the-best retailers like Shopbop and Bergdorf Goodman. She tied with Wes Gordon for the 2012 Fashion Group International Rising Star award and was a finalist in the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition. She was named to both Forbes' 30 Under 30 and Crain's New York Business' 40 Under 40 in 2015 alone— but that was also the year Nonoo began to look around at the system and see signs that it wasn't working in her favor.
"I was looking at it big picture," Nonoo explains. "I went to business school, and I've always been very involved on the business side as well, so I was seeing that, from soup to nuts, it was basically impossible for us as designers if we did it this way to ever become profitable. It just became abundantly apparent to me that in every step of the cycle, you were set up so that you couldn't really succeed in that."
The first thing to go was the traditional fashion show format. First Nonoo experimented with an "Insta-Show," debuting her Spring 2016 line with pre-shot images on her Instagram. Then, in 2016, she abandoned the fashion calendar altogether, opting instead to try the consumer-facing, "see now, buy now" method that trended at the middle of the decade. Ultimately, the pivot away from fashion week would mark a major turning point for her business.
"[Fashion shows were] always only marketing to our buyers, and the fashion week calendar at the time was really jammed in New York City, so your buyers would always say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, I can't make it to your show' — even though you spent so much time thinking about what will be the ultimate time that everybody will be able to make it," Nonoo says. "That's why I started out by showing on Instagram, and it felt so much more inclusive because we were going really direct to the consumer before I even launched the business in a direct-to-consumer way. It just felt so much more gratifying, and it ended up being the beginning of all of those changes."
Little by little, Nonoo began to tweak her business altogether: In September 2016, she closed all her wholesale accounts to bring the business fully direct-to-consumer. A year later, she pared things back even further to a seasonless capsule collection, produced on-demand to create more sustainable business practices — a goal she expressed all the way back in 2012. Throughout the process, Nonoo has used her customer as her guiding North Star, making sure each incremental step worked before trying the next.
One customer (and friend) who added to Nonoo's business plan in a major way last year: Meghan Markle, perhaps best known these days as the Duchess of Sussex. She's worn Nonoo's pieces for public appearances — including her first official outing with now-husband Prince Harry — and asked the designer to be a part of her Smart Works capsule, dubbed the "Smart Set," in 2019. The Duchess worked with the charity and a handful of retailers to put together a collection of workwear basics, to which Nonoo provided her signature white button down shirt. Sold on a one-for-one model, each time a customer purchased something from the collaboration, the designer donated one to Smart Works. It was Nonoo's first foray into sizing above a 14, and the response was so positive that she intends on extending sizes in her own collection in the near future.
That brings us to the end of 2019, tucked inside Nonoo's pop-up space in Soho during the final weeks of its temporary residency. It's Nonoo's latest experimentation — the second of its kind, the first having opened in London over the summer — and one she's most pleased with. She views it as an extension of herself and her values; namely, that of women's empowerment. To wit: Alongside her own label sits other female-owned brands that she views as complementary, like Sarah Flint shoes, Bee & Kin bags, Negative Underwear lingerie and The Laundress cleaning products. At the back is a space where Nonoo held the "Women on the Go" conference, featuring panels on topics like sustainability and working motherhood, as well as keynotes with guests like Gayle King and Arianna Huffington.
The space also helped push her message of sustainability. The pop-up was inventory-less, at least as far as Nonoo's label is concerned — you can try on the Misha Nonoo pieces on display, but they're not for sale — which means customers leave empty handed, "which is a very new concept for people," she admits with a grin. On-demand production started as a business decision, but quickly became a cornerstone of her sustainability initiatives.
"When you think about it from a cashflow concept of a business, tying up all this money in inventory that you didn't know whether it was going to sell in this size or that size or this color or that color, didn't make sense to me anymore," Nonoo explains. "The more that I learned about waste and all of that, the more that I felt like I had a responsibility to go deeper and deeper and deeper into visibility in my supply chain, and thoughtfulness in how we manufactured."
So Nonoo is heading into a new decade already armed with all the tools for navigating retail's somewhat-scary future: a direct-to-consumer model that doesn't rely on failing retail partners, her hands free of any overabundance of stock which might require brand-damaging and profit-denting sales, freedom from the exhausting and demanding fashion calendar, and a means of production which is sustainable both from an environmental standpoint and a business perspective. But perhaps most importantly, if not for the customer then for Nonoo herself, she's built a brand with purpose that can stand for more than just clothes.
"Five years ago, when I would tell people about what I did, people would look at me — particularly anybody who I really respected maybe in the professional space, that maybe had an extraordinary career in legal or finance or had grown to a very senior position in a very different world to what I did — and they'd be like, 'Okay, so you design dresses?'"
"I have broken the business down to feel like it's so much more than that, in my mind; it's really principled," Nonoo continues. "It's built upon values of serving a woman, making sure that she is empowered to move seamlessly throughout her day. We are doing everything that we can to do what we do in the most sustainable way possible, environmentally. And I think that, to talk about some of the women that we brought in in the conference, it's really about sharing the network that I've worked hard to create through the business with our customers."
"The brand is such an extension of me, and I think if I just made clothes all day long, I would probably be bored of this by now, to be completely honest with you," she says. It seems highly questionable that Nonoo will find herself bored any time soon.