In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
11 Honoré has become one of the biggest players in getting designers to participate in the conversation around size inclusivity. The online retailer caters to customers looking for high-end wares in sizes 10 and up. It's not only a destination for luxury for customers that don't often see themselves represented on the rack (or online, for that matter), but also a conduit for brands — established and up-and-coming — to get into the 12+ space: It has helped launch Cynthia Rowley, VEDA, Rachel Comey and, most recently, Diane von Furstenberg into extended sizing, among many others. And it's done so in only a few years.
11 Honoré officially opened for business in mid-2017. By 2019, it was hosting a Fashion Week show, dressing celebrities on the red carpet, growing its already-impressive roster of brands and getting an investment from Nordstrom.
Through it all, founder and CEO Patrick Herning has emerged as not only a thought-leader in the industry, but a vocal advocate for a nuanced, comprehensive approach to serving a customer that has historically been ignored in retail. As he puts it, the question of size inclusivity isn't a "why" — it's a "when."
For Herning, fashion is actually somewhat of a second act: He had been working in tech — and in San Francisco —for years before deciding to switch gears in life and work. That led him down to Los Angeles, into fashion marketing and, eventually, to 11 Honoré.
How 11 Honoré Is Making Plus-Size Clothing Easier for Designers and Customers
Laverne Cox Closed 11 Honoré's Runway, and It Was Everything Fashion Should Be
11 Honoré Launches First of Many Influencer Collaborations
Ahead, we talked to the entrepreneur about his career change, his interest in fashion and the event that sparked the idea for 11 Honoré (even if he didn't realize it then).
What made you realize that fashion was a field you could build a career in? And why go the communications route?
It began back in 2006. Really, it was sort of chapter two. I had been in tech for about a decade and I moved to Los Angeles. It coincided with getting sober and also with some self-reflection on what I wanted to do and what I [felt I] wasn't doing creatively in the tech industry. It kind of began based on engaging my entrepreneurial and creative spirit. It was really through that process of launching what was at the time called Fathom Event Strategy — an opportunity for me to work on the West Coast.
I was from San Francisco, living in Los Angeles with this huge foothold in Orange County, which was a huge consumer market for luxury brands. We became the catchall agency for luxury brands wanting to do something on this coast, because I touched the alternative markets. It was really through pursuing my creative passion, doing something less academic than what I was doing in tech — and through being a voice of authority for luxury brands doing very targeted event marketing strategies — that chapter two evolved.
I have to give a shout out to my dear friend, Heather Vandenberghe — Heather, at the time, was the head of communications for Louis Vuitton. I was brought on to do a project in 2007 in Los Angeles, for the Murakami exhibit at MOCA sponsored by Louis Vuitton. It was really Louis Vuitton that became my first big fashion client. It just kind of took off.
What got you interested in event planning and marketing?
Towards the end of my tech career, I got involved in philanthropy in San Francisco. I was chairing opening nights for the young patrons group of the San Francisco Symphony. I was a member of the HRC and chaired their San Francisco gala. I really loved that piece of my philanthropic side and wanted to leverage what I was enjoying on the event marketing side. That's how the career really developed.
And you did that for a while in L.A.
Yeah, I did it from 2006 to 2010. [Around] the fall of 2009, I shared a client with HL Group. By summer, they bought my agency and I stayed on and ran their L.A. office from 2010 to 2015. I began consulting in the beginning of 2016 which, I didn't know at the time, was really the beginning of what grew into 11 Honoré.
What made you realize the opportunity that would become 11 Honoré? Was there a catalyst that made you want to go into a slightly different part of the fashion industry?
It was very similar to what happened in '06 when I left tech. I loved working with HL Group and loved running an office, but it was just time to pursue something more entrepreneurial. It's really about listening to your gut, trusting the universe and knowing that if you take that leap of faith, opportunities will unfold.
One of my first projects in 2016 was an assignment with Marina Rinaldi. My clients are like family to me. This one woman in particular, Kristine Westerby, who at the time was head of communications for Max Mara, had been my client [before] — she called me and said, 'Look, I need you to work on a project for Marina Rinaldi, their parent company owns Max Mara.' It was through that that the seed was planted. I worked with the brand, I worked with young influencers here in L.A. and I really saw the opportunity. Here were all these incredible, bright, brilliant, cool women and there's such little product out there for them. Marina Rinaldi, at the time, was really sort of the only elevated offering in the category.
Was there anything about that experience that confirmed to you that you could take that leap of faith and it would turn into something bigger?
Well, I just think you can't overanalyze any decision. One of my greatest skills is, I don't ever see anything other than the end goal and opportunity. I get very excited about doing things. And through that excitement and passion, I'm able to move really, really fast. I never saw it as an impediment. I was like, 'Oh, you're amazing women. Oh, there's nothing for them. Go fix that.' And that's how it all started.
Something you hear a lot — and something you've spoken about — is how, when talking about expanding sizes, some in the industry are apprehensive. What did you find were the challenges in selling the idea for 11 Honoré? Was there any specific concern voiced to you by designers that surprised you?
No. Again, I was very driven with the concept and was also very careful about who I spoke to about it. I kept a very narrow focus on the assignment and task — building the right team, pulling together the right investors. Because of my tenure in the industry, I had amazing access to incredible designers and many former clients, and I got resounding support for the concept.
I kept a very open line of communication with brands that may have said things that were inappropriate, brands that may have not agreed with wanting to dress this customer but have come full-circle and are dressing this customer now. We're meant to be an inclusive platform and with that comes a narrative of kindness. If you're not ready now, you know what? I'm going to continue to be persistent. I'm going to stay in your face until you're ready — but when you are ready, we're going to be ready for you.
What have you found are the specific costs and decisions required to expand a brand's sizes?
What I learned early on is that we had to remove all barriers to entry. Any reason why a brand would say no, we had to have an answer to. And I spoke on a Fashionista panel with Tyler [McCall] back in 2017 — it was there that I met consultants that came on in the early days to help us with pattern development for our brand partners. We have since doubled down on that commitment and have all of those resources in-house. We really intend to play a role in creating some consistency around the nuances of extended sizing and be a partner to help these brands perfect fit, to ensure that things like arm holes and the length-versus-width are graded properly — all of these things that this customer struggles with when they experience poorly-fitting garments.
The company recently announced a new round of funding, which had partial investment from Nordstrom. You said it would allow for an increased focus on personal styling in the future. How has 11 Honoré been doing it and how do you hope to expand it?
We refer to it as client services, and it's really the core of our business. We launched initially in August 2018 and what we saw quickly — I mean within the first 30 days — was that this customer responds well to personalized service. So when we went out to fundraise, we had a thesis on the category of business, things like the AOV [average order value] reaches $2,500 when we touch our customer in their life and the return rate is less than 20%. We have this real-time communication and really understand what the customer wants, what works and more importantly what isn't working.
Now we have 12 associates in every major market, from New York to Chicago to Atlanta to Dallas to Los Angeles. As we remain a digitally-native brand, we have very high-touch personal styling and shopping network. No matter where you are in your fashion journey, if you are confident to order off the site without any help, great — if you want someone to walk you through certain styles, certain brands and understand fit better, we have that for you as well. We really want to provide a complete and comprehensive personal shopping service.
11 Honoré is a very digitally connected company. Does your tech background influence the building of the company at all?
I think it's less about how it actually impacted [me] from a skillset perspective and more about [having been] a part of a startup that had a very successful exit that went public and a part of the Silicon Valley narrative. Understanding the culture of startups, the culture of venture was very helpful for me.
Now that you're a few years into 11 Honoré, what do you think is the next challenge that the conversation around size inclusivity in fashion faces?
More brands on the platform. We still have a tremendous amount of work that needs to happen. If you think of the brand matrix on Net-a-Porter or on MatchesFashion or Moda Operandi or Nordstrom, for that matter — you're in the hundreds. We have, I think, at any given time, a mix of 90 brands on the site. It's ensuring that we continue to build our brand matrix and that we're expanding into designers that our customer is asking for. From there, it's really working closely with brands to ensure that their fit is spot on. Then number three, we see a massive opportunity with developing our own brand, which we're in the process of doing and really excited to introduce that into the market.
Then, we have a huge opportunity with our new Nordstrom partnership. We're going to be working closely with them as we head into 2020.
You mentioned an in-house brand. What gap are you hoping to fill with that?
We don't like the word 'basic' because there's nothing basic about it: It's wardrobe essentials that she wants to buy into time and time again. It's perfect fit. It's a really aspirational price point. It's meant to complement our existing brand partners. It really is fitting a need that currently doesn't exist on the site.
Does data factor into the development of the design at all?
Of course. Anything we do, it's rooted in data — but we also have access to so many customers through client services that it's also about listening to what the community is asking for, listening to what the customer wants. It's that engagement that's so critical to what will be the ultimate success of this brand. And we want our community and our customers to be a part of the planning process.
What do you look for when you're hiring someone to join the team?
Well, first of all, you have to live and die by the customer. Two, a natural curiosity, right? To just ask questions and ask why. Then pace. Look, this is a very intense company — you have to really, really, really want to create change and believe in creating change. But change doesn't come without a lot of hard work. So you have to be passionate about what we're doing because it takes a tremendous amount of effort.
Alright, my last question: What's the best career advice you've ever gotten?
Trust your gut. I know for a fact, personally, that when I don't listen to myself, that's when I make the biggest mistakes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.