SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Minding Their Business

For aspiring fashion designers, both
talent and entrepreneurship are key
to breaking in during tough times

by

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Near the end of fall Fashion Week, the industry elite waved their exclusive invitations and pushed past bouncers to see Zac Posen's fall collection under the tents in Bryant Park. Less than 20 blocks south, Posen's original supporters — promoters of independent fashion — were gathering in Chelsea for a very different runway show, "The Recessionista's Solution to Fashion Week."

Behind the event was an energetic team called Hauteaholics Anonymous, one of several groups that organized an alternative to Bryant Park for young independent designers this year. The cost-friendly group format allowed designers to interact directly with potential buyers and customers and to network with their ever-growing community of peers. From more than a hundred applications, Hauteaholics co-founders Eva Shure and Sari Schwartz narrowed it down to seven collections by newcomers such as Thommy Douglass, Julia Darling, Abigail Lutz and Rachel Ancliffe. These designers were featured along with dozens of up-and-coming models, make-up artists, hair stylists, and DJs.

At the chic Ultra lounge on West 26th Street, guests were greeted by a fully stocked bar — every recessionista needs a drink to get her through the tough times. The hand-picked audience of indie-fashion supporters chatted loudly among themselves as they assembled, creating a loud, anticipatory buzz. They waited inches from the catwalk, some standing, some on the couches, some even sitting alongside the string of lights that partitioned and lit up the runway. The soundtrack said it all: "Native New Yorker," "Respect," "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing." The audience cheered and sang along. Roaring applause greeted each collection, in stark contrast to the typically reserved audience response in Bryant Park. Everything that came down the runway was available afterward at the trunk show — no six-month wait here for a toned-down version of the trends to arrive in department stores.


Videographer: Jess Star

Like most exclusive industries, fashion thrives on weeding people out. But Hauteaholics and other nonprofits such as GenArt and the garment industry's Showroom NY encourage community by supporting and mentoring budding fashion designers. There are also online resources such as the Nolcha, a fashion network, and the Smashing Darling boutique. Co-ops and stores such as Edge NY Noho and the Dressing Room focus solely on the young designer niche. All of these share the objective of jumpstarting the careers of young designers. Many of these initiatives are direct responses to both the worsening economy and the nepotistic fashion industry. Designers in this community have access to a large support group that has come together to weather hard economic times.

Bob Bland has assumed community leadership in the growing indie designer network. She — Bob is a she — teaches a series of workshops for creative entrepreneurs to help them develop business models. The classes allow budding designers to understand the obstacles before they start a business.

Bland does more than just teach, which she says is "the family business" — both parents were teachers. (And there are those Taekwondo students she trains. She has a triple black belt.) The 26-year-old also designs a three-year-old fashion line called Brooklyn Royalty. Before starting out on her own, she worked for some of the biggest names in corporate fashion, including Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. "I wanted to spend at least five years in corporate, to get an idea of how already established businesses run," she said. "It was always my intention to start my own business. You're doomed to fail if you don't have any industry experience and are trying to start your own line."

"The most difficult part is getting and sustaining funding, because of the way the manufacturing process works," she said. "You don't receive money for an order until you've shipped it, but you have to completely fund each order beforehand." She also warns designers that they need a "really consistent back end" — meaning financial reserves — "to successfully produce every season." Upfront costs can include producing samples for buyers and the runway, and paying the manufacturers ahead of time. "It's just a myriad of costs," she said. "And you really need an initial investment of at least $80,000 dollars, I would say, to seriously do a year, for a starting company."

While it may be difficult to start a new fashion line during the recession, Bland encourages those who have already saved up enough to get started over those just trying to attract outside funding now. "If you already have personal funding that you feel is sufficient to start a company, then you're going to get some some great deals right now on spaces and manufacturing," she said. "You can negotiate with everyone about everything. It's an incredible time for that. People are taking care of each other a lot better right now than they usually do."

 

For designers who haven't yet secured funding, trying to launch a successful line now would be like sewing a dress without a pattern. Both Thommy Douglass and Julia Darling have received significant media attention for their lines, especially after they showed during the Hauteaholics show. Douglass has been designing since he was 16 — in fact, he struck a deal with his high school English teacher, creating two bridesmaid dresses based on a Ralph Lauren ad for her in exchange for extra credit. Before he graduated from high school, he was selling collections of about 15 pieces, made from the Walmart clothes he tore apart and refashioned, to shops in Houston and New Orleans. Now 22, Douglass knows it's a bad time to launch a company, so he's biding his time. "I think young designers are definitely where it's at right now, but we're just overlooked if we don't have investors or sponsors at the moment," he said. In the meantime, he has a managerial job at Matthew Williamson's new store in New York's Meatpacking District, which allows him to network with editors and buyers who may be able to help him launch his line in the future.

Julia Darling is in a similar place. A singer-songwriter, she came to New York from New Zealand at age 21, after signing a record deal with Sony BMG. But she soon discovered other passions. While cocktail waitressing on the side, she found herself frantically sewing before each shift to create new outfits to wear to work. "I needed to come up with original designs on the cheap to make more tips," she said. Soon, customers were asking her where they could buy her clothes, and her line was picked up by a Lower East Side boutique. Darling is a one-woman band. She creates and sews all her designs in a studio she shares with her boyfriend, a freelance business consultant. She recently enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College to further her education and also has a full-time job managing and booking bands for Arlene's Grocery, a punk rock club around the corner from the boutique that sells her clothes.

Darling understands industry over-saturation (she gets about 40 e-mails a day from bands that would like to perform at the club) and she also knows that in any industry, timing is everything. For now, she's waiting the recession out and enjoying the press from the Hauteaholics show, which includes a feature in the May issue of Lucky. She's also active in the Lower East Side fashion community and has sold her designs with the "tight-knit family" that is the Dressing Room co-op.

 

Halfway down Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand, is the Dressing Room, a dimly lit boutique and bar. For those who wander into the co-op at night, it can feel as if they've stumbled upon a hidden gem, where the worlds of dressing and drinking collide. The space is partitioned — on the right, 12 different racks showcase up-and-coming fashion labels, ranging from couture-styled contemporary clothing to South Asian-inspired frocks. To the left is a long wooden bar, more often than not occupied by men waiting while their girlfriends shop. The projector at the end of the bar plays an endless stream of old movies. In keeping with the independent spirit of the co-op, a recent theme was "disaffected youth-in-revolt," with movies starring indie cult favorites such as Chloe Sevigny. In front of the projector is a winding staircase that leads down to the third section, a thrift shop where people can barter second-hand clothes for money or store or bar credit. The downstairs area also doubles as a workspace for designers who sell at the co-op. It has industrial sewing machines, a cutting table, and storage space.

In this brutal economy, the co-op model is a win-win for shoppers, designers, and storeowners. Shoppers are attracted to the alternative shopping experience and the lower prices. At the Dressing Room, prices start at $5 for a thrift store top and rarely exceed $500 for a handsewn garment. The co-op idea came to Alexandra Adame and Nikki Fontanella when Fontanella was a struggling fashion designer who needed a place to sell clothes and a way to attract customers. They added a bar as extra entertainment for the shoppers and their hangers-on. (Thankfully, the owners say, there have yet to be any red wine disasters on the clothing. And if there has been morning-after shopping regret, no one has yet used that as a reason to return clothes.)

Designers at the Dressing Room get complete control over pricing and the appearance of their racks, but also must agree to man the store at least two days a month. In a more typical boutique, sales on store merchandise would happen at the discretion of the owner; the designers would have no say at all.

The system works for the owners, too. "There's less loss," Adame said, "since we're not putting money out on products that are going to be left on the racks at the end of the month. If things don't sell, the designers take them home." Designers who sell through the Dressing Room rent space by the month at $325 per rack. The Dressing Room takes 10 percent of sales to keep the store running, and asks that designers always have at least 12 pieces on a rack at a time, so that the store never looks too empty.

Adame said what initially attracted her to the co-op business was the chance to support emerging designers and further the artistic community of the Lower East Side. "There's so much talent that goes undiscovered," she said. "A lot of creative minds and talented designers are more focused on the creative process, but they don't know how to sell themselves."

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The notion of a group runway show is most often associated with GenArt, a nonprofit organization that supports emerging artists in fashion, film, music and art in various cities around the country. At the end of 2008, Christine Park, a longtime champion of emerging brands, became GenArt's fashion director. Park got her start in the fashion industry working with former husband Steven Alan, managing his store and eventually becoming the women's wear buyer and retail operations manager. She moved on to work with nonprofits and became the operations director for Housing Works. Park also worked on an independent label for a year, with a designer she did not name whose collection was sold at high-end stores such as Barney's.

"I root for the underdog," Park said. "When I was a buyer, I would attend GenArt shows. I wanted to be part of an organization that really supported emerging talent." Having worked on the business side of fashion, Park does her part to keep new designers from falling into the traps. "I wanted to have an opportunity to find talent, support talent, and use some of the skills that I've developed over the years, even on the business side, to try and help promote these designers," she said. She is developing GenArt into a "one-stop shop" for designers, where they can find all the resources needed to create their lines.

GenArt is widely regarded as the indie designer's best possible springboard. Zac Posen is a major GenArt success story, as are Rebecca Taylor, Peter Som, the Mulleavy sisters behind the label Rodarte, and many others.

The financial crisis, of course, is very much on Park's mind. "Like the rest of the world, we've been a little bit of a victim to the economy taking a downturn," she said. GenArt recently decided to turn one of its annual shows into a presentation, with models standing showroom-style instead of walking down a runway. The presentation format is more accessible, allowing audience members to take their time viewing each garment and interacting with the designers. It is also much cheaper to produce.

Even long-established designers have been adopting alternatives to Bryant Park's six-figure price tag — cost estimates for tent rental alone go anywhere from $28,000 to $48,000. In the last season, Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson opted for off-site presentations to cut costs while others combined their shows and shared an audience, tent and timeslot. Fashion corporations are also saving money by avoiding business opportunities that distract them from their main lines. Another strategy is to mark wholesale prices down, in hopes of stronger, earlier sales. There is also more emphasis on creating basic clothing, which is more likely to sell than less wearable designs.

 

But times of collapse are also times of opportunity. Park of GenArt encourages those who are prepared to bring their business to the next level to take a risk. "I would say, go for it, but be really smart. Be more smart than you think you would ever have to in the world. You have to be realistic," she said. "But I think that innovation and real creativity, at any time, has an opportunity to flourish." Department stores see openings for new talent as well. Bloomingdale's, for example, held its first-ever open call in March, where the store invited designers to bring their collections directly to buyers for a chance to be sold at the store.

Like most exclusive industries, fashion thrives on weeding people out.

Despite the recession, there seem to be more opportunities than ever for designers to show off what they've got. Nolcha, an online business network for designers, is taking advantage of cheap rents and New York's growing number of vacant storefronts to establish a physical presence. In the co-op-like format of what the organization is calling the Nolcha Retail Space, 11 emerging accessory designers will have control over their own sections of the NoLIta shop and the inventory they sell. The store charges a 5 percent commission that will go toward paying sales staff at the store. Lynn Furge, Nolcha's Creative Director, hand-picked the designers from more than 350 applicants. "We want to help these designers grow their business," she said. "So many people have been steered in the wrong path, that they've been beat down by the industry. They just don't have the business partner to back them and point them in the right direction."

Nolcha co-founder Kerry Bannigan sees the concept as a way for designers to learn how to best use their resources. "It's about teaching them to brand themselves and run a business. At the end of the day, designing isn't a hobby," she said. "It's a business." Bannigan thinks there is no time like the present to move aggressively. "If you're an existing, emerging, independent designer, and you have some history, now is the time to really stand out and make your brand a success," she said. "Larger brands are closing retail stores — they can't keep up with business — and there's been a clean sweep of a lot of companies in the industry."

The retail scene supports Bannigan's point. As early as July 2008, Steve and Barry's, a U.S. casual wear chain, filed for bankruptcy, followed by the French-owned Morgan fashion chain, last December. Early this year, the company of Kira Plastinina, the 16-year-old Russian socialite, went bankrupt and closed all but two of 12 U.S. stores, and just this March, Lambertson Truex, the luxury American handbag brand, shuttered. Bannigan optimistically believes that some of those wary of investing in the stock market might just be willing to put their money toward support of an independent brand, especially one that has been around for a couple years and "wants to take it to the next level."

 

At the wholesale end of the business, independent designers who have already generated significant attention need sales managers who specialize in their needs. Since late 2007, the nonprofit Garment Industry Development Corporation has been running Showroom NY with state grants. The showroom promotes a select group of designers who produce in New York factories. It hosted its first runway show this past season and gave a definite push to emerging talents like Lee Phutrakul, whose line is called Chulette. The Hauteaholics show featured her spring collection, which in turn generated some post-runway sales for some of her older pieces. That overlapped with the contact from Showroom NY, which included her in its runway show for the pieces she will have available mid-summer.

Nyla Hashmi and Fatima Monkush are the design team behind Eva Khurshid, another line among the 10 clothing collections Showroom NY represents. Hashmi and Monkush heard about Showroom NY through the factory that manufactures for them and have found it a welcome resource. In one day, they might meet with the director of sourcing for the official Garment District corporation to discuss how the manufacturing process can work for them, or, they might speak to a business developer for financial advice. The next day, they might participate in a weekly seminar on improving sales.

"They're always welcome to come at any point in time," said Andy Ward, Showroom NY's director. "We really bend over backwards, because we try to make it as easy as possible for them to get started here. Otherwise, it's not that they're going to go offshore, it's that we won't have new designers. And that's a tragedy. That's what we're trying to avoid."

The showroom does its best to guide designers into creating lines that are highly marketable and more likely to sell. "Price points are pivotal ... especially in these times," Ward said. "We basically mandated blouses being under $200, dresses under $300, jackets under $400, because the market's not going to bear more than that going forward." The showroom also asks that the collections be around 30 pieces, and that the lines be versatile. Ward prefers lines with lots of mix-and-match options for tops and bottoms over pre-packaged looks.

Hashmi and Monkush have been best friends since childhood. They have been working on their first line for about a year and a half, and are finally ready to launch it for the fall 2009 season. While working part-time jobs, they raised start-up money to get the line off the ground, but have depended largely on the support of family and friends to promote the brand. "If you can make it in the recession, you can make it anywhere," Monkush said. "That's the goal."

"If you look at all the biggest branded companies in the U.S. right now, the Liz Claibornes, the Ralph Laurens, all those businesses were started in the toughest economic times in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when things were as bad as they were now."
– Andy Ward, GIDC director

Ward said Showroom NY's designers have been doing pretty well, making a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but are not yet at "the breakout stage" of a quarter of a million dollars. That would move them out of Showroom NY and into the private sector, with its greater potential for publicity and sales.

"They're really all trying to build the elusive five-million-dollar business," Ward said. "That's really the level where you can say, 'We've achieved a lot of success; business is going to be going forward for a lot of years.' You don't really get to that level until you're at about three million bucks." At that point, most designers have locked in loyal buyers from big department stores, like Bloomingdale's, Saks and Neiman Marcus. Ward doesn't believe it's difficult to build up to this level. Jason Wu is getting there. He is the Taiwanese-American fashion designer whose white one-shouldered gown Michelle Obama wore to the Inaugural balls. Attendance at his September show in 2008 was modest (albeit with the star power of Anna Wintour in the audience). A season later, it was packed. Tickets re-sold on eBay for $300 apiece. Experts say his sales for 2009 could easily hit $5 million, which, if it happens, would be remarkable for a three-year-old label that was relatively unknown before the Obama Inauguration. He has also been nominated for the prestigious award for emerging designers from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This honor has drawn attention to labels such as Rodarte and 3.1 Phillip Lim. Licensing deals can also make the difference: Christian Siriano, a "Project Runway" winner, now has a line of shoes for Payless. Ward says such deals can help make a career.

Hashmi and Monkush have their goals set high. As Hashmi put it, "We have big dreams. We want to sell internationally, we want to open stores. We want to do it all."

Ward too thinks economic uncertainty equals possibility. "I think this is where the opportunity is," he said. "You're one of the few people starting a new business, as opposed to, in good times, when the masses are right behind you. If you look at all the biggest branded companies in the U.S. right now, the Liz Claibornes, the Ralph Laurens, all those businesses were started in the toughest economic times in the late '60s and early '70s, when things were as bad as they were now. So I think it's a great time for starting the brand, because the field is a little thinner."

Because Showroom NY is affiliated with the Garment District, it works hard to promote local New York resources, including factories and manufacturers. While producing locally is nowhere near as cheap as outsourcing to factories in, say, China or India, it is rare for small businesses to be able to afford the minimum orders that factories abroad require.

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Brooklyn Royalty's Bob Bland is a big supporter of domestic production and considers it one of her main reasons for starting her label. It's why she named it for one of New York City's five boroughs. She recalled her experiences with Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and the streetwear line Triple 5 Soul: "Every company that I'd worked with was defined by some reference to Americana," she said. Yet, every brand had a factory in China producing the clothing. "To me, there's quite a dichotomy to the idea of celebrating and making their money off of Americana, but not supporting our economy," Bland said. "This is a point I feel comfortable being political on, because I'm American. I want us to get through this recession."

Retailers, too, say they are beginning to see customers with a preference for locally manufactured goods. "People want to know where their products are coming from." said Trish Darling, a founder of online boutique Smashing Darling, which carries Bland's line. Ginter is hoping that the warm weather will lift moods and help teeter-tottering sales. "There are people still buying," she said. "I think that independent designers are at a really great space in this world." Being a fashion designer herself, Ginter noticed the need for an easy way to sell her designs online, and developed Smashing Darling with a business partner named Julie Rorrer. To help the online boutique get its name out, Ginter is considering renting space at Edge NY Noho, a co-op boutique on Bleecker Street that features a number of emerging designers. She'd like a large space where multiple Smashing Darling designers can be showcased, both to increase sales and to give her business greater exposure.

 




Co-ops like Edge NY Noho and the Dressing Room are a departure from the flea markets that inspired them. At flea markets, anyone can rent weekend space to sell original designs, vintage clothing, jewelry, antiques and anything that no longer fits in the garage. Nicolas Petrou and Alex Pabon say the idea for Edge NY grew out of their earlier venture, Market NYC, a marketplace for young designers still housed in a youth center gym on Mulberry Street. Three years into the business, they decided to expand their operation to more than just two days a week, and created the more formal boutique space that is Edge NY Noho. There, designers rent space and sell at a slightly higher price point than at the weekend marketplace. While rental at the Market NYC is by the day, boutique space rental is monthly. Edge NY Noho now has 65 mini-boutiques available in one large space.

The concept caught on quickly with young designers after Petrou did some spur-of-the-moment networking at a Henri Bendel open call for new talent. Before Edge NY even opened, the two men had a waiting list of interested designers. They chose the first 65 based on how well the clothes fit Edge NY's target audience: urban working women between the ages of 25 and 40. They then provided business incentives for these designers such as racks, hangers, mannequins, studio and storage space. They put in free wireless Internet. "We wanted to give the motivation and inspiration of being around other talent, and seeing people progress," Pabon explained.

Edge's 3,500 square feet of display space makes it Manhattan's largest co-op boutique. It is also the most expensive for participating designers, who pay rents of about $1000 a month for 50-square feet. An accessory counter costs $500 a month. Designers such as Aimee Grubel, Sohung (Tom) Tong, and Selma Karaca found Edge NY worth the investment. All three built their customer bases at Edge and at Market NYC, and have since been able to work on their fashion lines full-time, open up boutiques, and show at GenArt runway shows.

 

Abigail Lutz and Rachel Ancliffe have last summer's economic scare to thank for their newest endeavor, an arts-and-crafts-inspired clothing line called Institute of Dress. Eight months ago, the pair was co-designing a line called Charles and Victoria (yet another collection featured in the Hauteaholics showcase), under contract to an investor from the Philippines. The two met four summers ago when Ancliffe apprenticed at the museum where Lutz was working. A similar aesthetic drew them to the idea of collaborating. When the summer program ended, they went separate ways but kept in touch.

When Ancliffe was approached to be the head designer for the new Charles and Victoria line, she called Lutz to help her out. "This was a handed opportunity to see if we were good partners, if we could start a business, if we could create good design together," Ancliffe said. "It was kind of like moving in together before getting married."

They were able to design one fall collection before the investor shut them down in July. "She felt it wasn't a solid investment," Ancliffe said. At this point, they had designed a line of 72 individual pieces with more than 30 looks. Of $50,000 in orders, cancellations brought actual sales down to only about $10,000. A lack of stable sales brought the contract to an end, but also freed the two women to pursue other opportunities. "Our partnership was so great, and we didn't want to lose the opportunity and the momentum we had as a design team," Ancliffe said. The two went back and forth a couple of times, deciding whether they wanted to risk launching a new line. They eventually decided to go for it, and Institute of Dress was born. "It was just us and our empty pockets," Lutz said.

The pair work together so seamlessly they complete each other's sentences. "This line is more us," Ancliffe said. "We tailored [the old line] to be more marketable." With the new line, "it's been refreshing because there's really no pressure because no one's buying," Lutz said. "When we design something, we don't hold it up and say, who's buying this, is it going to sell?" This is the complete opposite of the Showroom NY approach, where designers are encouraged to create clothing based on how well they will sell.

Where they had once held themselves back to ensure sales, they no longer feel that pressure. They are supporting themselves financially by doing fashion technical work such as measuring garments. It may not be glamourous, but it pays better than freelance designing. To keep overhead low, they work out of the apartment Lutz and her husband share in the Fort Hamilton neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their new collection's ideal customer places just as much emphasis on the process as on the final products. "We have unfinished hems [that the old line wouldn't have]," Ancliffe said. "That deters a lot of customers." The name of the label, she said, is "about working in fashion the way we want to. It's about trying to bend the rules a little bit, not always making the thing that's a guaranteed sell. It's doing what we believe in."

Ancliffe and Lutz say the way the fashion industry currently thinks is "too small." With Institute of Dress, they want to think about dress a different way. "You can dress anything. You can dress a table. You can dress a bed. You can dress a tree," Ancliffe said. "We want to keep it exciting for us and keep it exciting for other people."

For the partners, a clothing line isn't just about running a successful business. "The raw edges are really important to us. This is our art and it's really important for people to see how it's made. We think about the line not from a merchandising standpoint, but from an art standpoint," Ancliffe said. That may be the reason why the two are happy to lay low until they feel ready for a full-fledged launch. They have just finished designing their second Institute of Dress collection, for next fall, which they won't be launching until September. While they could have shown the new fall line at fashion week in February, like most established designers do (to give buyers and editors a couple of months to prepare before the actual season begins), they opted to wait six more months. "The economy definitely played a part in our decision," Lutz said. "But we were relieved as designers. We're not ready to present to the world."

"Our game plan is to work out our kinks right now, without having a lot of pressure to produce to stores, delivering, shipping on time. We're working through our design kinks, our business kinks, so that when people start buying again, we'll be ready," Lutz said. "People will be aware of us and hopefully we'll be the first ones they buy."

"I hope the economy in general makes people rethink what they're doing," she added. "I hope it makes things better and more streamlined. And maybe makes shops more interesting. I think what's been bought for a long time, pre-economic-whatever, has been really boring."

Park of GenArt agrees. She hopes the economy will "weed out a little bit of the fluff." She's noticed boutiques starting to blur together in the past few years. "There was not too much that you could really call unique," she said. "I feel like this is a huge correction. I feel like people are understanding pricing better, and I think people are understanding that when there's not as much money flowing around, you can't have so many lines that look the same. I hope that means that the best ones will survive, and maybe make room for something new and creative, as the other ones disappear."

Bob Bland has seen this happen with Brooklyn Royalty. She too sees an upside to the recession. "It's been a really positive time to tighten up ship, tie up all the loose ends, and just really get things down to the core of what we need, what we don't need," she said. "It's been great for me. I love the recession."

Stephanie can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute