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CFDA Session Offers Start-Up Tips

NEW YORK — For an audience of young designers eager to discover the secrets of business success, the wisdom offered at a seminar last week ranged from Nicole Miller’s assertion that her male competitors have an easier time to Joseph Abboud...

Jeffrey Tweedy, Nicole Miller and Marty Staff talked about challenges facing young designers.

Jeffrey Tweedy, Nicole Miller and Marty Staff talked about challenges facing young designers.

Steve Eichner

NEW YORK — For an audience of young designers eager to discover the secrets of business success, the wisdom offered at a seminar last week ranged from Nicole Miller’s assertion that her male competitors have an easier time to Joseph Abboud chief executive Marty Staff telling them that it’s sometimes OK to manipulate facts.

This story first appeared in the July 19, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As part of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s campaign to bring meaningful benefits to its younger members and those beginning careers, the organization sponsored with Gen Art a seminar on the “Business of Fashion” that is the first in a planned three-part series.

The panelists focused on what it takes for young designers to build the foundations of their businesses and shared their own stories of making it on Seventh Avenue. They were questioned by Teri Agins of the Wall Street Journal. When taking questions from the audience, however, the panelists — Miller, Staff and Jeffrey Tweedy, executive vice president of Sean John — learned that the challenges facing the newest generation of designers are greater than in the past.

“It’s much tougher today than when we started out,” Miller said. “We got it together with $100,000 and just a couple of orders, but you couldn’t do that today.”

They were asked about how to find the perfect business partner, choose a showroom or an agent or trade shows. In some cases, there were young designers who said they tried everything but were no closer to success than when they had started out. Among them were Richard Metzger, who makes plus-size clothing, and Renaldo Barnette, who has worked with Tuleh and Nicole Miller, teaches design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and tried his own collection last year that didn’t succeed. “I’m tapped out,” Barnette said.

Agins started the session by asking a question that those in the audience had been asking themselves: “How does a young designer get money these days?” The answers weren’t easy — find a job, borrow from friends, draw a lot of buzz and hope for the best.

“Lenders don’t care about potential,” Staff said. “They only care about your books.”

To one designer, who described her ambitions more eloquently than her business plan, he said, “If you went to a traditional investor and said what you just said, I doubt they would have any interest.”

Staff advised the audience to consider the basic expenses of their businesses, urging them to invest as little as possible in their own salaries and offices and instead focus their resources on creating a product that meets a consumer need in the market.

“One of the realities of our business now is that the strong are getting stronger, and the weak are getting pushed out,” he said.

Sean John recently formed a joint venture with Zac Posen, attracted by Posen’s strong following in the press and by young celebrities wearing his dresses. “It’s a small business, but attractive to us because he’s getting the attention,” Tweedy said. “That is important in the industry.”

Miller referred to Posen’s success as well, noting that it has become critical for designers to chase celebrity status in the media to maintain the interest of consumers and to entice retailers to carry their lines. While many designers rely on expensive runway presentations to make their names, Miller pointed out that in establishing her business in 1982, it took several years before she could afford to stage a show. “It wasn’t until we made men’s ties, and we had a huge influx of cash, before we could do that,” she said.

“It’s easier if you are a guy,” Miller said. “You can go out and charm those young girls into wearing your clothes. If you’re a girl, it’s not that easy.”

If all else fails, Staff said there’s no harm in a little self-promotion. “If you can get one success story, it’s easy to build on,” he said, noting that if a designer has a strong run with a style at one retailer, they should spread the word to other clients, even overstate the facts — or vice versa.

“One of my primary competitors just got booted out of Neiman Marcus,” Staff said. “I tell that story at least 20 times a day.”