NEW YORK — In a matter of an hour or so, hundreds of entrepreneurial designers learned that self-employment requires more than a sunny outlook in Seventh Avenue’s stormy business cycles.
A panel of industry experts doled out advice — much of which was not welcome news — at Wednesday’s CFDA-backed discussion, “Building the Collection.” Moderated by Ron Frasch, chief merchant at Saks Fifth Avenue, the group included designers Cynthia Steffe and Charles Nolan, Harper’s Bazaar market director Amanda Ross, Bergdorf Goodman’s vice president and senior fashion director Robert Burke and showroom owner Denise Williamson, who reps sass & bide, Ulla Johnson and Birkett, among others.
Gen Art, which also supported the event held at The Graduate Center/CUNY here, helped round up the crowd of 200-plus fresh faces. There weren’t too many dreamers, excluding the attendee who asked if two other audience members should take their little-known companies public. Asked to indicate how many already had their own businesses, nearly three-quarters of the audience shot up their hands. But only one-third of those entrepreneurs had worked for someone else before going it alone.
“I know this might sound like a big buzz kill. But I think you should learn on someone else’s dime and get years and years of experience,” said Burke. He cited Derek Lam, who worked under Michael Kors and others, as a designer who paid his dues before striking out on his own.
At 47, Nolan knows about dues firsthand, having put in his time at Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein, among other companies, before recently launching an exclusive eveningwear and daywear collection at Saks Fifth Avenue. “For me, it was about understanding all aspects of the business.”
His patience is paying off. Nolan plans to open a freestanding store here at 30 Gansevort St. next month, and aims to have other stores in China and Korea.
Panelists agreed that specialty stores, especially smaller ones, can serve as launching pads for young designers who might not have the financial means to sell a full collection to a major retailer. “Little stores have a lot to say,” Ross said. “As an editor, I love to run downtown to see what’s happening.”Williamson agreed, saying she makes a point of checking out stores in Paris, London and even in the small towns she visits. But Steffe warned the eager crowd about selling to little-known shops. “Just make sure they pass credit,” she said, wagging her finger for effect.
Asked to pinpoint what he looks for in a collection, Burke said aside from something unique, he also considers how a collection will stand on its own, how it will be positioned in the store and how people will react to it.
The fact that Lam presented a small but well-edited collection was a plus with Williamson. Aside from a strong sense of direction, designers need to have the whole package — a well-presented press kit, drive and desire, Williamson added.
“We really invest in the person and they have to have a strong identity and the capability to ship orders,” she stressed.
Burke estimated that half of the 10 designers Bergdorf’s might pick up for the first time succeed. On-time deliveries are crucial, as well as how a collection evolves from the first or second season, he said. The days when designers only had to design are over. To that point, Burke said that, during a recent visit to Bergdorf’s selling floor, Zac Posen fired questions at him about the timing and frequency of Dolce & Gabbana’s deliveries.
Frasch cited Giorgio Armani for being a hands-on designer who has not had a business partner since 1984. When Frasch worked at Italian manufacturing giant GFT, he was impressed by Armani’s discipline. “For all the product categories, he signed off on an every sock, neckwear pattern and umbrella. He has had a hell of a business plan, [evidenced] by how much money he’s made,” Frasch said.
Frasch, a seasoned retailer, offered some advice: “As a designer, don’t listen to retailers too much. You need to be your own designers. At the end of the day, it’s your name, your label and your designs.”
He also encouraged attendees to be ingenious. “People in our industry tend to look in the rearview mirror about what has happened versus wanting to look forward.”Williamson reminded the crowd to be patient. “A lot of designers want immediate gratification. But to build a business, you have to build it right.”
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