This year’s nominees for the Fashion Group International’s Rising Stars awards were wise to make Thursday night’s party in their honor at Saks Fifth Avenue a selfie-free zone. But that didn’t mean finalists weren’t using the occasion for some serious self reflection.
In an industry where “Busy?” is a routine cocktail party conversation starter (and often ender), the contenders were more than happy to detail the fits and starts it took to be in-the-running. Not exactly newbies, several of the 40 had toiled for other designers and companies before venturing out on their own. FGI’s Margaret Hayes clued them in to the fact that 70 percent of the applicants don’t make the final cut. With the winners in eight categories set to be revealed at a Jan. 27 luncheon, she was already couching them for the possibility of defeat. “If you don’t win the prize, please come back,” said Hayes, stressing how many winners needed numerous attempts to make it to the podium.
Quick as this year’s crop of nominees were to flash a congratulatory smile or indulge in a flute of Champagne, their accounts of entrepreneurism were unabashedly sobering. More interested in longevity than crash-and-burn success, several openly discussed how financial stability is as important as good quality design. “Fashion is a big business today. These days you need to have a large financial underbelly behind you. Buyers by and large are looking for designers who they think will become a brand or who have a large company behind them. They’re not taking a chance on the little guys as much. That has become more difficult,” said ready-to-wear finalist Charles Harbison. “The media loves it — they’re ready for new product.”
Before launching Harbison, the designer said he gained experience at Micheal Kors, Luca Luca and Billy Reid “learning how to create product that moves.” Now he likes the idea of having a client-based business, a base of retailers and special and pre-orders. Primarily self-financed, Harbison said he is intent on making the viability of his business clear to venture capitalists and others. “I want to build a longstanding brand. That’s what’s most important to me,” he said.
His competitors include Julie Haus Alkire and Jason Alkire of Haus Alkire, who started and ran the Julie Haus label for more than a decade before starting their new label. Successful as they were with major retailers, they wanted to regroup to feel more connected to their customers. Eighteen months ago they quietly opened a TriBeCa storefront to get immediate insight into their collection. Now friends are trying to coax them into making a bigger push with Haus Alkire. “We’re getting ready to get back on the industry train,” Haus said with a laugh. “… Buyers will tell you right to your face, ‘You guys are up against a lot of big companies with big PR machines behind them.'”
In favor of a more personal approach, the couple recently paid their own way to fly to Houston to host a trunk show in their client Nancy Allen’s home. With no idea what to expect, they wound up selling more in one day than they do in six months in New York. Another plus was the fact that Tootsie’s — a Texas store they’d been emailing for months- caught word and placed a major order.
Having started and sold the magazine The Spoon to Time Warner during the Internet bubble burst several years ago, they know how quickly business can change. Keeping with the slow-and-steady pace, they launched men’s wear three weeks ago.
Sailing through Saks’ main floor en route to the party, fine jewelry finalist Paige Novick noticed a shopper at her display and stopped to help. “You just have to be really tenacious and try not to get too knocked around. I think of it like surfing. It’s like riding a wave. You have to be OK with all the ups and downs, and just try to maintain a center,” Novack said. “First of all, you have to stop, take a breath, reassess and respond – and not just be reactive.”
Accessories nominee Yliana Yepez first took to fashion modeling for Christian Lacroix, Christian Dior and others. “I knew how to transform everything they put on me. I would think, ‘This would be good.’ But of course you’re a model, you can’t talk,” she said, pretending to zip her lips for effect.
She later started a company in her native Venezuela selling brightly colored handbags, which was successful for 18 years. After having to deal with what she described as a kidnapping situation, she shuttered the business and decided to relocate to New York. “I’ve done the whole thing – knocked on doors, sourced everything from Italy. If you’re not American, you really have to make an effort,” she said. “You have to be in business for a year or two years for buyers to know you’re serious. Because there are a bunch of people who aren’t. They do not know what they’re doing. They don’t have look books. They don’t know about responsibilities, retail or photography.”
Sixteen months into her new business, Yepez sells her accessories to Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and others.
Women’s Ready-to-Wear finalist Ji Oh is another Barneys New York resource, having had her collection recently repositioned near Victoria Beckham. A one-woman operation, save for a newly-hired intern, Oh shares office space with her midtown factory. She was gearing up for her first sample sale there Friday and her first pop-up installation next month. In step with today’s officeless workers, the latter will be inspired by a person who works from home. Oh compared running a business to keeping a car in the city without paid parking — “You think about it all the time and wonder if it should be moved. It’s responsibility and freedom but it’s good. Really good.”
Even though she studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins and Parsons the New School for Design, the Korean-born Oh started her career as a stylist before working as Shadow Connected’s creative director. As a stylist, she missed the design process. “It’s sort of like when you eat something new, you think you’re going to like it but then you decide, ‘No, I can’t eat this,'” Oh said.
Retail nominee Tinker Tailor’s Aslaug Magnusdottir said her experience in starting Moda Operandi helped, but this time around she has gotten into manufacturing with a Tinker Tailor collection. “That is very new to me and that’s been the biggest challenge.” With the help of her husband Gabriel Levy, who described his role as that of “Mr. Thatcher” (as in the first female British Prime Minister Margaret’s husband Denis, who was known to be domesticated.) “To quote him, ‘Not only do I do the laundry but I also do the ironing,'” Levy said. “Not only does Aslaug wear the pants but she’s the boss too.”
Jokes aside, the Tinker Tailor husband-and-wife team have amassed 150,000 subscribers in their 18 months in business.
Accessories nominee Beth Macri brought her own support, as in Rachel Shechtman, whose West Chelsea store was the first to carry her collection. Macri was picked up at Story’s first pitch night, essentially open casting-like events that are held periodically for new resources. “I had to be here,” Shectman said. “Beth was one of our firsts.”