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Mazdack Rassi on How Milk Studios Fostered a Community of Creatives

The Milk cofounder detailed how Milk, which began as a luxury photography studio, became a hub for fashion, beauty and creativity.

“I want to tell you a story about how creativity can build a business and how a business can become a movement,” began Mazdack Rassi, cofounder of Milk Studios.

After a brief background on his family — they left Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and relocated to Champaign, Ill. — Rassi shared how he rebelled against his parents’ expectations and eventually exceeded them by building a business — or as he’d put it, starting a movement.

Much to the dismay of his parents, Rassi dropped out of college after his freshman year and moved to New York with a $500 loan from his mother. He slept on his friend’s couch in Brooklyn, subsisting on ramen noodles, and at 24, took a job renting apartments. Through this job, he met his future Milk partners. They had just purchased “a dilapidated building in the Meatpacking district,” and Rassi had convinced them to open a photography studio there.

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My vision was to create the first luxury photography studio,” he said. “There were just two problems: one, I knew nothing about photography and two, I had no idea of the concept of luxury. But I had a belief that creatives would respond to an architecturally beautiful space with high-end services like a great hotel. We built it, they came and they never left.”

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Milk Studios officially opened in 1996 and became a “creative playground with integrity and purpose.” To build their contact base, Rassi and his partners reached out not to famous photographers, but to their assistants, inviting them to hang out, party and create. They became tastemakers, indicators of what is and is not considered cool, the ultimate focus group.

I was speaking at a conference where ceo’s and cmo’s were talking about using big consulting firms to identify trends,” said Rassi. “It’s crazy to believe that a consultant who went to Harvard Business School was going to predict cultural trends for you and your companies. Of course I say that with envy — I wish I had that kind of education. But it’s not the background to build a relevant brand today. If you hung out at Milk Studios, you would experience trends firsthand. From our team at Milk to the creative directors, the top photographers, the filmmakers, our community is where trends are born. They don’t research them, they create them.”

In 2009, Rassi worked with John Demsey on MAC and Milk, a fashion week for young designers. Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Joseph Altuzarra, Billy Reid and Pamela Love were among the list of designers who participated. The success of Milk’s fashion efforts eventually paved the way for a beauty launch and to the team’s advantage, they already knew exactly who they would make it for.

“Most new brands spend years trying to find their target audience,” Rassi said. “We had spent 20 years with ours.” The Milk girl, he continued, is both independent and confident. She wants clean makeup and makeup on the go and has a different definition of beauty. Rassi said he and his team were able to accomplish this because of the unconventional community driving their business.

The key, he said, was a simple technique: listening, tuning in and allowing the community Milk had fostered for so long to determine the direction of the company.

“Beauty is not a narrow definition,” he said in closing. “Beauty is about having the confidence to be yourself.”