THE YOUNG DESIGNER’S SURVIVAL GUIDE
TEN UP-AND-COMING TALENTS WEIGH IN ON HOW TO KEEP ONE’S BUSINESS AFLOAT BEYOND THAT FIRST RUNWAY SHOW — FROM NOT LETTING RAVE REVIEWS OBSCURE THE BOTTOM LINE TO — GROAN — MOON-LIGHTING FOR FRUIT OF THE LOOM.
Byline: Leonard McCants / Eric Wilson
If you’re a young designer, struggling to make things happen or looking for backers, don’t give up hope.
But don’t get too excited, either.
Season after season, New York’s show calendar is littered with dozens of entries from your colleagues, eager to score big with the press or catch the attention of a department store or conglomerate, all trying to become the next Miguel Adrover or Imitation of Christ.
Persistence and talent are important, but not everyone will come out a winner. Some have come and gone, while others have managed to hang on to small, but respectable businesses independently — and they like it that way. Every failure or success comes from a different set of circumstances, from growing too quickly to overextending resources.
While not everyone wants to become the next commercial powerhouse, it’s safe to say all designers share one common goal in this industry, which is to survive.
So WWD polled several emerging talents, who’ve each experienced varying degrees of success, about their advice for neophytes. They’ll be the first to say there’s no one secret to a thriving business, but they have picked up a few helpful pointers along the way.
critical praise does not guarantee success — but a healthy cash flow doesn’t hurt: Jason Bunin has had one of the hottest men’s wear collections around since he launched his business two years ago. He followed up with a women’s collection, which made its runway debut in September. But Bunin is breaking from the fall shows to take stock of the direction his business is going.
“Although [you] want to be creative, you have to be aware of all aspects of the business at the same time,” Bunin said. “It’s sad to say, but it takes a lot of money [to keep things running].”
Designer Peter Som, who has received several favorable reviews during his two years in business, added, “In retrospect, I would have planned things out a little bit more in terms of finances. I really didn’t know if I was on the shallow end, the deep end or if there was any water [in the financial pool].”
“It’s really hard your first season, because you haven’t done it before,” he added. “You definitely have to have a chunk of money in the bank.”
and speaking of cash flow…:
“You can get all the awards and accolades, but it doesn’t mean your product is connecting with people,” said Bunin. “The bottom line is sales, and if you can’t do that, then you’re in the wrong field.”
“Steady growth while keeping costs in control is the best way to not lose control of the business,” said Kip Chapelle of Rubin Chapelle. “Managing cash flow is probably one of the most critical aspects of survival as a small company.”
To stay afloat, said eveningwear designer Thomas Steinbruck, who is in his third year of business, fledgling designers should shoot for $1.5 million in wholesale sales within three years, then at least double that sum each year going forward. “But if you go that high, you have to think about additional production costs.”
don’t bite off more than you can chew: “Success means also that you can fail,” said eveningwear designer Sully Bonnelly. “You can have nice orders that you [then] find out you cannot produce, because of the cost of fabric and the time it takes to get paid for the orders, which is at least six months.”
Alice Roi, who was featured last September in Moet & Chandon’s spring Designer Debut, said she has begun to require minimums on orders as a necessary business move.
“At first, I thought I had to get my name out there, so I’d make the order and eat the money, but that costs as much as making a sample,” she said. “At this point, we’re pulling back and requiring minimums to fulfill an order.”
Mark Montano, who ventured out on his own with an eponymous East Village boutique nearly a decade ago and started wholesaling four years ago, said, “My biggest lessons have been to not go too fast, because you don’t have the money to go too fast. You don’t need to be the most famous, most fantastic designer right away. It’s really more important to lay the groundwork and establish yourself first.”
consider outside help: Roi is moving her collection to the Denise Williamson showroom this season, which beats her former sales technique of dragging a few pieces to retailers and showing them bits at a time. “Now they can see the whole collection,” she said. “I’m also talking to factors as far as pulling us over from season to season. They’re something that some people told me to be wary of, but there are actually some really legitimate ones.”
“The key is organization and being able to delegate,” said Som, noting that while he works alone designing his collection from his apartment, he also uses outside sample makers, an accountant and bookkeeper. “But it would be optimal to have a business partner who I could trust.”
In short: “You can’t do it alone,” Bunin said. “It’s a team effort.”
be creative about getting cash: Big banks and conglomerates are looking for designers with at least a few million in sales, so you’re on your own for a while. Depending on overhead, designers spend at least $500,000 a year on their businesses, and it often takes a few years before you’ll even approach breaking even.
Among designers’ suggestions for drumming up capital: Try ghost-designing or freelancing, teaching, or, if you’re really good, designing for another company that in turn will invest in your own.
“We opened the business with money we earned from freelance projects, and did not have loans or credit lines,” said Chapelle. “It is possible to grow without huge amounts of backing. There is a certain amount of struggle with working independently, as you have to wear many hats, but it allows you the freedom to be true to what it is that brought you to this business in the first place.”
Rebecca Taylor, whose four-year-old business garnered a Perry Ellis Award nomination from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, considers licensing another avenue, but also a “headache.” “If we were ever to grow at an exceptional rate, we’d have to get additional funding for sure,” she said.
William Reid, who for three years designed only men’s wear before launching his first women’s collection last season, said there are a lot of options available — though they might not be what you’d expect: “I started doing freelance work,” he said. “You need to pick something, whether you’re doing private label for Saks or designing underwear for Fruit of the Loom.”
be in it for the long haul:
“The most important thing is to pull [yourself up by your boot straps every day and be in it for staying power,” added Roi. “I don’t want anyone to someday say, ‘Remember Alice Roi?”‘
And Rob Pepin, a principal with Lauren Moffatt in her two-year-old signature sportswear firm, said that after a year of “spinning their wheels,” the duo found a way to enjoy the frugal lifestyles of designers on the rise, living on a sailboat and turning over whatever money they save to the business.
“You’ve got to keep a positive attitude,” he said. “She pulls me up when I’m down and I pull her up when I’m down. And at the end of the day we hug and make up.”