“Money, time, acceptance, quality, perception, employees, retailers, competition, political climate, elections, market, and the list goes on and on.”
The number of challenges Christian Siriano said he’s faced since launching his fashion label in 2008 is not small. It’s also not uncommon.
Designers, despite their glamorous-sounding roles, must contend with a range of obstacles — which, depending on their years at the helm, they may not have expected going in. Today, buzz of designer exhaustion runs rampant, but 10 years ago, it was much less of a threat. Designers had fewer collections, fewer decisions (see-now-buy-now wasn’t even a thing) and fewer responsibilities. For example, there was no pressure for them to be social media stars.
Running a fashion company is undeniably stressful, both physically and financially. As a result, surviving 10 years in the industry is a milestone many designers never get the chance to celebrate.
In the last two years alone, several well-known names have thrown in the towel, some just shy of the decade mark: In November, New York–based Suno, a two-year CFDA/Fashion Fund finalist that emerged in 2008, closed its doors, reportedly due to struggles to find the funds needed to move forward. In March 2015, after five years and multiple CEOs, Reed Krakoff decided to “suspend all future design and production” to look for potential investors and strategic partnerships, never to pick up where it left off. A month later, nine-year-old Ohne Titel shuttered, citing a lack of experience and external investment as the causes.
“There has never been a more inhospitable climate for small, independent designers than the one we have today,” stated Vogue editor Alessandra Codinha, in her story about Ohne Titel’s downfall.
Jason Wu at his spring 2017 runway show at the St. Regis Hotel in February (Image via vogue.com)
Even so, several have successfully pulled through. In the next 12 months, a handful of fashion houses are crossing the 10-year threshold, including Cushnie et Ochs, Christian Siriano and Sophie Theallet. Jason Wu just achieved the feat in February, commemorating the event with a dinner and runway show at the St. Regents Hotel during New York Fashion Week.
While all have reached different levels of success, each is essentially in the same boat. According to Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the CFDA, “Those who have made it [to 10 years] have done a good job in establishing their voice and identity. To continue to grow, they need to expand sales and look at investment opportunities.” And some say that’s where the real work comes in.
Here’s a closer look at what it takes to make it a decade, and where designers typically take it from there.
Shira Sue Carmi, the founder of Launch Collective, a management firm for emerging designers, acknowledged that “everyone wants to be an overnight success.” However, she advises the designers she works with — like Liya Kebede, whose Lemlem line turns 10 this year — to “make it at a slow build.” After all, what’s the rush?
“There are outside pressures to grow that aren’t always justified,” she said — these popularly include expectations to build up impressive stockists and hit big sales numbers, fast. “But [designers] are entrepreneurs. They should hope for the best, but be ready for the long road — because, most often, that’s what it takes.”
Those that have experienced long-term success know that building momentum requires working out the kinks, both on the business and the creative side of things: Jason Wu told WWD that, at first, he’d make mistakes like buying too much fabric. Christian Siriano admitted he launched without a real mission. (“I just knew I loved fashion and clothes, and making women feel great,” he said.) And Kolb pointed out that it’s common for new designers get in too deep, financially. (“At any point in a designer’s career, fiscal responsibility is most important,” he said. “Don’t spend money you don’t have.”)
While many hurdles are overcome within the first couple of years of launch, designers shouldn’t expect to experience a consistently smooth ride for a while. “It’s hard, and some days are so unforgiving you want to give up,” Siriano said, of his job to date. “Then others are so satisfying and great that you fall back in love with it. It’s a full day of emotions flying around every day.”
Because it’s key to building a customer base, establishing an identity is one of the first steps toward success for a young designer.
“By 10 years, you should have a pretty distinct voice and design aesthetic,” said Carmi. “And you should have a pretty solid core group of customers who really follow and love your brand.” Until those boxes are checked, you shouldn’t even think about growing your brand, she said.
As Siriano tells it, he made a name for himself simply by following his gut and holding his ground. “We are still doing things I have done since the beginning of my career,” he said. “I just think now they are more celebrated — like dressing women of all shapes sizes, and ethnicities.”
Backstage at Christian Siriano’s fall 2017 runway show at New York Fashion Week (image via thefashionspot.com)
His advice to up-and-coming designers: “Don’t be what everyone thinks you need to be. Work hard and be true to what you love, and don’t ever second-guess your instincts.”
Designer Sophie Theallet, who celebrates 10 years in the industry in 2017, seems to have no problem going her own way. In November, she made headlines by being one of the first designers to publicly (well, socially) announce her refusal to dress First Lady Melania Trump. In February, she followed up the bold gesture with an unconventional means of debuting her spring 2017 collection: a celeb-studded photo campaign that championed diversity.
By the 10-year mark, there should be some stability — “at least in theory,” said Carmi. “Most people level off to a status where they feel comfortable operating. The existential threat should not be applicable anymore; they’re no longer having ‘bad seasons’ that could be detrimental to their businesses.”
Typically, that’s because they’ve reached a point where they have an adequate staff, a reliable supply chain and investors on board.
“Mastering all of the operational skills is really difficult for a startup brand,” Carmi said, specifically calling out “establishing the right manufacturer and the right sourcing partners, knowing whether they’ll be manufacturing domestically or overseas, and streamlining distribution.”
Siriano, who took on investors in 2012 and said he became profitable “about four years ago,” agreed these things can be “hard to learn.”
“But balancing the design process and the business, and knowing what to do when … have helped me to survive and thrive,” he said. “We are able to do things that in the beginning we just didn’t have the manpower to do.”
For most designers, taking their business to the next level means a literal expansion — more stories and/or new product categories, for example — which typically necessitates more investment and leads to greater sales.
Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, the designers of Cushnie et Ochs — which is set to hit the decade mark in 2018 — recently announced they will launch a line of handbags in the fall, and shoes are set to follow. To note: They sold a minority stake in their brand in 2015.
With support from InterLuxe, which invested in the company in 2014, Jason Wu launched Grey, a casual “sister” to his main line, in 2016. In addition, he plans to launch eyewear, fragrance and his own store within the year.
Similarly, Siriano reported having several in-the-works projects: “We have expanded into bridal, the plus-size market is growing everyday, and we have new licensing product in the home category and new retail platforms,” he said. In addition, his international market is on the rise — however, he said, he has no plans to get “comfortable.”
“I think there is always something new to be done or something to change,” he said. “But I do think that next year when we hit that final 10-year mark, I will feel proud that we hung in there that long and hopefully have something to show for it.”
Image via the footwearnews.com