The fashion industry is in flux, as long-held traditions — like the seasonal show schedule and brick-and-mortar retail — are called into question. Young, independent designers appear to have more options than ever before, but the reality is less idyllic.
Upstart designers are under pressure to produce more, better, faster — but often lack the necessary support to help them do so. For our latest installment of Confessions, in which we grant anonymity for honesty, we spoke to an independent designer about the challenges of making it in a fast-paced industry that has an uncertain future, questionable values and a discouraging success rate.
On opting out of the traditional fashion system:
My company recently went through a restructuring where I took it off the fashion show schedule altogether; it was making me angry and I couldn’t afford it — it was too much about paying for things I didn’t want to pay for, like the rush to get something done overnight instead of the week-or-so that it requires. I don’t like spending money on things that I won’t get a return on, and when you rush a product, it’s not going to be something people can wear.
Now, I just do one collection a year and have broken it down into fewer signature pieces with more color or fabric options.
On the realities of being a truly small designer:
People always say that the biggest misconception around fashion is that it’s not all glamorous — everyone knows that already. But, for some people, being a designer is legitimately glamorous because they can afford to pay someone else to do the unglamorous part. My company, however, is truly a small business: I do the bulk of the work, and I have two employees.
Since I’m already running around to sewers and things, I will often handle production for other pseudo-small companies — many that are basically run by the wives of very rich men who have the ability to live out that glamorous, independent label concept. They pay me to go pick everything up and tell the sewers how pieces should look.
On the industry’s questionable values:
In this industry, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, or decoration. A young designer needs to be able to cut through that stuff really fast, or it will drain them financially. By that, I’m talking about the fancy showrooms and the lofty promises people make you [about selling your line] — they all have hidden costs or barriers. You get approached by a lot of people who are just trying to hustle you out of money — whether it’s a photographer who couldn’t fulfill the original promises they made, manufacturers who inflate prices, Instagram influencers who reach out asking for free clothes or other designers who barely know you; they beg you to connect them with even your most remote industry connections. People forget what’s professional, but judging from those designers who do break through, you can see that the industry rewards bad behavior.
On leaving the glorified hustle behind:
I’m just not interested in being that aggressive. Every single large department store has contacted us through Instagram because they like our aesthetic and photographs, so I like to focus on that creative stuff because it’s more sustainable than the so-called hustle. The idea that we might grow spectacularly is no longer on my mind when I release a collection. Retailers have so many options today for stocking their stores, and I think they appreciate that I’m taking the extra time to think about the product, rather than releasing [new stuff] every season.
On the need for today’s designers to be marketers, too:
I’m not a salesman. Most designers hate selling. I was in a meeting with a large department store buyer and she asked me how I see my line. I told her I saw it as being similar to a Jil Sander Navy: American sportswear that mixes casual and formal elements. She goes, “Well, we see you as athleisure — like a cooler Outdoor Voices.” And I was like, “Uh, okay. I don’t have any sports bras or leggings in my collection, but sure — whatever you want me to be to get me into your store.”
If you are one of those people who pays someone else to do all the grunt work, you probably have more success in these meetings because you go in less beaten-down by the process. You’re able to sell the fantastical dream of the job and the brand a bit more. By the time I go into these meetings, on the other hand, I have nothing left to give.
Not to mention, their own models:
If you want to have your own label, you have to self-promote. That really drives me nuts. A lot of male designers get away with doing less, whereas females have so much added pressure to be their own brand ambassadors. I could probably make a lot more money by using myself as the model, but I would never do that because I hate that stuff.
On the industry’s low success rate:
The whole industry is like a fucking pyramid scheme. It’s like one of those slot machines where you keep putting in coins in hopes of hitting the jackpot. One of the biggest challenges, aside from the technical stuff and the money, is trying to find the motivation at this point — it’s just like, “Why am I doing this?”
It’s best to start off all optimistic and dreamy, because you’ve got a long way to fall. I definitely started off thinking about designers like Alexander Wang and believing that, as long as I had my family behind me and was making cool clothes, it would all work out. I soon realized that I would need more energy, more money and more. This industry sucks, and you’ll learn that no matter what.