Sitting in the front seat at Startup Fashion Week’s Startup Designer and Wearable Technology Runway Show was incredibly glamourous and chic.
Fashion designers appear to have it all. Magazine editors, actresses and bloggers in the front row, celebs wanting to wear their clothes and being featured on the backs of “it” girl influencers.
But the world’s top designer labels are typically owned by huge investment conglomerates who finance their labels. Marc Jacobs is owned by LVMH and Versace sold 20% of its stake to money-management firm Blackstone Group LP in order to grow their brand.
Private investments help fashion brands quickly expand into new markets with shops, new categories and the ability to develop e-commerce platforms.
But without all that — what does it really take to be a fashion designer and create a sustainable business?
We asked 3 startup fashion designers to give us their take on the behind-the-scenes reality.
Joanna Duong is founder and CEO of Canadian fashion brand, Henkaa, a company that specializes in multi-functional and convertible fashion and accessories for women.
“It has to be economically feasible. How you’re going to manufacture it, where you’re going to manufacture it, who you’re going to sell it to and what price point.”
Being “price-sensitive” and “business-sensitive” are attributes Jo says all designers must have if they want to sustain a business.
“You may create a beautiful work of art, but you might have to compromise on the design elements or the materials to make it financially feasible to sell and to carry.”
“You may create a beautiful work of art, but you might have to compromise on the design elements or the materials to make it financially feasible to sell and to carry.” She goes onto explain: “If your design is going to cost $500, you’re cutting off a huge chunk of the market.”
Henkaa’s mission is to create convertible apparel and accessories that empower women of all shapes, sizes, and walks of life to do more, create more and save more.
“To make a business out of it, you have to have the margins and you have to be able to scale and sell it at scale.”
Jo also brought up the topic that all aspiring startups struggle with — the idea of lowering your overhead cost by working from home in order to ease the cost of the product offering.
“A lot of people think that nowadays because you don’t have to have a physical location, that there’s no hard costs involved. So what I’ve been seeing is people pricing too low in the beginning.”
Womenswear designer Lana Kuidir is based in Toronto and has been working hard to establish her namesake label. But she’s frustrated at the lack of understanding and awareness on the labour and manufacturing side of the fashion industry.
“People need to be more aware of where their clothes are coming from,” she explains. “It’s getting better. But the more customers are aware, the more retails chains and big companies will respond so that people don’t earn $0.05 an hour making fast fashion.”
Lana builds each of her collections on different memories, emotions and moments. She deals with private clients as each of her garments are custom made and need to be custom fitted.
“There is no aspect of being a fashion designer that is not difficult,” she explains. “Until the model hits the runway, it is all very hectic.”
Another one of the BTS realities of being a fashion designer is the opportunity to showcase and get exposure.
Headquartered in the U.S, IMG owns New York Fashion Week, Berlin Fashion Week and until recently, Toronto Fashion Week. Most of the events and presentations that happen in Canada are funded through private individuals or small organizations like Startup Fashion Week.
Carmen Popescu of fashion label NemräC Style is currently based in Montreal. She hopes to relocate to Toronto in the near future before ultimately landing in New York — considered the fashion capital of the world.
“Montreal is great for artists.” she says, “but Toronto is more business-based.”
Carmen was recently selected to show in New York. The opportunity gave her brand huge visibility. But New York is much more expensive, compared to the Toronto. Then again, Toronto is much more expensive compared to Montreal.
But considering most of her clients are not based in Montreal, it’s a move she’s looking forward to making in order to expand her business.
“You have to go where the customer is.”
Regardless of if you’re a fashion startup or any other sort of new business trying to establish itself and become sustainable, you have to be driven by passion and see success not as the destination but as the ever evolving journey.
“Nobody sees behind the curtain,” says Jo. “No one sees the struggle that goes on, what has to happen and what you have to sacrifice in terms of your time, in terms of draining your resources to do it.”
“Only when you start sacrificing your time, social life and putting your own money into it, do you realize how hard it is.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Carmen, who worked two jobs in order to fund her label in it’s first two years. “Only when you start sacrificing your time, social life and putting your own money into it, do you realize how hard it is.”
She adds, “You have to keep yourself in check with the numbers. Otherwise it will stay a hobby and not a business.”
Seeing the response and reaction that her designs evoke, is what keeps Lana inspired and motivated to pursue her love of fashion. “That’s what keeps me going through all the blood, sweat and tears.” she tells us.
Jo’s tip for up-and-comers: It’s important for young business people to keep one eye on the ball and the daily operations of their businesses. But it’s also important to keep the other eye on tomorrow in order to prepare for the challenges certain to meet you ahead.
Feature image courtesy of Lana Kuidir