VPL: The promise of a creative-business partnership


Most of the greatest fashion companies in the world are the result of a creative-business partnership. Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole. Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giametti. Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy. Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli. The list could go on and on.

A business partner can share the immense workload of starting and managing a business, shield the designer from the day-to-day management so he or she can focus on the creative side, and provide a different set of skills which are important to the running of any business. This is the role that Kikka Hanazawa, a former classmate of mine, has been playing at VPL, one of New York’s most promising fashion start-ups.

Victoria_and_kikkaThe company was founded by Victoria Bartlett, a talented stylist-turned-designer from London. Her collections were initially conceived to meet the growing demand for utilitarian yet stylish under garments that could be mixed, matched and layered with other designer clothes. Since its inception in 2004, the line has gradually evolved to include accessories, bags and shoes while VPL’s foundational concept of underwear as outerwear remains intact. Earlier this year, VPL was named as one of the 10 finalists for the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize for 2007.

The Business of Fashion sat down with Kikka to ask her a few questions about the role she plays at VPL. Young designers take note. Kikka and Victoria are following one of the tried-and-true methods for building a successful fashion business: the promise of a creative-business partnership.

How did the partnership between you and Victoria come about? Why
do you think it works so well?

Vpl_spring_summer_2008_3 I saw one of Victoria’s early shows and introduced her to some of my friends who are buyers. I liked the VPL brand concept from the beginning but she was struggling with execution (from production to sales) which is typical of any small designer line.

Then, Julie Gilhart (Fashion Director at Barneys) sent an email to my former boss at Theory, asking him to help out Vicky in any way. And, since I knew her line, I set up a meeting between the two to them.

Vicky was then hired to be Fashion Director for Theory, and we got to know each other better. She always came up with amazing product ideas, and they did well at retail. I decided to help her out with her business out for one season, and after that we realised we could work well together because of our complementary skill sets. She is creative, talented and press savvy, while I can do the rest. I also have a creative side in me, such as painting and letterpress printing, etc., but I would call them hobbies not a profession that I should pursue. I also do not like publicity and would rather leave that to her. Anyway that’s how we became partners.

2. What is the biggest lesson you have learned about building a fashion business from scratch?
I did not start this business, Victoria did. I would not do it again. It’s a hard work. I cannot imagine doing it on my own.  But life is once and it’s short, so it’s worth doing what we are doing now.

3. Production is often the most challenging aspect to get right. How do ensure that your quality is up to snuff and that everything is delivered on time?
Production is ALWAYS challenging for any business. As for quality, I learned early that there are two quality standards: one is scientific and another is subjective / relative to value. We listen to our customers and keep improving our quality. One way to achieve this is to evolve designs gradually instead of reinventing wheels every season. On-time delivery is possible by managing supply chain well. However, it’s always easier said than done.

4. If you were to win the Vogue Fashion Fund prize, how do you think you would allocate the capital?
We spend a lot of time looking for sponsors for our show every season. We would use the money to fund our shows. We would also love to use it to open our first retail store, though $250k won’t be enough for that.

5. Any parting words of business advice for emerging designers and fashion businesses out there?

I am not yet really ready to give any advice. When Daisy Wademan, a good friend of mine and author of the book, Remember Who You Are, was writing the Harvard Business Review article, The Best Advice I Ever Got, she interviewed Liz Lange, a maternity clothes designer. Liz told her that not listening to other people’s advice is the best advice she’s got.

I also heard from Andrew Rosen, who started Theory, that everyone said to him that no one would pay $200 for a non-designer pant.

Conventional wisdoms do not hold in fashion.

Above, a look from VPL’s Spring/Summer 2008 collection shown in New York last week.  All photos and content are copyright of The Business of Fashion. See our legal disclaimer for further details.