NEW YORK, United States — At first glance, The News showroom in New York's SoHo district looked to me like most other fashion showrooms. Rails of clothes hanging in a loft-style space with fashionable young people running to and fro, sending and receiving packages from a stream of couriers coming in and out. But on closer glance, it quickly became clear this was unlike any other showroom I had seen.
For one, two young stylish kids were motoring around the space on their bikes, and even had their own private space reserved for them, for which they could charge rent of $1 per day for use by the showroom's staffers. Scores of snowglobes, some of which were so old there was no water remaining with which to shake the snow, were carefully gathered on shelves near the waiting area in an unusual collection of trinkets, each with their own story.
And, a special version of The New York Times' front page was laid out on a coffee table, announcing Barack Obama's election, interspersed with mock editorial celebrating the successes of Vena Cava, Alexander Wang, and Band of Outsiders, just a few of the recent success stories coming out of this now legendary launching pad for young talent in in the United States.
The remarkable, zen-like woman behind this wonderful and unusual scene is Stella Ishii, part den-mother, part fashion-crystal ball, who first made her mark on the New York fashion scene fifteen years ago, when she played a seminal role in launching the businesses of Martin Margiela and Vivienne Westwood in America, as part of Staff International.
After Renzo Rosso acquired Staff in 2000, Ishii struck out on her own, creating a special environment where young brands are nurtured and supported at the critical early stages of their development. As Ishii told me on my recent visit to her showroom space, the hardest part of her business is seeing the brands fly away once they have reached critical mass, but that hasn't stopped her from constantly seeking out the next great thing to come out of American fashion.
I spoke to Stella about The News' business model and teamwork philosophy, her top tips for emerging brands, as well as her observations on the ever-changing fashion system
BoF: Securing a showroom partner like The News can really make a difference for an emerging brand. How do you select the brands you work with and where do you find them?
I look for originality and soul. Having said that though, it's also important that young designers understand their craft and understand the niche their clothes can provide and the importance to stick with it. As for how and where I discover them, it all varies. Sometimes, it's simply a package I received that interests me, sometimes it's information from fashion directors and buyers and also from fashion editors.
BoF: Why do you believe it is important for a showroom to provide both PR and Sales support to be effective?
PR is the vehicle that helps brand a new designer and also to communicate effectively why their work should be noted. Sales and distribution, meaning what stores they decide to work with, is also important for branding. So it's important that the two, public relations and sales, have the same objective and work together towards giving identity to a brand.
BoF: How would do describe the environment you try to create at The News and how do you think this impacts your business success?
Our work environment is so important because it’s where we spend a chunk of our day, professionally and as individuals. If one is happy, motivated and eager to learn and grow as an individual, it surely spills over into how you approach your work day. I feel what we do on a daily basis is not anything so difficult and complicated. But how we do it and how much energy and soul is put into it, is what makes the difference and leads to things “happening” which is a magical thing. On a group level, as a company, I firmly believe it is based on respect and trust in each other. A good sense of humour also helps, as well as an understanding that change is the only constant thing in life.
BoF: Speaking of change, having seen many downward economic cycles in the past, what do you think will set apart the brands that thrive in these turbulent economic times versus those that fall by the wayside?
Brands that understand their niche and customers will be the ones that thrive. It’s also very important to understand the market and trends. I think, more than ever, customers are looking to justify their purchases—which is about a perceived value. Brands need to be aware of this and need to do their market research.
BoF: What's changed the most in the fashion business in the past twenty years, when you first started working in fashion?
Not only fashion but the world has changed so much during this time— some things for the better and some things totally spinning out of control.
In fashion, it feels to me that everything has been done and there’s nothing you can say is so new and truly original. But with the advancement of technology and what that offers to designers, I think it’s a constant re-inventing of what’s been done but with a current twist. An understanding and appreciation of “classics” is always an important place to begin. The media's interest in who is wearing what also indicates that fashion has become something that everyone is interested in and a part of our cultural fabric. Information travels so rapidly and globally now that one can become a star so quickly—but that also means the next star is right around the corner too.
In this kind of world, I can’t help but feel it’s that much more important now to have a clear idea of what it is that you want to contribute to fashion—and stick with it.
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.