NEW YORK, United States — For several seasons, between 2008 and 2012, Shane Gabier and Chris Peters weren’t sure if their fledgling fashion label, Creatures of the Wind, would survive. “We were stretched so thin and every season thought, ‘This could be our last collection,'” Peters told BoF.
Gabier and Peters started the label in 2007, not long after they started dating. Gabier was a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC); Peters a student. The duo bootstrapped the company, managing everything from design and sampling to production and distribution from the basement of their Chicago home.
The label's romantic, outsider sensibility struck a chord with editors and buyers — including influential retailers like Barneys New York, 10 Corso Como, Dover Street Market and Net-a-Porter — and won them $100,000 in support from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. But as orders began to grow, the designers faced serious cash flow problems and found it increasingly difficult to keep up.
2012 was a particularly difficult year for Creatures of the Wind. “As we started to grow, we started to expand the collection and try and offer a larger price range and things that were not so extreme, while still maintaining the same aesthetic values,” said Peters. "But it became physically unsustainable to manage everything on our own."
Indeed, Creatures of the Wind, which was, thus far, completely self-funded, had come to a crossroads and needed both cash and operational support to keep going. “We knew if we could find the money and technical support we would be ok,” added Gabier.
Since then, things have come a long way for Shane Gabier and Chris Peters, who, two weeks ago, announced that they had secured investment from The Dock Group, a Los Angeles-based firm headed by Matthew Walker, former president and chief operating officer of The Row, a successful fashion label designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. While the exact amount of the investment was not disclosed, Walker told Women's Wear Daily that The Dock Group’s strategy is to invest between $300,000 and $1 million in brands.
But for Gabier and Peters, the path to finding and securing the right investors wasn't quick or easy. "About a year and a half ago we started really talking to people and thinking about how we were going to go forward, because we were at that point where we couldn't really manage it by ourselves anymore and ultimately we needed more cash flow, we were hitting that stopping point," explained Gabier.
The journey also involved a number of unexpected twists and turns. "We started out with one potential situation that organically evolved into the current situation," said Gabier. Peters elaborated: "We had an offer from somebody, then the people involved kept changing until it came to be what it is now — we ended up with a totally different group of people than what we started with."
"The thing that is scary is that when we first started off we were offered this situation that seemed really amazing, but implied compromises aesthetically and manufacturing-wise and in the end we couldn't do it," Peters continued.
The protracted search and negotiation process — during which Peter and Gabier were counseled by several friends, editors at Vogue and attorneys working with the CFDA — helped the designers understand what kind of investor they really needed. "We realised how much we cared about maintaining the directional component of the collection as well as the manufacturing. That had always been important to us, but you don’t realise how important until it came into direct play with large sums of money," said Peters.
It was ultimately through friends that the duo met Matthew Walker, who, along with capital, brought to the table deep operational knowledge and a proven track record, as well as an appreciation for aesthetics, quality and creativity. “We already knew Matt’s history and what he had done at The Row — built the brand while producing really beautiful things in a beautiful way. So we knew right away that he would help us grow without having to compromise what we cared about.”
Another potential investor had steered Gabier and Peters towards producing in China, “so it was very nice in our first meeting with Matt that it was made very clear, understood and agreed upon that the level of manufacturing [we required] was very important. He also understood how important the editorial side of the collection is."
The terms were favourable as well. “The deal presented to us by The Dock was really favourable, which is why we were comfortable moving forward so quickly,” said Gabier.
Under the new deal, the collection will continue to be manufactured mainly in New York and Japan, where about 25 to 30 percent of the range is currently produced.
“We retain full creative control, but now we have spreadsheets and merchandising plans,” said Gabier. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about making the collection more commercial.” Peters added: "It's about making more options. It's not that we don't make a plastic shirt — it's that now we'll also make a silk version of it that’s half the price."
So what are Gabier and Peters' top priorities post-funding?
"The first priority is to organise the team; we have a team of people who haven't worked together before,” said Gabier, referring to the integration of their original team with new staff from The Docks who are now working with the label. The company is also in the process of securing a design studio in Manhattan’s Soho area. “Being more physically present in New York will allow us to oversee manufacturing more efficiently.”
Of course, Gabier and Peters also plan to expand their offering, introducing pre-collections and new product lines. "I think what you'll see is growth in every direction, each category will be more filled out," said Gabier. "It used to be that we were doing 35 styles and 7 to 8 of those were the more editorial pieces, but we were still lacking that really commercial entry-level price point. Now we have the resources to build that." Additionally, the company will start to reissue some of their most successful staple pieces from seasons past, including shirts and skirts.
The designers will also expand upon existing partnership with Tabitha Simmons to launch a more commercial footwear collection. And thanks to a connection brought to the table by their new investor, Creatures of the Wind has a knitwear line in the works, to be produced at a quality-conscious facility in Hong Kong with which Walker has experience.
Under Walker's guidance, Gabier and Peters also plan to use the data they have gathered over recent seasons to start better planning their collections, production and merchandising. “We’re at a point where we have enough history to be able to compile data and detect patterns. So we can see how sales function in specific markets and analyse what’s stronger in a certain market. That way we are responding directly to what is resonating the most with buyers and customers,” said Gabier.
The label, which currently does less than $1 million in sales via a small network of about 20 stockists around the world, also aims to expand its distribution network with a continued focus on North America and Japan.
But Gabier and Peters want to grow carefully.
“We have to be very aware of who our retailers are and what they expect from us, which is for the collection to be very directional. We have to maintain the emotional intensity we have become known for," said Peters. "But if you want grow, you also have to bring out the voices in the story that you’re telling that can speak to other retailers, to people that might be scared of a floral print pink polyester floor-length coat."
"We always want to have that coat in our collection. But it’s about finding that balance."