NEW YORK, United States — “It’s great if you have great product… It’s better if you have a great story behind it,” said Eva Chen, head of fashion partnerships at Instagram at the Parsons School of Design on Wednesday night. Onstage in front of a sold-out audience of almost-500 students and young entrepreneurs, Chen was joined by Aurora James, founder of accessories label Brother Vellies, Jen Rubio, founder of direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away, and Iris Alonzo and Carolina Crespo, founders of the Los Angeles-based label Everybody.World to talk business, brand-building and the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
Led in conversation by BoF’s New York editor Lauren Sherman, the founders and leaders got candid about how to start a business in fashion, and how to keep building it. The panel discussion, presented as part of a long-term partnership between BoF and Topshop, was the second in a series that kicked off in April in London.
Read on for five key lessons the panelists revealed about how to build a business in fashion today.
1. Identify a gap in the market — and make sure you are passionate about it.
“Two years ago, the only thing I knew about luggage was that I had some,” said Rubio, who encouraged the audience to think about products they need but can’t find on the market, and come up with a solution. “I didn’t start thinking, 'It would be really great to start a direct-to-consumer travel goods brand.' It was like, 'oh, my bag broke' and it was super annoying to buy a new one,” she said.
James had a similar experience. “For me, it was about trying to prove that people in Africa were capable of producing a luxury product that could sit with all of the other shoe brands at Net-a-Porter,” she said.
2. Be prepared to work hard.
“You have to be very committed, very determined, ready to give up everything, ready to lose everything, ready to have all doors slammed in your face,” said James, candidly recounting her early days with Brother Vellies, which she started with just $5,000 in 2013. Even as her brand has grown and gained recognition — she won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015 — increasing sales is still a challenge.
“Even when you think you have a breakthrough, even when you design the best thing in the world, any fast fashion [company] can even make it faster than you can get it out to the store anyway,” she continued. “Just because you win the Fashion Fund doesn’t mean that it’s all hunky-dory. It got harder.”
3. Learn the ins and outs of the business.
“How many people in this room know what an RTV is?” James asked the Parsons audience. Few hands went up, proving James’s point that for those who want to start a fashion business, there is much to learn. RTV, or return to vendor, is a common practice by major stores: If they don’t sell a certain amount of a product, they return it to brands and ask for their money back.
“There are companies that are bankrupted for things like that,” explained Alonzo. She and Crespo spent most of their careers at American Apparel, which only sold product through its own stores and e-commerce channels, and are well aware of the risks of working with retailers. “It’s so much easier to control your own destiny, control your own supply chain,” said Alonzo. “We are starting to do preorders now and that is a great tool, especially for a small business like ours.”
4. Establishing a signature identity on social media is key.
Brands that drive sales through Instagram have carefully honed visual identities that resonate with consumers. “I can tell a Mansur Gavriel post from a mile away,” said Chen. With the advent of Instagram Stories, where content disappears after 24 hours, there is now also space to play with off-the-cuff content. “I think for brands, and for people, having an original voice and being yourself is really important,” said Chen.
Rubio reminded the audience not to underestimate the power of paid advertising on social media platforms, which can amplify content. “If you’re good at [creating authentic content online] and you nail that, the amount that you can amplify what you’re doing with these tools that Instagram and Facebook have is astounding,” said Rubio. “The platforms make it really easy and really simple, and you get a ton of data back.”
5. Embrace failure.
“There’s not a linear path to success,” said Rubio, recounting the many different jobs she had on the way to Away. “It’s so easy to look at something and be like, 'I don’t know what to do to get there.' Two years ago the only thing I knew about luggage was that I had some.”
Chen agreed, and remembered a setback at Lucky magazine that prompted Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to send her an e-mail with just the words “Move forward.” She wanted the students in the audience to take home the same advice. “Every failure I’ve had, I’ve learned from,” said Chen. “And there’s no such thing as wasted experience. Move forward always.”
Inside the Industry is part of Future VOICES, a long-term partnership between The Business of Fashion & Topshop dedicated to nurturing the next generation of global industry talent. It is based on a shared mission to democratise and open the fashion industry by connecting, informing and enabling its future leaders. Stay tuned for the next event in London in September.
Topshop is giving students free BoF Professional memberships – providing the essential information and insight to progress their career. Get your membership here.