It’s that time of year: people are either applying for college or getting their acceptance letters. I’ve been getting several emails from people either thinking about applying to Otis or they’ve been accepted and planning to start in the fall and asking for advice so I thought I might as well do one big post. Here are some tips:
Things you can’t change:
–It’s a small school. Most classes cap at 20. People remember you at a small school. Your absence is noticed at a small school. This means a few things: first impressions are lasting impressions. People talk like they do in a small town. Otis has a strict attendance policy. Learn it, memorize it, live by it. Classes are going to be hard enough without having to do one over because you kept hitting the snooze button. There are good things too–small classes mean you get lots of individual attention.
–Morning classes. Suck it up. If you’re going into the fashion program, you will be at school at 8am at least 4 out of 5 days a week, I can practically guarantee it. Consider it training for the real world. The fashion department is right in the middle of the fashion district, which is not the safest neighborhood at night, so Otis Fashion doesn’t like scheduling late afternoon and evening classes. Other departments are located in Westchester, which is much safer, so they have later classes.
Things to not stress out about:
–It doesn’t matter if you don’t even know how to turn a sewing machine on or know what a dart is. You will learn it all from scratch. The only construction experience I had prior to Otis was a very simple a-line skirt I made to get my sewing patch in Girl Scouts when I was 8. Seriously. And now I can make tailored sportscoats and silk corseted ball gowns from scratch. See links to your right. In fact, a lot of Otis teachers prefer inexperience, so they don’t have to break any bad habits.
–Other students. Regardless of what you hear, there’s a lot more camaraderie at school than cutthroat competition insanity. Just keep your head down and do your work. And guess what? If you’re nice, people actually help each other. I have a particularly fond memory of a group of juniors who came by to help me hem my monstrosity of a ball gown for my senior show. Six of them sat around my dress on a mannequin, tossing thread cones to one another, while I was fixing something else.
Things to keep in mind:
–There is no such thing as a useless class. You will apply form and space concepts you learn freshman year in fashion design, unless you only want to design coffin garments. You will dredge up drawing and composition knowledge from the back of your brain when putting together a lookbook. You can find inspiration in all the cool literature and art you will learn about in your liberal studies classes.
–Most importantly, school is not the end-all, be-all. It’s the beginning to what will hopefully be a long and amazing career. Take it seriously but don’t kill yourself.
There’s a lot of talk in the air about the recession and how it’s affecting trends–trends in buying, trends in style. It’s true that fashion has always been a barometer of the times. Hemlines went up and corsets dissappeared to liberate women. War, and the resulting fabric rations raised hemlines more. Post-war boom inflated dresses, youthquake raised hemlines further, free love resulted in macrame couture, the 80s power era gave birth to shoulder pads even Joan Crawford would have raised an eyebrow at.
Once, when I was little, the adults were talking one day about the economy “looking good”. I asked my dad what a “good” economy looked like. He said it looked like a diamond–a small percentage of rich people on one the top, a small percentage of poor people on the bottom, with a great many people in the middle. That image has always stayed with me.
When the economy “looked good”, diffusion or bridge lines cropped up everywhere. CK, D&G, DKNY. Contemporary pricepoints with a designer’s mark. Can’t afford the $2000 Armani? Buy the $1000 Emporio. Now, the economy doesn’t look so good. The middle class has shrunk and the diamond is now about as rectangular as the emaciated androgynous models that have taken over the runways. Now it’s all about designers striking deals with discounters like Target. O by Oscar is flatlining, but everyone is buzzing about Comme des Garcons for H&M, or whatever the pairing du jour may be. (Side note–doesn’t anyone else find the Barney’s launch for Rogan for Target a bit weird?)
The rich, for the most part, stay rich. Maybe they’ll opt for a smaller summer house, or hold off just a little longer to buy yet another new Porsche, but they stay rich. They keep buying their designer frocks. The poor aren’t much of an indicator of the economy either. They buy what they can afford. There will always be poor people. It’s the middle class and how they spend their money you have to watch.
It starts at clothing stores. The $1000 Emporio seems too much now and you start going to A/X instead. Hmm, maybe you can find something similar elsewhere. Hey! isn’t Designer X doing a Go International line at Target and isn’t that guy always ripping off Armani anyway? OMG, if she can find an Armani mistakenly tagged $5 at Goodwill, I can too!
But people still want to give off the illusion of money, no? Not everyone sees your house and your old furniture, but everyone will see that your car is new(ish). People won’t flip your collar to read your label but they will notice you in some silky material with detailed bra-cups and assume it’s Proenza.
Interestingly, the trend with rich people, discounting (no pun intended) the flashy, insecure nouveau riche, is with understated luxury with (hidden) labels like Bottega Veneta. They have to separate themselves from the masses somehow, right?
These are all things I’m thinking about as I’m preparing to launch my designer pricepoint collection during a recession. It’s scary. Once upon a time you could count on the added boost in sales from the middle class splurging their holiday bonus on designer clothes. Once people start looking at clothing pricetags and think “that’s X tanks of gas!”, it doesn’t exactly bode well for newbies like me. We’ll see.
And then tell me what you think. Some tidbits:
Observers say an intense focus on wearable, figure-flattering clothes is among the reasons female designers have recently made enormous strides — even if they have a long way to go in such male-dominated fashion capitals as New York or Paris, not to mention the executive suite…
De Saint Pierre linked the rise in female designers today to the fact that fashion “is less couture driven. It doesn’t mean less creative. It’s become more real.” …
Missoni concurred that female designers take a different approach. “Men design what they would wear if they were women and women are flattered by the idea of wearing something a man would like them to wear,” she explained. “When I design, I always take into consideration the practical aspects of wearing, for instance, a sheer dress or a very deep neckline. So I always think what I would miss or need. I figure out new solutions, linings, finishings…
Indeed, Lanciaux said the moment of true equality will arrive only when it is no longer an issue if a designer is male or female. “When you are a great artist, everybody forgets your sex,” she said…
but I really don’t think Loni Anderson is much of a style icon and mimicing her look is probably not the best idea. I’m just sayin’.
Ok, that was pretty catty.
A friend emailed me this link today; Fashion met Tech and Tech decided that Fashion didn’t have enough rounded corners to play in the same Bubble.
Maybe it’s because I’m a blogging designer married to a card-carrying member of the geekerati, but you put Tech and Fashion in the same room and my brain won’t shut up.
The very idea of a fashion social networking engine like StyleDiary sparks a whole conversation about how the fashion industry has been affected by the internet and tech in general.
We have all observed the following:
1. The rise in interest in personal style over designer dictats, as shown in the popularity of blogs such as Facehunter, The Sartorialist, and Style Bubble. (C’mon, we all want to know what Susie’s going to wear next. Ironically, she first started off over at StyleDiary.)
2. How celebrities are losing their hold on their formerly-captive audience in regards to what to wear, as fashionistas (aka consumers) the world over are becoming increasingly cynical about professional stylists and paid endorsements. You can see blogs like Go Fug Yourself and Fashion.Verbatim. constantly talk trash about what idiot outfit a celebrity decided to leave their house in, as opposed to the idolatry of before. Fashionistas everywhere are sick of celebrities on magazine covers.
3. With eBay stores, Cafe Press, and other online shops, the speed of email, the rise in tech savvy even in our grandparents, and the growing library of online resources, it’s become increasingly easier to start new fashion companies. A new fashion line starts every time I open my feed reader, many because they can’t find anything in the market that is perfect for them, others because they think they can provide for a still underserved niche market, meaning there are more niche markets in fashion than Kate Moss has Vogue covers.
4. Everyone shopping vintage or scouring obscure online shops because they don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing. How much did the fashion blogosphere crow over the Witherspoon/Dunst “vintage” Chanel red carpet debacle? This much.
Which will lead to:
1. Shifts in interest affecting how people spend their money, and ultimately how designers and fashion companies will have to change to cater to their markets’ new needs.
2. People’s spending patterns for clothes eventually bleeding into their methods on purchase decisions for other items and services.
3. Major changes in how the fashion industry conducts business because of a) tech speeding up communication via email, skype, IM, webcam, and cell phones b) the increase in competitors.
What’s my point? The world is moving more and more to individualism and we could never have done it without the internet.
Fashion has and will continue to impact Tech more than Tech thinks, and vice verse. Arrington missed the real story–
YouTube StyleDiary does have low quality images, but that’s not why users are going there.
I’d like to respond to some points Miracle and Kathleen made in their posts responding to my original post.
Miracle: The difference between retailers/reps and designers is that we are (usually) not married to, or emotionally invested in your ideas. They are there to make money.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t want a sales guy to be emotionally invested in my ideas. I want them to be invested in making money for the both of us. An idea guy will love you one season and not the next. A guy who’s into selling and making money is less fickle. I got a whole team of sales guys who love the product but are lazy about pushing it because they live in Florida and they’re making 40K a year on another label and that’s just fine by them. When I said, “I’d love to have at least one sales guy who has a great enthusiasm for the brand, leading him to work hard…”, I meant a guy who had enthusiasm for selling the brand. He’s a sales guy. He needs to sell. And help me create a better product by giving me educated feedback so I can help him sell more so we can both make money. I don’t need people who love and gush about my ideas. I got my fanclub for that. (Mainly my dad and the boy. Hee.)
I understand what Miracle means though. I meet and read about a lot of designer who are so wrapped in their dreams and concepts that they forget this is also about business. Of course, if you’re happy to sell just a few hundred pieces a year to only those people who “truly get” your concepts, these posts obviously are not for you.
Miracle: Now the problem is compounded by the harsh reality that every showroom has their cash cow(s). And a line that isn’t performing isn’t given the resources that the better selling lines are.
This is a serious issue that requires a lot of attention, and it’s certainly something that I’m currently dealing with. Yes, I can completely understand that if my line isn’t selling as well as another one my rep deals, it’s not going to get as much attention. On the other hand, it’s still about money, and so if I call my rep and ask them why we’re not performing as well as Brand X, I want an honest answer. I don’t want the same set of lies that the lazy resort to.
Case in point. Boss calls Rep and says “Call Store X. We haven’t sold to them in a while. Why is that? Give them a call, see what’s going on with them.” Rep responds, “Boss, it’s a dead horse.” Boss says, “When’s the last time you called them?” Rep responds, “Boss, I’m telling you, you’re beating a dead horse.” Boss turns to me, the Designer. Boss says “Designer, photograph about 10 styles for Store X. They like x, y, z styles/looks, so something along that vein. Email Store X and see if they bite.” Designer does as such and secures 100 pc. order in 2 emails within 2 days. This took about 1.5 hours out of Designer’s time.
My issue here is that Rep didn’t even call Store X, just kept waving Boss off. Add to that, Rep wanted the commission because it was his territory, even though he didn’t do anything. He had his chance, you know? And with our pricepoints, a 100pc order still is a very nice commission for an hour’s work.
Kathleen: It didn’t occur to me that a designer would be offended with input from the sales reps regarding style direction.
There’s this fine line between designing the line and giving sales input. I see the former along the lines of “Those are some ugly buttons.” The latter is more like, “You know, Zoe, lots of people are asking for 2-button blazers.” Some of you may think that they are one and the same, but they’re not. The former is gut reaction opinion. I don’t need it. I have my design team for that. Not to say that I’ll flagrantly ignore and shun any opinion coming from my sales guys, but I value actual data coming from the field much more. With my design team or anyone else, I want something to back up what they have to say. You want me to change the buttons? Give me a reason. “They look cheap.” “They look like old-man buttons.” “Snaps would make this jacket more hip, with the chunky zips and stuff.” Those work. Now if my sales guys tell me his customers want a particular thing, I will listen. Example: at the company I used to work at, one of the bestsellers of the debut collection was a particular print caftan. For some reason, they didn’t run the style for the two subsequent seasons. The first collection I worked on at this company, the rep called us and said, “People are hunting down those caftans you did the first season! We need to do those again!” And we did, in a different print, and they were once again very popular.
My point in writing the original post, my excitement in reading the thoughtful responses, and my point in writing a response is because I want to articulate and maybe figure out ways for sales and manufacturing to work better together. Whining gets you nowhere; articulating the problem and trying to figure out a resolution is better. (Actually resolving something would be best, but one step at a time, no?)
With the industry the way it is now, I don’t think using independant sales reps with multiple lines works anymore. Showrooms are great for people who are just starting out and want the exposure that a group showroom can bring. Having an inhouse sales team looks like the best method. I see my inhouse customer service and they’re great. Partially, they have the boss’s presence in the office to get them crackin’. Another aspect is they’ve developed a comraderie with the whole staff that makes them *want* to get more orders, get bigger orders, etc., for the whole team. It’s hard to be excited about and loyal to an office 4000 miles away from you, faces you see once a year. A lot of it has to do with finding the right incentive for people. Some people thrive on positive reinforcement in the form of verbal praise and monetary bonuses; with others, the only thing that works is the threat of being fired.
The point that I’m (somewhat awkwardly) trying to make is that I think there’s a schism between manufacturers and salespeople because they work for separate entities, working for separate goals. Sales guys work for themselves, for their own bottom line, and everyone at home base working for the company. Of course, I’m not saying every (or any) company is some weird extended family that’s super happy and singing “Kumbayah” around the water cooler, but there’s definitely more of a sense of team effort than what’s extended to non-inhouse sales reps. Common goals make for better working relationships, and in the end, isn’t that what we all want?
For those of you who are not aware, I also blog over at Fashion Incubator, hosted by the bottomless-pit-of-knowledge Kathleen Fasanella, with co-blogger extraordinaire, Miracle Wanzo.
I had posted my original “sales?” post over there as well, and Miracle and Kathleen have added their perspectives to the matter. I think they’re excellent posts, with much to glean from, so please read both Miracle’s and Kathleen’s responses. Don’t forget to read all the comments! FI gets a lot more traffic, and there are always interesting comments to be read. I’ll be posting my response soon.
I don’t know everything. Faaaaaaaaaaaaar from it. My purpose as a blogger is not really to educate anyone, but to show people the life of a not-famous designer, and bring up topics that designers think about.
I touched on the topic of the role of salespeople for an apparel manufacturer earlier and you readers expressed interest in reading more about what I had to say on the matter, and I do try to live up to my promises to you readers, one at a time. Here the deal: the more I thought about it, the angrier I got at my own salesguys. Wow, they really don’t do much of anything.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been spoiled. At the previous company I worked for, we showed in a very large showroom, filled with much bigger labels than ours. Our sales team also repped Diane von Furstenberg, Joie, Theory, and Robert Rodriguez, among others. We sent them a line of samples, printed out lookbooks and linesheets and sent them a bunch of copies. When I say “sent”, I mean I walked them over across the street. We had to put up with a sales rep who was always calling with her two cents about how the next collection should look, but all in all, it was pretty painless.
Question: do all sales reps think they should design? All the sales guys I’ve ever worked with are constantly telling us to design this and do this color and whatnot. This is not to be confused with letting us know the pieces that are garnering the most attention and dollars. If I hear one of my sales guys harping on doing red leather jackets one more time, I’m gonna lose it. He keeps telling me that he sees it everywhere, but I don’t. I try to be polite, saying the labels he’s citing is not in line with our customer base and brand. He apparently doesn’t want to hear it.
In my own (perhaps naive) mind, the sales guys do the selling and customer service. They set up meetings, collect orders, explain to them the terms of sale, do the necessary follow-up. The apparel manufacturer creates and supplies the necessary tools to sell–samples, lookbooks, linesheets, order forms, organization of tradeshows. We get copies of the orders, we fulfill them. Next round. Right? No?
I’m honestly wondering if this is how it’s supposed to be, or if my opinion on this matter is skewed because in one case, I was “spoiled” and in the other, I’m the one hoofin’ it to make the sale.
I’d love to have at least one sales guy who has a great enthusiasm for the brand, leading him to work hard at securing meetings at good stores, someone who understands our customer, understands who our true competitors are, and doesn’t find traveling a huge chore he can’t be bothered with half the time I ask him to.
This is an odd, meandering post. Basically, it’s just a bunch of my ideas on the matter tossed onto one post. I’d really like to hear what everyone has to say about this.
Anyone who’s worked in the industry in the States for at least a year knows how Vegas can be in late August. It’s that wonderful time of year when Project, Magic, the Exclusive, the Accessories Show, Pool, and ASAP all collide. It’s like turning the hose onto an anthill–thousands of fashionistas and wannabes scurrying this way and that, knocked about by an inescapable, mysterious force, silently screaming “save me! save me! please! oh for the love of McQueen, save me!”
Or that could just be me.
Make no mistake–I am about the most unfashionable designer ever. If I’m clean, professionally attired and armed with symmetrical eyebrows, I’m done. Being swallowed up and elbowed by wave after wave of pretty young things dressed to the hilt, armed with The It Accessories (multiple show badges and free Project bags) is not my idea of a good time.
That said, I had a great time in Vegas this time around. I wasn’t required to work the booth, so that in and of itself was fabulous. I got a great room. Some of my closest L.A. girlfriends were also there so we got to walk the shows together, in between unhurried meals and lots of laughing. Talking shop with two of my most amazing colleagues and fellow Otis veterans really got my juices going.* Nothing else gives me quite the same zing.
So my mission was to walk Project, Magic, and the Exclusive, to see where we need to be next season, because it’s about time we moved. I took a lot of mental notes, had a chance to sit down with my VP and mull over some things. We walked the shows separately, but ended up having similar ideas on how to proceed. My sales guys are going to have a collective heart attack, because as a rule, they hate change. Whatever, boys! It’s not up to you! If you lazy asses did your jobs, we wouldn’t have to force such drastic measures on you! (Um, I don’t particularly love our sales guys.)
But enough about work. I don’t like to delve into too much work details.
Project was fascinating. Super busy. The foot traffic just absolute madness. The utter atrocities that sell just shocks me. I’m telling you, ugly crap sells. It’s all about marketing and who you know and it makes me sick to my stomach. (It also makes me kinda hopeful that even my crap may sell.) It appeared to me that Project is for not-quite-established companies. It’s pretty inexpensive. (I think about $4500 compared to Magic’s $20,000 for the same amount of space.) You don’t need to decorate your booth with much. Just a couple of mannequins and racks of clothes. There were obviously a lot of more established labels there too, and they lined the “red carpet” with their big jazzed up booths. The outer edges were very quiet. My opinion is that it’s a good show for people who rely mainly on random foot traffic for sales, as opposed to appointments like the bigger dogs.
Magic was also fascinating, but in different ways. If you ever questioned how big and at the same time how small this industry is, just walk around Magic. Something weird happened to me at Magic. I became uncontrollabe cattiness personified, constantly whispering snide commentary to my friends. I felt like a sarcastic jerk robot in some nightmarish real-life version of the worst episode of MST3K ever, in which case, I guess K does stand for Karl. It was not pretty.
All the booths at Magic are decorated. Perry Ellis had its newest comic book style ad campaign blown up to 20′ tall. Levi’s had a staircase going up to a second floor. Others had fake plants and faker leather couches. They built small worlds in their booths, some bigger than the zoloft.** Magic is more organized in terms of grouping markets (designer mens, juniors, eveningwear, etc.), but it’s still very easy to get lost. At one point, I said, “Man, everyone is just doing the same thing! Wait, I’ve been here already. No, really, I think everyone is just doing the same thing. Ah! I can’t tell anymore!”
The West Coast Exclusive, compared to the other two, was like stepping into a mausoleum. Quiet. I’d write “zen” if it wasn’t for the unsavory aroma of desperation and day-old hot dogs in the air. Definitely a place people mostly went to if they were pointedly seeking out a particular label. More appointment based than the other two. Older crowd, mostly. Lots of shoes and ties, for some reason. Heavy on the menswear, save a row of contemporary womenswear, whose fresh colors and young, bored salesgirls looked completely out of place. Oh, and a booth for borderline fetish leather, which within the context of show, almost made me laugh out loud. My sales guys consider it the place for the “right kind of appointments”.
Anyway, those are just some notes on the shows from an exhibitor’s point of view. I’m sure others see it very differently than I do, especially the buyers. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
*I’m not sure if it’s just Otis or all other schools, but if you made it out of there alive and functioning in the industry, there’s this bond, even if you weren’t that close at school. So many go into the fashion department at Otis and never graduate, that if you made it all the way through, there’s some serious mutual respect going on, obviously some more than others. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. And yes, I ran into a lot of Otis kids in Vegas, of different classes, including a bunch I used to tutor, and it was definitely an acid trip down memory lane.
**The zoloft is the name of my apartment, because my name is Zoë and it’s a loft and people consider coming over to be a great antidepressant. Heehee.
Reader Simon left this comment in response to my final dress photos:
“…You did a great job on this project. I simply cannot believe you design the “other” stuff during the day and are not driven nuts with all that creativity within. Like a fine chef working at Chili’s.”
I’d like to respond to this, and not to ridicule Simon in any way, but mainly to clarify a few things about myself.
I don’t consider the work I do at my day job creatively stifling, or beneath my abilities, or any of that jazz. I think of it as a different design problem that requires a different solution. My day job requires that my designs be simple, clean, wearable, versatile, and expensive-looking; my jackets must take the utmost advantage of the medium (mainly leather). We have a particular customer profile we target. We have particular pricepoints to consider. We have a certain reputation to maintain because the company’s been in business for so long. It’s not easy. If it was easy, the previous designer’s collections would have sold.
Every project that I do on my own, I challenge myself with a different set of design issues, hoping to find the best solution. Can I create a collection of sleek, urban work-friendly clothes for the young professional at a contemporary pricepoint? Can I design a group of knock-their-socks-off evening gowns based on the design direction given? Can I put together ensembles for the tweens back-to-school market that all girls will covet?
I don’t think creativity is about creating the most spectacular thing ever. I think it’s more important to be able to find the best possible solution to a problem. In fashion, that means considering more than just the look of the dress.
P.S. Simon, thanks for reading, for the lovely compliments, and for giving me a topic to chew on.