Designers Share Their Secret Sauce for Success

Last week, Maker’s Row and General Assembly collaborated on a panel event featuring Made in NY entrepreneurs within the design and manufacturing world. The panel developed into a candid conversation with Kevin Shahroozi (luxury men’s outerwear), Karen Willante (knit sweaters and accessories), Christopher Williams (custom surfboards), and Richie Siegel (minimalist, high-end menswear). Matthew Burnett, co-founder of Maker’s Row, moderated.

The panelists (and Matthew) opened up to the audience in a very real way, revealing their secrets about getting ahead in the design world. Read ahead for our favorite insider tricks on topics such as how to leverage relationships and how to get celebrities to wear your product.

Key takeaways

  • » Producing in America means that you can exercise more quality control over your product – “everything is at your fingertips.”
  • » “Smiling and dialing” can help you shortcut your way towards finding the right manufacturers for your supply chain.
  • » Finding the right factory is easy – some people visit over 50 before finding the right one!
  • » Don’t take no for an answer. Do everything in your power to convince your ideal factory to work with you.
  • » Your business’ story is as important as your product in making sales.
  • » Celebrity endorsements are tough to secure, but they’re a nice boost!

Why “Made in USA” 

Each of the panel participants presented strong rationale for choosing to develop their product lines in America. Karyn discussed the joy of being able to see her sweaters going through the machine and changing the design on the spot without going through an agent – “everything is at your fingertips.” Others similarly expressed the benefits of quality control. Richie and his team “like to stand over [their] work as its produced and absorb information about manufacturing like a sponge.” In their words, they “basically went to a four-year fashion college in four months” by being physically present.

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Matt opened about how some of his experiences producing abroad convinced him that domestic was the way to go. When he owned a watch line, his first department store order came back botched. To fix that, he had to flip through the yellow pages to find an American leather manufacturer. Once he found an the ones, he developed a great rapport with them – it was easy to pick up the phone to ask a question. He also found that while price per unit is lower abroad, minimum order quantities are lower here, which stopped him from hoarding inventory. Plus, costs of producing abroad have surged in the past few years

One additional benefit to producing locally, which Chris mentioned, is the opportunity to be part of a community. His company caters to passionate surfers, and he has been able to connect with the greater East Coast surf community by choosing local.

More on choosing domestic: Brooklyn Tweed: Why I Chose Made in USA // Lauren Cecchi: Why I Chose Made in USA

Sacrifices in Choosing Domestic

The participants were honest in admitting that choosing domestic does involve certain sacrifices. Richie confessed, “the biggest cost is the cost.” It can be immensely expensive to produce in America, which has implications for brands’ pricing and overall business models. Kevin agreed, that for mass market lines, overseas might make more economic sense, but contemporary or luxury lines can work well locally.

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Capital Constraints

Because launching a new brand is certainly an investment, some designers choose to raise outside capital to help jumpstart their business. To this point, Richie retorted, “I won’t ask for money until I have full confidence in what I’m doing.” From his perspective, having a million dollars poses a temptation to recklessly spend that money, something that’s easy to do in the fashion industry. He called capital constraint, “a blessing in disguise” because it puts structure on the business and forces it to make deliberate decisions. Playing devil’s advocate, Matt counter-argued that “there are ways to be responsible with large amounts of money.

On fundraising: First Time Pitching Investors? Use Our Pitch Deck

Working the Scene

Everyone agreed that a big part of getting ahead is reaching out to experienced players in the industry and forming relationships that can help build out your supply chain. In other words, “smiling and dialing generates shortcuts.” Chris’ fiberglasser has significant industry experience, and they tapped into his network to source materials. Their fiberglasser simplified all of the logistics for them, which Chris admitted is a dependency that he tends to fall back on. As a way of paying the favor forward, Chris isn’t afraid to pass on his manufacturers’ details to others. He strongly believes that there’s more to gain from being transparent with people than from keeping trade secrets.

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Karyn and Matt had similar experiences in which they found materials suppliers and patternmakers through their factories. Matt stated, “I came to know every person touching my product, which freed me from the vulnerabilities I previously faced from manufacturing abroad.”

Kevin paved his path into the industry through networking. He ended up meeting a photographer at a shoot, which led to an a gig staging a fashion show at a magazine event that the photographer invited him to. He advised, “keeping in contact with people is like watering plants – don’t do too much or too little of it.” Because he consistently checks in with his manufacturer, Friendly New York Fashion located near Chinatown, they’ve taken on more of his products. Richie chimed in that if you socialize enough in the design world, “you hit a point where people start telling you things; there’s no rulebook, just surround yourself with people in the know.”

The art of reading people: What to Look for in a Factory Partner

Piecing the Puzzle

Pinpointing the information you need can also involve sifting for clues. Richie analogized a factory to, “a giant puzzle that has been disassembled – there’s a actually a weird transparency.” You can examine the fabrics and see where they’re coming from, glean suppliers’ names by peering at the boxes, and check labels looking for button sources. The purpose isn’t to look for designs but to find sources. Kevin agreed that the biggest secret to finding sources “has a lot to do with snooping around.”

Related Reading:  5 Advantages to Keeping Production Local

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Persistence and More Persistence

The general consensus is that finding the right factory requires a lot of grit. Karen was vehement on this point. “If you’ve only been to four factories who’ve all said no, that’s not enough on your part. You need to keep getting out there. There are 44 knitting mills in the New York metropolitan area. In 2011, I asked around and narrowed it down to 10 that I called through references.” Kevin went knocking on doors of over 50 factories in the Garment District for three months before he found a fit. For his watch line overseas, Matt contacted over 150 factories. When he started his domestic line, he contacted between 20 to 30.  Richie remembers a time when he would “look at the directory of a manufacturing building and ride to every floor.”

The panelists added that truthfully, the search for manufacturers never actually ends because fashion is cyclical. Your factory might be really busy at a given time, so you need more than one spot you can turn to. Or you might require a particular stitch or button that you’ll need to find elsewhere.

Fuel your drive: Why Persistence is Key to the Hustle Life

Turning “No” to “Yes”

Many successful factories have a few brands they consistently work with, which it makes it difficult for emerging designers to convince them to take on new work. Others are simply reluctant to work with emerging designers. All of the panelists agreed that the only way to overcome this hurdle is to be stubborn and keep trying. Karyn advised, “don’t take no for an answer, and it also helps to know your stuff.” In other words, arrive prepared to answer questions about your designs and your business. Matt agreed that doing your homework is important. “Treat the meeting like a job interview. Sometimes you have to show your website to prove yourself.”

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Richie has a few tricks up his sleeve as well. “When you start out, everyone says they’re too busy. Refusing to leave might get them to change their mind.” It helps to show your enthusiasm to work them in order to outshine the competition, try out different pitches, and compensate for the factory’s hesitations, for example, by putting 50 percent down upfront. Most importantly, pay on time. Kevin seconded that notion. “Why wouldn’t they take you if you pay them?”

Crafting an Image

You can’t separate your story from your product. As Matt put it, “you’re a business – and there’s a natural cadence to ‘this is who I am, this is what I do.’” The designers have employed various marketing tactics to spread the word about their businesses. Richie’s company markets through blogs, the MAGIC trade show, small fashion shows, and platforms like Nineteenth Amendment and Maker’s Row. Chris advised going after grassroots marketing campaigns when working with a tight budget. People buy into your company if they’ve seen you fight for it first.” He also advised going after select press opportunities – not every source, but “ones that you can be really proud of.”

Building an online identity and having a savvy marketing person on staff is helpful as well. When Chris started making surfboards, he was just following my passion. Soon, friends started buying them. He found a business partner who was a friend of his and had a skillset in brand-building that Chris didn’t have. Through Instagram, the company compiled content reflecting their look and feel. He describes their website launch as “the moment they felt legitimized.”

When asked what their most effective marketing campaign has been to date, two panelists cited features on prominent fashion blogs. Karyn’s company was featured on Rebecca Minkoff’s blog and Richie’s on the style blog Four Pins. Karyn also mentioned participation in panels such as this one being helpful for publicity.

Find your voice: 5 Email Marketing Tips for Fashion Startups

Stamp of Approval

Let’s face it – having a celebrity endorse your product can be a huge win. Richie remembers “the week when Bieber wore our stuff” as a great one for business. But the task of getting in touch with celebrities can be daunting. Karyn shamelessly recommends guerilla marketing. “Email your friends every week. Stalk a celebrity and give your blanket to his baby. I may have done that.”

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Matt recalls traveling to concerts and movie sets to convince celebrities to wear his pieces. “The right person to target is never the celebrity directly but the person you see carrying the clipboard next to them.” You can gift your products to celebrities, and it brightens up their day. It’s more meaningful than asking for an autograph, which is what most fans requests. Be prepared for anything. “Some guys are jerks and some guys are really cool. Many celebrities have been gracious and let me take pictures of them with the product. Keep going and opportunities will actually start coming to you.” Some good parting advice.

Watch it all

To learn more and experience the event for yourself, check out the full video here.


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