Designers often cite financial backing as the cure-all that will take their brand from unknown to brand name. Want to know what it’s like to receive investment as a designer? Get a first hand account from Philadelphia-based designer, Nicole Haddad, who went from small Studio to 60 store wholesale accounts to her own boutique and now couldn’t be happier practicing slow fashion.
When the investor came into my life, I was having a dark moment. It seemed like the universe was intervening when his email pinged into my inbox. He was a distant relative who had already run an extremely successful clothing company. He had left that company for personal reasons and was finding himself bored with all the time on his hands. He was inspired. He wrote that he wanted to keep his “grey matter” occupied. He wanted to know if I was interested. Hell yes I was interested! I had $2,000 in my bank account and had just gotten off the phone with a local head hunter. I couldn’t go on like this. I needed a job. I needed support. I needed hope.
In 2008, I started my clothing line, Lobo Mau, while I was still in design school. I was 28 and finishing up my Master’s in fashion design. Looking back, I think my naïveté saved me from understanding the true impact of my decision to start my own business. I needed to be naive in order to take the leap of faith that everything was going to work out. I knew I didn’t fit into the corporate mold, although I had a lot of respect for designers who went that route – they are, in many ways, smarter than I am – they have healthcare and a paycheck, and they sometimes have weekends free. But their jobs are hard too, just a different kind of hard.
I love designing clothing more than I love anything else in the world. I love my customers, I love making clothing that makes them happy, and I love the challenge of reinventing my aesthetic over and over and over again. I often joke that if I hadn’t met my husband in undergrad, I would have basically lived the life of a hermit in her studio – married to her work. So why hadn’t all of this passion resulted in success? In relative terms, I was successful – I owned a boutique, had lots of press. There was hype, but I didn’t have enough capital to grow, and I didn’t have the necessary connections to facilitate production and sales. I had built my entire business on a $5,000 loan from a dear friend. And I was not a business woman. I was great at selling my clothing, and I had a following, but I was trying to adhere to a business model that worked for large corporations, not one that works for a small designer. Wholesaling was killing me. I put in all the work, and made less than the retailers I was selling to. I either needed to somehow scale up massively, selling to hundreds of boutiques, or work on a direct-to-consumer model. The investor contacted me when I was at this very crossroads. He wanted to help, and as Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, quoted in her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.” I didn’t ask too many questions. I just got on the rocket ship, and it was quite a ride.
Let me preface the next paragraph with this: I am very grateful to my investor. He gave me an experience that I never would have had. I learned so much about myself, my customer, my market, my product, and my place in this world as a designer. He is a kind man who helped me immensely. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for his generosity. As an independent designer, I have had countless people lift me up and help me out. I don’t forget about these people – they are a huge part of the fabric of my brand and who I’ve become. It truly takes a village.
The arc of emotions that I experience while working with the investor was almost too much for my little body to handle. At first I was so hopeful, excited, and ready to make success happen. It was the honeymoon phase. As the investor brought on more people to help facilitate the growth of my brand, I began to feel this amazing sense of inertia. For the first time in my life I had a team. I had a production manager, a tech designer, a creative director, a full-time sample maker, two pattern makers! It was a dream come true. The investor set me up in a new studio with new sewing machines and cutting tables, and software programs! Every day was Christmas. I had fabric knitted and dyed and printed in Korea, to my exact specifications. We began production with a local factory, ordering thousands of units. I had a warehouse, and database system to chart and organize my products. I had sales reps in every territory of the country. I had a showroom in the same building as Tibi, in NYC. It was mind boggling.
But the pressure, oh the pressure. It was enormous. I think the biggest disconnect with me and the investor was that I was a small designer, with lots of talent, who needed time to grow and define her vision. He wanted to scale up from 0 to 60 immediately. He wanted to produce large amounts of clothing very quickly so he could get a return. I was still testing my product, my fit, my customer. I needed to start small. But there wasn’t time. When the investor insisted I design a spring collection in February so that we could turn it around and sell it, I had three weeks to get it done. The sales reps warned it was too late in the season to sell spring, but the investor pushed on. The collection didn’t sell. I’m not surprised. I can’t say I had time to even think it through. It wasn’t my best work and the season was over. That was the beginning of the end. Even after my fall/winter collection got into 30 stores, it wasn’t enough to meet the fabric minimum requirements for production. We canceled the orders. I found myself withdrawing emotionally. I wanted to go back to doing what I loved: designing clothing slowly. It’s been over a year since everything unraveled. It took me many months to get over the feelings of shame, ineptitude, disappointment. I felt like a loser.
But something unexpected came out of the experience. Four months after leaving the investor, I decided to open a boutique with a few designer friends. The boutique was wildly successful. I made enough money to open a new studio, hire back my team from the investor, and continue on. I am now selling directly to my customers, and have grown my business, my customer base, and my online sales. It’s almost like I had to experience that old business model in its fullest capacity in order to arrive at this conclusion: I am not meant to wholesale. Creating clothing is an intimate experience that I don’t want to massively scale up. Now, more than ever, I am passionate about slow fashion. The devastating effects the fashion industry has on the environment is sickening. The greed is overwhelming. I want to put thought and love into the clothing I make. That is how I will contribute to this world. I’m not saying I wouldn’t welcome another investor into my business, but this time I would ask them one question first, “Can this rocket ship go slow?”
So proud to announce that our boutique @maarkconcept has made the Best of Philly list for 2016! Thank you to my business partners @pia_panaligan @melissa_choi @thephillyshops for your tireless devotion. And thank you to the indie designers who let us carry their beautiful work. #philly #bestofphilly #bestofphilly2016 #buylocal #philadelphia #indiedesigner #igers_philly #phillyigers
Written by Nicole Haddad, founder and head designer of Lobo Mau.