The runways of Fashion Week aren't just a showcase for frivolous frocks. For entrepreneurial designers, high fashion is a high-stakes business.
New York's Fashion Week, the twice-yearly fete that brings glitz, glamour, waif-thin models, and celebrities to the city's Bryant Park, is more often associated with corporate names like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. But the show, held from Feb. 2-9, is also a breeding ground for upstarts who, increasingly, resemble entrepreneurs as much as they do designers.
Indeed, artistic expression might be what drives these young designers, but more and more often, it's business smarts that keep them afloat. From overseeing every aspect of design, production, and publicity, this league of entrepreneurs comes armed with briefcases and sketchbooks.
Take Atil Kutoglu, an eight-season veteran of Fashion Week's tents, who attended the University of Vienna, studying economics and business. While his creative juices never stopped flowing, Kutoglu says he feels business training was an essential stepping-stone into the industry.
"I think it helped me to be courageous," Kutoglu says. "It gave me the confidence to start my own line right out of school."
"I give a free run to my hand and my feelings when sketching," he adds, "but in the end, I have to look and think as a second aspect as a business. Through the years I've become a professional, I combine both aspects measurably, instinctively."
The more conventional route for a budding designer remains attending schools like Parsons School of Design or the Fashion Institute of Technology, whose alumni include the likes of Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. Nevertheless, while the programs have a design-heavy course load, some wish their education included more than just business basics.
"Our industry has spawned so many entrepreneurs that it's funny that it's not part of the curriculum," says designer Tracy Reese, a Parsons graduate.
Reese recalls her first company out of college, financed by a combined $30,000 loan from the state of New York for minority women in business and her father. After a successful start in 1987, the business ultimately failed. Learning the ropes of big business, and "what not to do" from a stint at Perry Ellis -- "It was run by the suits," Reese says -- she tried again in 1995, financing herself with a little help, again, from her father.
"I remember living in the factories and going down to landlord tenant court to try to keep my apartment because I'd use my rent money to buy fabric or buttons," Reese recalls.
But when it looked like another endless series of sleepless, stressful nights, Reese decided to extend the hand of power to a friend who quickly became a business partner, heading the financial planning. A little assistance went a long way, and soon after, the line began prosper. Today, Tracy Reese's signature brand continues to flourish and a younger, more playful version of her line, Plenty by Tracy Reese, has emerged.
Rock & Republic began with one pair of jeans Michael Ball had made for his girlfriend and $40,000 in self-financing. Today, his line includes high-end denim, tailor-made clothing, shoes, accessories, and a line of cosmetics that will launch this fall. "I am a businessman first without a doubt," says Ball, now CEO and head designer. "If you do not have a business mind, good luck. You will not survive in this industry."
Newcomer Pegah Anvarian remembers the small amount of panic that went into the moment she realized she was not only a designer but also a company owner.
"No one told me how to run a business," Anvarian says. "You start off thinking, 'This is so fun,' but then it becomes serious. You think you can produce a few hundred units, but when the time comes, you say, 'Oh my God, how do I do this?"
But what comes first, the patterns or the business model? Many designers seem to agree that it needs to be a clean balance between the two, which can be tough in a world where creativity, artistic expression -- and, sometimes, impracticality -- are so central.
"When I first started this business, I thought it was a great way to make a living and it's something I love to do," says Wenlan Chia, the owner and designer of Twinkle. "But as we grew, I still had a love for what I do, but we started to make more of an effort to create products that will turn into sales. We spend a lot of times developing our own prints, but we make that into bedding and carpets. It's a lifestyle brand and it's something, in a business sense, that's more cost-effective for us."
Twinkle has already branched out from its ready-to-wear runway line, and created Twinkle Home, Twinkle Accessories, Twinkle Yarn, and, Big City Knits, a book of 31 knitting patterns, which will make its debut this month.
For some, building from the success of their designs can be just as satisfying financially as creatively.
"Its ultimately as creative as you want it to be, and its ultimately as much business as you want it to be. I think that the most satisfying times are something that I believe in from a creative standpoint sells really well," says Edun designer Rogan Gregory.
So is the new philosophy go big or go home? With prestigious designers like Proenza Schouler and Stella McCartney creating lines for Target and H&M, respectively, is there a certain desire to fulfill a financial quota? While some designers shy away from big business, Chia commends those that have tried to bridge the gap and make fashion more approachable.
"When I got out of college, I promised myself I would never take a job that paid a lot," says designer Charles Nolan, "because I was terrified of getting used to making a lot of money and having that stop me from being creative."
Before Nolan had his own line, he worked for Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein, where he was exposed to the more corporate aspect of the industry. It took this heavy dose of retail reality to help Nolan find a happy medium in his own pursuits. "The whole notion that an artist has to starve in order to make art is just not true," he says.
Grant Krajecki of Grey Ant never received formal training in business -- or design. He says learned the most through experience as a costume designer in Los Angeles. While it took 10 years and the pay was minimal, like many entrepreneurs in a variety of industries, a real-world education is what ultimately led to his success.
"You have to decide what your company is about," Krajecki says. "Is it about making money or is it about the artist's vision? Do you want Wal-Mart or William Bernard? You have to sell yourself enough to be comfortable, but I also don't want to be Wal-Mart. There's a bit of integrity involved, I suppose."