Last March, I attended the Heart Series Conference and had the chance to speak with leaders of truly inspiring brands, such as Clifbar. Suzanne Lerner, President and Co-Founder of Michael Stars, gave me a look into the brand's roots and commitment to its values.
LM: So let's start with who you are and your origin story.
SL: My name is Suzanne Lerner and I am a co-founder of Michael Stars and currently its president. We started the company in 1986 as a simple screen-printed T-shirt company that did posters--with incorrect French writing. And everybody bought it--Fred Segal then Harrod's, then Barney's and Bloomingdale's--the whole world.
LM: So we're here at the Heart Series Conference, connecting with businesses and brands that "do good" as part of their mission. Talk to me about why Michael Stars is so heart-centered, and why conferences like this one are so important to you.
SL: I was born this way, raised in a liberal family that cares about others. My family was always into giving back. I was just raised like that. I attended high school on the west side of Chicago. I did something called Operation Wingspread. It got 15 African-American and 15 white kids from the suburbs together doing projects in the inner city of Chicago; it got us learning about each other. We were completely transformed. I also used to go volunteer on the south side at Cook County Hospital, so I was always like this.
I went to college and dropped out. I didn't want to be a doctor, nurse, lawyer, or any of those kind of things. I was working, and then ended up going to Europe. And I kept going back and I traveled for five years. From 1973 to 1977 I lived overseas; I worked everywhere around the world, from Australia to Nepal.
I met this woman that ran a small export business in India and she introduced me to some people who wanted to start a clothing line. I ended up moving to Los Angeles to learn the business. I reached out to people and they mentored me. I still try to mentor as much as I can because that's how I learned. I worked for a clothing line for two years. It went out of business, and then I started my own line.
We've always believed in giving back.
LM: How did you and co-founder Michael Cohen get connected?
SL: He walked into my share room with these screen-printed, ugly sweatshirts...with shoulder pads--and I asked him for a date. He was very handsome and funny. We went out and that was it. We just started doing things together. A week later he got screen prints on T-shirts and I had the share room. We started doing it together--and it led to marriage.
And we lived it, breathed it and loved it. We really believed our employees were family. And sometimes we kept them too long. And when the business got really hurt by the recession, we had to let people go and it actually invigorated the company. It's quite amazing. When it happened, it was such a terrible thing to do.
LM: That's hard. You're such a prolific brand. You've been around for 30 years, but there's so much competition in e-commerce right now. What do you think allows you to maintain your position in the market?
SL: We hired a digital marketing and advertising company and the results with retargeting ads have been unbelievable. I was increasing by four percent year-to-year, and now I'm increasing 35 percent.
The business is exploding online now. So I think that it's the marketing, how I present the products and who I am as a company. I think more and more people are finding out about what I represent, what the company represents and our partnerships.
LM: The box model is so hot right now. Tell me about your partnership with Stitch Fix.
SL: Stitch Fix is a lux box and the partnership has been unbelievable. We're doing big business for Stitch Fix and we've just become better now. People still want a special brand, they still want to be able to say they wear a brand.
I think there aren't as many authentic brands out there anymore. They're all getting sold off and they're losing their power by producing cheaper products because they need those margins. I'm not doing that and my customers are still getting great fashion that will still be relevant a year from now, not something they're going to throw away.
LM: What is your favorite piece that you've ever created or that you wear?
SL: My favorite piece that I wear is a sweater with leather sleeves in a great color. It's just such a great sweater and we can keep doing it in a different color.
LM: What is the are the key takeaways that you want readers to know about your brand?
SL: It's the sustainability of the company, the fact that we make whatever we possibly can in America. It's really important we offer living wages and we take care of our people. It is bottom line-carrying the carriers and the DNA. We give back...we've been doing it for so many years. We just didn't make a big deal about it. We are publicizing it a bit more now, letting it become more of the face of the brand as it relates to sustainability.
From a t-shirt brand to a full collection of women's and men's luxury apparel and accessories, Michael Stars is proving that sticking to its focus on sustainability and heart-forward business are the keys to success.