This week, we are bringing to you an in-depth interview with Suzy Wakefield.
She is the founder of Suzy Wakefield Designs – a design consultancy firm, serving as a one stop fashion resource for startup fashion and lifestyle brands that specializes in lingerie, swimwear, apparel and athleisure. The company is based out of New York.
Suzy is a veteran in our industry and a treasure trove of knowledge on how to build successful fashion brands. She is also part of the 3 team judging panel in Runway Kit’s Next Top Swimwear Label competition.
So obviously, we did not want to miss out on the opportunity to talk to her. To understand how she has managed to come so far and propel many a startup to become successful as they have.
We spoke to her at length on numerous other topics as well, including the challenges and opportunities faced by small businesses and entrepreneurs under the current coronavirus pandemic and how they can look to come out of it.
This is the part 1 of that interview. Read below.
Runway Kit: How have you adjusted for the new normal with Covid-19 now having been around for 9-10 months?
SW: Luckily since my design studio was already established to work remotely on my client’s behalf, my day-to-day has not changed so drastically.
That said, some aspects of doing business take more time now. For example, rather than doing in person fittings there is a lot of mailing between models, clients and myself.
The back and forth of samples and yardage have added on some additional time to development. And the fact that we can’t get on a plane to region and expedite collections is a difference for sure.
Therefore, all partners have to ensure that we are communicating in a really clear and aligned way to keep everything moving. Thank goodness for Zoom because it makes all the difference in being able to have conversations on video versus phone calls in order to talk about ideas, fit on models and generally collaborate.
In a way, this has forged a deeper connection with clients and partners alike as we all are dealing with a common issue, which in its own way has brought us closer together. I also feel like one positive of Covid is the heightened creativity that is in the ‘air’. Creativity in design and creativity in strategizing solutions to how we will get through challenges as they evolve.
While some of my clients were initially very concerned with what the pandemic would do to their businesses, we are lucky to be in a category that is important to women generally and even more so now that we are at home.
Whether sexy or casual, the emphasis on the need for comfort as a first priority has only grown. Covid has just magnified the direction that we were all already going in from a consumer perspective.
Runway Kit: Having now seen how the world reacted over the past several months, and with the benefit of hindsight:
What are the biggest missteps you saw startups and small businesses make?
SW: Prioritizing marketing over product. Of course, in this day and age brands need to have a solid social and marketing strategy for themselves.
It just can’t supersede the attention, time and expertise put towards the product itself. Regardless of what area of apparel one is in, design, fit and function need to come first before there is anything to market.
Early on in my career at VS (Victoria Secret), I heard Les Wexner repeat time and again ‘Bad Food-Don’t Tell’. He meant that until we designers and merchants had products good enough to talk about, we needed to stop coming to him to ask about advertising for commercials and the like.
I think it holds today. If we’re not designing a product that wouldn’t get our desired customer excited, then we need to keep working on it. The magic is when you have a compelling message and great product.
It doesn’t have to be a huge collection at the start – less but better can be the strategy. Whether it’s lingerie, lounge or swim, or any other product category, the brands that succeed are the ones that marry an authentic message with impactful collections and who can deliver it seamlessly to the customer.
Under Promise and Over Deliver.
Runway Kit: What advice would you give a fashion startup or a small business if they are to face another such disaster in the future?
SW: Preparation and relationships are everything. Brands that had built a strong foundation of product with credible vendor partners and those that have internal or external expertise to make it happen, will weather the change in tide.
A brand needs a clear vision on who they are and what they stand for to be a good partner. Since the pandemic began, I have seen brands that people wanted to work with trade on good will and stay the course, with the help of these strong ties. The same goes for vendors.
From the brand perspective, it’s also so important to have a very clear product strategy. This way when times get more challenging, they can be more agile in decision making because the priorities are clear of where to push forward and where to pull back.
Part of this product strategy is being very close to the customer from the start. The clients that I have, who really know what their customer thinks about their product and brand and treat her as the North Star, make all decisions around her needs in good times and in more challenging ones.
On the same lines, what would your advice be to pre-startups? Businesses that haven’t launched yet but have their launch dates set amidst the chaos?
SW: If it’s an apparel category, my advice would be that you need to ask yourself tough questions on what your brand relevance is and if something happens to upend the expected cadence or deliveries what are you prepared to do about it?
Make a plan you can stick to. Can you withstand seasonality or trend if something happens to upend when your product can be shipped? Covid-19 created a domino effect from raw material, to vendor to shipment, which backed everything up.
This backing up also included vendors prioritizing, which brands they needed to fulfill orders for based on their own limited resources. So from a business perspective, there is always a balance of finding a vendor, who you can mean something to with one that you see is already producing for larger well established companies.
In reality, a newer brand might need to understand the reality that when hard times come, they maybe put in the queue behind the larger money makers.
Start-ups need to be super clear with themselves and the consumer. The more transparent the better. I also think there should not be a brand that launches in any category that doesn’t include a sustainable aspect to it. And it needs to be achievable.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Every brand can do something even if you can’t do everything. As long as you are transparent with your customer she will understand.
And get ahead of Plan B in a creative way. I think some brands are doing a great job of showing the timeline of highlighting made to order to the customer. And weaving it into their story.
For instance, a brand using Runway Kit could possibly let customer’s vote on style or detail adds to help them feel part of the process. Honor customers with decision making and being part of the design process and she will be loyal to you for it.
Runway Kit: You told me that at times like these, consultants like yourself can help best with a ‘library’ that is tangible. Explain in detail what this means and why it’s important?
SW: One of the reasons that my studio was able to support clients well as Covid hit was because, by nature, of being remote already, I have a fully stocked library of raw materials, color reference, shape reference, even mannequins to drape on and the like to utilize during this time.
Whereas some of my client’s teams couldn’t go into their offices to get anything to work with. I could plan concepts, design garments and fully support clients with what I have at hand. These tools are what allowed me to keep creating color stories, pattern work and to be continuously designing collections.
What were you most surprised by of the way that the industry and businesses reacted and adjusted during the pandemic?
SW: A friend and fellow designer recently talked about how the pandemic brought out a human aspect of the industry and I believe it is true. It’s been really challenging for the world because we don’t know what is going to happen, we’re all worried about our family and friends as well as our livelihoods, so, in that way it’s scary.
At the same time, it also brought out a one for all, all for one commonality in human nature that has been refreshing to see. At the beginning of Covid, I co-founded a creative networking/support group called Athenas.
Its intention is a monthly space for creative professional women to celebrate themselves and each other by sharing information and experiences.
The time together with women from all areas of the apparel industry and all areas of the world has been a great forum to emphasize a collective support system that we can continue to strengthen. The same can be said for business partnerships. I have seen more good turns done for one another now than in any other time I could remember.
To be continued…
Stay tuned for the Part 2 of this conversation in the coming weeks. Subscribe to our newsletter below and Runway Kit Instagram for the latest news and updates.
In the meantime, discover more great insight from the deep dive we did with Kristen Anderson, the founder of KRSTN NDRSN Studio on building successful fashion brands from ground up.
Runway Kit offers fashion designers and entrepreneurs the option to design, sample and manufacture in smaller, flexible quantities – all at some of the world’s most renowned sustainable factories.