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Suzy Wakefield on the value of fashion consultants and common mistakes made by startups

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This is the Part 2 of the interview we did with Suzy Wakefield – Founder of Suzy Wakefield Designs. Suzy is a veteran in our industry and a treasure trove of knowledge on how to build successful fashion brands from ground up. She was also part of the 3 team judging panel in Runway Kit’s Next Top Swimwear Label competition.

In this chapter, we discuss how fashion consultants can add value to startup businesses and, where usually small firms need most help with. Suzy also shares her hopes for the industry in  post Covid-19 era.

You can read Part 1 of this interview, where Suzy spoke on the challenges and opportunities faced by small businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic here.

 

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Runway Kit: Explain to any early-stage startup or a small business, the journey they would be likely to take with you if they join hands with Suzy Wakefield Designs.

SW: Suzy Wakefield Designs supports start-ups and mid-sized brands alike in taking their overarching brand vision and our collective product vision and translates it into production ready designs.

The value we add is in all aspects of the development process from creating seasonal concepts and collections, putting together product architecture, and strategically working through the organization of the team all the way through to designing, development, inclusive of fitting multiple sizes.

I believe that one of my strengths is in taking the processes that I learned during my career at Victoria’s Secret as well as working with licensed brands afterwards and being able to adapt these to a unique client’s needs. In addition, my clients gain the advantage of all the strong relationships that I have been lucky enough to accumulate over the years.

These industry relationships from sourcing to brand strategy partners and all in between are able to help on a variety of fronts. Not only am I providing my expertise across categories which are vast, but my network is vast as well.

 

Runway Kit: Where can a consultant like yourself add most value to a business’s journey?

SW: Product Integrity!

That old adage of not getting a second chance to make a first impression is so true. Especially with the life of an online review. You can’t market your way out of a product that is not well designed, well-fitting or uncomfortable. We as consumers understand and appreciate more and more that you also can’t retail something cheap enough to make up for it not being unique or interesting.

People have more choices than ever so they are not going to buy bad products regardless of your name or influence. My value is in understanding how to add a strong aesthetic, brand and price right innovation with an emphasis on comfort to all designs I create, across category and product offering.

 

suzy wakefield on challenges faced by fashion startups

 

I have spent my career designing some of the most complex garments that there are and what I have learned I am now sharing with my clients. I can’t predict the future, though I have been through enough challenges in the design and development process that not a lot is completely new. So, I can help shape how my clients react and keep it all moving, even in challenging circumstances.

 

Runway Kit: How difficult is it to find the right manufacturer for startups? One that doesn’t compromise on quality but also meets the low MOQ, attention to detail demands of startups and are genuinely willing to go the distance and take the full journey with small businesses or a new clothing label.

SW: Great point. It is a challenge, which is another reason why consultants like myself are valuable as are our brands like you at Runway Kit.

Everyone involved needs a clear product strategy and hierarchy of non-negotiables. For one brand it might be breath of color, for another it might be breadth of assortment or innovation.

There needs to be a lot of upfront work put in before any pen is put to paper for designs. Brands need to look at how their visions marry with their budget, resources and vendor capability. This includes having a keen understanding of them and being able to interpret for each unique brand what are the tradeoffs.

As in life, there is always a way to get through something once you are aware it’s happening. Knowledge is power! That knowledge includes having someone in your corner who can support you to help evaluate a factory’s strengths relative to what the customer needs.

For example, I work with some great seamless factories that I would never put with a client, who wants to deliver a cut and sew lace collection. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It just means they aren’t right for that need. Understanding whether the strengths of a factory match up with the DNA of the brand is key.

 

Runway Kit: Given those challenges, where do you see a manufacturing platform like Runway Kit can add most value?

SW: Runway Kit delivers a valuable service to brands in that you are a starter kit for how to get collections off the ground. And that you can grow with companies in a modular way; able to be a beta for them in a certain sense.

In my career, I’ve seen the immense value in focus groups. Creating a product through your platform and sending it out to prospective small group of test stores would be a huge advantage for a brand in order to gain real world feedback.

 

Runway Kit: Our platform offers curated ready designs that entrepreneurs, who want to start their own collection, can quickly do so by customizing these designs. We are also finding large businesses (could be e-commerce brands/ department stores) who also want to start their own private label or expand their collections, can rapidly do so through ready styles.

SW: Runway kit allows flexibility in manufacturing and development which is key right now.

Many brands are on the beginning of a journey that includes still figuring out their product. And to have this basis of tried-and-true core styles to ideate from and to test into is a value add.

The heritage of Runway Kit’s own parent company and the integrity that is implicit in this relationship also is of value to brands of all sizes. It’s what I believe will be a by-product of this time in regards to the credibility of knowledgeable partnerships. Shining a light on this ability could be a valuable addition for how Runway Kit positions itself going forward.

 

Runway Kit: How do you see this whole concept growing? By offering an expansive library in Ready Styles do you see the value it can offer businesses in quickly going to market, validating their collections, testing and market penetration?

SW: It’s a concept that has a lot of legs for the world as we know it, especially if the tool box of styles can be utilized to give uniqueness for a particular brand’s personality.

Testing is super important too.

Early learnings in my career were around testing for appetite, fit, and style attributes. It doesn’t take anything away from being creative. It simply enhances your ability to ensure that you are giving your customer what she might not have realized she needed.

Testing allows the brand to understand feedback on all of these attributes as well and to pivot from them. During Covid, startups and large brands alike couldn’t deliver product as quickly as they needed to. My clients and vendor partners kept discussing the consumer’s desire for newness at this time.

 

suzy wakefield on the what startup strategy should entail

 
So along with small units to test, one of the advantages that Runway Kit offers is to be able to get styles, colors and patterns out more quickly and inject a breadth of newness in product that supports a brand’s vision to the consumer.

In my opinion, the validity of the model is predicated on the team at Runway Kit becoming a thought partner as to how designers can take this modular offering and create real newness from it. It’s important that the Runway Kit team is knowledgeable on how to work with the library and can help a brand after the first season to build and to grow. And if there are innovations that can be built into it.

 

Runway Kit: You mentioned it’s important that businesses are aware of the rules of best practices and knowing where to break or bend them. Can you elaborate?

SW: Knowing the rules and then when and how to break them is a super important concept for a brand.

The challenge for anyone, who is starting out is they don’t always understand the rules of the road on how to get going. For example, the rule everyone wants to break is not paying for fit models because it sounds like an overwhelming cost. What they don’t see is that 30-40% returns cost them much more financially when a product doesn’t fit! As does it cost in their reputation to the customer.

On the other side of it, depending upon the scope of the team or the needs of the business overall, they might realize that they can outsource one aspect or more of their business. In general, development becomes more challenging after the first season.

Often the design and development process get trickier when seasons overlap and there become competing priorities, more meetings in the works and you begin to get information from the customer to assimilate.

This is the time to begin to form new best practices that can help a brand be more flexible. Some of these are breaking the rules and some bending. All in all, shortcuts, which garments designs become blocks to build upon or the important parts of a process to streamline. For instance, for most of my startups, we approve main body colors in house and vendor approves all else. A larger entity wouldn’t do this, if they had an infrastructure to accommodate this team though in most cases, we don’t have this.

 

Runway Kit: What are the most common problems you always need to tackle and help businesses navigate through? Where do they need guidance the most?

SW: Always product related, and often in the details.

Brands often have a great vision or spark of an idea and they just don’t know how to put the financial resources or manpower towards them. And often the stakeholders don’t understand the product intricacies past being a consumer of it. Someone like myself, who has the knowledge of category, trend and overall design can take their brand brief and create a product that supports their current positioning and can help to create stories and teams that will grow with them.

Part of my work, past the obvious design and development, is mentoring them on how to build their own in-house teams, marrying what they need with who they have and building a group that has complimentary skills.

 

Runway Kit: What would be your hope for the post pandemic world? Where would you like to see startups and the fashion industry go next?

SW: I sincerely hope that the post pandemic world will bring greater cooperation and support of people and partners in general.

I think companies will continue to be more compassionate about how we all treat each other and getting to know each other even more. From a product perspective, I think the need for so much different product week after week, month after month will be replaced by better, more well thought out product.

And that whatever category people are in, they will think about what their mission is for the customer, how they can make her or his life easier from this product and do right by the environment in some way while doing so.

 


Read Part 1 of this conversation – Suzy Wakefield on startup fashion and how she helped small businesses navigate Covid-19 here.

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