Runway Kit Chat
Outlining the value of getting help for your start-up fashion business
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.
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.
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.
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.
To stay up to date on all news from Suzy-Wakefield.com subscribe to our newletter.
To learn more about Runway Kit subscribe to their newsletter below and Runway Kit Instagram for the latest news and updates.
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.