In her 24 years at the helm of Lafayette 148, Deirdre Quinn has had a front-row seat to two of the most challenging global events of our generation.
The high-fashion women's apparel brand was based in Lower Manhattan during 9/11, almost a literal stone's throw from the Twin Towers. The company survived, and ultimately thrived.
Today, Quinn finds herself fighting almost a two-front wrath vertically-integrated company has substantial manufacturing and retail operations globally. It's also still based in New York City, now the epicenter of the pandemic.
“We've weathered a lot of storms in 24 years,” Lafayette 148's co-founder and CEO says.
“This one is a combination of every other storm.”
But like New Yorkers do, Quinn and her team are carrying on. In a year that began with plans for a new designer shoe line and expansion to Europe. Lafayette 148 is now making hospital gowns and masks.
We recently sat down with Quinn to get her long view on tough times and why they can be an opportunity to learn and grow as a business owner.
Because you run an international operation, you have somewhat of a unique perspective on COVID-19. How did this unfold for you?
We saw it coming early. Factories were shutting around the world. Then the retail stores shut. So here comes the tidal wave. We were prepared. But I didn't expect it to be this bad. We've spent the past seven weeks reorganizing the company and the future of how I see the company.
You and your team are already finding new ways to work in this environment?
A lot of roles are changing and I truly believe at the end of this, it will be good for people's careers because of the new skill sets they're acquiring. You have to change.
As you navigate the next chapter of Lafayette 148, you've pivoted to making personal protective equipment. What's it been like switching from high fashion to PPE, an acronym we've become so familiar with in recent weeks?
We're based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is a zone where people could come in and work, as long as you follow safety guidelines. We have our sewers making gowns for hospitals. We're proud of that, our employees are proud of that. It's what you want to do, it's the right thing to do. We have a small team in the warehouse to ship. Safety of our employees is absolute priority. We've separated the sewing machines. We don't want anybody to be uncomfortable, but they all wanted to come.
We're also making masks. We're getting requests daily. Anything that helps me keep my workforce together, I'm going to do.
What's been the most meaningful support you've gotten thus far?
My CFO has become an extremely important person for me. He's not just a numbers man, he's worked in the fashion industry. So he has the experience both to run the business as well as what it takes to get us back to profitability. I've also spent every single day on video calls with other CEOs. I've been listening a lot and learning a lot. Nobody has all the answers, so we just help each other. That's actually been a wonderful part of this.
What does Lafayette 148's core business look like amid all this?
I don't necessarily know if people are thinking about high fashion, to be honest, but at the same time, we are servicing our customers that are looking. We dropped our catalog this week, so we saw an uptick from that. We're hopeful that people will feel comfortable shopping once they're allowed to go out.
What has it been like going through this crisis in New York City?
I guess as a New Yorker, to be honest, we're just used to having it tough. The Blue Angels flew over the Navy Yard recently and you couldn't help drop a tear. I'm on the Brooklyn Hospital board and you go over there and see the tragedy as we deliver masks to them. I sit in my office every day, because I live across the street, and I feel like I have some control over the future and direction of our brand. I look out the window and there's Manhattan. I'd rather be in the middle of it. We built this over 24 years and no one is going to take it away from me.
This is a question I've been asking a lot lately. Forget being a business owner for a minute. How are you doing, just as a person trying to process all this?
I'm seeing the silver lining and I'm not just saying that. I'm an optimist. I know you don't just settle for surviving. We take care of our employees, take care of our customers and you know that things are going to change, because they will. I'm OK with that, because you grow from that. No one ever has it figured out. So instead, I truly feel that these are the moments that define a business.