Connecting Through Competition

Insights and lessons from the MAGIC tradeshow floor: Lottie Oakley talks shop with the Rising Stars of Fashion.
Founder + President, HARALUX
September 05, 2013

Up-and-coming designers and small-business owners Mary Lai, Aimee Kestenberg and Kristine Gottilla recently ventured to Las Vegas to compete in the American Express OPEN Rising Stars of Fashion competition at MAGIC Market Week 2013.

Over the course of three days, these rising stars took their designs from sketch to finished handbag. While it was technically a competition, more importantly it became a bonding experience, with all three designers learning and growing from one another.

As former associate publisher of Vogue and founder of Haralux, I know how incredibly daunting it can be to break into the fashion industry as a small-business owner. Experience, exposure and connections—like those gained through the Rising Stars competition—can be absolutely game changing for a young designer.

It was incredibly inspiring to watch these talented women work against the clock to craft three gorgeous bags: from Lai's winning zebra and chain-strap satchel, to Kestenberg's playful, crystal-encrusted clutch and Gottilla's chic-yet-utilitarian leather tote. It was even more rewarding to witness the admiration and support other small-business owners had for the young designers throughout the competition. It’s something all three will remember for the rest of their careers, and it’s a great jumpstart to the longevity of their respective businesses.

Before the three designers packed up shop at MAGIC and returned to their respective studios, I sat down with them one last time to learn how this experience helped them boost their brands.

It was remarkable to watch your craft come to life as each of you took your handbag designs from concept to creation. How has this competition been a game changer for you and your business?

Lai: As a small brand that’s very new, competitions like this are key to helping give your brand more exposure.

Kestenberg: Exactly. I’m so thankful that American Express OPEN gave us this amazing opportunity to really show our stuff. I only launched my namesake line nine months ago and platforms like Rising Stars can really help put your business on the map in a way that you might not be able to afford to do otherwise.

So true. Relationships are important for any small-business owner. From growing your network to mentoring each other, what connections did you make at Rising Stars and how will you use them to help inspire and grow your business?

Gottilla: Mary and I definitely clicked on both a personal and professional level and I think we’ll definitely learn from one another in the future. Her resources from the fashion world can definitely help grow my skill set and evolve my business through new channels.

Lai: I’m a big believer in surrounding yourself with great people. I’ve made a new close friend in Kristine and reconnected with Aimee, whom I’ve worked with before at a different company. It’s important to have a support system as a small-business owner. As they grow, you grow too.

Kestenberg: The relationships made throughout your career really are the most important part of business. Networking with those around you is crucial to success in any role.

Mary, over the course of the week, I heard you mention that sometimes as a small-business owner you have to “fail your way to success.” Can you elaborate?

Lai: I actually heard that line from one of the founders of Gilt Groupe at a women’s entrepreneurial conference—and it stuck with me ever since. You can’t be scared of failure.

Gottilla: Growing up, a close family friend was also a handbag designer. She was eventually successful, but starting out it took her four years for her to grow her brand. For most small-business owners, overnight success is not the reality. The long journey has been more rewarding for me, anyway.

Kestenberg: Exactly. Pushing through the hardest times only makes success that much sweeter. You can’t take “no” for an answer.

As we approached the announcement of the winner, I think I felt just as nervous and excited as each of you. Mary, as the winner of Rising Stars of Fashion, in what ways have you parlayed your victory into exposure for your brand?

Lai: I had several publications reach out to do articles on my line, so riding that wave of momentum, I updated my blog with a post detailing the event and saw a spike in website traffic. I was also very active on social media throughout the event. Today’s small-business owners are so lucky to have outlets to promote their brands that are free and allow them to connect with customers on a deeper level.

Kestenberg: Social media is crucial to emerging brands and new businesses. It’s important to consumers to know who they’re buying from. It’s so much richer to own something that you’ve seen the work go into and know the story behind it.

Absolutely agree. The level of design each of you achieved over the course of the three days was mind-blowing. I’ve never seen a designer take something from concept to ideation to creation in that short amount of time. How did you grow as a business owner through this process?

Gottilla: Personally, I’ve grown so much in my communication skills and comfort level when it comes to talking about my business. It’s definitely an experience I’ll tap back into when pitching to potential investors in the future.

Lai: Being in the spotlight is not something I’m used to. So three days of talking to bloggers and buyers gave me the confidence to sell my brand as designer and owner. It made me feel more confident in being the face of my brand.

Kestenberg: I learned how to work efficiently under tight requirements and time frames. In times like that, believing in yourself is the most important thing because you need to be able to make your own decisions and know that they’re right.

Lottie Oakley is the founder of HARALUX, a luxury brand-management firm formed to manage and build luxury-minded brands and help them reach their full potential. She was previously the associate publisher of Vogue magazine.

Photos: Jerry Lai, Momentum Worldwide