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How to 'Design' a Successful Business

Three up-and-coming designers share what they've learned as they build their companies in the high-stakes world of fashion.
August 12, 2013

Some people have that special something that only exists when talent meets passion and guts meet glory. It's a quality that defines so many entrepreneurs. As a former associate publisher of Vogue, I often have the privilege of interviewing up-and-coming designers, many who fit this bill. So often, in fashion, the outside world only sees the glamour and sparking flashbulbs of the runway and forgets that the industry's greatest designers are really business owners who face the same triumphs and challenges of other entrepreneurs. Without an understanding of the industry and an incredible work ethic, even the most appreciated designers would not have developed the brands we celebrate today.

Three such designers, Mary Lai, Aimee Kestenberg, and Kristine Gottilla, have been selected for the American Express OPEN Rising Stars of Fashion competition at this August’s MAGIC Market Week 2013, a bi-annual tradeshow in Las Vegas where industry professionals shop fashion, network, and preview trends. Over the course of three days, these designers will go from sketch to finished handbag as they compete for the top spot in the competition.

These three entrepreneurs recently took the time to speak about what it takes to run a successful company—lessons that apply to many entrepreneurs, whether or not they know their Gucci from their Fendi.

Lesson 1: Know Your Market

Before Mary Lai launched her handbag collection in New York last November, she was a graphic design graduate of Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. In the early days of her career, she spent her time in the sample room designing handbags for brands like Be&D, Rachel Zoe, Carlos Falchi, and Kathy Van Zeeland. After sharpening her skills, she launched the Mary Lai Collection, featuring handbags crafted for working women in their late 20s to early 30s. Lai describes the collection as “luxury bags at an affordable price.” Combining the knowledge she gained from working on successful brands with intuition about a target market she can relate to gives her an edge over her competitors. “The fact that people find you surprising is great,” she says.

As a small-business owner, Lai has learned to embrace wearing multiple hats, and with her husband as a part-time business partner, they are learning as they go. Though the company has no employees to date, Lai has tapped into the freelancing pool as a way to keep company costs down while still building her brand. She also relies on social media for her public-relations needs, and uses platforms like Instagram, as well as her own blog, to engage with her customers on a personal level. She keeps her sites fresh by working her own graphic designs. And although production and manufacturing can also present a challenge for small-business owners, Lai keeps her production local, in the Big Apple, where she has found more flexibility on minimums.

Despite it all, Lai understands the importance of approaching her work energetically and with a clear head. She claims she's always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “If you have a passion,” she says, “go for it, and be smart about making decisions.”

Lesson 2: Evolve Your Brand

When Aimee Kestenberg left Australia to go to Parsons The New School for Design in New York, she had one goal in mind—create her own brand. While attending Parsons, Kestenberg completed design internships with various luxury brands including Ralph Lauren Collection, Isaac Mizrahi Couture, Sass & Bide, Jill Stuart, and Alexander McQueen. Kestenberg is also a three-time finalist and two-time winner of the Independent Handbag Designer Awards. For three years, she worked as an apprentice at The House of Couture and was trained in the skills and techniques required to master the construction of couture accessories. Over the past five years, she has designed runway and ready-to-wear accessory collections for various luxury brands worldwide.

An accomplished designer, Kestenberg also remains a small-business owner, working hard to evolve her eponymous brand. With her husband Sean as her partner, they do everything from marketing and public relations to design, often using social media to drive brand awareness. “As a small-business owner, we are the company,” Kestenberg says. “We are the team. It’s exhausting, but also very rewarding.”

After living in China for four years, the pair leveraged the business relationships they made overseas with suppliers and factories to bring the collection to life. Together, they launched a handbag collection for the contemporary woman, controlling each aspect of production to ensure the utmost quality.

As a small business, Kestenberg's label has advantages that larger companies don't, especially when it comes to customer service. “Everything is personal,” Kestenberg says. “If a customer writes me, I write her back, Or if they complain, I will personally send them a new handbag. I want my customers to be happy.”

Lesson 3: Define Your Goals

Before launching SPENCER DEVINE in 2012, founder and designer Kristine Gottilla studied fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She went on to study costume design in Rome, where she learned the fine art of sewing. Upon her return to New York, Gottilla began experimenting with designing and hand-stitching leather bags. For the last four years, she has been working out of a storefront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offering customizable styles to discerning locals. SPENCER DEVINE is a collection that blossomed from some of the most popular styles Gottilla has collaborated on with her consumers, polishing them for her S/S 13 Collection.

Building a fashion brand today takes commitment. With her line of handbags, Gottilla has been able to apply a workshop vibe to her creations with handmade touches. She also believes her customers are looking for products that have multiple uses—her bags can be used as backpacks, totes, or briefcases, and are gender neutral.

“Every day as a small-business owner, life is challenging and amazing,” Gottilla says. A self-starter, she finds that when setting her personal and professional goals, each day, “life and work become one.”

In the business of creativity, it’s important to remember that going back to basics does not mean going back to boring, but rather it signifies the need to apply tried-and-true tactics and adapt them to one’s own business strategies. Establishing a network means connecting the dots and really using the resources available to you, as you develop your own business style.

You can follow Lai, Kestenberg, and Gottilla, as well as their journey at MAGIC Market Week 2013, with the hashtag #RisingStars on Twitter.

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: Courtesy of MAGIC Market Week, Courtesy of Mary Lai, Aimee Kestenberg, and Kristine Gottilla