Eunice Cho, founder and main designer of AELLA shares the realities of launching a fashion brand, growing a customers base and dealing with competition.
I don’t have a traditional fashion background, I studied to become a painter and started working as studio assistant for Wangechi Mutu immediately after school. I loved the experience but quickly realized that the art world wasn’t necessarily for me. I wanted to do something a little more approachable. In the arts, if you’re making a painting, it can be so expensive that not many people can actually interact with your work in a very intimate setting. So I decided to switch to fashion and started working for a luxury lifestyle brand called Kiki de Montparnasse. I started by doing all their visual merchandising and window display but got interested in operations so I went around all different departments of the company and got fascinated by the business side of fashion. That’s when I decided that I was very much interested in going to business school.
I wanted to do something a little more approachable. In the arts, if you’re making a painting, it can be so expensive that not many people can actually interact with your work in a very intimate setting. So I decided to switch to fashion and started working for a luxury lifestyle brand called Kiki de Montparnasse. I started by doing all their visual merchandising and window display but got interested in operations so I went around all different departments of the company and got fascinated by the business side of fashion. That’s when I decided that I was very much interested in going to business school.
I was 25 years old at the time and I it was the first time I had to dress business casual or even business formal. When I was working for Wangechi or at the fashion company we really didn’t have any kind of expectation for dressing to work. I had to buy my first suit and realized how uncomfortable and expensive they were and, as I’m very petite, so I felt like a little boy wearing a school uniform. It was not very exciting or empowering, I couldn’t feel like I could go into a room and feel powerful. It was just a horrible experience. At the time you know my best friend was working in finance and working in a conservative workplace and she would tell me how everything she had to wear to work was uncomfortable and not feminine.
That’s when I started asking why there wasn’t something better for women to dress at work. Clothes in which you can feel polished without spending too much or not feeling like yourself and comfortable in your own skin. I had moved to Los Angeles from New York. I was going to school at UCLA and at the same time working at my family business which is in textile and fiber distribution and manufacturing. That’s where I had a lot of resources to do fabric research. I had this idea of making workwear that feels like yoga wear, suits that are as comfortable as your leggings. I realized that it all came down to the fabric so I started just doing a lot of research and seeing if I could find that one fabric that would allow me to make my own version of the perfect black pants, that wouldn’t fade and would feel like yoga pants, that you can wash in the washing machine without them to loose the fit.
FROM IDEA TO LAUNCH
The research took about 6 months and the first round of prototypes took me about a year. I made a very simple website and started testing the products online and at a very small wholesale account that I had.
I started very small because I had zero experience in manufacturing clothing and I wanted the orders to still be manageable and also didn’t know how people would react to this type of products because it was a totally new concept. Yoga wear wasn’t as big as it is now. I also had to go through a lot of rounds of improvements before I was totally confident in what I was offering.
“I started very small because I had zero experience in manufacturing clothing and I wanted the orders to still be manageable”
After I launched the website and the small wholesale I went through two selling seasons of experimented with different designs. And then ultimately after the first two seasons, I realized that the wholesale side of the business wasn’t going to work. I wanted to serve an audience of young professionals and I was I using very special materials from Italy and Japan so in wholesale model the price point was too expensive for my target market. The pants price would have to be price anywhere from 275 $ to approximately 475$. When you are a new brand trying to serve a young clientele that price point is too expensive. I wanted to make it more approachable so I decided to only focus on online sales. That implied to update the website and the entire operating system.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
Customers come primarily through our PR efforts, that’s our number one way of finding new customers. When we have a really good piece of PR in a printed magazine or a web publication, we capture a lot of new customers. The reason why I focus on PR is that we don’t have the kind of budget needed to do a large enough advertising campaign.
At the beginning, I started working with an outside PR agency that would take a monthly retainer. But at that time, my business was not ready for it as I had just a simple website and I was still going through a lot of different changes in the business. If you want to capitalize your PR efforts you have to make sure to have a consistent story and know your product from the inside out so that people don’t get confused on what you’re trying to do.
“If you want to capitalize your PR efforts you have to make sure to have a consistent story and know your product from the inside out so that people don’t get confused on what you’re trying to do”
After the relaunch of the website I started working with an individual PR consultant as opposed to an agency because agencies can be very expensive. Unfortunately she was alone and she was not getting me the PR that I wanted even though we had made so many improvements and that we were ready to spread the word. I ended that relationship pretty quickly and now we do our PR in-house. I would say that this has been the most successful approach as we can really control the story we get out. Working with agencies can be dangerous for small businesses, not only because of the fees, but also because you really can’t control how much they’re focusing on your business, you can easily be cast aside by larger clients.
DEALING WITH COMPETITION
Everyone struggles with dealing with competition but if you are making the best product and providing the best service that you can, you should not think too much about the competition. Based on that we came up with a unique service. If you place an order for a pair of pants then you can add a second size to try on for free so that you receive two pairs of pants and keep the one that fits and return the other on for free. Every order has a return envelope so that makes finding the right size incredibly easy for our customers. When it comes to pants, woman are incredibly personal about it and it’s hard to find the right size.
“You’ll want to break down every single barrier that a customer might be feeling in order to purchase what you’re offering”
You’ll want to break down every single barrier that a customer might be feeling in order to purchase what you’re offering. Setting that service up was really important for us in order to differentiate from competition and acquire new customers. We really tried to do our absolute best to keep our quality super high and our customer service excellent because a lot of our business comes from return customers.
Growing sales is hard. Especially when you’re trying not to spend any money on marketing or advertising. You really just have to grow it through your willpower. Small brands that launches with small marketing budget or by bootstrapping rarely have a crazy success immediately. The reality is that it takes time to build a brand, to find your voice, find your customers and find the right product offering.
“The reality is that it takes time to build a brand, to find your voice, find your customers and find the right product offering”
The toughest thing was having the faith that my brand concept had potential and a big enough market for it to be truly successful. When I first started sales were so low that I was not really sure that it had potential. But what kept me going was the fact that market trends that were very clear. Activewear is the only category within apparel, outside of luxury, that’s growing and it’s growing very quickly. More and more people are paying attention to comfort so I knew that the market was there and it was just my execution that at the beginning was not good enough. I did a lot of surveys and focus groups to understand what was not working in my branding and reiterated based on that research.
“If you don’t have sales it doesn’t matter, you don’t have a business”
A lot of creatives focus on building a brand but if you don’t have sales it doesn’t matter, you don’t have a business. Even if you can get PR, if you don’t have sales, you’re not building a business.
EUNICE FIVE TIPS FOR A SUCCESFUL BRAND
- If you are serious about building a business, focus on sales, not on vanity metrics.
- Pay your vendors on time.
- Your time is your most valuable resource. If there are toxic customers or vendors who become a black hole for your time, it’s completely okay to fire them.
- You need to take breaks if you’re going to be creative.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff! Whenever you are stressed out about something, remind yourself: Are you going to remember this five years from now? Is this going to affect you for the long run? Chances are, the answer will be no for most things. Save yourself the anxiety and heartache; because those emotions cut down your creativity and productivity.
Photography courtesy of Eunice Cho