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INTERVIEW by BRITTANY FARB |PHOTOGRAPHY by JESSICA BURKE

 

Meet this duo of entrepreneurs committed to helping out the Alexander McQueen-wannabes of the world. Their mission: To revolutionize the traditional fashion regime. After spending years working together in the corporate fashion world, Lindsay McConnon and Jena Wang took the plunge together and started their own business. Today, the pair runs Velvet Brigade, an online operation designed to help out novice, (and often struggling) aspiring designers. Anyone can submit designs and the pair encourages creativity. Here’s the low-down on this innovative platform aimed to shake-up the fashion world.

 

How did you girls meet?

 

Jena: We met back at Macy’s. We worked on launching the women’s affordable contemporary line together and ever since then have had a great working relationship.

 

What inspired your idea?

 

Lindsay: Jena and I knew that we wanted to do something in contemporary women’s fashion because we worked in that space before. We were always really inspired by the female customer because we think she is the most creative in terms of her fashion choices and she is the most interesting person to address from a retail perspective. She is not very brand-loyal. She is very interested in pop culture, music, and things that are going on in the broader landscape, and that really affects her fashion choices.

 

How did you start the business?

 

Jena: When Macy’s decided to centralize its offices in New York, we had the option to move out, but that was not the right decision for either of us.

 

Lindsay: We both had this entrepreneurial passion and we just started brainstorming ideas. We gave ourselves a six-month window to come up with an idea and by the third month, we had the Velvet Brigade idea and we instantly felt like this was it. For us, working for a really big company, we saw how difficult it was for really small designers to get distribution for their goods to the point where they had enough scale for it to become a profitable business. Being on the side of the big company with market power, I think we saw the worst side of it and we thought it would be really fun to do something that we felt inspired by and passionate about, which was independent design.

 

How does the Velvet Brigade work?

 

Jena: Basically, we are interested in recruiting all types of designers. You could be a 13-year-old in her room who loves to design. When we launched this business, we heard from a lot of people that their daughters or their sons were interested in sketching. We also have been hitting up design students so really anybody can submit a sketch to our Velvet Brigade website. You have 30 days from the time that you submit your sketch to promote your design to your friends and family through your various social networks. Feedback and adherence to our trend board are metrics that we use when deciding who wins and gets produced in the end. We select on a monthly basis various designs that have achieved all of those different metrics, and that’s when we put things into production and we sell on our online shop and share part of the sales with the designers as well as include their names on our label.

 

How competitive is this process?

 

Lindsay: There is a broad range of styles and quality which we love and embrace. I think we could have more of a difficult process for people to get up on our site, but today what we have been really excited about is that anybody can play the game. So we already have people from Pakistan, Algeria, Malaysia, and all over Europe. We’ve had maybe 350 to 400 design submissions in the last two months and we are putting about seven of those initial designs into production. Once you are part of our design team, you have a special badge on our site as a designer and then we communicate with people individually to tell you what we need. There are ways that designers as part of our community come and stay with us and have future opportunities.

 

Jena: It is definitely competitive because for someone who uploads a beautiful design, he or she has to promote the design. But Lindsay and I are always on the site, managing the designs that are submitted. We also look at someone who may have submitted something last week and has very few votes. Part of what I love doing is reaching out and saying, “Hey, you know what? We really believe in this design. What are you doing to help yourself promote?” We encourage and support them in this process so that each one of them can be competitive on our site.

 

Where does the name “Velvet Brigade” come from?

 

Lindsay: We love the idea of democratizing fashion and so when we were trying to come up with our brand name, we really wanted something that had a political tone to it. It took us forever and it was so stressful and we came up with a runner-up name that we thought would be our real name: Sew Democratic. But Jena’s dad, who lives in Taiwan, found out and he said, “No way, you can’t do that because nobody from China will put the word ‘democratic’ into a search engine.” That was a huge risk factor because we would love to be international. So then we both came together with a list of five names. The name Velvet was inspired by the Velvet Revolution. We loved the idea of something democratic and peaceful, and also it was named after a fabric… how convenient! We liked the idea of a brigade because it was a group of people coming together for a common purpose and that’s what we feel our community is.

 

Here’s a fun question. How would you describe your unique styles?

 

Lindsay: Let me just start by saying how many times that we have shown up for meetings wearing the same outfits. Like many, many times!

 

Jena: We do have very similar tastes but I also believe that we pick up on different things. I would say my taste is more the rocker look. It depends on my mood. This is always a tough question for me to answer because I feel like sometimes I like to be in the rocker mood with leather jackets, skinnys, and just kind of a grungy look. Other times, I like to look nice and Bohemian in my maxi dress. I would like to call myself a chameleon.

 

Lindsay: Jena, you also have a huge Asian-inspired element because you travel to Asia so much.

 

Jena: I do like to take hints from a lot of the trends that are going on in Asia right now with the super-oversized billowy look. That’s a lot of what I lounge in and wear around. These days, though, it’s whatever gets me out the door early in the morning that’s important.

 

What tips do you have for young entrepreneurs?

 

Lindsay: Being an entrepreneur tests your resolve and confidence. Before you start a company, I think you should ask yourself if you are comfortable with both outcomes: success and failure. If you are really comfortable with failure, it probably means that you believe so much in your idea and in your company that the process is important on its own and I think both Jena and I feel that way.

 

Jena: You have to be super-persistent as an entrepreneur because it’s really hard on its own. I also believe that the fashion industry is one of those industries that is even harder to break into. It’s not just about getting a degree and being able to land a job in this industry. You really have to build your work experience, you have to network and know a lot of the right people. At the same time, what we’re really proud of is being able to give young designers an entryway into this world. It is very hard to get your designs noticed, produced and sold, so and that’s essentially what we’re trying to deliver with Velvet Brigade.

 

How can Daily BR!NK readers help out the Velvet Brigade?

 

Lindsay: We would love aspiring designers to submit designs because we would love to grow our design community and engage more people. We also need a CTO, so any technology people who are engineers and love this idea, we would love to have them e-mail us. Finally, come buy products because we are launching our shop this week.

 

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