Like many young designers, Janet Yeung is multi-tasking. She is a designer, a retailer and head of communications. Why? After graduating from Parsons, she set up her own shoe label, iRi, in collaboration with Latif Nawab, her business partner. Together, they chose a rather unusual business model for such a young label. Bypassing external retailers, the shoes are available online and in their physical store, on a see-now-buy-now basis. We spoke to Janet about the reason behind these bold choices.
How has your everyday life changed since you left Parsons? And since launching iRi?
It’s totally changed! I didn’t really think about launching a business until both myself and my business partner saw an opportunity that we both felt could work. Since launching iRi, my life is iRi – and this feels totally different from when I was at Parsons. It’s really like raising a child and the responsibility is at times a little nerve-racking but there is nothing more exciting than seeing your work come to life and all the decisions that go into that process.
When did you first envision starting your own label? Did Parsons prepare you for the experience?
Even before Parsons, I’ve always wanted to start something, to do something where I can be expressive! Studying at Parsons helped me shape up what I really wanted to do creatively. Besides just projects and collections, having the opportunities to meet and talk to people in the industry gave me a good indication of what I would experience if I were to start my own label.
How long before the launch did you start planning? What were some of the obstacles you had to take? (For example, was it hard to find your production site in Italy?)
I’d say it took us around seven months to plan but we started talking (almost as a joke) even before that. I think the most important aspect of the planning stage was being able to surround ourselves with people whom can collaborate with us in launching the business and shaping both design and image. The great thing is that the choices we made with the team really worked out (so far!).
As it was the first time for all of us to build something from the ground up (and we’ve never designed or produced shoes before!) there were many hurdles to get over. When the first factory we found in Italy turned us down at the very last minute, my business partner and I really felt the pressures of running a business. However, we stayed optimistic and our first huge obstacle turned into a great opportunity of leading us to find the best and most experienced factories. Like this case – we do believe that whatever obstacles we face, we can flip that to an opportunity. It’s difficult to always think like that but in business it’s the only way.
You work closely with your business partner Latif Nawab, who you met through mutual friends. How does that collaboration work and how important is it to you?
SUPER important. Although we take all decisions together I primarily handle the creative and Latif manages the business. From iRi’s inception, we both discussed how iRi needs to be represented by a collective of people. Over-communication and being honest at all time are the keys to making it work, and it’s something that I’m really trying to integrate into my DNA.
The collections are created around special moments you had with your grandmother. What does it mean to draw inspiration from (childhood) memories?
I always end up feeling attached to each collection and design, even if the final designs have been revised, and edited after several stages. And so every single collection means something to me, and they become like footprints or triggers of those valuable memories I had with my grandmother. To be able to have this experience is something I am very grateful for, as I would not have been able to have it if it was not for launching iRi.
You decided to use a see-now-buy-now model. What pushed this decision?
Both Latif and I wanted to be confident in our product and we wanted to approach the business like shopkeepers. We design, manufacture and buy our own inventory to sell on our online store now. This then forces us to think of innovative ways to create demand through content creation and marketing, rather than leaving that up to a retailer. This also allows us to know our customer more intimately which only aides me further in design. We do believe and work in the wholesale schedule and I think both the see-now-buy-now model and wholesale model can exist side by side.
You are selling the shoes through your own e-commerce site, yet you offer the possibility to try the shoes on in your NYC Studio. How important are physical stores for a new product?
Physical stores are very important. It helps develop trust with the customer. Going into a store and holding a product is an experience. In great stores it’s like a retail theatre. As we are a very new company, we wanted to help build trust in our shoes. The fastest way of doing this was to invite customers into the studio to try the shoes on. Not only do they recognize style, comfort and fit, it allows us to engage with them. This is working out very well for us.
You are very active on Instagram and Facebook. How important is social media to iRi? Does it feel natural for you to use these channels?
Social media is our daily conversation with our small but growing community. As an e-commerce business it crucial because our target market are active social media users. And personally, as a digital native it is something I enjoy.
iRi is still a very young brand. What is coming next? Are you planning to expand into clothing someday?
So many things! We are very grateful to have people reaching out to us for projects but it’s always more exciting to reveal them one by one when time comes… We won’t expand into any other category though, no matter how tempting that maybe!
Interview Katharina Hofbeck
Images Jordan Hemmingway