As 1 Granary, of course, we must ask the most important question first: where did you learn fashion?
I went to fashion school in LA as a designer and then I got a degree in business.
That’s rare! Do you think your education impacted the way you run your brand today?
I think I learned absolutely nothing in fashion school. I recommend absolutely no one to go there and I would tell them to drop out and intern for a brand instead. [laughter]
“I’m very anti-school, in the way that I feel I’m very anti-authority.” – Hillary Taymour
What was the problem with your education?
I think some fashion schools are good. If you need technical skills, like sewing or pattern cutting, those can definitely be taught in school, but you don’t need to go through an entire education in order to set up a brand. You can just take courses to learn technical skills such as draping and patternmaking. I think a business class on how to set up a business plan and structure a business is also very helpful. I’m very anti-school, in the way that I feel I’m very anti-authority.
I started my business while I was still in school and I was reprimanded for it. I couldn’t do my midterms because I was actually producing a product that was selling, and there was no flexibility around that, they almost failed me. I hate those types of structures, for artists, it’s stifling. I don’t hire people based on their training, I hire them based on their capabilities and talent.
What are some other life experiences that benefitted you?
I worked in the industry, I worked all throughout fashion school as a designer, I worked in boutique stores and managed them. I knew how to do a tech pack and a pattern, and develop a product to market. I also grew up riding horses, which is very strict, you need a lot of discipline. You need to take care of the horse very attentively, and there are a lot of rules. It’s a specific process. That is where I get my structure from. I am never late, my shows don’t run that late. I am always ready to show on the dot, at my showtime 6 pm on Friday, I just have to wait for PR to be ready. I hate being late. I’m very diligent. Other than that I have such a free structure elsewhere. I can make a sketch on the airplane and send it through to my team as I land to get started on it – I’m very lucky to be able to work that way.
“It’s your name on the door so you have to be the standard for the level of work ethic in the room. ” – Hillary Taymour
How did you set up this structure?
I worked my ass off every day, during weekends and holidays, for the past fifteen years. Still lucky! I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I work so much, I’m in bed at two in the morning, texting people, “yes, you can return this item from the store.” When you own your own business, you do everything yourself. Even with a staff, you can’t expect them to work as hard as you work. It’s your name on the door at the end of the day so you have to be the standard for the level of work ethic in the room. You have to be prepared to pack boxes, make shipping mistakes, and learn from them. Starting your own business means you are going to work way more than a 9-5 job in this industry so be prepared. I still to this day pack boxes and send out online store orders.
“Starting your own business means you are going to work way more than a 9-5 job in this industry so be prepared.” – Hillary Taymour
In London, we see a lot of brands that launch almost by accident. Your route feels a bit more intentional.
Not intentional, but it was very simple. I made a handbag for myself while I was working in the industry and everybody wanted it. I would go to grocery stores and people would ask where I got it, etc. I got orders based on that. But this is pre-Instagram, so there is no record of it. It was around when the first blogs came out, like the DailyCandy. So, I had an it-handbag before I was 23, but then I stopped making them because we stopped working with leather and I wanted to move into ready-to-wear. I still to this day never wear a handbag. I had an “Oh my god” moment when I was overwhelmed by working with so much death when we were working with leather. I quickly became a vegetarian and never touched leather or meat again.
Did you have a business model?
Absolutely not! I just thought I need help to run this company, and I’d go on fashioninterns.com or something like that, and find someone. I met Charlie Engman on craigslist in 2011 to be my intern, great things can happen on the internet. But in the end, I figured it out along the way. Now we have people from all over the world coming to intern with us or work with us. But we made a lot of mistakes along the way and it’s always just trial and error when you are starting something new.
What do you look for in the people you work with?
I like somebody who is efficient. Somebody who can listen to what I want and achieve it, without me having to give too much feedback. Somebody who understands the identity of the brand and can run with it. I always do a trial with our technical employees because what we need most is people who can make clothes and I need to know if they are fast enough. Being a small brand, you can outsource your designs to a professional pattern maker for a standard price of a pattern, and it’ll be correct for the most part, but if you can have that skill inhouse, and find someone who can do it in the same amount of time it’s much better. Because they’re in the room with me I can make adjustments, but if they take too long and I end up paying more than a normal patternmaker, I can’t justify the expense. It has to be someone who is confident and efficient. It’s such a fast-paced working environment, I want to see my ideas executed the same day, ideally. Theoretically, I mean I can wait until Monday, but I don’t want to.
Would you say speed is part of your creative process?
Yes, because I build my collection from individual pieces. So, I need to know if I like the new shirt idea to be able to start the new pant idea. It’s like a river and the collection processes flow off each other. Every new idea takes a lot of time and I need to make sure they are all executed correctly so it doesn’t stop the workflow process. It’s all pieces of a puzzle to build a collection, if one of the new pieces fits, then I need to work on the others.
Is that how you always work on the collection? Creating the pieces in the studio and building a narrative from there?
Yes. Gina, who I call my left hand, (she’s in charge of all the patterns and development at Collina Strada) and I usually work on the show and the creative process after 6 pm, when everyone is gone. That’s when you’re not interrupted or distracted by calls and meetings. We’ll usually stay until midnight or longer. We’ll try on clothes and re-style shapes from the previous seasons. Revitalizing them to make them feel fresh. From there, I can get ideas. Sometimes, even a pile of leftover fabric in the corner of the studio can inspire me. I have a piece in this collection [points at the rail] that is made entirely from the garbage of our production of t-shirt scraps.
“I think we have some of the best fits in the industry. Everybody who tries on our pants is like – omg, it fits my body. That’s because I try the clothes on myself, and I don’t have a conventional model body.” – Hillary Taymour
Do you do any research before that?
Normally, when I’m in Paris during the market from the current collection, I try to think of a concept, which will usually come from what I would like to improve with the previous collection. I’ll think, “I wish I did this with the show” and that’ll spark what I do next season. It’s all the things I didn’t like, all the problems, I try to fix them. Last season, for example, the problem was that it felt too girly, I didn’t want it to be too femme. It worked for the showspace, it was correct, but I wanted to shift it a little bit. There are also always a lot of pieces that don’t make it to the runway, that we can reuse as a starting point. There is so much cool stuff you guys don’t see, so we can use them to move forward.
I always start with a couple of prints. This season, we did animal prints, so that was easy for us, we had the dolphin, the gecko, and the brown fur. There is no moodboard in my studio, no colour palette, only fabric swatches after we get them made. Or I go shopping for deadstock fabrics.
So, it’s really the material that drives you?
Yeah, but there are no references on the board. At the end of the day, I sketch and then I make it. I collage from my own pieces. That’s because I think we have some of the best fits in the industry. Everybody who tries on our pants is like – omg, it fits my body. That’s because I try the clothes on myself, and I don’t have a conventional model body. It’s really important for women designers to wear their own clothes, that’s where we are superior to men. The fact that I understand how my weight fluctuates, how my body changes, and what makes me feel good on a workday – a lot of male designers don’t understand that level of wearability with a woman’s body.
“Thinking of your clients, if you don’t believe in your brand, how will they believe it?” – Hillary Taymour
How long did it take you to perfect the pattern?
Three years. That is when I found our block, and what works. You can tell, looking at pictures, when I started wearing Collina Strada everywhere. If you are a designer you need to wear your clothes. That’s so important. Thinking of your clients, if you don’t believe in your brand, how will they believe it?
“Diverse sizing is not a problem, it’s not difficult.” – Hillary Taymour
You place the body centrally in your design process. We often hear that it complicates sampling and production too much to fully incorporate it. Do you agree?
I hear it from my friends and I yell at them every single day. I literally just yelled at someone about that today. I will grade a pattern to the model’s size the night before the show, because it’s important to me that customers recognise themselves. Diverse sizing is not a problem, it’s not difficult. It hasn’t affected my sales or anything. I never saw an issue, but I do cast ahead of time. I’m good at my job, I know how to fit different body types. We are still trying to figure out how to cost out even more inclusive sizing for our direct-to-consumer sites. Right now we are only up to a size XL and I am trying to shift so we can have more sizing available ASAP.
“You need to be on top of the innovation constantly and figure out what works. You also make mistakes along the way. There are things that were considered sustainable in 2012 that aren’t anymore, like upcycled materials from water bottles, for example.” – Hillary Taymour
You’ve been adamant about finding alternatives to traditional – exploitative or polluting – production methods. How much research does it take?
You need to research every day, cause it’s changing every day. Every time I read a new article, I email that company and ask whether it’s feasible for small-scale production. You need to be on top of the innovation constantly and figure out what works. You also make mistakes along the way. There are things that were considered sustainable in 2012 that aren’t anymore, like upcycled materials from water bottles, for example. We know now that those spread microplastics.
Do you have any resources you can share?
I put Google alerts up for innovative textiles and technologies. It’s always a challenge to set up a new collaboration with a company, because of the minimums and the pricing. We’re working with mushroom replacement leather now, and the pricing is so high because they haven’t commercialized it yet.
“Nothing scares me really, as long as I can keep it on an entry-level designer price point. I want it to be relatively affordable.” – Hillary Taymour
Is communication challenging when talking to these innovative technical companies?
There is definitely a gap in communication, but then again, I am the kind of person who can turn the most boring fabric into something creative, it doesn’t stop me. I can use anything. We hand paint a lot in the studio. Nothing scares me really, as long as I can keep it on an entry-level designer price point. I want it to be relatively affordable. I see a lot of young designers come out the door with 900$ trousers… you can’t necessarily succeed with this level of pricing. Your customer base is in their early twenties, can you even afford it yourself? Unless you are marketing yourself as a high-luxury brand and putting the money where your mouth is, this will be hard. Price things in the entry-level designer market so you can gain traction and then slowly raise your pricing once you have created brand recognition and a customer following.