Business Lessons from the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator
Elissa Bloom knows a thing or two (or ten) about what it takes to grow a young fashion brand. As the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, she has helped dozens of fashion and accessories designers successfully grow their businesses.
Elissa Bloom is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s Center City. She has been with the organization since 2011 and helped launch the successful initiative that became an international model for fashion incubation.
With over 20 years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience, Elissa brings a fresh perspective to the world of fashion and business. She has worked for Bloomingdales and Anthropologie and has taught fashion entrepreneurship courses at Drexel University, Moore College of Art and Design and Thomas Jefferson University. She launched a successful accessories brand, Elissa Bloom New York, which she oversaw for ten years. While managing all aspects of her brand, Elissa learned what it takes to run a successful fashion company. A highly sought-after international speaker, Elissa has a strong understanding of the fashion business and is committed to sharing her experience with others to help them achieve success.
Business Lessons from the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator
Brandon: Elissa Bloom knows a thing or ten about what it takes to grow a young fashion brand. As the executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator since 2011, she has helped dozens of fashion and accessories designers successfully grow their businesses. In today’s interview, she shares the smart way to learn more about your customers that’s common sense, but unfortunately not common practice. She’ll talk about the biggest misunderstanding that most new designers have about their customers and the biggest mistake new designers make when it comes to pricing their collections.
Brandon: Elissa, to kick things off, to understand the context for this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator is all about?
Elissa: Sure. Thanks Brandon. So the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator is a one-year residency that teaches the business of fashion to six emerging fashion designers in the Philadelphia region. What happens in that one year, which starts every March, is that we give these designers a whole bunch of resources and education, all on the business of fashion. So it’s almost like they’re getting an MBA. They already have the design talent, but they don’t necessarily know how to bring their product to market or how to scale or how to expand with their sales strategies or with their pricing. So we are there to guide them and connect them to industry leaders and provide workshops on the business of fashion.
Brandon: Very good. And who are the current crop of entrepreneurs in your program? Tell us a little bit about them.
Elissa: Sure. So we have six designers that just started in March, and it’s been really exciting, Brandon, because this is the eighth year that we’ve been up and running. And we’ve worked with many different types of designers, all product oriented, from accessories to apparel. So I’ve worked with many women’s wear designers along with men’s wear, children’s wear, bridal, accessories and street wear. This year we have six designers, and they are doing some remarkable products. Just to give you some background on that, in the past, designers that came through the program were focused on seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter – and doing a whole 20, 30 piece collection. And now the designers that we have that are in this program for 2019 are very focused on solving problems in the industry, and also I’m hyper-focused on the merchandise and the assortment that they’re bringing out to market.
So we have an adaptive line. That’s the first time that we have had a company that is addressing the needs of people with disabilities. The company’s called Smart Adaptive Clothing. Nancy Connor is the owner. She has a line of button-down shirts for men and women. Her father had Alzheimer’s and was no longer able to button, and she wanted to have him still dress nicely because he was always a very kind of classy dresser. So she created this shirt out of a need to see her father not in a sweatshirt. The shirt has velcro and the placket and the cuff for people with disabilities or their caretakers to do easy dressing for them. And so her company again is Smart Adaptive Clothing.
We have another company, JTL Designs – Julia Turner Lowe. She launched last year, a plus size clothing brand. Now she is retired, but she had a whole career in education. She now just found her real passion, which she felt a need for because she is petite and plus size and couldn’t find any stylish, modern, good-quality product for plus size for her own body. She was inspired to start and launch this collection and this brand.
And then the third company, Allison Pearce, she has a company called Pearce and she is doing unisex, kind of a fluid type of clothing for men and women. It’s very much based on eco fashion. She has some really interesting designs. She has a wrap pant. We all know about the wrap dress. It’s a pant that actually wraps. And also wrap halter top, she does quilting and uses a lot of interesting eco-friendly type of fabrics.
And then we have Prajje Oscar, Prajje is originally from Haiti, and he’s had his brand out in the marketplace for about 10 years. He took a couple of years off and now he is relaunching it, and it’s beautiful. He has done women’s wear, mostly evening wear, custom. And since being in the program the past two months, he’s decided he wants to launch more of a ready-to-wear collection. He works a lot with artisans in Haiti that are doing his embellishment work. So that’s been exciting how he’s giving back to his community where he grew up and supporting them, and they are supporting him with their artistry.
We also have Shelby Donnelly who has a company called Wear to Wall and Shelby is an artist. She went to Tyler here in Philadelphia for art and she has a line of artisanal skirts that are one of a kind, very couture. The company name Wear to Wall came from the idea that if a woman is not wearing this skirt or this dress, which are really for special occasions, she can showcase it on a wall. So she created this hanging system for people to purchase and she’s done many shows, art installations and shows at different art galleries and festivals. It’s been exciting having this very artistic creative in the program. And I’m seeing how she is now translating her artwork and her screen printing embroidery and applique work that she does, and she is transforming that into a line that is not only for custom, but she also is looking to do some small production runs on some of the items.
And then we have Victoria Kageni-Woodard. Victoria has a company called Gusa by Victoria and she’s originally from Kenya, and she also originally came from the construction industry. She always loved to sew and was inspired to create a woman’s wear collection using African prints in very bold colors for the confident modern woman. And I love her pieces. I’ve worn them to two events. What’s great about them is that every detail, not only the quality is beautifully constructed, but she always includes pockets, which is great for women, on her dresses and skirts.
It’s been exciting. And four out of the six designers that are in our cohort this year have no fashion background. As I mentioned, Victoria came from the construction industry. Shelby has a traditional art degree. Nancy, who’s doing Smart Adaptive, came from the dental industry and Julia came from a whole career in education. So it’s been exciting that these designers are in the program are also, a lot of them, in their second career. They’ve found a way to reinvent themselves. So the ages of 30, 35 to 68 years old, are in the program. It’s been really, exciting to see them transition and pivot at a later stage in life. I’m excited to see what they do in the next year.
Brandon: Thanks very much for sharing that. And it was quite interesting when you first told me that so many of the current crop of entrepreneurs didn’t actually have a background in fashion. Very interesting.
Elissa: Yeah. I can relate to all of them because I am a self-taught designer. I have no background in design myself. And I launched my own accessories brand in the market when I was 32. I was designing a collection of cosmetic bags, totes, quaint purses and clutches that I was manufacturing in Asia and then importing and wholesaling. And because I knew nothing, I think sometimes ignorance is bliss. When you’re starting a business, you don’t know what you don’t know, but you’ll figure it out. Sometimes I think that’s a strength for the entrepreneurs that they come in with a fresh perspective. Everybody’s going to make mistakes, but it’s great to be able to bounce back quickly and figure things out and keep moving forward.
Brandon: Absolutely. So, given the fact that you have the six current entrepreneurs in this program that has been going for eight years now, what mistakes that you’ve seen a lot of growing entrepreneurs make when it comes to understanding the consumer?
Elissa: I think it’s always interesting, Brandon, when designers are creating their garments. Before they get it to the market, they already have in their mind who their end-consumer is, they already have this image of this young woman. A lot of them, many of them say, oh, they’re in their 20s or 30s until these designers get out and actually meet some of their target customers and get market research and get feedback on the pricing and the design. I think the biggest mistake that designers make is not researching the market enough and understanding who their end-consumer is. They may think they’re designing for this young women, but the person actually buying their product tends to be an older, more mature women that can afford to purchase from an emerging designer that’s doing handmade or slow batch or small-batch manufacturing in the US.
And then I think pricing is always interesting. I always find that designers are either pricing the garments too high or they’re pricing too low. So they either were ambitious and thinking of themselves like a bigger brand, like a Oscar de la Renta or Ralph Lauren where they’re able to demand high prices because they’ve already developed that brand-loyal following. I always guide the designers, because pricing is tricky sometimes. I mean, number one, they have to make sure they’re making a profit, understanding whole cost analysis and making sure that they have a healthy profit margin. But then I always have the designers look at who their competition is in the marketplace. Price your product just a little bit under where the competition is at until you start gaining that following. You can always go a little bit higher, but once you go low you can never go back up.
I think the pricing and also just knowing who the end consumer that’s actually giving them the credit card and giving them money and actually making that purchase is. Those are the two misconceptions and mistakes that designers make when they’re first starting out. But it’s all a process. I mean, they have to get that experience and feel comfortable getting that feedback. Because it’s great if you’re designing something that you love and you think other people are going to buy. But if you get out in the market and nobody’s responding, the design’s not right or the price is too high, then you have to reevaluate.
And I just wanted to share my own personal experience with my accessories brand, which was under my name Elissa Bloom. I went to a stationery show in New York with a line of greeting cards. And I had planned these be to placemats. I had no desire or interest in starting an accessories company. I was all ready to start a stationery line. And the response from the placemats that I had with my designs on it, the overwhelming response, was you need to do bags. And so then I was designing, and at the time, I didn’t think I had an unclear focus of who the end consumer was. I thought it was a teenager because the designs were very young and colorful. But the consumers and the customers that we’re purchasing my product were 40- to 60-year-old women. And I never would have guessed when I first started designing. Designers should make sure that they’re doing enough market research with their product. And getting out there. That’s why at the incubator we have a lot of different pop-up shops and selling events and opportunities for them to get in front of consumers and to be able to get that feedback.
Brandon: Well those are some very good tips. Do you have any others that you could give to help the fashion entrepreneur better understand their consumer?
Elissa: Well, social media has been an incredible tool for emerging designers to be able to start that dialogue and start a conversation. And I think that, number one, you have to start building that community, building engagement. I was just having a meeting with Julia Turner Lowe yesterday, because I meet with each designer one-on-one, and we were talking about a blog post that she did. Julie’s doing plus size. And I challenged all the designers to think, you’re not only a designer, you’re an expert in your category. So, for example, with Julia, you are your customer, you are a plus size woman. How can you also use this as an opportunity to share information, to be a style expert for plus size women? And she wrote a blog post and she had likes from more than 50 people than normally like her posts.
I think she normally has 20 to 30 people that like her posts. She had over 80 like this blog post. This post had relevant information for her consumer. And a few of them had commented, and now she’s starting that dialogue with them about what do you like or what three pieces do you feel are missing from your wardrobe? Or I’d love to offer you a 10% discount on this jumpsuit that I just posted in the blog. Really making that connection. I think that’s what’s most important because right now it’s interesting how the market, as we all know with the retail industry, it’s been turned upside down. Everything that used to work, those old paradigms of how a designer would sell in the market, which would normally be going to a trade show, is not as effective anymore. And now I feel that it’s so much more about how designers can develop their own tribe, As Seth Godin talks about with his book Tribes. Designers can develop their own niche community of loyal customers and followers that want to get behind them and that want to purchase their product, that has a need that they’re solving.
Brandon: Very good. And a very good tip. Absolutely.
Elissa: Thank you, really understanding the consumer and what their lifestyle is, and what their needs are. Instead of designers being in their studio and thinking, “Oh, I’m going to design this because this makes me happy, and I think other people will like it.” So being open to creating that dialogue and getting feedback.
Brandon: I had an interview a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve asked the question, “how did you end up designing your products?” And they said, well, at first I designed for myself, what I actually liked. And then from there, once she had a few customers, it became a matter of what were the customers asking for. And if enough people asked for something, she would design it and release it and then repeat. And over the last 11-ish years, that’s been her entire model for expansion. And it continues to be. So very, very good advice there.
Elissa: That’s great. And sometimes designers don’t end up where they think they’re going to end up, right? I think to that point, Brandon, another important aspect that I went to bring up: when a designer is deciding to start a company, they have to put in a whole different mindset, and that’s the mindset of the entrepreneur. They’re in that creative right brain design space, but then they have to think about if they really want to make this a business to make this their livelihood, then they have to shift how they think and how they use their time. And most of the time, if you’re going to be an entrepreneur in the fashion industry, you’re going to be spending most of your time on the business side, not as much time on the design side, finding the right people to bring in and the right team to help you along or just support you on those areas that you don’t want to focus on. I think that that’s also a key mistake that sometimes designers make because they want to do everything. Or they do everything themselves and then they get overwhelmed and they get burnt out. But it’s important for them to be strategic and think about where their weaknesses are and who they need to bring in to get them to that next level of their business success.
Brandon: So let’s switch over to a fun question here. If a magic genie appeared and gave you three wishes so that you could change anything about the fashion business as a whole, what would those three things be?
Elissa: Well, coming from being a designer myself and also working with emerging designers, having more opportunities for the public to understand and appreciate design and more platforms for emerging designers to be able to get exposure to their end consumers. Because it’s still a very costly endeavor. You’re either doing a trade show or you’re doing different events, but the return on investment sometimes takes a long time before you start building traction in the market. I think having more of an understanding, I mean it’s starting to shift now with fast fashion being less trendy. And people are starting to become more aware of what they’re putting on their bodies. I would compare it to the food industry, how the shift has happened with how we look at food and how we shop, looking at labels, shopping from the local farmers market and the local food truck and going to the farm.
And it’s the same with fashion. People are starting to become more aware of what they’re putting on their bodies, and they want to establish and have that story, to be able to connect with the designer and their design process or the inspiration behind that products. I think that’s an opportunity. But I wish there was something in the market, a platform for emerging designers to be able to connect faster to those end consumers. Because right now it’s a more organic approach. I wish there were more financial resources available for designers. You look at tech companies and how easy it is for them to get investment. Some of them don’t even have any sales yet, but they’re able to see how quickly they can scale. But because of the time that it takes to build a successful fashion brand, which is anywhere from 5 to 10 years, it’s harder for designers to get those investors.
I think if there was an opportunity to have more resources for designers to be able to get investment to build and grow their brands. And then thirdly, I’m always surprised how casually people are dressing. And, I think, just having more of an appreciation of the art of dressing and dressing up. I think there are certain pockets of people, I mean, I am most inspired by baby boomers and how they’re keeping the art of dressing alive. You look at advanced style and I don’t know if you’re familiar, these women have such an appreciation for dressing up and looking good and not leaving the house without everything in place and having the perfect bag to match their shoe and putting thought into how they dress. So I’d love that to come back more.
Brandon: Very good. Yeah, it’s interesting, there seems to be a certain pattern. I remember reading an interview with Tom Ford last year, I think it was now. And he was talking about the trend in men’s wear specifically and how it seems to be on the 15ish-year cycle where it goes from very put together to very casual and then back again. And it will be interesting to see if we’re in a casual phase right now, if indeed they will come back in a decade or two decades. Or if we have transitioned away from the formality of clothing and into a permanent state of casualness. So, to finish things off, as we’re running out of time here, what has been the number one lesson that you’ve learned from leading the incubator thus far?
Elissa: I have been so inspired by all the designers that have come through. We’ve had over 36 graduate from the program, and every year is different depending on who the cohort is. But I think from my perspective of having been an entrepreneur and having walked in their shoes, and now being on the other side, leading and guiding them with their businesses, is to have compassion. That has been the most important. And just to be nimble and flexible. A lot of times, it’s not an easy path, starting a fashion business. And designers need to look at the long term and to be able to develop a support system to help them along the way. I have great compassion for these designers and their courage to make this decision that they want to bring their designs out into the world.
It’s been exciting to be along their side and to be able to guide and help them see their blind spots, and some are definitely more open than others to taking advice. But you also have to remember that, at the end of the day, this is their business. They’re the ones driving the car; they’re in control. We’re really serving at the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator as a door opener to connect them to industry peers, to education, to production sources, and to help them expand and grow their companies. As I said, I think compassion is number one.
Brandon: So how can people learn more about you?
Elissa: We have a website, philadelphiafashionincubator.com. We are also on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter under Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. We’d love to have your audience follow us and follow some of the exciting work that our designers and our alumni are doing.
Brandon: Perfect. All right, well thank you very much for being on the program. It is been a pleasure.
Elissa: Thanks Brandon.