How To Sell Clothes To Women Who Don't Want To Be Sold To

To consumers, designers must seem like islands: floating by their lonesome and eyeballing each other from a distance. The reality is that designers hang out together; they get drinks, bitch about work, and swap ideas. Friendships (and friendly competition) make this space better for everyone in it — and when we’re able to help facilitate these relationships, you know we’re going to make it happen.

When our editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, first met with the Apiece Apart team earlier this year, and asked them who their industry icon was, there was no hesitation: Laura Cramer and Starr Hout have always looked up to Eileen Fisher, and her namesake American heritage label created in 1984 that made neutral-hued, sophisti-casual, minimalist-gallerist a thing. That baggy culotte/drapey cardigan/oversized sweater look you love so much today has roots in Eileen Fisher, and it’s no surprise that the Apiece Apart team — known for their own laid-back, clean-and-crisp aesthetic — felt a shared connection. We brought Cramer, Hout, and Fisher together to share stories and advice, and talk about what a two-person team can do to one day become a powerhouse that's 1,200 people strong.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On The Challenges Of Keeping Things Simple
Laura Cramer: "When we met Christene from Refinery, she said, ‘So, who do you idolize, or who do you admire?’ And we said, ‘Well, our hero is Eileen Fisher.’ And she said, ‘Well, have you spoken with her?’ And we said, ‘Are you kidding?’ Like, to us, it was just so far outside the realm of possibilities. She’s like, ‘Let’s make this happen.’"

Eileen Fisher: "Well, I’ve seen your things several times — people have shown me your website, and I thought, Oh, that’s so great! It’s good; what you’re trying to do is good."

LC: "When we read your story, it became clear to us that there were so many similarities: the fact that we came from different origins than fashion, and then both came to market with a very simple idea of just 10 mix-and-match pieces with very simple fabrications."

EF: "You know, I started with just four pieces in my collection."

LC: "Yeah! However, when we started, it was 2008 and the stock market crashed. We always say it was actually the perfect beginning because it allowed us to really get to know ourselves, and really refine the product line and make mistakes early on. At first, we were very edited in the way that we went about designing the pieces and releasing the collection and the things we would do and what we would absolutely not do. For us, simplicity is the alpha and the omega; it’s also our Achilles’ heel. We want to keep the brand ethos, but at the same time, you know — I mean, you could finish my sentence for me. We’re asked for novelty from our clients — things that don’t feel like ‘us.’ Do you sometimes not follow the business on purpose to keep your brand intact?"

EF: "It’s about walking that line of having a few things that — I don’t like to say ‘trick’ the customer, but to actually feel that you’re in sync with trends, and then they get exposed to everything else. Oftentimes, then they end up finding that it’s the simple things that they like best."

LC: "Have there been times when you feel like you went too far with the product?"

Running a business is kind of like flying an airplane. You’re always a little off. You’re always correcting.

EF: "Yeah. Definitely. I read something once, it’s like, ‘Running a business is kind of like flying an airplane. You’re always a little off. You’re always correcting.' So, it’s like, you’re trying to stay true, but it’s never perfect. So, you sort of accept it; sometimes it doesn’t feel true. So you kind of go, ‘Whoa, that went out too far. We have to come back.’ I sometimes tell the story of walking to the warehouse once and not recognizing the clothes — a whole warehouse full of clothes. I was like, 'Whoa. How did that happen?'"

Starr Hout: "But you just have such a cohesive voice in the industry."

EF: "I always see the things that sort of go a little off. I was thinking about this past round where we did the high-low pieces. Did you do it, too?"

LC: "Yeah!"

EF: "Some of them got too extreme for me. But some people really loved them. We probably got some new customers because of it. I think a little play is what makes it feel fresh. Stripes used to be absolutely a no-no for me. And yet today, I wear stripes. I love stripes. So, what does that mean? Did my mind change? I’m pushing my own edge a little."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On Growth, Growing, & When Small Becomes Big
LC: "When we started our business, we always modeled our ideals...on businesses like yours or Esprit. We liked this idea of a larger American company that really fulfilled the needs of women. We weren’t doing it for fashion’s sake. It was really about a need we saw in our closets. I’m curious about the evolution of your own organization and your thoughts around growth."

EF: "Early on, I knew that I had an idea that was a big idea. Especially because even the early response was pretty good; I could feel that was I was onto something. So I knew that it had potential — I remember thinking, Oh, it could be a hundred stores. But I don’t think I ever really thought of it as big — or cared. To me, it was always just, if the customer wants more, I’ll just make more. It wasn’t so much about pushing the business, but letting it find its natural way. Sometimes I felt like I was following a galloping horse rather than leading it.

"Fairly early on, I hired the right reps and salespeople, and they were probably pushing the brand, but I wasn’t pushing; I just wanted to serve the customer. What did she want? Were we getting it right? I was passionate about the clothes. Today, when you talk about us as a big company, I still think of us as small. It’s very personal. It’s very cozy in some ways. There’s something that doesn’t feel like a big company.

"In some ways, we need to think a little more big, get certain things organized. There’s a lot going on around the clothing business and sustainability, and what’s happening with the water crisis, and products that are actually damaging the environment. So there’s a lot of questioning for us right now — what are we doing? Why are we growing? How big do we want to be, and why? And what does that mean? And so, just watching at this point, going, ‘Hm. Did we make those conscious choices? Did we really want to be this big?' I don’t know that big is better, necessarily. We had just as much fun when we were smaller. We maybe had more fun. We could be more stressed out today. And there’s so much pressure! Recently — I don’t even want to repeat this phrase, and maybe I shouldn’t — there was a phrase that was flying around the company: ‘We have to feed the monster.’ We have to keep the machine going. That’s a lot of pressure."

SH: "Right. It’s assumed that you grow."

EF: "Right. So, what’s the right answer? Have a company where it’s fun and where it’s manageable. The ways I liked growing was when I could get rid of jobs I didn’t like to do. Like, in the first season, I had to literally pack all the clothes myself. Oh, man; all the clothes were just stacked on tables everywhere. On my kitchen counter — I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without stepping on something…"

LC: "We were hand-tying hang tags!"

EF: "That’s crazy! So I was really delighted to get rid of the work that was the most tedious or the hardest for me and be able to stay in the more creative place with it. So, being able to let go of parts of it, and being able to do fun things where I felt like I was better utilizing who I was, was fun."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On The Elusive Work-Life Balance
SH: "It seems like a really nice work-life balance. Do you have tricks, do you have any things that you consciously do, to help you feel like you’re at the center of your wheel?"

EF: "The work-life balance question for me is something that’s probably been the hardest thing I struggled with, and I still struggle with it. I was raising kids while I was trying to work. I tried to model a system that made it okay to go home at 3 o’clock and pick my kids up from school. I tried to make my personal life a priority, and model that for others. We’re very much a women’s company — have always been. When we were small, and somebody was having a baby, we’d go do color work at her house. Or — I actually moved my business into one of the women’s houses — she had a loft, and she had a baby — so that we could keep working together. So that was a pretty extreme accommodation, but it worked. But we do try to help each other and accommodate each other and recognize that we’re all humans, and we’re all trying to live our lives. We pay attention to other people and what their needs are, and we are always trying to accommodate."

LC: "It’s so amazing, that perspective, in light of — I don’t know if you saw the Amazon article."

If people feel good and are happier, they work better.

EF: "I did! I loved the quote where someone said, ‘Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.’ We try to think that if people feel good and are happier, they work better. I’m not always the best at it myself, but we try to see people as whole people and to help them make their lives fuller. We do flex-time, and people work at home; some people work at home on Fridays. We have our wellness benefit."

LC: "It’s amazing to see that work at this level. We definitely try to do those things, too."

EF: "It’s hard when you’re small. I would say that in my first 10 years, I wasn’t able to do that many things, and it had to be on a very intimate and very personal level — through just the way you treated people. Whether you included them and listened to them. And then, as you get bigger, then you have to put things in place that try to make that culture continue."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On The Idea Of A Purpose-Driven Company
LC: "Your company doesn’t seem like a business for business’ sake; there’s a purpose to it. It’s not just a capitalistic machine that you’re trying to just pump for money. And that’s what makes it so special. I can see how that alone helps fuel people’s passions."

EF: "We do try hard to help people figure out what they love, and what they really want to do, and where they might contribute. We’re actually in the midst of starting a purpose project. We want all the individuals to be a part of these workshops to help them understand what is their purpose here, and what’s the company’s larger purpose."

On Not Hitting Your Customers Over The Head
LC: "Sometimes when we’re talking about marketing initiatives, or getting the word out, everything feels counter to what we would prefer as individuals or consumers. How do you sell to her in a discreet way? That’s how we think of ourselves a little bit — we’re both maybe a little introverted; we don’t like things that knock us over the head. We’d be annoyed with a brand trying to sell to us all the time."

EF: "I always feel like we’re not actually selling to our customer; we’re trying to serve her. What does she need? What does she want? But I know marketing is a tricky area. I think it’s something we still struggle with; we’re actually in the process of looking at the idea of hiring a chief marketing officer, because marketing’s been something that’s kind of elusive to me. I always thought of just trying to put out there what I was trying to do and see who liked it. But it’s different today.

"I think it’s something that we feel like we’re more ready to do because we feel — especially now, we’ve been working so much on sustainability, and our purpose work. We have a lot of stories we want to tell."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On The Importance Of Having A Store
LC: "You’ve built a cult. And that’s something. When we talk about you, people will just really go on about how much they love your product line, and people will tell us about when they first were introduced to it. And it seems like a cult of a customer who identifies herself as unique and very special, and what’s interesting is that you have been cultivating this conversation with her."

EF: "Yes, it’s true. One thing that comes up for me is that I opened a tiny store on East 9th Street. I don’t know if you know that store — it’s like a closet; it’s 450 square feet. It’s amazing how many people know that store! I would walk by that space back to my loft in Tribeca every day, and when I saw that it was vacant, I opened that store as a way of just feeling out who the customer was. In the beginning, I was just selling damaged clothing and samples, because I couldn’t throw it away. It was still good stuff! Over time, I realized people were coming in just thinking this is current product, so I just started selling the main line, too. But it’s amazing how many people will tell me they first found the line at the 9th Street store."

LC: "Well, we’re actually opening a pop-up in September through December, which is our first foray into a brick-and-mortar. It’s been a dream of ours."

EF: "Where would that be?"

SH: "It’s just downstairs from our offices in East Soho on Centre between Grand and Broome, which is pretty dreamy. And the overhead is really low — it’s a really perfect situation."

EF: "You have to be careful not to get too involved with it."

SH: "Oh. In what way?"

EF: "Well, you’ll definitely want to stop in, and meet customers, but you don’t want to worry about whether the receipts balanced for the day. Maybe you want to look at the window, and check out the merchandising a little bit, but you don’t want to be running the store. I would go to my store on my way home, and sometimes I would get stuck. I’d be in there trying to help with everything."

SH: "What we’ve found is, what sells on the wholesale level [to department stores and boutiques] is very different from what sells direct. Wholesale clothes are much more novel; direct, it’s much more simple."

EF: "That’s exactly right. Because you’re tapping your truer customer — when you’re selling to a buyer, she’s actually thinking how it’s going to look, and what’s the trend; she’s trying to fit you in. Whereas when you’re selling online, you’re really tracking your truer customer. We found that with our stores, too."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On Designing Outside Of Your Comfort Zone
EF: "What do you mean by novelty?"

SH: "I mean, it's color."

EF: "I was out at my California stores last spring, and every store I went into, they said, ‘We need color. Color. Color.’ So, you know — we probably need to do some more color. It’s so funny because in the early days, I didn’t even do black. I didn’t do black or gray. I tried to sell gray in the first three years of the business, and the customers looked at me and said ‘Gray! That looks good on no one! No one can wear gray!’"

LC: "We did the same thing."

EF: "And stores would say, ‘No black! We have our private labels that do black. We don’t want yours.’ It’s so funny. Now, we sell a tremendous amount of gray and black. I’m not against color. It’s just how you do it, you know? We used to do a lot of color. We had these little tiny crinkled checks that we called ‘checky-checks.’ I liked the fabric a lot in black-and-white and in all gray, but we sold it in red, too. I just remember once seeing somebody in all red coming down the street, and I was like, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ So there have been a lot of places where [we] crossed the line — we just always try to come back, and not get too far out."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On Navigating The Darker Days
LC: "So Starr and I started in 2008 amidst a tricky financial environment, and we actually stopped the business in 2010 because we realized cash flow was such a problem. We were self-financing. We worked full-time jobs, and were doing this on the side."

EF: "And you couldn’t get bank loans."

LC: "No bank loans. So we took about two years, and we developed a business plan, and we shopped it around everywhere. And ultimately we found an angel investor who allowed us to start back up. During that time, we had people at the top of the industry say to us, ‘Stop now; your darkest days are ahead.’ But we persevered, and we’re so excited to be where we are. We’re curious if there were any dark moments or periods in the evolution of your company that made it what it is."

EF: "Yeah! That’s a good question. When I started, I used only one fabric during my first two years. It was a cotton French terry. I became sort of like the French terry lady or something, which was like not exactly really the image I wanted. But then I had a season when I got a delivery of that fabric that was not right — they had substituted a finer combed cotton yarn rather than the carded yarn and all the dresses started coming out a bit too long, and I had to stop the production and start over. Everything was late; it was a crazy time. My clients were like, ‘This isn’t what I saw; this isn’t the same as what you used to deliver.’

"It worked out okay in the end, but I decided that I couldn’t be all that invested in only one fabric. I couldn’t have too many eggs in one basket. And so I started to do silk, and wool jersey, and a few other simple — other fabrics that built up the line and broadened the image of the company. I wasn’t just the cotton-knit lady anymore, and the business just exploded. So I developed a philosophy at that time that out of any problem is the secret to your next great success. So just keep going in — what went wrong, why’d it go wrong, what does that mean, did we go too far with that, did we go not far enough, did we get too dull — you know. There are always problems, but you have to try to develop an attitude that life isn’t just a problem to solve. It’s actually fun to be working on something every day."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On Reaching A New Generation Of Customers
EF: "How do you see our line in terms of the younger customer? We’ve struggled a bit with when to incorporate trends and whatnot, but looking at you all, what you’re doing, gives me a lot of hope. There are young people who are really interested in simplicity, and my own daughter is 22, and she’s totally passionate about the most simple pieces."

LC: "Well, somebody had recently told us about — I think you called it icons? They had mentioned that you had brought back these pieces from the past, and it had really, really hit a wonderful nerve with people. And we always say, we have all these really gorgeous 20-year-olds that work in our office, and the things that they wear are very reminiscent of your early lines."

EF: "That’s very interesting."

SH: "For us, creating fresh original content and rolling it out consistently via our website and social media has a powerful force on our direct business. Also, its a younger market who's absorbing it. Women spend a lot of time on Instagram — its the first go to in the morning and last go-to at night. It's our alone time.

"The other thing that comes across my mind is whether it’s even necessary to ask that question. Because to me, when I think about what you’ve done, it’s like you’ve weathered many storms, and you still are this thing that we all admire, you know? I would think that you’re probably just doing exactly what you should be doing."

"I think what’s gorgeous as well is there’s a product, and then there’s the organization, and the two are very much hand-in-hand. I think that’s really rare. And so, when [your customer] buys, she buys into a greater story, and I think that feels so necessary these days."

"And how do you think she knows it or experiences it? Sometimes I feel like customers just sort of pick it up — we can tell them certain things, but how do they really get the full story? Some don’t know anything about what we’re doing on sustainability; some don’t know anything about the women and girls’ work we do."

"I mean, I think there’s you — people know your story and are very intrigued by your personal story — and then there’s the kind of women-first organization that you’ve built."

"You’ve been doing such a good job — you’re interesting enough that there are feature articles that are written on you every few years, and those are the sorts of things that I think younger women will pick up on."
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
On Making Good Stuff Happen For Each Other
EF: "One thing I was also thinking about was whether there’s any way we could help you in researching materials — we’re passionate about organics, and dying that’s less toxic. I don’t know if there’s any way we could help you with anything like that. Because I think when you’re small, it’s hard enough to just find good fabrics and to figure out what you’re doing."

SH: "And the economies of scale of where we’re at right now. Yeah. It’s just harder to do those sorts of things. We’re now at that place where things are starting to work in our favor. But the factories, and human rights, and vetting, and things like that —"

EF: "Where do you produce, in China?"

SH: "Yeah, there’s a lot of production in China now, and then Peru. And then — a little right here in New York."

EF: "Yeah, same as us. We do some in L.A. Still mostly China."

SH: "That’s a very loaded conversation unto itself."

EF: "Have you been to China?"

LC: "Our production person is there at this moment. We work with two factories there; both are excellent. The product is incredible, and we believe in that experience, and we know the people that we’re working with. But we get a lot of questions about it."

SH: "It’s a really touchy subject for some customers."

EF: "I wonder if there’s also any way we can be helpful in terms of anything around that. Like, we monitor our factories, and maybe there’s some way we can be supportive. Because those are important things, and we struggle a lot to keep the factories at the standard we want them to be, and make sure people are fairly paid, and not working crazy hours."

SH: "We would love that. That would be really incredible. We would love to follow in your wake."

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