Fashion Week 2010: Top Model Talks Longevity Post-Catwalk

Surviving a tough economy, Lois Samuels continues expanding her brand

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Former model Lois Samuels tackled the challenge of surviving a recession to keep her line going.

As Mercedes Benz Fashion Week continues at Lincoln Center, designers are either wrapping up preparations before unveiling their Spring 2011 collections or making the rounds to network within the international fashion community.

Lois Samuels is one of those designers. She presented her third collection of The Vessel by lois Sept. 9 at Vanderbilt Hall in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Her line, most of which consists of looks that can be easily worn to office, has gotten the attention of WWD and Italian Vogue, as well as actress and singer Renee Neufville of HBO’s Treme.

Samuels, who began her career modeling for CK One campaigns, Harper’s Bazaar and Interview magazines,  started The Vessel by lois during the September 2009 recession. It was as challenging as much as it was exciting, Samuels muses. “Everyone was like, ‘What are you doing?’ but the timing to me was impeccable. I feel like it’s good when you sort of set roots or when you start planting a seed in dry season. Then it will eventually grow. It will grow.”

BlackEnterprise.com talked with the designer about how she started her clothing line, how persistence kept her striving for success, and how she plans to expand The Vessel long after the glitz and glamour of the fashion shows are done:

Blackenterprise.com: How did your previous experience in the fashion industry prepare you for starting a clothing line?

Samuels: During my modeling career, I learned a lot about how the business works through observation. After modeling I learned the business by working as the account manager at [menswear design house] Thom Browne, where I was responsible for production, inventory, purchase orders, and accounting. I had to have a relationship with stores and make sure orders were processed and delivered on time. I wasn’t into accounting, but I had to learn.

How were you able to sustain your line during a recession and prepare for your third collection?
I didn’t over extend myself or underestimate overhead costs. Then, I decided what kind of financing I was going to work with. I didn’t feel comfortable going through the bank because it was too much pressure. This is an unpredictable business and going through the bank for financing felt too much like having a mortgage. I went to friends and family for backing. By my second season, I had investors that emerged from my personal network.

Also, I kept my aesthetic consistent. I feel like people need to invest in something that’s not a fad — something they know is going to last for a long time and something that’s well-made.

What’s your short-term marketing strategy?
First we’ll start with product placement: getting the merchandise on a few celebrities. We want to shoot some really strong images.

We plan to find someone we can align with our brand who is consistent with the image of The Vessel and dress them. And that way, we can start building a following based on people seeing the clothes on people.

In the next 30-90 days, we really want to get buyers in a relationship with the line. We want them to get up close and personal with the line, which is why I’m really glad we’re doing a presentation [and not a runway show]. Now buyers get to interact with The Vessel. We want buyers to get intimate with a few pieces and introduce the brand to their customers.

What are your long-term strategies?
We’re interested in possibly doing a golf line and uniforms for hotels and airlines. The Vessel takes the uniform out of the uniform. We’ve made it luxe, making the person who’s wearing it for their job feel better.

Samuel’s Quick Tips:

  • Start out small. Many new designers are tempted to show in large venues like the tents at Bryant Park and now Lincoln Center. But these grand venues come with grand price tags. Consider showing your first few collections somewhere smaller and invite key people that can help elevate your brand.
  • Draw from your network. Look at the skills within your existing network. If you have a friend who is a photographer, ask them to take photos of your samples so you can create a lookbook to send to buyers and editors. If you have friends and family who have interests and skills that you can work with, tap into them. Find your support system.
  • Do your market research. Don’t over saturate the market with the same ideas. Design something fresh. Follow your inspiration, but remember that stores don’t need more of the same thing. Designing clothes that already exist will not draw interest or dollars.
  • Be Flexible. Be open to new approaches, even ones outside of your comfort zone. Samuels says although she has a Twitter account and a Facebook page, she plans to improve her approach when it comes to social media. A new generation calls for nontraditional marketing strategies.
  • Get on the Fashion Calendar. In New York, many of the major players in the industry pay attention to the fashion calendar, including buyers, media, etc. You have to pay a fee but the visibility for your line is worth it.
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