Small Business 101: 3 Former Fashion Editors Turned Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories
By Roxanne Robinson
Career changes spring from desire and necessity. Whichever the route, few say they’ve regretted the move. As the once highly-sought jobs in media and retail, began to shrink in its allure as a long-term career goal, many editors and fashion directors have pivoted their skill and position into entrepreneurial roles. Often this meant learning a business acumen not commonly associated with the creative and good-taste required roles of their former positions. In time for International Women’s Month, I spoke to three former editors, mainly with accessories backgrounds, who reinvented their career and selves in three budding businesses.
Maria Dueñas Jacobs - Founder of Super Smalls, Established 2019 in NYC
Initial Investment: $800 with additional help from family as the business grew. Currently 100 percent self-funded.
What: Kids' accessories line inspired by glitzy, over-the-top grown-up jewels and fashion made for play. The brand and customer experience combines delighting the buyer as much as the recipient. Average retail price: $27
Why: With a passion for creating and 'self-imposed' challenge to wow her kids, Dueñas Jacobs transformed her treasured collection of 'shiny objects' aka jewelry that her children used to love to play with, into a stress-free and liberating toy. "I would explain that my things weren't toys, and they should play with their beads and the kids' jewelry' I had bought for them. When my oldest complained that 'It's not the same - yours are shinier and prettier!', I realized she was right.”
Sensing the void in the market for elevated play jewelry with a luxury mood, the mom and entrepreneur challenged herself to create a mini-play version of high jewelry from houses like Harry Winston and Tiffany. Dueñas Jacobs said she set a high bar for pieces that could pass her cool and clever aesthetic and pass the "could I wear this test." A testament to its success, the brand's revenue was up 416 percent from Holiday 2019 to Holiday 2020.
How: Dueñas Jacobs' well-trained editorial eye, a strength she brought to the brand, helped her conceive every aspect of the Super Smalls experience down to packaging logo and other non-product related details to produce a luxury-experience. Experience told her the packaging that real jewelry comes in is as important as the actual product. No expense was spared when choosing the cardboard box, which she says customers have saved and repurposed for other aspects of play. "Some of the packaging stories gave way to new product categories too, like our expansion into hair accessories and DIY crafts, " notes Dueñas Jacobs.
Job Experience: Dueñas Jacobs’ roles at Glamour, ELLE, Stitch Fix, as well as being the mom of three young kids - aka her focus group - prepared her for Super Smalls in a 'particular way.' Styling experience for shoots, social media, art direction, brand imagery, and editor's eye to know what pops in an image. "I leaned on my network in enlisting photographers, graphic designers, and mom influencers as I navigate the start-up world," she said.
The Super Smalls founder applies the same high standard to designs as if she were editing a fashion story or luxury page, allowing the luxe factor combined with a 'cheekiness' to come across.
"Brand imagery is how we tell our story; it informs our consumers, the way a good edit and curation tells a story in editorial," she explains, noting that her images capture kids at play with the products conveying authenticity.
Lessons Learned: "Mastering the supply chain was a definite learning curve," said the former editor adding, "Editors see beautiful end-product, but may not consider or understand the interminable steps it takes to get these samples, never mind execute their production!"
Learning to balance cost, quality, and ultimate product vision was a key lesson as well. "It couldn't be too precious, it had to be for kids, but it had to appeal to grown-ups like me. That's not an easy product to make," she says. It meant tough choices to move forward and abandon ill-fitting relationships, even if that harmed the bottom line. Like many young brands, the pandemic proved challenging but allowed for greater engagement with the growing consumer base.
Social Leverage: The Super Smalls founder brought a healthy 97K plus Instagram following to the new company but was careful not to overuse the storytelling platform. "I want followers to love Super Smalls, but my handle is about me as a whole person - not just my company. Some people follow me solely for Frankie – my 8-year-old British Blue cat – content. I cannot say I blame them," she confessed.
Best Advice: "Test and learn. Be ready to be wrong so you can make it right, quickly."
Parting Thoughts: "Super Smalls is all about creating things that encourage play, sharing, and all the best parts of being a kid. It's also about making 'gifting' a seamless and satisfying errand. "
Marina Larroude, Co-Founder and CCO of Larroudé, Established in 2020 in NYC
Initial Investment: 100K personal funds; then quickly converting the business to corporation status to fundraise as a start-up. Currently in the first seed round of fundraising.
What: Reimagined classic staple shoe line made in New York and Brazil with new constructions and colorways allows customers to express individual moods and personalities. Average retail price: $275
Why: In some ways, Larroude's founding of the brand came from a setback that created an opportunity. "After 20 years working in the Fashion industry, I lost my job in early 2020, and deep inside me was a dream to start my brand," she said. She tapped into the creative talent pool she harnessed relationships with - such as photographer Hunter Abrams to shoot the first campaign– and set out to build a better future by developing a superior product with the final customer in mind. "Our mantra is You. Us. We. All. Everyone is welcome to share our story," she asserts.
How: Step one, according to Larroude, was to ask what she could offer the market. "The answer was simple, I could find great dresses, sweaters, jeans, all at attainable prices, but not shoes," she maintains, adding, "All good designer shoes are highly-priced and cheap ones fall apart and feel cheap wearing them." She applied her knowledge combined with a skilled shoe designer slash technician. She developed high-end designer shoes using the best quality materials such as leathers, heels, memory foams, all handmade using quality techniques and finishes. "We also cut a lot of middlemen in the development and production process and focused on delivering that outstanding quality directly to a larger audience of clients," said the founder.
Despite her traditional retail background or perhaps despite seeing the current model's cracks in the system, Larroude and her team envision other distribution forms beyond wholesale or even the popular DTC method. "We invented a QR system that gives each shoe an individual identification that our clients can share with their friends to earn and give credits," she explained, "We believe in our products so much that our best source for new clients is the existing ones."
Job Experience: Larroude's background as an editor at Condé Nast and, more recently, fashion director at Barneys honed her skills in creating an impactful image while the latter taught her what sells. "I didn't walk into my adventure so naïve about it all," she noted, adding, "I'm grateful for 20 years' experience in both sides of the fashion industry and the amazing network of colleagues and friends I cultivated along the way. It's like a big family; we support one another. "
Her role at Barney's fine-tuned her skill for curating what customers would buy, a gift she uses daily at Larroudé. But before this, she taps into her creative side by finding talent, ensuring the quality and manufacturing are perfect, along with packaging, storytelling, creating a campaign. Additionally, she "spends hours selecting the best shade of nude for a shoe; I edit every single aspect of it," she added.
Lessons Learned: Larroude said she also learned the power of a clear vision. "It's amazing how you can motivate a team and gain the support of the community by painting a clear common goal that makes sense," she attests.
Challenges Faced: While December 1st was the official opening, of course, the process started much earlier. “We started working remotely in July in the middle of a global pandemic. My entire team, based in NY, LA, Brazil, India - has never been together as a group." The factories used dealt with Covid-19 restrictions. Sales and press appointments were held on ZOOM. Warehouses were hired sight unseen and even flight restrictions posed challenges with every system implemented, initiated remotely. "The company Larroudé formed around a resourceful, go-get-it mentality and the process built our company resilience," she said, adding, "One colleague says, 'Can you imagine how easy it will be when things go back to normal, with proper resources?'
Social Leverage: Larroude's almost 70K Instagram followers represent a mid-size, loyal and engaged following."They've seen my career path, they've seen I never used the platform to advertise anything, just my point of view and taste," she notes. "A lot of my followers are colleagues from the industry – press/wholesalers/stylists… which is helpful. It's like putting a press release out."
Best Advice: "Do it! It's the most incredible journey! Find good partners; that is key. If you want to do something big, you will need a team. Follow your passion."
Parting Thoughts: More than sell high-quality shoes at a great price, Larroude hopes to use her brand "to start tough conversations, to break taboos, to help communities and to enhance women empowerment." Sharing stories and adding more voices to the mix is the goal. Larroudés' first campaign stars Dominique Castelano, a famous transgender model she met while working at Barneys. "She shared her stories of victory and struggles, which brings awareness to her cause." stated the shoe brand founder. Another example was cancer-survivor Erin Hazelton, who fundraises breast cancer foundations. On Valentine's Day, the shoe brand partnered with Womanizer sex toy company giving a free Liberty by Lilly Allen device with any Larroudé purchase. "The real shoegasm, but all jokes aside, women's sexuality and pleasure is one of the hardest conversations to have. And we think the hardest ones are the ones worth having."
Claudia Mata Gladish, Founder of VERTLY, Established in 2016 in California
Initial Investment: 10K personal funds with additional monthly funds until 2018, when the business supported its growth.
What: VERTLY, a California clean skincare line that combines freshly extracted botanicals and CBD. An authentic garden-to-bottle brand made from slowly extracted locally grown plants in products produced fresh daily. "Our brand ethos is anchored on mindfulness— in how we create the products and in encouraging our community to set aside time for rituals to nurture themselves. Average retail price range: $22 - $55
Why: A transatlantic move from New York to California had Mata-Gladish considering a career pivot. Both of her brother-in-law's had been in the CBD business, and she positively affected her yogi and wellness expert husband. He applied it topically to soothe athletic injuries. "Having seen his positive results first-hand, I knew this was something I wanted to explore," she said.
How: The editor-turned-beauty-entrepreneur knew step one was educating people on the benefits of CBD. "When it first launched in 2017, the most commonly asked question was whether CBD gets you high -it doesn't—so I knew there were a lot of misconceptions about it," said Mata-Gladish, adding "the initial product couldn't be intimidating for newbies to experiment with." The first product, a lip balm, proved to be used multiple times daily and the gateway product (no pun intended) to ease people into using CBD topicals.
Job Experience: "I took quite a leap, literally from fashion to the farm!" Mata-Gladish admits. Upon arriving in California, she enrolled in herbalism school and studied plant wellness. "I am lucky to live in an area of Northern California that is a green-beauty Mecca, so I partnered with many local experts like botanical formulators, seasoned herbalists, master gardeners, and chemists so they could further advise me. It took a village as they say."
Her editor reflex muscle of sharing discoveries motivated her to start the brand.Combining CBD with fresh plants was effective and innovative and ahead of the current trendy CBD-frenzy. "I wanted to bring this newness into the skincare space," she said.
Mata-Gladish approaches VERTLY with transparency – how it's made and how to best use it in hopes of connecting authentically and building trust with its community. "I used to curate, and now I create—but I still share high-quality discoveries and information with an audience," she muses.
Challenges Faced: The founder described her first year of being an entrepreneur as "flying a plane while I was in the process of building it," with a learning curve along the way. Working with nature helped her be less of a "control freak," which can be incredibly unpredictable. "Fires can devastate a season of crops for local farmers, as can odd weather patterns, so I have to be humble about my level of control," she admits.
Lessons Learned: Mata-Gladish's key lesson was learning to share her concerns and questions on a network of other small business founders for advice and support. "The network is great for those days when things are rough, and I want to vent with someone who understands the struggles of entrepreneurship," she said.
Like everyone in the retail game, the past year has had its challenges. "All of our wholesale partners were affected, so we are looking forward to the day when more stores reopen because customers still want to be educated and in-person sales staff are always helpful.
Social Leverage: Mata-Gladish uses both her personal and Vertly accounts, which combined total around 25K, to help dispel CBD misconceptions and to present its wellness capacity. "My husband and I live in Northern California, have a healthy, green lifestyle; have young kids, are both active people—and were able to embody on social media what CBD for self-care looks like in ways people can relate to." She extolls the many uses such as to beautify the skin, soothe the body, and help with sleep in hopes of normalizing CBD, which admittedly gets easier in time as the ingredient has exploded in the last five years. "As a hands-on founder, you'll find me all over the feed: showing my skincare routines, self-care practices, my family, editors, customers who send us testimonials, we show it all!"
Best advice: "I think it's important to love whatever new endeavor you are jumping into because it takes a lot of work to start a company. As it will be on your mind 24/7, it's in your best interest to truly enjoy it!" enthused Mata-Gladish.
She also suggests trying something new, identifying strengths, and finding people to fill the holes lacking strong expertise. "I partnered with many experts to further advise me. If you have the vision, you can ultimately orchestrate the right players and make it all come together."