On her own terms Womenswear designer Amy Milbrandt talks plans falling through, figuring it out, and starting up without a financial backer
eet 29-year old Amy Milbrandt: former model turned biotech employee turned fashion designer. Her eponymous line is self-funded, and she models it herself, though she finds self-promotion scary. While she’s still learning the ropes of the design world, her modern classics have already turned up in the TV wardrobe of “Leverage” actress Elisabetta Canalis. The best part of all? She doesn’t have to answer to anyone but herself.
GET TRAINED UP
“I always wanted to be in fashion. I had my first taste when modelling in high school. I ended up in fashion merchandising, and then I graduated with a B.S. in marketing. After school, I had a great job with Genentech where I was a senior training coordinator. But after doing that for a little while, it just didn’t feel like what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at something I actually liked.... and so I decided I would go back to school and pursue fashion.” [Milbrandt is a graduate of San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising]
HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
“Originally, I did meet with a good friend to create a business plan. My launch came about when a good friend asked to provide some clothes for a concept store that was about four months from opening. Last minute, my friend’s business deal fell through.” 20 fresh designs without a home? Milbrandt then decided to create her website and brand in hopes of selling the pieces off. “I didn’t want to launch too fast when I wasn’t completely ready for press. I kept a low profile, just promoting to friends and family by email and Facebook.”
TRUST YOUR GUT, BUT LEAVE ROOM TO LEARN
Keeping investors out proved to be a smart choice - keeping a low profile and working at a natural pace has allowed Milbrandt to make mistakes, learn, and continue to grow her business. “I would say my launch both worked and didn’t work. It worked because I wanted to keep a low profile and that’s exactly what I did. The thought of promoting myself horrifies me, so that is my downfall... I do it a little, but really dislike that part. I realized quickly that there needs to be someone good with marketing and PR.” And if she could change one thing? “I would have partnered with someDECIDE ON FUNDING “I didn’t want any investors involved one from the start who is interested because I wanted to maintain com- in tackling PR, the things that I’m plete control, and didn’t want the not good at. That would have really added pressure of pleasing investors. gotten me off to a better start and I started with my own money, and perhaps propelled me into boutiques made a budget... It was a learning and magazines.” experience to see how fast the money goes, and how hard it is to make money.” And, being an indepen- USE EXPERIENCES TO REFINE dent designer, costing becomes that YOUR BRAND much more complicated, with every The fashion industry is notoriously stitch and minute counting towards tough on newcomers - with success a final price. “Markup is a tough call often boiling down to a case of the because it may take a lot of time to right place at the right time. “I’ve make a piece, and ideally those items learned how difficult it is to create would be marked higher... but what if relationships with boutiques and you can’t sell at that price? Especially stores when you’re a designer. They with the market the way it is, and all just don’t care about small designers the deals out there for consumers. at all. They don’t respond. You literThey can easily choose to buy some- ally have to walk in and catch the buyer on the spot, or have someone where else.” working for you who is experienced in selling a line.” Rachel Dagdagan // February 2012
Up-and-coming designers like Milbrandt can’t always afford to hire reps or afford the costs associated with using a production facility to fill orders. “Producing in factories is difficult. You need to have help, and it requires a lot of financial commitment up front. I came from a biotech company where people were task-oriented and always followed through - in this business, you don’t get answers right away, or at all. It’s all hidden and can be difficult to uncover.” Learning all of this has helped Milbrandt hone the vision for the future of her brand. “My focus has changed - originally, I produced more things for more people and now I’m more focused on designing custom pieces. I really enjoy making custom pieces, but will continue to create small collections for everyone else.” FASHION FORWARD
A:M can be purchased online at www. amymilbrandt.com. Expect classic silhouettes in bright silks and black cashmere, wool and suede. Prices $60-$180. made in San Francisco.
2 Rachel Dagdagan // February 2012
Despite the difficulties associated with being a startup, Milbrandt continues to think about the future of her brand. “I want to continue to design a small line, and do more madeto-measure design for customers. When I tried production, boutiques, and trunk shows - I just didn’t enjoy it. If I found someone who could help with these things, and it was the right fit... I would partner with them and move forward. I have some big decisions to make soon. I know for sure that I want to keep my business small. Keeping it simple works best for me. I don’t want to have a runway show, or be in a contest, or anything like that. I just like to be in my space drawing, draping, and doing the things I love.” -R.D.