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Building TWO fashion empires; Kate Spade & Frances Valentine, with Co-Founder Elyce Arons

Today we’re learning from a fashion veteran, Elyce Arons. She’s spent more than a decade building Kate Spade and then went on to do it all again with Frances Valentine.

Frances Valentine was founded in 2016 alongside her close friends Kate and Andy Spade. Rooted in joyful self expression, the brand offers a spirited collection of original, vintage-modern apparel, shoes and accessories designed to brighten and delight the lives of the women who wear them, as well as a growing line of home goods.

In this ep we talk about

  • Learning the hard way: why we shouldn’t buy into excess inventory and always order the smallest amount you can with the aim to sell out

  • Building a fashion empire second time around

  • Why using traditional marketing methods might be the key to new growth > and to try anything out once

And make sure you mark Feb 28th in your diary for Your Hype Girl the book to launch into the world. It’s a big day and we’re going to have a launch week special to celebrate with all of our loyal listeners (you)

Let’s get into it, this is Elyce for Female Startup Club

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Elyce. Hi, welcome to the show. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be talking to you today and for everyone listening, you're sitting here in front of this beautiful backdrop of Prince and pieces and all fun fashion things. I wish that I had a little bit of an office vibe like yours. It's really fun. It's our inspiration board. So we do one for every season and as we find things that are inspiring or we've created silhouettes, we tacked them up next to the print that we're working on. Oh my gosh, I feel like I need that for my life. Like actually I need like a seasonal, this is what my life is going to be like for Q1 and this is what's on it and this is what's going to be like for Q2 and this is what's on it.

00:03:33Edit It might drive you a little crazy after a while, if it were in your home surrounding you all the time, but maybe, but I'm not, I'm not convinced, I think I'd like, I'm very extra tell me about Frances Valentine and the ethos behind this beautiful brand. As you know, we started Kate spade in 1993 and sold that business in 2006, that's a whole lot of history. I'm just saying, Oh that's what we did then, but give us the history, give us the backstory. Okay, so Katie and I were best friends from college and we, you know, moved to new york and got different jobs in the fashion industry and decided to start our own business. It might have been foolhardy, you know, at the time we were broke, but somehow we made it work and there were four of us actually in the business and started that, it just took off, it was great, it was, you know, sort of like Shangri La, it was wonderful, we had really great staff, really wonderful employees and it was just, you know, we were in our early 30s and it was just, we had the time of our lives building, it was really, really wonderful.

00:04:41Edit The time came, we sold the business to Neiman Marcus Group in 2006 and stayed for six months and left in 2007. And at that time we all had Children and we thought, oh, what a great time to take off spend time with our kids. Our kids were really little. I have three girls. So it was perfect timing for me, Cut too many years later in 2014 we were sitting around at a restaurant, having dinner together and we're kind of like, should we get back into it? Because I really missed creating and I know Katie did too. And so we started talking about what we were going to do and we ended up launching Frances valentine in 2016 and initially we started just with shoes and handbags. And after Katie died in 2018 we added apparel. It was more of an homage to her than anything else. There were a couple of favorite vintage pieces of hers and it just blew out and we sold everything within a matter of weeks. And so we reordered and we reordered now we have a full fledged apparel collection as well as our footwear, our handbags, jewelry, and then now homeware and gifts.

00:05:51Edit So it's just been, it's been a fairytale, it's really been great. I was looking back at those vintage pieces from that collection and the photos of her wearing the cardigan with the flowers on them. That was such a beautiful little jacket, I can, I can so see that being successful, loved It. She bought that so long ago. So that was a real American thing back in the 40s and 50s to have those and bordered and the woman's name was still, there was a label that had her name on it. So it wasn't a particular designer brand but they would be made for people and their names were sewn into the collar. So it was really, they were really special pieces and Katie loved that piece. Yes, wow. Isn't that beautiful to also have those like, you know that's a piece from such a long time ago and to bring it back for it to still be in style and to still be a timeless kind of peace even though it was very fun and quirky in a way. Right? Exactly. Exactly. And that's really what we try to do. We really bring back nostalgic pieces and in our own way make them modern.

00:06:56Edit Yes. Yes. Things that make you happy. Anything that makes you happy. It's, it's like when you walk into one of our retail stores, I want people just to walk in and say, oh my God, this is amazing. I want everything in here. Kind of like walking into a really great candy store. Yes. Just that overwhelming joy that you can receive when you get hit with a dose of color on multiple levels. Yes, exactly. Also like going on a trip and maybe you've gone to Morocco or Mexico and you know, you walk into a store and there's just so much color that you want to take the whole thing with you and sometimes I'll just go and buy a piece, not because I'm necessarily going to wear it or use it, but just to look at it because it's so beautiful and the craftsmanship, I have so many of those kinds of things in my wardrobe that I'm like, I just love this fabric so much. Maybe I've never worn it even though I absolutely should, but I'm just like I can't get rid of it because the fabric is too nice. Yes, exactly, because you love it so much. Yeah. How did it feel in the early days starting this new brand when you've gone from creating this huge globally recognized brand that was a behemoth I'm assuming at the point of acquisition, what were those early days starting from scratch?

00:08:13Edit Like, can you paint the picture of what it was like? Was it like scrappy or was it like sheikh from the get go for kate spade. It was definitely scrappy. We did everything ourselves for Frances valentine. We had the luxury of not having to be quite as scrappy. I think it's in our nature to be scrappy. I grew up on a farm and so I try and fix everything myself before I'll call someone to repair it. You know, we do things ourselves unless we really can't do them. So I would say we're still scrappy. But when we started this, before we moved into our office space, which is this gorgeous space at Bryant park, we had the luxury of having it built out. So that space kind of, it almost feels like someone's living room. It's so beautiful and it's got art everywhere and it's warm and yes, it is, it's just beautiful. So we had the luxury of being able to do that and it was really nice and to take our time and when we were going to launch it wasn't we didn't have to rush through it.

00:09:17Edit So it was a less scrappy version of ourselves, scrappy at the heart of what you're doing, but in a beautiful location and interior, right? You obviously had the, you know, the privilege to have this blueprint of what you've done. What was your kind of blueprint to starting the new brand and what was your approach to launch? So the blueprint was really making things we love and doing it with my best friend too. I mean when you have that shared vision about things, I think it just makes it all that much more fun and I think you need to enjoy what you're doing to really love the process of all of it. So the blueprint was at that point shoes and handbags and really creating the things that we couldn't find anywhere else at this price point because during the time between kate spade and Frances valentine, I would go out and you know, find different shoes and I loved the roger vivier shoes that I found, I was like, gosh, I still am kind of a scrappy person and to pay that much for a pair of shoes, I wanted to be like a third of that price and I want to be able to buy two or three pair and so Right, exactly.

00:10:27Edit So I think our aim was really to make it accessible to people, but really provide that great quality and craftsmanship and I feel like we did that for our launch and it's been part of our success And obviously for you, like, you know, Kate Spade launched in 1993 and this was circa 2016 if I'm not mistaken around then. So the landscape is very different. You went from having like potentially no internet in 1993 I can't recall because I was so little to then, you know, the introduction of social media and being taken by storm by, you know, facebook at that point and probably even instagram by 2016, what was your approach to marketing? Obviously you've had that within kate spade still towards the end there. But what was your approach to marketing in this new landscape of digital media? Social media communities online. Right, well, you know, it's funny because the whole world changed while we were, you know, taking time off to raise our kids and you know, with the advent of all of the social paid organic, you know, media, I was pretty blind when we started this because I was sort of like, yeah, yeah, we'll do that.

00:11:42Edit But I didn't I don't think I realized when we started just how important it was. And I've learned so much since we started. I mean we've got, you know, three people here who just work on that and it's a full time thing. And to me it really took the place of what the editors for magazines used to do. You know, styling pieces, creating stories. And I feel like the influencers are those editors today and they've really taken over that role. So it's very important to us. I'm still learning every day, but we tend to market on instagram and facebook and Pinterest and we do a lot paid and we do a lot organic. So it's extremely important today. And would you say like that's primarily how you grow the brand in today's landscape? Or are there other things that play? There are other things that's one piece of the puzzle. So obviously pr and editorial content is still very important in the magazines that are, you know, still important to us and fashion. So it's pr and you know, aside from using the influencers and organic, you know, organic Social.

00:12:52Edit The team really wanted to do a catalog two years ago and I was like, oh, that's kind of old marketing, I don't really know, like direct mail kind of thing. Yes, yes. So I was like, okay, let's, I finally relented and I finally said, okay, let's do it. And They were totally right. So we shot it march of 2020 in Palm Beach and we flew home that friday was friday the 13th. And of course the whole world went into lockdown two days later, but we had the film. So we edited all on zoom and we put out our first catalog in june of 2020 and it was just fortuitous. It just happened all the right time. But that has been, I think largely because of Covid that has just been such a fantastic marketing tool for us. And we've continued to utilize that because you're coming to people's homes directly and you know, our product is just so joyful and happy. And it was a time when people were really scared and sad.

00:13:53Edit So I think to get that and it was a breath of fresh air to think there's light at the end of the tunnel. I'm going to buy that party dress. I'm going to go to a party at the end of this and I just feel like it really lifted people up. But that's been a fantastic tool for us that I was wrong about. And I'll admit it to the team because the team was really into doing it. I think our creative, really lends itself to print also. So that was another really good thing that came out of it. And so catalogs are really a good, nice business for us. Yes. Yes. That's so interesting. And I also like now that I'm thinking about it, you know, I can't recall a time that I've received a direct mail in recent years to do with fashion. So maybe by kind of taking that avenue when usually it's like homewares. I think what I receive direct mail is homewares and I always like flip through it. I quite like direct mail. So fashion brands, please send this direct mail. But I wonder if it's because it's not a saturated space for fashion. I don't think it has been, I think it was in decline for many years, but I think since Covid and certainly since we put out our first catalog, I've noticed a barrage of fashion catalogs now that I get like the ones at during the holiday season, we're just stacks and stacks every day.

00:15:13Edit Wow, that's so interesting. I love that. Are there any other kind of pieces like that where, you know, it's a piece of the puzzle that was a bit more unexpected or that you decided to play around with more in the traditional marketing kind of space? You know, we haven't yet, we've talked about it. We did do some radio spots on Sirius XM. And just testing that. But I don't feel like we actually gave that a fair chance. I think we need to do more of that and investigate more of traditional media. I'd love to do a big billboard and outdoor campaign if our marketing budget allows, that would be so fun. Right. It really would, it really would because you know, as much as I love the radio and I listened to radio often, I feel like we're such a visual company and a colorful creative company that to see our products are, you know, a better way to reach people. And what about Tiktok, have you started to foray in that space? Yes, we have. So my daughters were onto this years ago, they told me they were like, you gotta get on now, you gotta get on now.

00:16:18Edit So I've been on a couple with them before and I can see how it's very addictive, like if you are on that all the time and my daughters are how much you would just make, you want to be on it more and create, it's addictive. It really is, it really is. But we've got a few really great people on our team here who loves to do it and are super creative, really good dancers and where the products so well and style the product really well. So yes, we're doing more and more of that and it's really a lot of fun. I love that unpredictability is part of what makes starting and growing a business both exciting and terrifying from the next loan payment to your next big sale or your next acquisition finding predictability and business is about as likely as finding a last minute valentine's day dinner reservation unlikely hubspot Crm platform is here to help grow and scale with you through uncertainty. So you can spend your time getting to that dinner reservation, hub, sports reporting dashboard is like your crystal ball giving you a bird's eye view on your marketing, your sales and customer service performance so you can get ahead of any issues before they happen.

00:17:29Edit Lead rotation and automation takes on operational sales tasks so your team can focus on customer needs and shared inboxes, make incoming chats and emails easy to manage and scale for the whole team, learn more about how a hubspot Crm platform can help your business grow better at hubspot dot com for anyone listening who is building a fashion brand or is in that kind of like medium tier price point fashion space, what is your kind of key lessons and learnings for people who are just getting started to keep in mind, how does it work? What do we really need to know here? I have to say it was harder the second time around and not for me personally, but I just think the timing when we started our first business in 1993, there wasn't so much competition in our space of handbags and in the American market in particular and it was again, we were scrappy and we could get things done and we would talk people into things if they said no, you have to buy 500 yards of that for a minimum.

00:18:39Edit We could talk them into, oh, just give us a little bit of sample yardage will pay extra if you just give us some sample yardage. So you know, we still have to be a little scrappy that way this time around. But I just, I feel like it's harder this time around in this year we're in, I think it's, you know, raising capital is difficult for a lot of folks and unless you have this gigantic idea and you know, you can't just start a small business and grow it as easily as back then. However, I totally think it's doable. And I think if you have a really great product that you believe in and you have other people who believe in you, that you can actually get it done and you just have to stay on your own trajectory and you'll get advice from all these other people who say no do it this way, do it this way, but you've created the product and you know what is best for your brand. And my main piece of advice would be to stick to your guns to really do what you set out to do and nothing is insurmountable and we all started somewhere and you think of every designer or a fashion person who's out there, they all started, we all started the same way, pretty much.

00:19:45Edit And we were all, most of us were broke when we started and we still made it through. So it's a matter of persevering. I think one of the things that entrepreneurs have a difficulty with is having ready capital to help them. I wish there were more female investors than there are, but there are some seed investors out there, women's groups and it's a matter of trying to tap into those early on and keep a bead watch who they're investing with. If you have access to it, read the trade papers every day, read women's wear daily, read Business of fashion because they do stories on all these investors that they've made a small investment in certain companies. It's how I, you know, when we were raising capital for Frances valentine, it's how I found a lot of the people who I contacted and if I couldn't find their email address, you know, I'd go look at their company website and you'll find somebody's name and that's how their email address goes. So you keep going through those bounce backs until one won't bounce back.

00:20:48Edit That's right, That's right. You just have to keep trying and, you know, any way you possibly can, wow, that is such a great tip to kind of like, you know, go through those publications, keep a bit of a record of the people that are being mentioned until you're ready to reach out and then you've essentially built a little database to go after you said two things just now that I want to ask a follow up question too. The first question is, you know, yes, you need a lot of capital and it takes time to build a fashion brand. It's definitely not one of those overnight success that takes 10 years to get that kind of thing in kate spade. How long did it take to get traction until you were kind of like, oh yeah, things are really like going full steam ahead. Was it quite quick or did it also take time? It was 2-3 years, which I find extremely fast because now, I mean February 14 is our six year anniversary, But it does take time to grow that business. I mean some businesses have been around 10 years and finally hit their stride at 10 years. There are some that are really well capitalized early on that can afford all the marketing and you know, the traditional advertising and can really zoom past everybody else if you look at, you know, some of the bigger ones like you know, Warby parker or Casper or some of those that got money right when they started and you know, really took off, you know, for me, I like to, I would prefer to spend more time growing thoughtfully at the beginning and have a kind of slow organic growth, but then I'm not a VC, I'm not a venture capitalist.

00:22:17Edit So I think, I think differently than that, it's more about how the business is growing organically than it is. You know, how can we grow it so fast that we can sell it for a lot of money and make it profitable? Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned funding in there. What has been your approach to the funding path and your experience this time around? So this time around we did a couple of small rounds and I talked to everybody and so I think for anyone listening, I think any social connections, you have, any groups, you can join, either trade groups or any kind of group that you can, if they're not meeting in person, social groups on zoom, the more people you can meet, the better and the more you can listen to them and get to know them the better because everybody's got connections to someone else. So I think people who are interested in what you're doing are key. I met so many different people and you know, funds and bankers and VCS and I found the women investors the most interesting and the ones who really understood our brand and I think that was really important.

00:23:27Edit Nothing against men, but a lot of the bankers and the VCS are men and if they can't try the product on or feel it or look at and say, oh my gosh, that's great. They're not going to get it Like women are, Yeah. And we've heard this before, right? Like it's just more difficult inherently. Yeah, exactly. It is. So we generally raised funds through friends and family and it has been the easy way because when you start, even if you're raising after two or three years, you want patient investors, you want people who are in it for the long haul with you, who aren't going to call you every and say, okay, what's going on? What's happening? You know, how come you didn't make money last year, That kind of thing. You need people who are going to be supportive and say, oh my gosh, this is fantastic. Can we put more money? And it's a matter of, you know, keeping them abreast every quarter about the growth and the numbers and how you're doing, how big is the company today, when it comes to your team? Are you able to share any kind of, you know, vague revenues, you know, paint the picture for today.

00:24:34Edit Okay. So we don't share numbers, but I'll tell you our growth in 2021 was 85% Over 2020. So this year has been phenomenal for us this past year. We have plans to grow. Hopefully that amount. I'm knocking on wood in 2022. Love that for You. So within 2020, you know, we had a staff at the office of about 11 or 12 people and it's been that way really since the beginning, everybody wore three hats, like everybody was doing everything. And it felt like we were getting to a breaking point of, oh my gosh, we just, we can't do certain things that we really want to do because we just don't have the staff to do it. So we've added about seven people in the last six months and it's really been fantastic. We hired some people are best in their class at what they do and for us, probably the most important thing and bringing in new people is the cultural fit. They obviously have to be really good at what they do, but it's the cultural fit because we are company very respectful and everybody's nice to everybody else and we have a really good time.

00:25:44Edit We have a lot of fun and everybody works really hard. So that's usually the part that takes the longest is finding those folks who will fit right into the group here. Absolutely! I've heard that that's a common theme from what I hear, what is the best and the worst advice you've ever received. Oh gosh, the best advice is probably don't spend money you don't have hoping that it will come. And oh, the worst advice this happened to do with another business. But it was making bags for Bendel's, they wanted us to make a bag for them and they really wanted us to do Fannie packs for them in neon colors, with our label on it. and we said we really don't want to do that. What's Bendel's, I'm out of the loop. So Bendel's was a specialty department store here. It was fabulous back in the day, I can't remember how long they've been out of business now, but it was really fantastic and we made these bags for them and we regretted it from the second we said yes, we regretted it because it wasn't our aesthetic.

00:26:53Edit And that's why I said stick to your guns because if you really don't feel like something is right, if someone is asking you to do a collaboration with them and they want to use neon and that's just not part of what you do, you got to say, no, I've learned that over the years. We just closed our eyes and did it and I know we didn't, thank goodness, we shipped them everything and they had to deal with all of it, but it was, you know, stick to what you do best and don't let people try and talk you into something you're not comfortable with two great ones. Love that for me. Thanks for listening to this amazing episode. We are testing out something new here for the next while and we're splitting up each episode into two parts, the main interview part and then the six quick questions part to make them easier to listen to. So that's part one done, tune into part two, to hear the six quick questions.

So question # one, What's your why? Why are you doing what you're doing? I absolutely love creating and designing and I love doing it with my team. It's just it's so fulfilling. It makes me so happy all through the pandemic. I came in every single day because the samples would come here and I just, even if I was by myself, I try them on and it's just I love what I do. It's really fun. Sounds like a big like dress up closet where you can just come in and feel like try beautiful things on and spin around.

00:01:14Edit I love that. That sounds so fun. Question # two is what's been the number one marketing moment so far for Frances Valentine. I think I'd have to say it was our catalog, our very first catalog when all the stars aligned everything came together just at that moment in time? Question # three is what's your go to business resource when you have to think about a book or a podcast or a newsletter. Well as I mentioned, I get up really early and I read the trade papers every morning as well as a lot of other news. So I would probably say women's were daily in business of fashion. Love that. Going to link them both in the show notes. For anyone listening, Question # four is how do you win the day? What are your AM and PM rituals and habits that keep you feeling happy and motivated and productive? Oh boy, I wake up really early. I think I think it's just because I grew up on a farm and we always woke up early to the roosters. You were lazy if you did it, crack of dawn. Yes, exactly.

00:02:20Edit The rest of my family hates it. But I'm always up really early. So how early we talking. I usually get up at 5:30 or six Every day. That's early for my teenagers. They're up, you know, as late as can be 11 or 12. But it's probably, I love getting up and having time to read articles and read the papers in the morning. It's one of my favorite things. Make coffee, hang out in front of the fire with the dog. That's part of one of my morning things that I love and get into the office early. That's really great. You know the second is going home and making dinner for my family. I love to cook. I am a plant based eater, which can be very challenging. So it's hard for my husband to make things for me because you know you have to really wrap your head around it and learn how to make things that are all plant based, which can be a challenge. I'm used to it myself anyway, I love doing that. I love making dinner for my family. Yeah, I mean I guess it makes so much sense. It's another really creative outlet for you to you know, create, create fun things exactly. What's your favorite at the moment?

00:03:23Edit I'm always looking for new plant based recipes. So I made this up myself but I made a shepherd's pie and it was jardine, the chicken strips you can buy that are you know, obviously made of tofu or soy carrots, celery, onions, peas, corn, sweet potato and then covering it with mashed potatoes. Yeah, I haven't had a shepherd's pie in, you know, forever I don't eat meat, I eat dairy but I don't eat meat and that sounds delicious. It's really good and it's so easy to make, I mean use vegetable stock and then you have to mix a little flour with I use almond milk, unsweetened almond milk and mix it together too. You know, once you have the pot boiling you mix that in and it thickens everything and then I just put that in a big dish with the mashed potatoes on top and bake it and it's really good. I'm so excited for the future as well of like lab grown meat and all these kinds of things because I mean everything now is amazing. The options that you can get on the market are just like so much better.

00:04:26Edit Yeah, it's, I mean there are just so many options, but I'm also excited for the future. Me too. Me too. But it's getting better all the time. It's just really amazing. Yeah, it really is, it really is. I digress question number five, We might have covered this already, but let's see if there's a different answer that we can come up with what's been the worst money you've ever spent in the business and how much was it? We love dollars over here. We want to know, I don't want to put anybody down. That's the only problem. You can keep the name, you know, fuzzy. We don't need to say the name. So there's a big online retailer. It was early on in the business and they wanted to carry our products and we were, you know, they came in and sold us on and they're like, it's gonna be great, you're gonna be huge. You're just gonna sell out. It's gonna be crazy. But it's going to cost you $50,000 to market this. So we did it, we got no business out of it and we realized that retailer wasn't for us. You know, it was, it was supposed to be a new dawn for them and they were really going to take over the fashion industry and lesson learned, an expensive lesson learned early on, expensive lesson learned, don't love that.

00:05:38Edit And question # six, last question, this is kind of like a similar age question to the last one, but is there a major fail or major mistake that you can share in the business and how you dealt with it? Yes. So at one point we had Sold out of basically everything in the summer of 2018 and it was a very emotional time for us and so there was a huge demand for our products. So we ordered according to the demand And which we shouldn't have and I, as a seasoned professionals should have known better that you're supposed to order for between 20 and 40% of demand because you know, by the time you get those products here, but I was in a very emotional state and I just thought, yes, we have to do it, we have to do it. So we ordered to the demand and we had a lot. of product left over. So our inventory levels were way too high By the summer of 2019 and I would just say it's so much better and I've had to learn this lesson several times, but now I'm just going to stick with me, we pretty much make everything in small batches at Frances valentine.

00:06:47Edit And the aim is to sell out of them after a period of 4-6 weeks advice for anyone is make things in as small matches as you're able to because to have inventory is just cash sitting, you know, in boxes and it's so much better to have the cash in the pocket to be able to deploy for marketing, whatever else you need for more manufacturing, whatever you need. But it doesn't tie you up if you have no inventory. So that's probably one of the best lessons I could tell anyone. Yeah, that's a great lesson to end on Elise. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your journey. You are just so bright and bubbly. I've loved chatting with you. Thank you so much. I have really enjoyed chatting with you too.



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