#SWAAYthenarrative

How I Broke Free From the Status Quo of The Fashion Business

4min read
Business

After years of experience working for other brands, in the pre-digital stone age (before the advent of Instagram - gasp!) I launched my handmade-in-Italy evening bag business. It was Fashion Week of February 2008, and was immediately followed by the Great Recession - a total economic downturn and complete shift in the retail environment. What had traditionally been the standard operating procedure for a fashion business no longer applied, but everyone was still trying to put that old square peg in this new round hole.


The expectations of brands and designers changed into something that would be untenable even to Hercules. The expectations and structure made no sense, and was by no means a sustainable situation. From the start of the recession, I knew in my gut that this couldn't possibly work for any period of time - drastic changes were going to need to take place in how business was done. Retail couldn't keep trying to put this square peg in that round hole. Nonetheless, for years, I tried to "play the game" and do things as the rest of the fashion pack was doing them in order to fit in and get ahead. In my gut, I knew that what we needed was a revolution.

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My name is Amanda Pearl Brotman: founder, designer, and all around bosslady of AMANDA PEARL - a small, women-run, New York City based accessories company known for sustainably and ethically made jewelry and clutches that are designed to empower. I'm not some retail genius, and don't have a fancy MBA. But I can see when A plus B is never going to equal C. It took me a while to learn to listen to my gut, but that's exactly what I finally did, revolutionizing my business both for myself and my customers.

Entrepreneurship always felt pre-destined for me. It started young - from a wee tot decorating rocks and selling them door-to-door in our neighborhood (Yikes. No, I don't know where my parents were…), or beading jewelry to sell street-side in lieu of lemonade. I have always had a passion for creating and trying to make a business of it. But I wasn't dumb and certainly not hasty. I knew I needed to learn the ropes and have experience before trying to do it myself in any real way. I'd received a BA in art history and visual arts, but knew that not even an MBA could properly prepare me for what it was to run a business like this - I needed to get experience on the job, in the real world. I needed to learn about all of the aspects that needed to fit together to make a business like this work. I needed to learn how it was done.

For 5 years I had the incredible opportunity to work for some well known brands where I got to jump in and see first-hand the ins and outs and learn the "formula for success", really seeing how this type of business worked. I was incredibly lucky, as my first job out of college was with Marc Jacobs - a relatively big, hot, successful company that happened to be run by a small-ish team. This meant I really got to get in there and get my hands dirty and be privy to all that went on. My roles there allowed me to work between design, development, merchandising, sales, and production, learning how to manage the manufacturing of goods all over the globe. I later became "collection director" for another small brand, liaising between all of the teams (pattern makers, sample makers, production, etc.), again, running through the standard series of steps. It was pretty straightforward. This is how the fashion business went - this is how you were supposed to do it.

By now I felt ready to take the plunge on my own. I gave notice at my job, and got to work, launching AMANDA PEARL in February of 2008. I set up and ran my business the way you were "supposed to", and that meant multiple collections, inventory, and expensive presentations. The recipe that I'd followed in my previous jobs was how I rolled. I began to get some wholesale accounts, stylists started consistently pulling the collection, and celebrities were wearing my accessories on all the red carpets. I'd played by the rules and checked all of the boxes, but I still wasn't making any money. By pre-recession standards, we should have made it, we should have been rolling in customers. But the landscape had completely changed. What worked then didn't work now. Getting into a magazine didn't mean you'd get sales. Having celebrities wearing your things didn't mean you were successful. Having retail accounts didn't mean you were making money. This new landscape was an alternate reality.

Following the recession in 2008, retail turned inside out. The shopping habits of consumers changed and retailers no longer wanted the responsibility of owning inventory (read: they wanted everything on consignment, which meant that as a brand, you had to shoulder the burden of their inventory "investments" and bad decisions). Online was becoming a big thing. Influencers and celebrities were becoming brands. Customers were not paying full "retail price" anymore. They had been trained to wait for a sale (there would always be a sale!) and so what did these retail prices mean anyway?

This gnawed at me. This retail structure whereby you had to inflate retail prices to include margin not only for your production cost and overhead, but padding for the retailer's fancy stores, advertising, infrastructure, and for their own series of eventual, hefty discounts. People no longer had any idea of the true value of the goods we were creating. How could they? Like some sort of sorcery, we were churning out gobs of collections throughout the year, just for the sake of keeping up and having something new new new. To turn that over, the previous collections were marked down down down. From a creative and company resources perspective, from an environmental perspective, and from an industry perspective, I knew that I/we couldn't keep doing this. It was unsustainable from every angle.

In retrospect, I can't believe it took me so long to come around. (That's not entirely true… I stopped offering a zillion collections each year early on, and shied away from training my customers to shop on sale, rarely discounting anything.) I saw what was going on, but perhaps didn't think as a lone small business that I could be such a rebel and forge a new path? Somehow, I struggled and slogged through like this into 2018, to only finally have the epiphany that I'm an adult. I'm in charge of my business. I can do what I want. I realized that I had the power to structure things the way I saw fit - I didn't have to do things the way everyone else did them - I needed to make it work for me.

So, I cut out everything that wasn't serving us. I set things up to be sustainable for me - given our size, independent nature, and goals for who, what, and how we wanted AMANDA PEARL to be. I didn't want to be just another run-of-the-mill accessories brand - I wanted my brand to DO something. I let my wholesale accounts sell through, and did what my gut had been telling me to do. In January of 2019, I relaunched as a direct-to-consumer brand.

This meant that we didn't have to answer to our retailers and their calendar of "seasons" that they had to have new product for. I had control over the development schedule, and could choose how often we rolled out new products. (I'm the boss! I can do what I want. No really! I can do whatever I want!) Who needs 8 seasons worth of accessories to choose from each year? (Answer: no one.) Maybe we'll just launch a few pieces every couple months!

I restructured the pricing so that we could pass on all of that extra markup savings to our customers, offering real, true prices on our products every day of the year. Without the traditional 10x markup, it meant that there was no room for sales and discounts - we were always offering the best possible prices and so our customers could feel confident in their purchases whenever they made them. There would never be a "Black Friday" sale again.

We were already using recycled gold, but since I was high on doing and building exactly what I wanted, I went all in on the sustainability factor. Eschewing the old guard, I switched 100% to ethical, un-mined diamonds. This meant we could create jewelry without the huge environmental and social impact that traditional diamond jewelry carries with it. To top it off, I included a 10% philanthropic element so that giving back to causes we believe in could be a part of how we did business.

I finally felt really proud of what I was building. The pieces were finally falling into place. AMANDA PEARL wasn't just another accessories brand. We were creating beautiful things that made women feel strong, and that had a positive impact beyond the product - that brought attention to the environmental ramifications of our consumption, that rallied community around issues, and helped to support organizations in need. When I first started out all those years ago, I never could have imagined I would have the power to create something so beautiful…

4 Min Read
Business

Today, Companies Need to Retain Veteran Employees in Order to Survive and Thrive

In 2020, as the world turned on its axis, we all held on for dear life. Businesses, non-profits, government organizations, and entrepreneurs all braced for a new normal, not sure what it would mean, what would come next, or if we should be excited or terrified.

At the same time that everything is shifting, being put on hold, or expanding, companies have to evaluate current talent needs, empower their teams to work from home, discover new ways to care for clients from a distance, and navigate new levels of uncertainty in this unfamiliar environment. Through it all, civilians are being encouraged to lean into concepts like "resilience" and "courage" and "commitment," sometimes for the first time.

Let's contrast what the business community is going through this year with the common experience of the military. During basic training, officer candidate school, multiple deployments, combat, and reintegration, veterans become well-versed in resilience, courage, and commitment to survive and thrive in completing their mission. Today, veterans working in the civilian sector find the uncertainty, chaos, instability, and fear threading through companies eerily familiar.

These individuals do not leave their passion and sense of service behind when they separate or retire out of the military. Instead, typically veterans continue to find avenues to serve — in their teams, their companies, their communities.

More than ever before, today's employers who employ prior military should focus on why and how to retain them and leverage their talents, experience, and character traits to help lead the company — and the employees — to the other side of uncertainty.

What makes veterans valuable employees

Informed employers recognize that someone with a military background brings certain high-value assets into the civilian sector. Notably, veterans were taught, trained, and grounded in certain principles that make them uniquely valuable to their employers, particularly given the current business environment, including:

Leadership

It's been said that the United States Armed Forces is the greatest leadership institution in the world. The practices, beliefs, values, and dedication of those who serve make them tested leaders even outside of the military. Given the opportunity to lead, a veteran will step forward and assume the role. Asked to respect and support leadership, they comply with that position as well. Leadership is in the veteran's blood and for a company that seeks employees with the confidence and commitment to lead if called upon, a veteran is the ideal choice.

Commitment

The hope is that all employees are committed to their job and give 100% each day. For someone in the military, this is non-negotiable. The success of the mission, and the lives of everyone around them, depend on their commitment to stay the course and perform their job as trained. When the veteran employee takes on a project, it will be completed. When the veteran employee says there's an unsurmountable obstacle, it is so (not an excuse). When a veteran says they're "all in" on an initiative, they will see it through.

Strategy, planning, and improv

Every mission involves strategy, planning, and then improvisation from multiple individuals. On the battlefield, no plan works perfectly, and the service member's ability to flex, pivot, and adapt makes them valuable later, in the civilian sector. Imagine living in countries where you don't speak the language, working alongside troops who come from places you can't find on a map, and having to communicate what needs to get done to ensure everyone's safety. Veterans learned how to set goals, problem-solve challenges, and successfully get results.

Service

With an all-volunteer military for decades now, every man and woman who wore our nation's uniform raised their hand to do so. They chose to serve their country, their fellow Americans, and their leaders. These individuals do not leave their passion and sense of service behind when they separate or retire out of the military. Instead, typically veterans continue to find avenues to serve — in their teams, their companies, their communities.

When companies seek out leaders who will commit to a bigger mission, can think strategically and creatively, and will serve others, they look to veterans.

Best practices in retention of veteran talent

Retention starts at hiring. The experience set out in the interview stage provides insight about how it will be to work and grow within the team at the company. For employers hiring veterans, this is a critical step.

Veterans often tell me that they "look to work for a company that has a set of values I can ascribe to." The topic of values can serve as an opportunity for companies seeking to retain military talent.

The veteran employee may have had a few — or several — jobs since leaving the military. Or this may be their first civilian work experience. In any case, setting expectations and being clear about goals is vital. Remember, veterans are trained to complete a mission and a goal. When an employer clarifies the mission and shows how the veteran employee's role supports and fulfills that mission, the employee can more confidently and successfully complete their work.

Additionally, regular check-ins are helpful with veteran employees. These employees may not be as comfortable asking for help or revealing their weaknesses. When the employer checks in regularly, and shows genuine interest in their happiness, sense of productivity, and overall job satisfaction, the veteran employee learns to be more comfortable asking for help when needed.

The military is a values-driven culture. Service members are instilled with values of loyalty, integrity, service, duty, and honor, to name a few. When they transition out of the military, veterans still seek a commitment to values in their employers. Veterans often tell me that they "look to work for a company that has a set of values I can ascribe to." The topic of values can serve as an opportunity for companies seeking to retain military talent. Make it clear what your values are, how you live and act on those values, and how the veteran's job will promote and support those values. Even work that is less glamorous can be attractive to a veteran if they understand the greater purpose and mission.

Today, veterans working in the civilian sector find the uncertainty, chaos, instability, and fear threading through companies eerily familiar.

Finally, leveraging the strengths and goals of any employee is critical, and particularly so with veterans. If you have an employee who is passionate about service, show them ways to give back — through mentoring, community engagement, volunteerism, etc. If your veteran continues to seek leadership roles, find opportunities for them to contribute at higher levels, even informally. When your veteran employee offers to reframe the team's mission to gain better alignment across the sector, give them some runway to experiment. You have a workforce that is trained and passionate about and skilled in adapting and overcoming. Let them do what they do best.