Fashion is an exciting and rewarding profession, but also one that has unique challenges. In addition to talent, a designer must also have strong business sense and real determination to make it in a highly-competitive environment. To better understand how to have a successful career in fashion, we spoke to Sarah Carson.
An Interview with Sarah Carson,
Founder and CEO at Leota, New York, New York, USA
Many girls hesitate to change an activity (such as a sport) they began when young, even though it’s no longer enjoyable or relevant. It defines them in many ways and they don’t want to be viewed as quitters. You spent years in investment banking but had the courage to follow your passion and started a New York-based women’s fashion brand with no experience in the industry. What were your first small steps towards a big change?
It is scary to take steps out of your comfort zone. The biggest changes that I’ve experienced in my life have started out with a lot of fear. I asked myself, “Can I do this? Why should I think I can do this? What if I fail?” You often hear a lot of real-life stories of successful people and it sounds like they started their company and it was easy. You just see the highlights but in reality, it’s just a lot of struggle and fear management. When it comes to leaping into something new, I take fear as a good sign. A change can be exciting, it takes me out of my comfort zone. The fear is usually a sign that growth is happening.
I’ve had a few very significant changes in my life. The first was as a teenager going from a professional martial artist to walking away from it. I was also a Gender Studies Major in college, and then I became an investment banker and, after that, a fashion designer.
Transitions aren’t easy but I was confident that I could figure it out. Confidence is one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me. They taught me that I deserve to be passionate and excited about what I do with my life. Life doesn’t just happen to you. You’ve got to step out, be creative and figure it out for yourself. I’m a very success-driven person, I’ve taught myself to break new challenges up into bite-size pieces. I wake up every morning and I ask myself, “What meaningful progress can I make today?” I see it as marching every day toward what my goal is, and I know success doesn’t happen overnight.
What would you recommend to girls that are already good at expressing and sketching their fashion ideas?
If you’re passionate about fashion, jump right in and get experience wherever possible. Obviously, going to college is going to be an irreplaceable experience, but don’t wait until you’re a college student to make meaningful steps toward getting into this business.
Seek out designers or brands that you like and say, “Can I be your apprentice for three hours a week? Or can I shadow you Friday afternoons after I get out of school?” It will be scary, you’re going doubt yourself but you’ve got to try it anyway. Be specific with suggestions about how you can help. If I could do it over, I would have gotten more internship experience as a teen.
What is the difference between creating a fashion product and building a brand and business?
It takes a lot of grit to make it in fashion. I know everyone’s Instagram is filled with parties and glam, but mostly it’s rolling up your sleeves and doing the logistics and the manufacturing. I had an idea – I wanted to make the most comfortable, versatile, vibrant fashion for women on the market. I thought I was going into the dress business, but it turns out I was going into the supply chain management business, and freight forwarding and manufacturing, packaging and HR. The amount of time that I’m actually designing is quite small.
You have to build your business on your strengths and hire for your weaknesses. Then build a team around you that make the ideal skill set for your company.
Can you describe your creative process? And what do you do when you need inspiration?
I’m inspired by women’s lives, and how they’re out there doing it all. I’m inspired by problem-solving fashion, figuring out how to make women more empowered and more confident while they’re out there doing billion things because that’s what women are required to do. I’m inspired by making a difference for women. That’s what keeps me going every day.
Creatively, I love art. One thing that’s really unique about my brand, Leota, is that we’re very print-driven. We’re basically a wearable art brand, so I think that the prints come first. We create beautiful patterns, and then we figure out how can we put this into a garment. That’s really fun.
My best ideas come when I have some space from the day-to-day. I live in New York City, I love living here day to day, but I think getting out of here and getting some sunshine, or going to a mountaintop, will create that mental space to see the bigger picture and it helps me prioritize.
Girls often don’t realize that the fashion industry is not only about creativity and glamour, but also about resilience, discipline, financial knowledge, business planning and being relentlessly resourceful. I read that you convinced your mom as a teen to sign you up for karate classes and worked your way up to become a national champion. How did this experience help you to deal with the ups and downs first years in business?
I thought I was unathletic. I convinced my mom to sign me up and she agreed to it. First of all, it’s a very male-dominated field. I got opportunities to lead as a woman in a male-dominated environment. I got very comfortable with that at a very young age and that served me well as I became an investment banker and an entrepreneur. Women entrepreneurs are very few – they’re not getting the venture capital money, they’re not getting the bank funding.
It’s definitely more challenging because we’re expected to do more with less. Resilience and tenacity that I learned as a martial artist is really what it’s all about because success is not an overnight endeavor. One of my favorite entrepreneurs said, “It took me 25 years to be an overnight success.” It takes time and I’ve learned as a martial artist the importance of developing good habits to achieve my goals.
With smart fabrics, wearable technology, virtual reality and constant invention in technology, how do you see fashion industry in the future? What are the timeless rules or principles that are here to stay?
Fashion is a prime place for advancing new technology. It’s still a very old-school business. I love the craftiness of it and how it’s really still such a hands-on industry, and I think that’s going to continue, but we really have opportunities to do a better job giving customers what they want by knowing them better through technology.
People want brands that they feel a connection with, they want to feel understood. That’s where companies like Leota are really going to be part of the future. Of course, fast fashion will stay because it’s lower cost. People are very price-driven now, but with the emergence of fast fashion, I think that ethical production and doing the right thing become even more important. I think that shoppers will have even more power to influence the market.
Tips and Tricks:
- When it comes to leaping into something new, fear is a good sign and means that you’re growing as a person
- If you don’t fail, you never know what you’re really capable of
- If you’re passionate about fashion, jump right in and get experience wherever possible. Internships are a great way to get started