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Opening Ceremony, Vena Cava, and Rent the Runway Dish on Fashion Entrepreneurship, Trusting Your Gut, and More

From left: Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway, Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock of Vena Cava, and Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony with Karen Harvey
From left: Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway, Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock of Vena Cava, and Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony with Karen Harvey

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Last night, fashion upstarts Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony, Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss of Rent the Runway, and Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai of Vena Cava assembled at Milk Gallery (seriously, we never go there outside of fashion week—this was a first) to speak on consultant Karen Harvey and the Fashion Group International’s panel on entrepreneurship in the new economic environment.

“We believe in stories,” Harvey says. Each of the panel participants were selected to tell their story because of their respective “tremendous impacts on fashion and retail? Each filled a white space, and all of them continue to surprise us.”

We popped by for the panel talk—really brilliant, by the way, we wish there were more discussions like this in the fashion community—and have assembled some key points, ideas that really stuck out to us, after the jump.

On gut instinct and starting the business:

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon met at UC Berkeley where she studied economics and he studied art history. The pair teamed up—after Lim worked a stint in finance and Leon at the Gap and Burberry—in 2002 to open Opening Ceremony.

“He always pushed me,” Lim says about Leon. “He always told me that we have to feel slightly uncomfortable in every decision we make.

“Any time we second-guessed ourselves, we failed in some way,” Leon says. “It has to feel like a gamble, it has to feel right for us.”

Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai co-founded Vena Cava after their senior thesis was not selected for the Parsons graduation show.

“We originally intended to show our clothes at a barbecue,” Buhai says, “We made all the samples, made the entire set, and did the invites ourselves in our friend’s basement.”

“Andy Spade recently told us, ‘If you’re having fun with what you’re doing, it will be good,’” Mayock says. “Excitement creates something that’s honest.

Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss met as students at Harvard Business School—after both had worked in the corporate world, Fleiss at Morgan Stanley and Hyman at Starwood Hotels.

“We cold-called designers,” Hyman says. “We listened to the concerns designers had and used those concerns to mold what our business model was? We think of ourselves as an experience company—instead of ‘Can we do this?’ we ask ourselves ‘How do we do this?’”

On travel: “When you travel, you shop blindly,” Leon says. “You have no predetermined ideas about stores and brands. You can take a new and fresh look and see things as a whole.” That’s the experience he says they want to create at Opening Ceremony.

On growing up in the suburbs: “Both Carol and I grew up loving mall culture,” Leon says. “We grew up experiencing shopping from a mass perspective. This was before the internet and before Google, so the experience of seeing a European magazine and not knowing about brands, and researching, digging, and searching for things—now everything is accessible, and digging is less exciting.”

“Our passion comes from being active consumers,” Lim says. “I could go anywhere—even finding a new gum flavor is exciting. We have a passion for going out and discovering things and figuring out how to bring things back.”

Like the now-ubiquitous Havaianas brand of flip-flops that, just a few years ago, were impossible to find anywhere outside Opening Ceremony. “We were the first ones to import Havaianas,” Leon points out. “We found them in a supermarket in Brazil.”

On the difference between being up-and-coming and having an established business: “We developed a customer base,” Mayock says. “No we have certain ideas that influence us every season—like ’70s silhouettes and strong women icons—so our collections are a combination of newness and what our customer loves about us.”

“One of the most influential people for us has been Andrew Rosen, who mentored us and gave us his time for free,” she says. “He really helped us with the business side—analyzing our sell-through and figuring out which products we’re best known for? which helps us in getting deeper orders from stores.”

On launching with capital investors: Rent the Runway launched 15 months ago with 5,000 dresses. “We’re much bigger than renting dresses,” Hyman says. “We see ourselves as a company that provides a magical experience to women—by making accessible brands she’s previously been denied.

If a woman can rent a luxury designer gown for a fraction of its retail price and wear it, say, on an unforgettable new year’s eve or a first date when she falls in love—”That’s when your real love of brands starts—at these moments in your life,” Hyman says. “We thought if we could introduce a brand at that actual moment, we would be selling experiences, not selling product.”

Hyman and Fleiss considered strategic investors and angel investors before deciding to align themselves with venture capitalists who “understood our vision for the company and served as mentors for the company,” Hyman says.

On the value of having a partner: All three companies said that having a business partner was invaluable.

“Someone just asked us, before the panel, why we don’t seem stressed,” Leon says. “we work as friends, we consider everyone we work with friends, we’re all a group of friends that work really hard. We know what we’re both good at.”

“We do things we enjoy,” Lim says. “Our roles were pretty clearly defined early on.”

On your worst job or career moment ever:

“I worked in finance,” Fleiss says. “I remember sleeping under my desk and getting chewed out by my boss. I never thought I’d love coming to an office everyday.”

Hyman talks about a previous job where the culture was “oppressive” and about how that’s inspired her to “create a culture and environment where people want to spend their time.”