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How Trina Turk Keeps Up in a Fast Fashion World

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When veteran fashion designer Trina Turk launched her namesake brand in her apartment's spare bedroom in 1995, she had no idea that one day she'd be running a fashion empire generating more than $60 million in revenue.

Turk's eye for relaxed fits and vibrant patterns—a look she calls "California Modernism"—earned her a place at stores like Fred Segal, Bloomingdales and Saks. She opened seven namesake boutiques around the country, eventually moving into menswear, home décor, swimwear, and most recently, activewear.

Racked visited the Seattle-born designer at her Alhambra headquarters in southern Los Angeles, where she's currently working on a jewelry line (due to launch this fall). Read on to find out how she's survived and grown over two decades worth of changes in the fashion industry, from the recession to the rise of fast fashion.

How did you first get into clothing design?
"My mom taught me how to sew when I was 11. She was a great seamstress and a creative person and she showed me how you can manipulate a pattern. In the old days of home sewing, you basically bought a pattern and made the style as it was pictured, but she showed me how you could change the style. That lit a light bulb in my head [to make a company specializing in patterns].

Trina Turk at her swimwear fashion show in 2010. Image via Getty.

What are some companies that inspire you?
"From a brand standpoint, Paul Smith. His company has a very strong personality. In terms of designers, I love Rudi Gernreich, an LA-based designer. I also love Halston, and Pauline Trigere— I stumble across her vintage pieces sometimes and they are fantastic."

What challenges did you face when you started your company back in 1995?
"A challenge I faced was naiveté: not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I never did a business plan and had I done one, I would have scared myself out of starting because the idea of starting an apparel company from the ground up is a daunting proposition. But I was on a mission to do it so I thought, 'I'll just do this!' I didn't have a business plan, I thought it was a waste of time. I wouldn't recommend that to anyone now, especially since things have changed a lot. The biggest challenge was thinking that I knew how to do everything and realizing how much I didn't know. I had worked as a designer for other people and but designing merchandise is one small part of the puzzle. There's financing, production, shopping, logistics, sales, so many other things which I was not an expert in. There were a lot of challenges daily.

Your company went from just women's wear to other categories. Was it hard to take on more work?
"When I first started the company, I just wanted to do a cute little collection but it's since changed into a lifestyle brand and I didn't see it like that when I started. I started this company in a spare bedroom in my house. The beginnings were very humble. My main goals were to work for myself. The fact that we're in all these different categories now, it's much more complex. Now there are different design teams working on different categories. I used to sketch every style and pick every button but now I'm jumping from one team to another, working more as a creative director and making sure everything is going in the same direction and is on brand. That's sort of my new role but I'm still very involved in print, color and fabric. Now the biggest challenge is maintaining the identity of the brand across all these product categories."

Has the fashion industry seen any major shifts that could hurt businesses over the years?
"Oh my gosh, yes, it's completely different from when I first started. The recession really put a damper on the way people shop. Unfortunately, as an industry, we reacted to that situation with markdowns. That was the beginning of competitive price promotion and this idea that nobody buys anything at full price. Because of this whole price game going on, it has really driven down the overall quality of the clothes out there. I think young people who shop at H&M don't even know what a nice fabric is and wouldn't be able to tell the difference if they saw it."

So how does a high-end company compete with fast fashion? What strategies did you take?
"It really made us think about opening price points in our collection, which may not be as important as it was before. Because the reality is everybody is our competition. It's not just other contemporary brands we usually hang with, it's everybody. You have to take into account what's out there and what the prices are. If someone needs to buy a cute dress to wear to a wedding, they can spend $50, $500 or $5,000. And the crazy thing is, you can get a pretty good look for not that much money, and I think that is new, with introduction of fast fashion retailers, especially Zara, whom I think does the best job. Right after the recession, there was a lot of pressure from our wholesale customers to reduce our prices. At that time we really didn't do it. But now it's really more about having a variety of price points in the collection. So we have lower prices, which are more entry-level price points but then we also want to have the special things that are more expensive."

Were there any strategies or thinking points that you had to ditch over the years?
"When my husband and I first started the company, we were thinking too small. When we started, we had a third partner. And about three years in, we realized it wasn't really working with the third partner, and by the time we realized we had to part ways, the company had grown to the point where we couldn't afford to buy her out. So we ended up having to do private equity transaction where we found a company who bought out her portion of ownership. [What I know now is] we didn't have to make that person a partner early on, we could have paid her enough to keep her happy but we never tried that. At the beginning, we just had no idea how big it was going to be. And if anything, we weren't thinking big enough. I'm not saying every apparel company will go on the same path, but if you're serious about what you're doing, think big."

Were there any categories your company attempted and failed?
"Yes, we tried to do handbags in-house twice, 10 years ago and five years ago. What we realized is that you had to hire an entire team, both on design and sales in order to make it work and we didn't do that, we didn't make the investment that was necessarily to really compete in a very crowded category. Now we're working with a great handbag manufacturer, and they also have sales and I think that will make all the difference. We also tried to do sunglasses in-house and that's a very specific manufacturing practice. The first couple of seasons, I loved it, it was a really nice product but it was the same thing— unless you invest in design and sales, organizations to support the single category, it's hard to make it fly. So we're looking for great partners. We've tried a lot of things in-house. We've also tried jewelry before. It's really about having the resources because each category requires specialized attention. When we were doing it ourselves, in house, we were just dabbling. We weren't putting serious energy behind it. Now we have an expanded jewelry assortment— we had a soft launch for spring but our real launch is for fall."

Trina at a Bloomingdales event in March. Photo via Getty.

How do you plan to continue the company's expansion?
"We haven't done much business internationally: I think with our website, we barely scratch the surface of what we can do. Retail stores are important but in my mind, not as important as the website. Right now, we have 9 stores and we have our website. I think that from an investment standpoint, the website needs to be as good as the best retail experience, if not better."

Do you find it difficult to balance the responsibility of such a business?
"Well I don't have any kids. Not that I'm recommending people don't have kids but I've made a conscious choice. Also, at some point, and I'm at that point, you kind of have to know how to start delegating, you can't just do everything they can step in for you because you can't be in every meeting."

Do you have any advice on how new designers can stand out in such a saturated market?
"My biggest point of advice is to have something distinctive about what you're doing. We're "California modernism," we're an optimistic brand. We do print and color. If you are lucky enough to come up with a signature style, that you can repeat over and over again, look to make something that's signature that you can rework with and change. I guess I wish we could have had that from the beginning. It's a great thing because it's less labor intensive."