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Is there a precise science to designing women's pants? If so, Stacey Bendet, the CEO and Creative Director behind the fashion empire Alice + Olivia, has figured it out. Unsatisfied with what was on store shelves, Bendet set out to create a truly sexy pair of trousers, ultimately launching a 20-piece collection. Alice + Olivia found its way to the shelves of Barneys in 2002 and has since expanded into sweaters, dresses and skirts. Today, the line is sold in over 800 stores worldwide and Bendet is still involved in every step of the design and business process.
On the heels of a new store opening on Madison Avenue, Racked caught up with the fashion designer to talk about the power of selling one retail item, the pros and cons of e-commerce, and her dreams of international expansion.
What were you doing before you started Alice + Olivia?
"I was building websites. Total computer nerd. I was doing that at the end of college and [continued] for about a year and a half."
Were you always interested in fashion?
"Yes! I was building websites for people in fashion. My father was in the textile industry. My mom bribed me with red patent leather shoes at age two to stop drinking from a bottle. Most kids want baby dolls and unicorns. I wanted shoes!"
The new Alice + Olivia storefront on Madison Avenue. Photo courtesy of Alice + Olivia/Photographer:Mallane Stanbury
What were the first steps to starting your own company?
"I was really young and I started designing pants for myself. At the time, it was the world of denim. There were a million different types of jeans but it was hard to find great-fitting pants. I did it for myself and then hired pattern markers and sourced different fabrics. I started making them for my friends; it was really organic. As soon as I started making them, everyone wanted them. I was walking in LA one day and [boutique owner] Lisa Kline stopped me for my pants and said, 'I need those.' They were unique and had a great fit, which was key. The business evolved from there from demand. I started selling store to store and they sold well. And then people started saying, 'It'd be nice to have these pants with a cute top,' so the collection grew."
In your opinion, what makes pants sexy?
"Pants are all about the fit. Trends kind of come and go, but at the end of the day, getting the right fit for how the butt fits on a pant and how the hip fits and where it falls on the body is really key. Pants are complicated. It's not just about how it looks from the front—it's how it looks from back, you have to have a proper rise. I always feel that the most flattering pants, no matter what the shape of the leg is, whether it's bell or skinny or whatever, you have to really fit everything right through the hip so its really straight. Our patterns are almost unconventionally straight so they really suck you in and make your hips look straight and your butt look cute."
In the beginning, how did you get your name out there?
"Well, someone from Barneys came to the first show that I did, and they placed an order. But back in the day when we started, it was really hands-on. I was always going and meeting everyone. I remember I rollerbladed down to DailyCandy in 2002 with our first pants to show them to Dany Levy and she remembers me peeking my head through the door on rollerblades and thinking I was the messenger, like an intern and she was like, 'You can leave the bag there,' and I got really embarrassed and dropped the bag and left and later she was like, 'I'm so sorry!' And they wrote this whole thing on us and that kind of launched us.
People really started to reach out to us. Andrew [Rosen, of Theory] was my partner so he came with me to the first few meetings. Barneys and Scoop were the first people to place orders, then Bergdorfs placed an order, but it was just pants, and Andrew said to me from day one, 'It's one thing to sell them, but it's another thing to have them sell.' Meaning you have to make them fit—that's the key. You can't put pants in a store that don't fit. You will never have a business. We actually then spent the next few months just perfecting the fit of the pants."
Bendet posing in front of her Spring 2014 collection.
Who are your fashion influences and mentors?
"Amy Fine Collins is one of the most elegant women of our time and she actually knows more about fashion and fashion history than anyone I know, so she's always been a mentor to me. From an industry perspective, obviously my partner Andrew Rosen is the best sort of mentor that anyone could have. I call him the Godfather. He's both my partner and my best friend, and obviously I've learned a tremendous amount not just about clothing but about business and everything else from him."
As the business expanded, were you ever worried you'd lose control of the brand?
"You always worry about that, especially as you grow nationally. We're opening stores in Asia and the Middle East, we're open in the United States, and it's really about hiring people that you trust to hold your vision. You need a company with a foundation that's really strong, where the creative people can create.
In terms of maintaining the brand and the vision around the world, yeah, you have to be really careful. We don't license anything; we manufacture all our own products. We have partners for retail around the world and they're held to really specific standards: where they can advertise, what we put through stores. We oversee all the buys—we're very hands-on through the expansion process."
What lessons have you had to learn the hard way?
"You're always learning lessons the hard way when you're an entrepreneur and you have your own company. It's more about learning from each one and saying, 'Okay, we messed that up' or 'We shipped that late,' or 'We did this but what are we learning from that and how are we using that to go forward'? What are we building on?
We started to do men's sweaters at one point and it would be cute for a season and then it didn't really sell. You have to take a look and be like, 'Financially it doesn't make sense to keep this going.' Yes, my husband likes them, but that doesn't warrant having a whole division for this. And so you say, 'We tried it, it's not right, and that was a lesson in terms of what is right for the brand.' We are a total girl-power brand, we are a company of 300 women and we're about female empowerment and clothes for women and the name is Alice + Olivia. To have a men's sweater capsule doesn't really make sense. You have to prioritize and say, 'This is an important place for us to grow, and this is not.'"
What challenges do you face now?
"As we grow we're always trying to tackle [things like] shipping on time, shipping efficiently, [and] making sure that we maintain our level of quality as we grow. We've gone through some ups and downs. We're always focused on making beautiful clothing and making it efficiently and making it on time. If you don't ship on time, it can really affect your business."
What is next for the brand?
"Right now, my focus is really just making beautiful clothes and opening stores in every major city around the world. I always dreamed of opening in Paris and London and I think that's on the horizon. I'm really excited about our expansion in Asia and expansion even in the United States and cities we're not in yet. I really just want to inspire women and make really beautiful clothes."
Is Asia is the next wave for designers like yourself ?
"Yeah because people shop differently. Ten years ago, people went to department stores all the time; now people are on Net-A-Porter, on Shopbop, on neimanmarcus.com. It makes you instantly global. There's been such a boom in Asia; there's this exploding middle class and this opportunity for contemporary clothing that there never was before. It used to be that Louis Vuitton and Gucci and the designer brands were there but now there's a hunger for clothing. Contemporary is the clothing of the future, it's the clothing of now."
How has social media affected what you do?
"It's good and bad. It's made things more complicated because any brand starting right now is immediately global, and you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared to answer questions from people on social media from all over the world. And that's a little more complicated than selling to Scoop and Barneys. At the same time, it's amazing because you're almost in this day and age where a brand is its own media company and that is cumbersome but also exciting. It's changed the way we market, it's changed the way we reach people, both the customer and the buyer, and it's just exciting."
Photo by Getty Images
How do you stay grounded and healthy while running your business?
"I do yoga every morning and I try to have what I call a loose structure to my day. I get in really early because I drop my daughters off at school. Having an hour or an hour and half before anyone comes in to adjust, work on design, work on sketches, organize fabric, whatever it is, really helps me start my day right. That's really important for a creative person, to have that time of your own during the day. And not just being organized for yourself but having an organized team—I always say that every department needs a Virgo because a lot of creative environments can get easily haphazard and it's really important to me that our company runs in an overly efficient way."
Do you have any social media tips you can share?
"The most important thing on social media is that to have your own voice. The reason why people love our Instagram is because it's really me and it's like, 'Here's what I'm doing.' It's not fake, it's not planned out, one tweet a day or one Instagram a day, it's not corporate. It's really just me. People love that because it's real and that's what they want from social media, like they want to feel like they're really a part of your world, you know, whether it's a designer or Kim Kardashian, it's that instant, real, little insight into someone else's fantasy world. For every brand, it's important to figure out your way of doing that in a way that allows you to promote, but not too aggressively. You have to figure out your voice in that realm."
What are branding strategies do you think are key to success?
"You have to be able to really close your eyes and see who your customer is. You have to be able to describe her and know who she is and think about her not just in terms of a collection but in terms of every single piece that you're designing. Is this for this girl?
One of the smartest things I did, whether it was consciously or not, was making just pants. Ten years ago, you said Alice + Olivia and you thought "Pants!" and that allowed us to really brand ourselves. And it's not just about branding to the customer but about branding to the department stores and the editors and everyone else. Everyone's looking at so many things every day so they need to have something that they associate with you. Especially when you're starting. Ralph Lauren made his world with a tie. Donna Karan, it was a bodysuit and Theory, it was that white, button-down shirt. Everyone has something that really initially catapults their business."
Bendet at her Fall 2014 fashion show in New York. Image via Getty
· Alice + Olivia [Official site]
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