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Running a Fashion Brand

Monday, May 9, 2022

Nothing has so drastically changed & shaped my life than the very spontaneous decision I took in late 2018 to launch a fashion brand. Looking back, I am an entirely different woman today than who I was before the brand began. Initially I wanted this to be an organized collection of thoughts and insights surrounding my brand, but considering the level of crazy we operate at, containing the story within any kind of structure feels impossible, so I’ve done what I could and divided my ramblings into chapters /themes.

the beginning

I had intended it to be a side-gig to help pay the bills between influencer & photography projects  where I would curate a selection of vintage to sell in monthly drops. I remember telling a friend back then that it would be around 15-20 packages a month. My first ever collection sold out in under 10 minutes. So I sourced more vintage. And more. I started travelling to source better and bigger. It wasn’t until our 10th collection that I hesitantly launched a garment I had designed myself : now known as our original wrap dress. I think our first run was 20 in total and I watched all 20 sell out in under 5 minutes.There was no business plan. There was an almost comical lack of any kind of planning at all.  I just went with what I loved & what I naturally veered towards. The brand naturally and clumsily evolved and alongside it, so did I .  My home quickly became an office I slept in. I still remember clearing out most of my furniture to make room for what was more important: boxes upon boxes of inventory. I still remember one of my best friends coming to visit me, when she saw how I was living, how every morning what was once my living room would fill with people and chaos, and my ex-boyfriend working remotely from our bedroom, the doorbell ringing nearly non-stop with biba barking everytime … she pulled me aside and said ‘Audrey, if you continue this, you’re going to actually lose your fucking mind‘. It was insanity from the moment it began and that insanity veered and changed shape along the way. The crazy is still constantly evolving.  I’m lucky enough to have had several very great things happen in my life but Audrey Leighton is absolutely number one. I wear rose tinted glasses when looking back, in that I romanticize the brand’s beginnings like a love story because it was the prelude to so beautiful things in my life.  I wasn’t aware of how beautiful it was back then because I was mostly freaking out at every turn. Suddenly I was handling logistics, photography, editing, buying,  branding, modelling, design, production management. It was a wild time and I nearly went crazy amidst it all. I still almost do. I’ve simply gotten better at managing the crazy, that’s not to say it’s no longer sheer chaos, it absolutely is. But one thing I’ve learnt is that as long as I’m running the show? Chaos will always be keeping me on my toes.

Julia

  Just before the insanity began, when I was still an influencer/photographer, I hired Julia as my part-time photography assistant. She was who helped me photograph our very first collection and she hasn’t left my side since. A deep level of intimacy was forced upon us as we travelled to shoot, sleeping in the same hotel bed, working late, on weekends & living together for days on end when my home was our office. I still remember the days of her, my ex boyfriend and I all eating dinners on the floor of my apartment through lockdown. We even quarantined and launched a collection together, both coughing, miserable and covid-ridden. The brand wouldn’t be what it is without Julia. She’s that rare-breed of wildly creative & lucidly pragmatic. She’s so naturally good at being a boss in  ways I still struggle with. Many people have passed through the team at Audrey Leighton. I cannot even explain the anxiety that came with firing someone for the first time, I genuinely think I was more upset than she was.  As a human, I honour fidelity and honesty above all else, be it in my personal or professional life. I’ve learnt that finding someone loyal, hardworking & trust-worthy is about as likely as coming across a unicorn. My gratitude for Julia expanded with every year that passed and today, I consider her a sister. She reads my mind, I don’t have to say what I’m thinking because she’s thinking it too. The brand is as much hers as it is mine and there really isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for this woman. Audrey Leighton is my baby and Julia is part of the family.

clothing production

There have been so many tiny progressions within the brand’s evolution, most of which slip by un-noticed until I go back and look through our archives; archives that span multiple, enormous hard-drives. One thing that stills astounds me, is just how prolific we’ve been. We began, we ran with it and we haven’t stopped running. However, an enormous turning point was  when we started expanding on our designs. We started with a dress, then a skirt, then another dress and it just went on and evolved like that for months & months. Clothing production became a huge component of our daily work. I cannot even describe just how stressful, how relentlessly difficult creating clothes is.  There is so much disaster potential. And we’ve had our fair dose of disaster. There was the time hundreds of metres of fabric I bought were dotted with blemishes & tears, fabric I couldn’t return because it had already been cut. Fabric too I couldn’t replace because I had waited weeks for the order. There was the time a black velvet stained the hands of anyone who had touched it. There was the white that was entirely transparent and therefore couldn’t even use 1 single metre. Even as recently as last summer, I contracted a different atelier to produce our swimsuits and the woman in charge failed to deliver on time and then proceeded to scream, yell & insult me when I would push her for a delivery date. There was the time my atelier called me and notified me that no one had come to work all week. I received the news on a Wednesday. Production had come to a screeching halt, and let me tell you, when you work on a monthly production cycle, work cannot stop like without stressful consequences. I’ve learnt that the more control you have over production, the less stress, the less room for error there is. This is why all of our clothes are made by in one singular atelier run by a woman I talk to on the phone 3-8 times daily. This is also why I only source and buy fabrics that are already available locally. This is why I make an enormous effort with our fabric suppliers because I want them to value me, the brand and ensure they delivery quality & on time. I knew I had succeeded at this particular  goal when one of our providers called me on Christmas eve to wish me happy holidays and we spent 40 minutes catching up on the phone. Over the years, I’ve wrestled with problem after problem, many of them bruised me with so much stress & anxiety.  I learnt and continue to learn how to narrow disaster potential and yet there is still always a problem. There is always a problem. I’m simply better at managing them. I don’t hysterically react like I once did. I don’t lose sleep or appetite like I once did. These constant problems are what have shaped me more than any other aspect of the brand. This is where I had to learn how to be a boss. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, I wanted to be dreaming up clothes, holding a camera, perfectly arranging a cafe au lait on a table in Paris. All of that is a beautiful component of my work but it’s not what keeps the brand going. I had to become a problem solver, this wasn’t easy for someone who worked almost alone for 10 years as a freelance creative. There really weren’t many problems other than unpaid invoices. I had to learn how to let problems bounce off of me.  I’ve always wanted to be the eye of the storm. Now I am, not all of the time, but a lot of the time.  It took me almost 4 years and a great deal of upper back pain to get here though. And I’ll end this with manifesting my largest ambition, to open my own production facility. Hopefully, one day I will write about that here; the inner-workings of my very own Audrey Leighton atelier, managed & run by me.

speaking spanish

I am a perfectionist and a perfectionist wants to do everything perfectly, including speaking Spanish. For so long I would shy away from speaking the language in professional settings because if it wasn’t perfectly executed, I’d rather express the bare minimum. This made me look meek, this made me look like what so many people assume I am, a rich American using Daddy’s money for her ‘fashion brand’, this made me look like I wasn’t in command. It was really foolish and a perfect example of how much of an impediment perfectionism can be. Previously I had other people running the meetings, the fabric supply, the production discussions, even when I was present, I took a back seat.  I believed I could insulate myself and just focus on the ‘creative’ and everything would be taken care of by people I hired. This did not work.  This was probably my biggest mistake so far. I had no choice but to take command of everything and be the boss the brand needed me to be. That’s not to say I couldn’t hire a team around me to help with these projects, but I needed to have the loudest voice when it came to negotiating, managing & resolving. It was so uncomfortable at first. I had to force myself to speak up.  I had to dissolve that mental barrier and I had to do it quickly because I had no choice. Today, I spend anywhere between 2-4 hours on the phone speaking Spanish. I go into meetings and I don’t care that my Spanish isn’t perfect, I talk and talk and talk, committing one grammatical crime after the other.  It’s funny because being the boss and acting like the boss are very different. I learnt that the hard way. It’s also incredibly hard being the boss in a second language and I would like to take a moment to celebrate every single one of you who are navigating your professional life in a language that isn’t your first. There should be an award for this. It is exhausting. Some days I come home and I cannot speak either language. My brain is a muddle and there are no words left.

vintage sourcing

I cannot even begin to recount the sheer, almost unbelievable serendipity I’ve experienced time & time again in my pursuit of vintage.  It’s inexplicable how the universe has collapsed in my favour when I’ve been on the vintage hunt, be it for jewellery or designer or handbags in a certain style or colour. To curate vintage, you must be a lover of the hunt and I absolutely am. My grandmother was a collector, which she passed onto to my mother and from a young age, I would go to antique fairs, vintage shops and estate sales with her. I learnt from the best. Sourcing vintage is one of my favourite parts of my job and something I still manage entirely on my own, for no other reason than I enjoy it too much to delegate it. The curious souls I’ve met along the way, purely by chance – some of who single handedly supply me with a great deal of the vintage we sell – I could fill an entire book of their stories, their collections, quirks, where they live. One day I will. I’ve gone off the beaten track and found stacks of 80s Thierry Mugler in boxes. I’ve gone to old ladies homes, sat patiently on their sofas and bought the LV, Escada, Nina Ricci they no longer wanted. I know exactly where to find the best vintage Burberry in Spain and I found this out by talking to one person who referred me to another, who’s sister knew of a source. I’ve sifted through countless boxes of never worn jewellery, struggling to choose the best pieces in poorly lit storage units. There was the time I found the Chanel bag I refurnished for 3 euros – a highlight in my life long vintage search. Keeping your eyes fiercely open leads you down unexpected paths and I’ve learnt that when it comes to vintage hunting, anyone is a lead. I am constantly sourcing, some pursuits lead to nothing, others lead to abundance. You just never know and it’s absolutely crazy what you find once you start looking.

shipping

Shipping isn’t riveting, actually it is decidedly the dullest and yet I have many an anecdote surrounding the subject. For the first year and a half, we shipped everything via national mail. This required us to walk the 3 blocks to the post office with 2 enormous suitcases stuffed with packages. They dreaded our arrival at the post office and the staff would argue about who would help us because absolutely none of them wanted to.  We’d unzip the suitcases, packages would slip out the sides and onto the floor and we’d spend anywhere from 3-5 hours there with the clerks. It was ridiculous. When I finally moved over to a courier, they lost 70% of our packages in our first shipment. I refused to pay and they took me to court. A delight. We moved courier which brings us to today. Shipping is a boring yet crucial component of the business and in a post-brexit, import/export obsessed world, most of our orders require an insane amount of additional documentation. It wasn’t until this year I mostly stepped away from this side of the brand – but I still remember all our best customer’s names and where they live in the world because it was me who printed every last shipping label. Last year I hired a woman named Steph, who took full control of our customer support and I could not live without her. She whizzes through these enormous excel sheets she created and keeps everything organized and running in a way I never could.

if knew then what i know now

 If I had known what I know now, would I have started my brand? Probably not. It would feel insurmountable to begin if I knew it would be the way it has been. It took over my apartment, my weekends, my entire life. I’ve lost friends, sleep, money, sanity. I’ve aged considerably since I began, these deepening necklines of mine? Yep I blame the brand. The rollercoaster of problems I’ve wrestled through, questioning my ability at every turn & dip… the countless times I’ve slouched onto my sofa after work, exhausted, defeated and with zero clue what to do. We started at the end of 2018 which means the majority of my brand’s lifetime has existed throughout a global pandemic and today we are existing through insane inflation, a living crisis and severe supply issues.  It was and still is not an ideal time to grow a brand and a lot of my plans for expansion have been shifted to ‘next year‘ for nearly 3 years now. So much of my running of Audrey Leighton so far has been with survival as my goal. I am constantly quietly frustrated about something, usually many things on a daily basis. I quietly mutter ‘what the actual hell‘ morning, noon & night. Running a small business & producing clothing on a small scale are not easy endeavours, throw in the current state of the world and its a straight-shot for near constant insanity. And yet, and yet… starting the brand is the best thing I ever did. I never imagined it would become what it has and on the difficult days I remind myself that what’s before us is unimaginable to me right now. I’ve watched myself stubbornly mature alongside the brand, not because I wanted to, but because I had no choice. I cannot wait for what’s next. I have learnt more in these 3 and a half years than I have in my entire life. I know what I can become and I know what the brand can become. It’s just a matter of time, and like everything in life, it’s going to take a lot more time than I’d like.

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