The Business of Independent Fashion with Stefan Siegal


Emily Lane, Bret Schnitker


October 24, 2022


Emily Lane 00:09 

Welcome to Clothing Coulture, a fashion industry podcast at the intersection of technology and innovation. I'm Emily lane. 

Bret Schnitker 00:17 

I'm Bret Schnitker. We speak with experts and disruptors who are moving the industry forward 

Emily Lane 00:21 

and discuss solutions to real industry challenges. 

Bret Schnitker 00:24 

Clothing Coulture is brought to you by Stars Design Group, a global design and production house with more than 30 years of experience. 

Emily Lane 00:35 

Welcome back to another episode of Clothing Coulture, we find ourselves once again on the hillside of Hollywood Hills. It feels very glamorous to be here, doesn't it? Bret? 

Bret Schnitker 00:45 

It's a beautiful day. 

Emily Lane 00:47 

Absolutely. Well, we have a wonderful guest today that came to us by way of one of our podcast friends, Joshua Williams, we're so excited to welcome the Founder of Not Just a Label, Stefan Siegel, welcome. 

Stefan Siegel 01:01 

Thanks for having me. 

Emily Lane 01:03 

Bret, one of the things that you often talk about is fashion designers, how they're like artists, you know, like, like, 

Bret Schnitker 01:12 

they are artists they are. 

Emily Lane 01:13 

But rather than using paint brushes, they use fabric. And you know, one of the things that is another common denominator between artists and fashion designers is that often fashion designers kind of their voice really isn't heard. And what's wonderful about some of the work that Stefan is doing, he's really created a platform to give a voice to emerging designers. So I'm really excited to learn a little bit about this amazing community that you've developed and how it's disrupting the fashion industry, of course. So why don't you tell us a little bit about, first of all, how you came to be in this industry? And then this need that you saw to develop this platform? 

Stefan Siegel 01:55 

Yeah. So 2008, I think the fashion landscape was a completely different one than it was today. There were a few things were emerging designers was struggling with it was visibility. First and foremost, there was not an online platform out there where you could actually discover emerging designers. And I found out about this problem because I was working in the finance side of fashion. So I was working for an investment bank called Merrill Lynch. And on behalf of our clients, we would find up and coming brands, which back then in 2008, the up and coming brands were Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. 

Emily Lane 02:27 

I happen to be wearing some Alexander McQueen 

Stefan Siegel 02:31 

but you know, those were companies with turnovers somewhere between 15 and 20 million euros. And I was wondering where all the other kids and then looking also at the story of the history of Alexander McQueen, he graduated from Central Saint Martins. And for seven years, he kind of almost disappeared off the radar before he then became the head designer Givency and I was wondering what happens in those seven years that on average, it takes those designers to actually reemerge and have a profitable business or, you know, be in a leading position in designing for a different fashion house. And I found out that most of these owners were using MySpace to actually present their collections, which I'm sure remember was slow and buggy. And it wasn't the most professional way of of showcasing 

Emily Lane 03:13 

It was the beginning of social media. 

Stefan Siegel 03:15 

Yeah, yeah. So together with my brother, we were debating, you know, can we create the first social network but for a specific industry, which means fashion design, and I presented that to the actual of one of the universities in London, Central Saint Martin's, which probably still today is one of the most important fashion design schools and they told us well, for years, we've been trying to create some sort of alumni network. So we know where these kids are two years after they leave school. And you know, it was one of those ideas that you have on a Sunday afternoon, and usually you forget them by Monday morning, you know, and this idea stuck, and I quit my job. And it took us almost a year to develop the platform, launched it. And initially, we said we're only going to partner with one university in London, which is Central Saint Martin's and see if they can have their graduates signing up, they send out an email to all their alumni. And quickly a second University Royal Academy in Antwerp did the same. And, and yeah, within five months, we had over 1000 designers on the platform. And there were some names that are household names today. 

Emily Lane 04:18 

So do they stay with you? Or they once they're on your platform? Are they always there? Because it's kind of like this, this network? 

Stefan Siegel 04:26 

Yeah. So we have some brands who, you know, they're multi million dollar brands now and they still have someone in the team update the Not Just A Label profile. Others ask us to take it down. You know, other designers went on and work for big fashion houses. And then unfortunately, they need to sign agreements that they have to take a profile down, but it doesn't matter for us. It's we want to be there for the initial stages of those brands. We want to be the first to discover the brands. It's not so much about you know, are you still there? 10 years later. But yeah, there's about 50,000 designers on the platform now from 150 countries. Yeah, it's a huge inflow of new talent as well. So we're counting between two and 300, new designers every month. And that's just on average. So during, let's say, graduate season, which starts sort of from April goes all the way through to July, you know, there's at least 400, 500 new brands join every month and and these designers use not just the labor for a million reasons. So they come on there to just showcase their graduate collections. It's a bit like LinkedIn, they can show to their future employer, you know, what they're able to do. Other designers use our newly launched online stores. So they actually want to sell direct to the consumer, or the designers use it because they know that a lot of stylists and buyers scalp our platform to to find new designers. And then finally, we offer a lot of different opportunities and projects to those designers who are who are registered on our platform. So yeah, that's where we are. 

Emily Lane 05:49 

That is incredible when So when was this founded in how many? How many years? This this platform in 

Stefan Siegel 05:55 

2008, is when we launched and yeah, and you know, the platform has seen I don't, I don't want to say we pivoted I think the core idea is still the same. I think we just went through different phases of the business where, you know, for some time, it looks like we are probably one of the coolest fashion events company out there. Because we did huge pop up stores in Dubai, in Berlin, in New York. I mean, in New York City, we took over the Waldorf Astoria Tower just before they close down. So that was a project we did with the city of New York to promote the garment district. So yeah, we were known for very large scale events around the world to promote emerging designers, and they've mostly funded by regional development funds are the cities of the governments, we did a lot of partnerships and consulting for the big brands as well. And and yeah, and I think where we are now is just with focusing heavily on allowing designers to sell direct to consumer, which is something that when I speak to people outside of fashion, I always tell them, you know, this is not rocket science, because most brands sell direct to consumer, they just open the store and sell sandwiches to somebody who wants to eat a sandwich but in fashion, you have to, you know, the traditional system wants you to go through a PR agency and be good friends with an editor and then get sales agency and then you can 

Bret Schnitker 07:08 

And most designers have plenty of money to do all that. Right? Yeah, it's a joke. 

Stefan Siegel 07:11 

So unfortunately, Yeah, unfortunately, the fashion has always favorite, the kids, they've come with a lot of money, right. And it still does. And I think, you know, our platform it took so long. I mean, we wanted to have an online store or some sort of marketplace model for a very long time. But there was always a resistance from the industry, but also from the designers saying, I prefer to get a wholesale order from a retailer. And I think with the pandemic, things changed. And they realized, hold on, I'm not getting these orders, I need to change my business slightly, I need to be able to package things nicely in my studio, and, and, you know, not wait for Fashion Week, but actually just start selling, you know, start making money. And they realize their profit margins just so much bigger. And, yeah, so we're focusing heavily on the retail side now. So we've become an online retailer with the marketplace. But we have now signed partnerships with gigantic retailers like Zalando in Europe or nYkka fashion in India, and so many others who now want to have the products that we have on their online shop. So we definitely are doing something right. And I think the product offering that designers have to sell has not been seen by anyone else. So it's just a matter of how do we get it out there now. 

Bret Schnitker 08:21 

So for a large department store to embrace you guys, this whole trend towards storytelling and kind of Farm to Table meets Meets Fashion. How does that process work for, you know, for basically, how does a large department store embrace a massive community of diverse talent? I'm sure, you know, you've got a wide spectrum of design within that, how do they go through that selection process? How do they how do they decide which designers they're going to bring in? And how does that logistics work? 

Stefan Siegel 08:52 

Yeah, so this is usually kind of the resistance that we feel from these retailers. They don't want to interact with so many young designers, because they know that if they place an order with an established brand, and it's a very easy process. And and obviously, you know, I think there's this sort of false argument that young designers cannot deliver or they deliver late or there's always problems around that. And and I think you know, I can speak from experience now because we partnered with Europe's biggest fashion retailer called Zalando. And they in September last year, during Milan Fashion Week, they launched their luxury division, so Zalando designer, and as part of that, Not Just A Label now has a section on their platform. And we're talking about, you know, a gigantic retail platform, and we managed to create a virtual showroom for them so their buyers can go in and buy directly from the designers. So they go through our website as they would go through a trade show. They would go to a fashion week they come to us and say we love these 200 designers, we then approach them we take them through an application process. They upload their line sheets and Zalando places the order directly through our platform and the designers deliver to one warehouse that we work with in Germany, where all of these different orders coming from all around the world will be inspected and then they're loaded onto one truck and Zalando interacts with one party, which is us the benefit is they get product that no other retailer in the world is selling right now. And and I think that's a 

Bret Schnitker 10:17 

You have a massive community of pretty happy designers. 

Stefan Siegel 10:20 

Exactly. Yeah. So the designers get paid through us. So the guarantee is we have special payment terms agreed with Zalando. So we were almost like an escrow agent in this case. So we make sure the designer will not be ripped off, which is also unfortunately, a tragic part of fashion wholesale for young designers. 

Bret Schnitker 10:37 

And that can devastate them. I mean, correct their hand to mouth many. 

Stefan Siegel 10:40 

Yeah. So yeah, I think, you know, it's the power of this collective is huge now. And that's why we were able to, you know, negotiate with one of the biggest retailers in the world payment terms that are favorable to our designers, that will be unheard of, if that one little kid would, you know, would go to Zalando and try to negotiate that by themselves. 

Bret Schnitker 11:00 

Yeah, it's, it's just an amazing thing. When you think about what you've put together where, you know, speaking with Josh, he, you know, at Parsons, he said, there's just this amazing stable of amazing kids that are creating some great stuff, and they're never going to see success. They're just and many of the reasons are exactly what we talked about, there's so many things in the way, you know, there's focused fashion weeks, and only a few select to get it. And now you've kind of democratized fashion where everyone's on a level playing field, they have the ability to be visible. And, you know, we talk about that all the time, we talk about, you know, when COVID hit, we were on the phone, almost day, one of COVID around the world talking to designers, they were the first to be let go. They're the silent phase between, you know, behind many massive brands, and they were disposable, it was kind of like, hey, things are tough, you lay you off, we'll pick you up if if business comes back, and they're so creative, they don't have the ability to really market themselves. They're like, they want to go and do their thing, but they need the help and support from a business standpoint. And it's just kind of amazing. You put this together. And I think, you know, it furthers kind of the the evolving culture of fashion as we see it today. One, it is a global, it's more of a global business than it's ever been before. I think people celebrate, you know, smaller, unique, you know, viewpoints, you know, as consumers are driving fashion today, and what they're what they're liking, sustainability is a big conversation. And you've even mentioned, that's a big platform on your site is sustainable fashion.. Talk a little bit about that. I mean, that, you know, we in previous episodes have talked about the challenge about sustainability in fashion, where you know, out of the 211 million metric tons of fiber that we produce only 13% is available and sustainable. There's massive minimums, you have to jump through hoops, it's expensive, it therefore becomes this very exclusive conversation again, when you really want it to be kind of prevalent to save the world. Yeah. And so what you've done is kind of taken micro bites of sustainability through all these designers. And in total, it's made an impact. 

Stefan Siegel 13:20 

Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, sustainably for us, and it definitely has become a bit of a trendy word. And I always remind people sustainability and fashion are, you know, it's an oxymoron, work together. But at the same time, the young designers we work with, they are sustainable by default. So they are so small that when you look at all these different sustainable sustainability practices have different characteristics for your business, they already work on a zero waste design, because they cannot afford to waste things, they work in a regional environment. So if you pay them or if they sell something, that money is spent regionally, they don't produce overseas, they don't have their products shipped around the world three times before they reach the end customer. So by working or giving these small businesses a chance, and then using the internet in a in a very efficient way, we actually give those designers a voice and automatically provide an answer to, you know, the issues that we face in sustainability. So for us, sustainability is more of a mindset rather than, you know, a sort of, you know, Crown Yeah, exactly. Kind of like 

Bret Schnitker 14:30 

Today it has to be a journey. Yeah, demand far exceeds supply in terms of its raw materials. Yeah, you're talking, you know, exactly. I was on I was on a senior project kind of review, and there was a gal just so committed to sustainability. And the design was great, but the fabric choices were so horrendous, because the limitation is sustainable fabrics. You were like, you know, yeah, the result just didn't have didn't work. And so, you know, I think as a mindset as a journey, we all have to kind of go on that journey, you know, Gen Z seems to be singularly focused on sustainability. They think it's like a light switch, you just turn it on and they exist. What percentage of your of your clients on on your platform are Gen Z? Are they embracing these designers? And, the stories that they're telling, 

Stefan Siegel 15:18 

I think, you know, the good thing is as we evolve as older, our platform becomes the younger designers who sign up. So in some way, we live in an ecosystem now, where the Gen Z kids are our designers, and they communicate directly to the Gen Z consumers. So what we sell is made by Gen Z for Gen Z. So in some way, again, you know, this is not a business strategy for us. For us, it's just we happen to be Gen Z kids, even if I've aged over the years, and my team has aged you know, and, and we, as a business have been around, but Gen Z is not a strategy for us, it just means having more cool young designers signing up to the platform, because they sell exactly the type of product that people on the streets want these days. 

Emily Lane 16:01 

It's also something that many, many brands and retailers have been trying to figure out, how do I how do I reach this new buying power? 

Stefan Siegel 16:09 

Yeah, no, exactly. I mean, we, for the launch of the Zalando partnership, when we did the podcast, the live interview with Business of Fashion, we spoke about that as well, it cannot be another strategy. And as I said, sustainability cannot be a strategy, it needs to be a mindset you need to be in touch with, with who your audience is. And I think what's working for us at the moment is the designers have spoken to us, they said We no longer want to work in seasons, we don't want to take this huge risk of you know, having 50 jackets sitting in our warehouse, and we don't know if they're gonna sell them. Because, you know, that's, that's the problem of fast fashion or fashion in general, where, you know, nobody really talks about, you know, the overstock and what happens if, with all the product that is not sold, but the designers came to us and said, What if I can just send this item three weeks later, and we looked at this, this, you know, we kind of sort of spoke to a few customers, and we realized, if it's something special, then a customer is willing to wait, especially if it has been made for them if there can be a certain customization as well implemented into that process. And that's when we launched our marketplace, we implemented the made or made to order section. So on our website, if you go and there's a there's a section highlighted made to order, every single piece is not going to be delivered within two days. But more like in a week, two weeks, three weeks, on average, we actually look at it's more like nine days, which is not terrible. Yeah, but you have a piece that has that did not exist before, which means the fabric is still in the roll, you know, they can do something else with that they can sell it on they can, you know, it's just not fashion that is wasted. And I think that's exactly what Gen Z wants. So they know a that the money they spent goes into the pocket of the designer, we take a cut, but the rest goes directly into the designer they've chosen on the platform. So if they say I want to buy from a designer in Ukraine, you know, to support what's going on over there. Then here we go. Your financial impact, you know, can pay someone salary for the next month, then this piece will be made as soon as the order comes in. That means you will be directly put into touch with the designer now, when do you ever have this interaction between a creative and and you as a consumer? Never unless you go to Paris and buy a $50,000 Dior dress? You know, then yeah, for Haute Couture dress, you might have this interaction where something is made for you. And then finally, yeah, you get something sent to your house that is special that nobody else has. And I think that provides a completely different story than anyone else has. 

Bret Schnitker 18:39 

And we always talk about evolution. And what's wild thinking through this process is you sort of have an artist's hive mentality, it updates itself evolves, it evolves itself, because the workers if you will, you know, the artists, if you well are communicating upwards, and you're kind of evolving along that path that's kind of like organically intentional, if there is such a thing. 

Stefan Siegel 19:02 

Yeah. Finally, the people who select the designers who end up on our Instagram and and homepage are and people are always surprised. They're extremely young. So they usually I pick even interns to do that. Because their, their choices just surprise me and I often don't like it. And then I realize Hold on, this is what these designers are doing right now. These are the colors they're using. These are shoes they're wearing, that's the style of the haircut, the type of model they are choosing, I just have to let them do their thing. And now don't get involved in that 

Emily Lane 19:34 

Kind of really makes me think of really the beginning of fashion. You know, it's it's, it was all one of a kind it was built for an individual. So it's kind of like you're returning to the, to the beginning. 

Stefan Siegel 19:48 

Yeah. I mean, it's almost, you know, medieval times. Yeah, maker, and we've missed that, you know, and I think if we can if we can shift the mind of consumers a little bit to expect that Then I think people will buy less, they will buy more special pieces, they will spend their money a different way. And they keep things longer as well. I mean, I'm sure, you know, I grew up with pieces that I have inherited from my parents and they've inherited from their parents. So it's just I think we need to go back to that purses where your to 

Bret Schnitker 20:17 

Where you were born, you were raised as Italy. Every time I go to Italy, it's a completely different mentality. Yeah, it's an investment in a piece of clothing that you keep for a long time. That's kind of the conversation we had in an earlier podcast, where is America is vast consumer nation disposable clothing, are they evolving enough? Where they're going to spend a little bit more on a piece on where longer and quality? 

Stefan Siegel 20:39 

Yeah, but it's, it all has to do with culture, you know, if that culture is available to you, then you and people understand it, and they will act in a certain way. And I think, you know, yes, you know, I'm obviously lucky to have you know, to have seen fashion in Italy, and that, you know, that's where people appreciate every piece that they were there and you don't buy cheap, you buy something that you can that last forever. But, you know, it doesn't mean you it's impossible to do the same here in America and things, you know, in culture change so quickly and look at where we are with food. You know, I remember like 20 years ago, you would, you know, I can say this as an Italian you will come to the US and people like oh, you know, like, did you eat fast food every day. But now you eat better food here than in Europe, you know, and things? I don't know. Yeah. 

Bret Schnitker 21:24 

My favorite. Yeah. to the US. Yeah. 

Stefan Siegel 21:27 

Well, but it has changed. You know, there's a culture towards you know, really like, you know, regional and homeright and great food. And if you want it, it's out there. And, and I think we just have to do the same thing for fashion. 

Bret Schnitker 21:41 

Yeah. Amazing. 

Emily Lane 21:42 

Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing more about this wonderful platform and opportunity that you've created for designers. Best of luck as this platform continues to evolve and grow. 

Stefan Siegel 21:54 

Thank you. Yeah, 

Bret Schnitker 21:55 

good luck on future decisions. That you're gonna go Yeah, 

Emily Lane 22:00 

yeah. So thanks again. Make sure to subscribe and stay apprised of upcoming episodes of Clothing Coulture. 

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The Business of Independent Fashion with Stefan Siegal