Graduating into a recession economy can mean the death of a dream for many young fashion designers living in New York City, so it was no surprise that last night's panel discussion at FIT, "Fashion and Finance," drew an eager audience of students.
Moderated by J. Michael Stanley (managing director of Rosenthal & Rosenthal and a member of FIT's board), the forum included panelists Steve Madden, Diane D'Erasmo (executive vice president of HSBC commercial banking), Paula Sutter (president of Diane von Furstenberg Studio), and menswear designer Ninh Nguyen.
The proceeding conversation focused less on "tips and tricks" for struggling talents in the industry than on panelists' own success stories and market observations. Most followed nontraditional paths to get where they are today: Madden, for example, revealed he only attended college for a year before working as a stock boy in a local shoe store. "Shoes saved my life," Madden remarked. "Though I regret not having graduated."
The importance of retail and staying in touch with one's stores -- "It's raw information," says Sutter. "You instantly know what's hot and what's not" -- was a recurring theme throughout the discussion, though perhaps less useful for an audience mainly composed of students who were just starting out.
But some of the best talking points came at the end of the evening, as time was running out. One audience member, who evaluates companies' candidacy for loans, said, "It seems to me you need money to make money." Another question came from an FIT alum who, after a decade in the industry, was frustrated at not being able to grow her business to the $500,000 mark that banks often look for. Michael Stanley's advice was to "beg, borrow, steal" financing in any way you can, a point that earned a few grumbles from the audience.
The valuable takeaway, it seemed, came from Paula Sutter, who emphasized that no long-term success can be had without quality product. "Product is hero," she said. "You have to know and believe in what you're selling." In the over-crowded retail sphere, that will no doubt prove a crucial lesson to industry newcomers trying to distinguish themselves.