The Business Insiders is a series that explores the business side of fashion for up-and-coming designers, talking with a range of insiders on what it takes to build and sustain a company.
Marc Beckman launched Designers Management Agency [DMA] eight years ago with partner Sam Sohaili to work with up-and-coming designers on business development -- including product endorsements, multi-media development, licensing, co-branding and international franchises. Beckman clearly has an eye for young talent -- early clients included Proenza Schouler and Derek Lam -- and has been innovator in the space, recognizing the unique value of designers in the digital age. Mega-agency CAA just launched a fashion division late last year, playing catch-up. Beckman talked with us about the opportunities and challenges for young designers right now, the trouble with instant fame, and what Proenza Schouler did right.
How did you start Designers Management Agency?
My background is in law -- I was admitted to the bar in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC. My business partner Sam Sohaili and I saw a shift happening in fashion and retail. We realized we could create a modern business model by blending the worlds of new business development and advertising with an emphasis on fashion and lifestyle. At DMA, we identify business development opportunities, work on creative director placements, retail license deals, co-branding. Deals that you may be familiar with that we worked on include Tucker for Target, Pamela Love for Topshop. We helped Oscar de la Renta open seven free-standing stores in the Middle East.
Our initial focus was on designers, but now we work with footwear brands, culinary stars, sports figures like Amare Stoudemire and celebrities like Hilary Swank. A lot of times these people are very creative, but they don’t have the business acumen to stay creative, and that’s where we come in.
How has the fashion industry changed since you started?
Designers' attitudes have changed. There is much more of a willingness to be innovative -- whether that is brand extensions, going across categories. Thanks to the current market conditions, designers need to expand in a vertical way, and companies need to be flexible.
Since you take on a lot of emerging designer talent as clients, what do you look for?
We really look at someone’s pure capability as a designer, and use that as a filter test. Our current client roster includes a lot of young talent -- Pamela Love, Sophie Theallet.
How important are licensing and co-branding deals for a designer’s growth?
Any designer, whether a top-tier luxury designer or an emerging designer, should be taking a segmented approach to appealing to customers. They should have multiple channels of distribution -- at the high-end, at the department store, on retail television, direct-to-consumer, and via social media. They don’t have to all happen at once. A young designer can roll them out over time, with different marketing stories.
How much are these licensing and co-branding deals worth?
It really depends on the nature of the deal and the category it’s in, but it’s not uncommon for us to secure seven-figure deals for our designer clients.
What's the biggest challenge for young designers at the moment?
Some younger designers just don’t have a clear concept of what needs to be done to make it, and think being famous will make their businesses. But look at designers like Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg -- brands that have a clear understanding that it’s not a marathon. Instant fame, distribution in one retailer and a magazine editorial is not success.
When did this shift happen -- that designers started getting a lot of instant fame?
Reality TV had a lot to do with it. Shows like Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model. There were increases in applications to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], Parsons, RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. It corresponded to a lot of failures happening in publishing, with less editorial pages for coverage. I see something similar happening in the culinary space because of cooking channels. If you want to be a cook, you have to be able to cook well, and if you want to be a famous designer, it has to evolve from pure talent.
How important are digital platforms for young designers today?
They're incredibly important, and still under-utilized. Not enough is being done on the Ncommerce platform, holistic apps in the fashion space with GPS, retail social apps. Fashion is one of the fastest, most progressive and most liberal industries, so we need to make innovation part of our DNA.
Emerging markets like Brazil and China have spurred growth in luxury. How important are they to young designers?
We just spent two week in Brazil -- in Rio and São Paulo -- making contacts and understanding the market. It's very difficult to enter into this market without the proper expertise. There are very difficult tax laws, for instance. There are reasons why Coach is just entering into the market, and brands like Gap and Banana Republic aren’t there yet. China is the same -- it's a very different culture, and designers really need the right partner to act as a pipeline and manage infrastructure. That being said, emerging markets are incredibly important.
You worked with Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez early on in their careers, and so many young designers look to their success as a road map. What did they do right?
They were able to stay true to their creative vision, and their core design philosophies -- they were uncompromising in every way. And they brought a lot of excitement and fun pieces to the market. Fashion has become too serious, and there is room for people to be more daring. I think back to my youth in Soho, and the grittiness of retail in those days -- there could be more of that.
What’s your advice for up-and-coming designers looking to build their brand?
The key is to have a really pure creative vision, while understanding infrastructure and the business issues. Sit back at the outset and make a blueprint for growth. It always amazes me when someone hasn’t done this.