At Pioneer Mode, we dig into the core of the fashion industry by collecting perspectives, identifying the key issues, and uncovering potential solutions. In our Industry Insights series, we interview key stakeholders to consider their day-to-day challenges, and reveal their contributions towards a stronger, healthier community of fashion enterprise.
Wabi Sabi CEO Michele Cohen in her Atelier
Michele Cohen has a word for how she runs her business, Wabi Sabi Ecofashion Concept: "Octopus" (more on that later). Michele, who started out in finance and business strategy, has found herself leading a team for a burgeoning fashion brand—somewhere she never expected to end up. Talking to Michele, you can tell she lives the lifestyle her brand promotes: eco-friendly, sustainable education focused, versatile, completely centered on personal values. Wabi Sabi is gearing up to launch its second collection, but we caught some time with Michele to talk industry pain points, meeting your consumer on every available platform, and her lack of fashion business role models (it's not as negative as it sounds—we promise).
THE DAILY PAIN POINTS: TRADITION AND BREAKING STEREOTYPES
Michele: "There are many pain points around being an entrepreneur, specifically with a small company. There are pain points focused around fashion in many aspects—both the idea that it’s difficult to present to the consumer, and that brands are very competitive. Another part that is challenging is the supply chain. The whole manufacturing / production / supply side is very traditional in our industry. Yet we’re in a very consumer-focused, innovative, fast-paced industry. It’s just two different worlds, manufacturing and marketing. They often collide more than they combine. That’s my personal day-to-day pain point: looking at that divide between what’s behind the company and what we do moving forward in terms of commercial strategy.
“I always say I’m not sure if I’m an entrepreneur in the fashion industry or if I’m an educator and communicator.”
There’s also a lot of misconception and bias in the consumer’s mind that eco-fashion is going to be something that’s more “hippie style." There’s been a lot of development in terms of education and there’s definitely a segment of the market that’s well-informed now. Things have grown dramatically since I started in 2011, but a large part of the mass market consumer base still has this bias. They’re just not as informed as I would like. I always say I’m not sure if I’m an entrepreneur in the fashion industry or if I’m an educator and communicator because before I am able to do a lot of the other parts of my job, I still need to give out a lot of information about what we do, why we do it, and break down misconceptions, before people are willing to accept it and look at it.
We are not a hippie style fashion brand; we are not urban style. We are for professional women—dresses that are office-appropriate. A lot of times, it’s a concept that people don’t think is alive with eco-fashion. It is. That’s one of the main challenges I face.
Sourcing is a challenge, even though each season I find that there are more fabric options. When you have such a concrete focus, there are only so many types of fabrics you can use. We do use a little bit of Lycra—just a small percent. If we don’t, the dresses won’t adapt as well, which is not acceptable. It’s difficult to find what we are looking for as a brand. If you can use 100 percent cotton without using Lycra, there are a lot of fabrics out there. If you are looking for fabrics and you’re able or willing to adapt your designs to the fabrics that are available, it’s a lot easier. I have to look long and hard. What we try to do is establish good relationships with the few suppliers out there creating the type of fabric we are looking for.
The idea is to develop along with them. We are being innovative and they are jumping ahead of the game sometimes in their business models because they’re looking to cover a new and developing need. In that sense, it’s actually quite easy to work with them. They’re completing this new segment that they think is going to become important in the next few years. They can actually understand where we’re at and what we’re doing because we’re doing the same thing at the same time."
MEETING CONSUMERS: IDENTIFYING SUCCESSFUL CHANNELS
Michele: "One of the challenges of starting a new brand is that people need to know who you are, what you do, and what you’re about. Expressing that is everything. It’s part of marketing, it’s part of social media, it’s the designs, the clothes, photography—anything we do as a company, whether it’s business-based or consumer-based. It has to express 100 percent who we are, and it’s a lot. We can’t separate eco-fashion ethics, material qualities, or styling. They all work together.
“I feel good about what I’m doing because I feel that I’m giving them that possibility without having to make a conscious decision.”
A majority of people seek us out because they like the personality of the product—comfortable day-to-evening dresses. That’s a big selling point. When people actually try the product out, when they feel the fabric and understand the quality of material we’re offering—then they’re more interested in being better informed. Customers have said, 'I almost didn’t buy this. I really wasn’t sure—but it turns out it's the thing I wear the most. I wash it, wear it, wash it, and wear it. I keep coming back for more.' There’s still a large percentage of my customer base who works that way.
We’re only on our second collection, so at this point I tend to have customers who are replacing clothes in their closet for more of our styles. I feel like they are changing their buying patterns along with us to say, 'I don’t need to have three outfits in one day. I can have one dress that I wear a couple of times every week.' I feel good about what I’m doing because I feel that I’m giving them that possibility without having to make a conscious decision. I think we’re growing with them and they’re changing their mindset about what fashion needs to be as they are becoming a consumer of our brand. They realize they’re able to change their lifestyle around what we’re able to offer them."
THE "OCTOPUS STRATEGY"
Michele: "I have a phrase I’ve coined. I call it an 'octopus strategy.' As a new entrepreneur, especially in the world we live in today, you have to be in everything because your consumer is in everything. One may buy on the Internet, one may buy in a boutique, one may go to the mall. Our society doesn't have any patience - they want what they want immediately. In order to exist, we need to be available. As I try to grow as a brand, I know that I need to be accessible to my customer how, when, and where she wants it. As a small brand, it’s hard to do so much, but we’ve found it’s the most rewarding. It’s what gives us a sense at the end of the day of reaching our customer."
LAUNCHING—AND NOT DEPENDING ON—CROWDFUNDING
Michele: "Crowdfunding is really great because it’s a new way to be able to launch a brand. It is fundraising—we’re not going to take that out of the equation. My personal standpoint is you can’t rely on that fundraising to launch a company. You need to have a solid company with a solid business plan—and then use crowdfunding to support part of that funding. It’s also a fun way to communicate what you do and market your brand to a different channel. It's really different in that it does two things: raising money and 'being there.' We actually held two events in New York City at the same time we were doing our crowdfunding campaign so we were able to say, 'We’re crowdfunding, here’s what we do and what we are,” and then have a physical place where we could present the collection and people could come try it on. It’s just a different way to get yourself out there.
LEADERS OF THE PACK: INDUSTRIES TO ADMIRE
Michele: "I’ve always thought the way the food industry presents products on their channels to customers is interesting. I think there’s a lot we can learn from that. The automotive industry is also fascinating, as far as their supply chain. One of the main challenges and something we don't learn in the fashion industry is how to work together—especially when it comes to having everyone on the same page. It’s a really fragmented industry where brands work one way, suppliers work another way, and manufacturing works another way.
“Collaboration is necessary amongst us before even looking to other industries to see how they do it.”
There are a lot of hidden gems out there, which is why I think the Pioneer Mode conference is so great, especially for getting people together. We all live in our own little bubble of people and things we know. Yet there are so many great ideas out there. Collaboration is necessary amongst us before even looking to other industries to see how they do it. A lot of examples are already being done and other people in our industry are working that way, it’s just hard to reach that information sometimes. The value is in the connection between people who are willing to share their information and understand that they aren’t giving away a secret to their brand, what they're doing is helping people to become more efficient.
I have a very collaborative attitude. Anytime I see anybody doing something that I think is great, I will like and repost it. I talked before about how sometimes I think of myself more as an educator than an entrepreneur and I think it’s important. As far as whether or not I have any role models, I have to say no. I think it’s so important to have your own personal identity. I don’t want to start looking at other people and think, 'Oh this is my role model…' I am who I am. My brand has a very specific, very clear identity. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I admire other people. It’s an admiration—not somebody I would consider to be a role model. Anybody who is doing anything in sustainable fashion and the result is fabulous, I think that’s just wonderful. It’s really good for everybody to know about it and see it and hear it. Because I have a really concrete brand, we’re not competing. We’re doing completely different things."