Shape, colour, finish, materials, typography and composition all visually tell a story that subliminally communicates a company’s values. Branding encompasses these elements to present the whole picture and hopes to catch the consumer eye. That first impression is important, but it’s actually the second touch point, where the customer seeks out the company’s website, that seals the deal and starts that relationship, says Hillary France, Founder & CEO of Brand Assembly. The New Yorker’s company name says it all – the fashion company nurtures brands and helps them reach their highest potential by providing resources, infrastructure and, above all, a community. Brand Assembly provides a platform for industry people to connect, and to build and structure their brand so they don’t have to sweat the business minutiae and can focus on their real passion: designing and making a creative statement. Hillary’s fire has always smoldered, carrying her from playing competitive tennis in college through to her work today; she always wants to see the underdog win and never gives up without a fight. Though she studied arts, the people-person decided to go against the grain and take a retail job at Kate Spade, where she developed a need-to-know attitude and an interest in the fashion supply chain. She also reflects on how later working at Diane von Fürstenberg impacted her, educating her on the overall industry and inspiring her to work with contemporary designers – a personal style choice and a point of view she understood. With experience in wholesale and retail buying, Hillary’s built comprehensive knowledge in multiple aspects of the fashion business process, from product development to end consumer. Thriving off amplifying emerging designers’ voices and watching their brands grow, the “overfunctioner” may not be the most rested entrepreneur, but her hunger to find that next designer with a “hero piece” is both what keeps her up at night and gets her out of bed in the morning. At the end of the day, it’s the vision that she shares with her business partners and team that grounds and excites her as the leader of a company that fashion designers are lining up to work with.
I know this is cliché, but I really do have an amazing team
My dedication and drive have contributed to the growth and success of Brand Assembly and my career
My obsession with Thelma Shoes, a must outfit staple - I have 7 pairs!
Growing up as an athlete I had my routines before every tennis match
Creating an environment that I want to work in is very important to me
After 15 years of being in the city, having a place to go to have some quiet and alone time is really important
Turquoise is a signature of mine
Music makes my mood
I carry this work tote everywhere!
My lucky horseshoe necklace my mother gave me when I was a little girl
Tell me about Brand Assembly.
In a nutshell, Brand Assembly is a multifaceted platform that connects people within the fashion community and furthers their businesses. I formed it about five years ago to solve a problem that I was constantly seeing. I worked for large brands like Diane von Fürstenberg that obviously have a huge amount of resources, and for designers like Kimberly Ovitz, who also had resources and so were unlike other comparable but smaller brands that didn’t have the same access to finances and resources. There were these emerging designers that I really loved but I was looking at them and thinking ‘Wow, if they don’t have the financial resources to have five people overhead and amazing systems and databases, what are they doing?’ I found that 80% of their time was being spent on administrative things like back office and housekeeping, rather than really focusing on their design and promoting their brand. My initial premise was to create a back office to provide these resources for emerging designers and simultaneously have a trade show that highlights them; so we launched those two parts, and then we layered on our coworking community too.
Could you elaborate on the three main facets of Brand Assembly?
The back office helps designers distribute their product to the consumer through wholesale channels as well as direct-to-consumer; we do that through systems and customer service management. The other part is bookkeeping: we issue and receive payments on behalf of our clients, so it’s basically everything that a designer hates to do or isn’t well-versed in.
The trade show we have in three cities now: Los Angeles, Dallas and New York; they’re really intimate settings for brands to connect with wholesale buyers. Los Angeles was the original trade show we launched five years ago, and that’s grown to include about 160 brands, with close to 800 buyers coming through during our main season.
Our third component is our coworking space, called The Square; we have one location here in New York – which is also Brand Assembly’s headquarters – and then another in Los Angeles. What’s great about The Square is that we also have showing space, so brands are able to meet with buyers and production managers, do fittings – things that are fashion-related – but also have a place to work from, as well as keep their products. We also do panels and workshops in these spaces to connect people to the community. We realized – especially in the past two years – that there are more and more designers out there and less market share, so it’s a lot more necessary and prevalent for people within the fashion community to have to network.
What kinds of brands do you work with?
We mainly focus on contemporary brands, so between mass-market and designer level is basically the sweet spot. We always have a fun, light-hearted approach to our business, so we love and gravitate to people within the fashion industry who have the same ethos. We also see possibilities to expand outside of fashion; you know, we’re starting to dabble a little bit in lifestyle as well as beauty in the next coming season, but right now it’s mainly fashion, accessories and ready-to-wear.
So in addition to the services you’ve mentioned, do you also coach people on their brand development?
No; I mean, it’s kind of a byproduct – I say it’s like therapy, because we have a community where all these fashion professionals congregate and talk about similar issues that they’re having. As far as brand building, like creating their own brand identity, we don’t really get involved with that. But we do help in the sense that we provide an outlet where they can discuss problems; we can hopefully even try to connect them to somebody who they can utilize to help with things that we can’t necessarily solve.
How would you describe your main clients?
I would say they range from just starting out to starting to ship to major department stores. Within each service it kind of varies; our back office tends to work with a little bit larger brands that have shipped to major department stores before, while our trade shows involve anyone from a first season showing to larger brands like Monrow or LoveShackFancy. It’s a nice breadth of brands but our passion really lies with emerging designers and how we can really be that resource for them and help them get off the ground.
What do you like about emerging designers?
Well, not to get into too much of a backstory, but I have a competitive spirit – I played professional tennis – so I’ve always kind of gravitated to seeing people who maybe have burdens or things up against them succeed; to be able to help them is really a passion of mine. Also, as a consumer myself, I love finding things that nobody else has! Finding these emerging designers and really helping promote them has me pushing things that I (and my team) personally love, which is fun.
What are the biggest challenges for up-and-coming designers?
There are two things; I mean, obviously funding is always an issue and a topic. Fashion is a really hard industry to succeed in, especially because you have to pay for goods before you actually sell them. Cash flow is always an issue, especially with emerging designers, and once you get a large order, it can become an even bigger funding issue because you have to pay for the goods before you ship a $100,000 order. A question that I get asked all the time is, ‘Do you know any investors I can connect to? Who can I talk to?’
I think the other problem or the other challenge that designers have is what I mentioned earlier: there are so many brands nowadays, so how do you really break through and have a voice that connects to buyers and also to the end consumer? The end consumer is even a driver in a wholesale model as well as a direct-to-consumer model, after all.
How do you address those questions or challenges for your clients?
The funding issue we can help with in terms of how to manage cash flow. Designers aren’t necessarily numbers-orientated, so knowing how to plan and price and say ‘Okay, you’re selling this six months down the road you have x dollars in the bank and this is how it has to be used’ is something we can definitely help them with. In getting the brand out there, I think that our trade shows really help with that because we have such a small and carefully crafted show in comparison to these larger trade shows that people are really really familiar with like MAGIC and PROJECT and Coterie. The buyers have really gravitated to our point of view and the brands we put together, so by flexing them in a curated way we‘re helping at least a certain subset of brands get recognized.
So you handpick which designers to feature in your trade shows?
We do; we have an application but we also actively pursue brands all the time. We find brands we maybe haven’t heard of on Instagram, in our favorite mom-and-pop boutiques, and through lots of online shopping. We always take a point of view that we don’t want too much of one thing, so not too many denim brands, too many t-shirt brands, or too many dress brands. We really love to mix it up, so if a store is to walk into our trade show, they can really find everything that they need and not get overwhelmed with too many options.
It sounds like there's an array of different designers at the trade show, but do you have a person or customer in mind when you're assembling the styles?
I might be divulging too much information here, but we’re mostly catering to the boutique; I think it comes from my sales background. We want them to be able to find products that sell for them, so we really look at that level of who’s coming to our shows and who their customers are. Maybe a major department store needs something a little bit more commercial and not so avant-garde, but we also have cool boutiques in Nashville, Austin and Venice that weave in a bit more fashion. We do play to both sides though; we look at all stores’ consumers because we don’t want anybody to fail in our trade shows; we want them all to succeed, and we want to make sure that the buyer with that perfect fit end consumer is there.
Is there a brand success story that stands out?
Yes; we do the back office for a brand called Caroline Constas. In the beginning stages – about three and a half years ago – she participated in one of our trade shows when she was just starting her brand and picked up one of the stores she’d been vetting for a while. That kind of started the success story for her, and as her business expanded she eventually outgrew our trade shows; but then she needed to facilitate shipping to the stores she’d been dying to get, so she moved to utilizing our back office services, which she still does.
What common mistakes do designers make when they are first getting their brand out there?
This is more of a technical/financial mistake, but a lot of designers tend to overdevelop a collection. You know maybe too much of an offering, instead of having a more streamlined point of view; that’s a challenge because it’s costly, especially if your wholesale model is to create a 60-piece collection without any bites on retailers – it’s quite challenging to sustain that. Again, the advice I give them is to really focus in on what your brand stands for and what products represent that message or image.
Why is branding so important?
Branding is super important nowadays – your webpage should be everything. If a consumer goes to a boutique and finds so-and-so brand the first thing that they’re going to do is go to the brand website and that’s when they could become a fan of that brand and maybe not go back to the store but buy directly from the site. The visual branding for any brand is so important I think, especially on the first touchpoints – your social media and website.
How has branding changed from when you first entered the industry?
I think that it drives the consumer. I don’t think it used to be as important, but in this visual digital world, it really is. I worked for some of the largest brands out there; before we were in a store, and it was more experiential whereas now it’s literally imagery that’s driving what people see and want and consume.
Does the consumer have more power these days, given the fact that there is so much more choice out there?
One-hundred percent, definitely. The consumer is driving everything, whereas back in the day major department stores and just a few online retailers were dominating everything. What you loved was essentially dictated by them, but now you can find a brand on Instagram, find their website…the consumer is the driver..
You talked about the importance of having a strong voice. How impactful does a new designer’s point of view have to be?
You have to have a strong point of view for whatever you’re putting out. I might be getting into a little bit of merchandising strategy here, but you always want to have your hero pieces: things that when you’re walking into a trade show or store, or even online, that are a little bit more attention-grabbing. Whether that’s a print or some kind of ruffle structure, it’s got to be something. Then when you have more of a basic line, like a t-shirt line or denim, you need to think about branding components or other visual elements that you can have that are “making a statement.” It’s all getting recognized, either by making a statement or having a statement product.
Could you tell me more about yourself? Did you study fashion?
In college I was a studio art and art history major at Duke University; I thought that I’d be a curator or something like that when I graduated. I moved to Washington, DC, and was doing all these interviews for museums, the John F. Kennedy Centre and everything in the arts and I just felt like my personality wasn’t really gelling. I’m very outgoing, and not to offend people in that industry, but it just didn’t feel like the right fit. I ended up taking a retail job at Kate Spade on M Street, and that was where I found that fashion was something I wanted to do – not as a designer, I loved the supply chain part of it. I was working at the store level and I was just picking everybody’s brain about: ‘How does this product get here? How do you determine how much product gets here? When do you decide to mark down? Where does it go if it doesn’t sell?’ I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and that really launched when I worked at the Kate Spade store.
And where did you go from there?
I basically tried to find the only desk fashion job I could in Washington, DC; there weren’t that many options, but at the time there was a department store called Hecht’s, which was part of the May Group but was eventually acquired by Macy’s and closed to be consolidated in New York. I worked for about a year on the buying side before I realized I actually kind of liked the sale side better, so took an opportunity to move to New York and switch to sales working at Guess Jeans. I was there for about a year and half I think, and then I moved into contemporary fashion because that’s what I loved as a consumer. I worked for a brand called Cynthia Steffe, which at the time was one of three “girls” – there was Nanette Lepore, MILLY, and Cynthia Steffe. Then one of my buyers recommended me for a job at Diane von Fürstenberg – it was incredible, at the time I would’ve died to work for DVF, it was such an amazing contemporary brand that had such vision and was widely distributed. It was really there that I found my stride in loving the business side of fashion; it was a great breeding ground for everything that I loved about the industry. From there, I went to launch Rachel Zoe’s contemporary collection and then ran a small company called Kimberly Ovitz, which is where I really had the idea for Brand Assembly.
Do you feel your background has ultimately informed your business today?
Definitely, especially my time at the last three places that I worked: DVF, Rachel Zoe and Kimberly Ovitz. That’s where I got more of an overview of how things worked, not just from the sales side – that’s very transactional based – but also the planning and analytical sides and the production side. How a garment or an accessory gets made and that whole supply chain flow was something that I was able to dabble in and really loved, which I think now provides me the opportunity to help these designers at earlier stages in setting up their business for success; I’m thankful I have that experience and breadth of knowledge.
Circling back for a moment, what pushed you to go and grab that first retail job, considering your education?
I think I was fashion aware, but I wasn’t fashion obsessed. You know I didn’t used to think too much about when I got dressed in the morning like I do now. But I think I did have an interest in fashion, or an awareness, and retail seemed like the easiest place to experience it, especially with my interest in the supply chain.
What did your vision for Brand Assembly first look like?
In the beginning it was more about how we could provide and execute for brands on the business side; then I think as I got into it I just loved connecting with all the brands and the trade show component with the buyers. I’m really into the programming and connecting the community, that has become my passion, so I I think it’s organically evolved. In my mind it’s all connected, and people can participate in anything that they need to as far as the Brand Assembly platform is concerned, but the basic granule point of view is really about the community.
How did you get your start with Brand Assembly?
When I was working at Rachel Zoe and Kimberly Ovitz, I had already kind of organically been arranging a small collective of brands and I already knew that there was a need, so that helped with designing the trade show. I think I was lucky in the sense that I knew what I needed pretty quickly in terms of starting the back office too – the systems, what types of client – and I felt very confident that I could start my business and have immediate revenue. I don’t think that every business owner has that luxury; I feel extremely lucky to have had that and to know that I could launch the initiatives from the beginning. I think starting your own business is super super scary – I mean you could have no revenue for a couple of months.
What else did you consider before you opened your business?
It’s funny, I probably should have considered more, but I think at the time I was just very eager to get going. In terms of company structure and set up, I have two business partners, and just forming a business with partners is something that I’d definitely be more educated in now than before.
Could you speak to that more?
I think it’s really important to have partners, but I think it’s also extremely important to define the roles. When you’re setting up that operating agreement, and specifically when you’re talking fashion, it’s like ‘Here’s the creative person and here’s the operations person; this one’s responsible for this list of things and this one for that list of things.’ When that’s not clearly defined and things get intermingled it gets tricky. I actually hear that from a lot of people who have business partners, where everybody is trying to do the same thing – it’s much more efficient if you have your roles defined.
Did you have any hesitation moving from working for a company to starting your own?
I had a little bit of comfort in the fact that I knew I would have revenue coming in and that I had partners. It was extremely comforting that it just wasn’t me. You know, I actually lived in – not lived, worked! – in one of my business partner’s offices for a while; it was great to have that support. Everything kind of aligned and I feel very lucky in that sense.
Did you have any startup challenges or problems today that you're working through?
I’d say there have been challenges more so in the last two years than really in the startup stage. As we push new initiatives we’re going to new cities where there’s some sort of competition and that’s been challenging. It’s in getting to that next stage of expansion where we’ve encountered more challenges.
How does Brand Assembly differentiate itself from the competition out there?
I would say, and this is not just my thought, we hear this feedback all the time, that it’s the people that are executing our events – my employees and even the back office. We really have a relatable, young fresh team that I think people really gravitate to and want to be around. And that also creates the environment that our buyers and our brands want to be in. That’s our leg up on the competition; we’re creating these spaces that are fun, engaging and not overwhelming for a lot of people.
Can you give me an idea of how many customers you’re currently working with?
Generally we have a database and work with over 500 brands and close to about 1,800 buyers, so that’s who we pass touchpoints on. On a consistent basis, our back office services about 12 clients and then we have up to 160 brands participating per trade show. In our coworking space, as a collective whole between New York and LA, we have about 30-40 members.
And how many staff?
I have 10 employees; I’d say half are allocated to the trade show and coworking communities, and then the other half is dedicated to the logistics in the back office. I have one VP, Adam, who has been with me the longest, and he is an amazing counterpart – he focuses a lot on the production of our events and trade shows and visuals and marketing and he’s just a great creative mind. I also have a Director of Operations that oversees a lot of our logistics including operations of IT infrastructure and stuff like that.
Can you explain how the business has evolved since 2013?
I think Brand Assembly has really evolved to have a clear voice, and I definitely have more of a team than when I first started. In the beginning, when you’re kind of a one-woman show it’s really hard to be so in it every single day; it’s amazing to have a team that all shares the same vision, gets along extremely well, and has all these ideas – and feeds off those ideas. I think that dynamic really shows in Brand Assembly as a whole and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my team. I have employees who have been here over three and a half years and seeing them grow and excel with this company is extremely rewarding.
You say you were especially interested in supply chain in your early days; what's your fascination with fashion today?
The next thing I want to tackle, especially because it’s so big, is how brands are acquiring the customer. You know there are so many things to consider, with content and social and the consumer acquisition price getting so high. It’s something that I’m always questioning – I don’t necessarily have the expertise – so it’s the next thing that I want to gain knowledge on because it’s becoming so important to really understand that part for these brands to succeed.
It sounds like you eat, sleep and breathe Brand Assembly - how do you relax?
I would say personally that’s my biggest challenge: it’s really hard for me to disconnect. My brain is always going on everything: what new brands are out there, did everybody answer their emails? It’s something that’s a struggle for me, but I think I’m fully aware of it and constantly learning how to improve. I’m learning to take that time out every week or every month – I go to upstate New York a lot; it’s a place where I can really feel that I’m disconnecting and regrouping. Someone told me that I was an overfunctioner – so whatever that means, I’m sure it says a lot. I’m not going to make false pretenses and say that I meditate every day or eat a healthy diet; I’m probably the least healthy, most sleep-deprived person out there.
So there’s nothing you practice daily to help you function?
Actually recently – not to sound super cliché – I’ve started working out on a consistent basis; I have to be there every morning, on time, at 7 a.m. I’ve also learned to manage my own time a lot better by segmenting meetings in certain parts of the day and setting aside time for emails, which means I’m able to focus on other things, like projects, in another portion of the day. I think in the beginning I would turn down more social situations because I needed to do work; now if I don’t turn it off and do those things, it’s not furthering my personal life or my professional life by missing out on some of those opportunities.
It sounds like you also may feed off the hustle - is that true?
Yeah, I mean I love constantly being busy. The place that I think I personally struggle with is that I have so many ideas but I don’t have the time or resources to execute them. Sometimes I get down and frustrated because of that, but I think that’s a great problem to have. Having too much time on your hands and not enough ideas, that might be some worse trouble.
What're your favourite brands?
That’s a good one. I have a couple of pairs of Thelma Shoes – what I mean is I have seven pairs of them – they’re an amazing emerging designer based out of Charleston, South Carolina; there’s Apparel; I love Nikki Chasin; and WHIT is another one of my favorites. I love denim; I live in denim, so I buy a lot of vintage. Anything that has a little bit of a quirky sensibility is what I gravitate to.
What's next for you?
We’re launching a fun initiative for our coming season called ‘Our Favorite Things.’ We’re excited about it because we want to touch on more categories of business with the Brand Assembly point of view. We’re grouping about 10 to 12 brands together that are kind of more like single item brands – whether it’s a shoe brand or maybe a fragrance brand, things like that, and we’re creating an experience to really drive home our influence. We’re hoping to do a whole marketing campaign around it as well to help facilitate sales for the collection of brands – it’s kind of like a Brand Assembly favourite things – not to take it from Oprah of course. This will be delivered through our trade shows, so it will be a great initiative to get the selected products to all three of our cities and consistently in front of the buyers, which is extremely important as we grow from city to city.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m just excited for the next step for Brand Assembly. You know, five years in it’s nice to take a step back and see how much we’ve accomplished, but I’m also excited knowing that there’s so much more that we want to do. It’ll be an interesting next couple of years, with a lot of fun things we’re looking to tackle – it’s just about how we get those done.