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The Duchess of Fashion: Meet Hillary France

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Hillary France, Duke graduate and CEO and Co-founder of Brand Assembly talks about how her own experience in fashion has led to the foundation of a company that helps small designers.

In the world of fashion, the Guccis and Pradas of the industry don’t just spring into existence, fully formed and setting the latest trends. More often than not, fashion companies start small and have to put in years of work to grow out of their humble beginnings. However, in the low-margin, high-cost industry, this is much easier said than done. Enter Brand Assembly.

Started in 2013, this New York-based company entered the scene as a fashion incubator, one that is changing the face of the wholesale retail industry. Rather than selling mass produced clothing on a national scale, Brand Assembly works with hand-picked, emerging designers to help grow their businesses through a multifaceted wholesale platform.

Simply put, Brand Assembly does everything with their designers but make the clothes. They provide the resources, guidance and space to support a collection of new brands.

As Hillary France, CEO and co-Founder of Brand Assembly, puts it:
My business partner [and I] wanted [to work in] an area where designers weren’t that great or that [they didn’t] focus on — basically the operations and finance aspects of their business.”

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Tellingly, France herself embodies the aggregator spirit of Brand Assembly. Her career is a composite of multiple fashion brands as well. From Kate Spade to the Guess Jeans, to one of the world’s biggest contemporary brands Diane von Furstenberg, France’s resume features more than five major fashion brands.

My business partner [and I] wanted [to work in] an area where designers weren’t that great or that [they didn’t] focus on.”

But like the rest of us, her story starts as a Duke undergraduate. After studying visual arts and art history, France graduated in 2003 and moved to DC in hopes of landing a job — a process we’re all too familiar with. However, after going through the interview process at museums, France realized her passion lay elsewhere. In the meantime, she took a retail job at Kate Spade to pay her bills. In the end, however, her way to get by turned into a way of life.

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It was during one of corporate’s visits to the DC store that France was able to gain insight into the other side of retail.

“Being naturally inquisitive, I guess I was picking their brains – the product flow, what happens behind the scene…obviously you’re shopping in a store, [but] how does that product get there? How do people decide what product goes there? [What’s] the analysis behind it?” she explained.

That intellectual curiosity catapulted her career into the business side of fashion. From Kate Spade, France moved to Hecht’s department store in DC and then finally moved to New York to enter the contemporary women’s fashion realm. Through her experiences at Guess Jeans, Cynthia Steffe, Diane Von Furstenberg, Rachel Zoe (global sales director), and Kimberly Ovitz (Vice President), France not only learned about production, development and management, but also gained a crucial network that she later leveraged to start her own company.

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“I’ve worked for such large companies. I was like, ‘wow,’ some of the infrastructure, software or kind of processes you have to put in place are really expensive. So how are designers now really going to afford these things? We basically wanted to leverage our talent [and] some systems to be able to share that [experience] across these emerging designers,” France recounted.

You always have to be on your toes and have a constant pipeline of brands… Now we have to dig in and be proactive about selling and keeping up [our] clients because [we] can’t just sit back and hope that people will come to [us].”

France and her business partner, Alex Repola, used their extensive network of fashion contacts and expertise to create a fledgling Brand Assembly, which in an industry of such small margins and low profits, actually started cash-flow positive. Through her extensive experience in the fashion world, she recognized that newer designers are “set-up to fail.” France’s vision for Brand Assembly was therefore to combat the uncertainty these young designers face.

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To do this, France and Repola first provided basic financial and operational support for designers (think: bookkeeping, shipping logistics, cash flow analysis, etc). At the same time, France’s background kept the wholesale market at the forefront of her business model. Recognizing the oversaturated and overwhelming market in New York, she redirected her attention to Los Angeles. There, she built the city’s wholesale platform to bring in the revenue streams that kept Brand Assembly above water.

Today, Brand Assembly has expanded beyond basic business guidance and tradeshows to an open community center for emerging designers. France’s goals to foster their burgeoning careers manifested in a coworking space for specifically fashion-oriented people. In a traditionally cut-throat environment, the company promotes collaboration both across wholesale communities and between designers who share the communal floorspace Brand Assembly uses for tradeshows.

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Through her trials to create this unique business model, France has learned the value of paying attention to the market and constantly pivoting her business.

I’ve worked for such large companies. I was like, ‘wow,’ some of the infrastructure, software or kind of processes you have to put in place are really expensive. So how are designers now really going to afford these things?”

“You always have to be on your toes and have a constant pipeline of brands… Now we have to dig in and be proactive about selling and keeping up [our] clients because [we] can’t just sit back and hope that people will come to [us], especially now that we’re about four years in. It’s about constantly pushing [our] company’s message,” France says.

With this in mind, France looks towards the future of Brand Assembly and the trajectory of the emerging-designer market. In particular, she wants to work on advertising the diversity and novelty of the wholesale industry in new regions to brands and consumers, especially the communal and open model that characterizes Brand Assembly.

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“We set our 2017 goals. Being Brand Assembly, we want to become the go-to resource for emerging designers or what is next in the women’s contemporary field. There are so many endless possibilities. Everything that we do really can support other areas or other categories of business within the fashion industry,” explained France.

What you set out to do in college might not end up being what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. To have that confidence that you can go and do something else, go and do what you love or that you have found a passion for is really important.”

Her visions also include extending her wholesale platform nationally and connecting the various regional wholesale markets under one umbrella.

“Ideally, I would love to [enter] regional trade markets in the country in Dallas, Miami, Chicago. A big goal for us is to have maybe one entity that is grouping all those trade events together. Right now, they’re all separate so we really want a wholistic approach to wholesale trade for designers,” France continued.

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From an art major at Duke, to a salesperson at a growing fashion brand, to the entrepreneur that created Brand Assembly, France has had a career that is as diverse as the brands she supports. For all of us at Duke looking down the road of our own careers and wondering about the direction we will ultimately take after graduation, France’s achievements speak to the importance of flexibility and open mindedness. As a final takeaway, France leaves us with this:

“What you set out to do in college might not end up being what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. To have that confidence that you can go and do something else, go and do what you love or that you have found a passion for is really important. So I think just having that openness, that you can definitely change…[change] is always, always possible.”

To learn more about Hillary France and Brand Assembly, visit: www.brandassembly.com

and be sure to see her at Business Oriented Women’s 2017 Spring Business Conference on Friday, February 24th!

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Writers: Vivian Zhang and Emilie Padgett

Editors: Vivian Zhang and Emilie Padgett

Photo: Brand Assembly

Web: Rohan Kothari

 

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