If the skort fits … Women fashion leaders find success by filling needs

Most days, I fail at fashion.

I care more about how I feel than how I look, though many might say those qualities are not mutually exclusive.

For example, while moderating a panel of successful women leaders in the fashion industry on Monday to kick off Women Entrepreneurship Week at Montclair State University, I wore the most comfortable pair of heels I own:

Black, T-strap character shoes meant “exclusively” for the stage. They’re comfortable, if not cute, and conveniently always in my car.

I was surprised to learn, however, that functional, comfortable and multiple-use fashion is now “trendy,” according to the fashion designers and manufacturers I spoke with Monday evening.

Susan Hess, founder and designer of Golftini in Westfield, said she began seeking women’s golf apparel — including skorts, or shorts made to look like skirts — that she could wear both on and off the course in 2004.

“But I could never find athletic fashion that I wanted to wear,” Hess, then a full-time mother to three boys, said.

So, she went to New York City and had a sample maker manufacture her a “fun, functional and flattering” skort, she said.

That is when other people on the golf course began making requests.

“I made different patterns and styles, and the next thing I know, I’m using nearly $20,000 from the 401(k) I had earned while in telecommunications sales to get to this trade show,” Hess said.

When a golf shop purchased nearly $75,000 worth of Golftini product at the show, Hess said she was not at all prepared to start a business — but she had six weeks.

“I called my dad at the age of 41, told him about the order, and asked to borrow money,” Hess said. “He said I could pay him back with interest and lent me the capital to purchase fabric, hire a manufacturer and trademark my name.”

It worked — and then some. Today, Golftini apparel is sold in more than 450 golf shops and resorts worldwide, and Hess is dressing pro golfers such as Amanda Blumenherst.

“Golf is mostly a male-dominated business, with golf shops selling 80 percent men’s apparel,” Hess said. “But there still is a spot to be fought for.”

Eleanor Turner, co-founder and chief creative officer at Argent in New York City, said she created her entire company based on the functionality of women’s work apparel.

“We are best known for our pockets, but we also design items such as jumpsuits that you do not need to take off entirely to use the restroom and include elastic bands in all of the cuffs on our shirts, so you can push them up on your forearms,” she said.

It was a white space begging to be filled, Turner said.

“We thought, where were people not, and where could we be?” she said. “Men have had pockets in their garments for years, and women have had to carry their things in a purse.

“Why was no one paying attention to this?”

Turner co-founded Argent with Sali Christeson in 2015 after working in various roles for Tommy Hilfiger, Tory Burch and J.Crew.

Today, the brand is very popular in stores in New York City and San Francisco.

“A lot of the leaders in the fashion industry are men,” Turner said. “I truly believe this is why many women are held back in fashion.

“We simply need to be louder in raising our voices to change this.”

Fabiola Arias, founder and designer of her own Fabiola Arias cocktail and evening wear collections, began designing custom pieces inspired by nature and art for various women’s silhouettes while still a senior at Parsons School of Design.

“I really wanted to be a fashion designer, and, therefore, set off on my own after completing internships in the industry,” she said.

She initially was met with doubt, she added.

“Many of my teachers, even, asked me what I was doing,” she said. “They would say, ‘We’re in a recession, are you crazy?’ or ‘Do you really want to be known as a Hispanic fashion designer?’

“But I was deaf to it all — you must be audacious and go for it, or else someone else will.”

Arias said she began by showcasing her designs around town.

“If I was going to a party, you better believe I was wearing my designs so that I could tell people where I got my dress,” she said. “That also is how I learned about my customer — their lifestyle, how they wanted to look and feel, their preferences, and that did so much for the direction I took with my future designs.”

After cold-calling at least two dozen stores, a boutique in Chicago picked up her line in 2008, during her first week of senior year at Parsons.

She since has sold to Neiman Marcus and participated in Japan’s Fashion Week in Tokyo.

Suuchi Ramesh, founder and CEO of Suuchi Inc. in North Bergen, said she is passionate about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. to help women like Arias, Hess and Turner utilize local supply chains in order to meet consumer demands faster.

“We source, design, manufacture and ship everything here from New Jersey while also using our proprietary technology to connect the shop floor with minute-to-minute data, analytics and tracking so that clients can see their items making their way through the process,” she said.

Transparency is key for Ramesh, a first-generation immigrant and software engineer from South India, who originally worked in data analytics for nearly a decade.

“Sustainability and social responsibility can mean a lot of things,” she said. “So, when we work with different brands, we ask for them to define what it means to them.

“It should mean making sure that the people who make clothing are well-treated and paid well.”

Suuchi Inc. employs 130 people of 27 different nationalities, ranging in age from their 20s through their 70s and in their skills from software engineering to sewing.

“We’ve got the wisdom of the experienced with the innovation of the young,” Ramesh said.

Suuchi Inc. uses automation and efficient workflows to reduce the costs of making a product in the U.S., she added.

“Our goal over time is to be competitive with costs in China and India,” Ramesh said. “Right now, we are nearly 25 percent more expensive per unit — but, in looking toward the future of fashion, we ask our brands to consider how important it is to be nimbler and more responsive to a clients’ changing needs.”

Ramesh said the more women leaders in science, technology, engineering and math, the better to help transform traditional industries.

“The ability to provide empathy within the tech field has been a blessing to us as a team of nearly 80 percent women,” she said.

Balancing act

Eleanor Turner, co-founder and chief creative officer at Argent, said that, for the first few years, an entrepreneur is truly chained to her company.

“But you learn to prioritize by realizing that, even on the craziest of days, the work will still be there tomorrow,” she said.

Susan Hess, founder and designer of Golftini, said working from home allowed her to best integrate her work into her life.

“I could drop off my kids at school, throw in a load of laundry, and then simply focus on what I had to accomplish,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean her days aren’t longer than others’.

“Some people say, ‘If you own your own business, why can’t you just take the day off?’” Hess said. “Wouldn’t that be great if I weren’t paying all the bills by myself?”

Fabiola Arias, founder and designer of Fabiola Arias cocktail and evening wear collections, agreed that, after having given birth to her daughter nearly 17 months ago, focusing on private client business has allowed her to stay the most flexible.

“Today was her first day in day care, and, while a part of me is heartbroken, another part of me truly desires to further my potential in the industry,” she said.

Suuchi Ramesh, founder and CEO of Suuchi Inc., said work almost always outweighs all else.

But she, too, said she has had to learn how to best balance relationships in the workplace.

“When we first started the company, I grew emotionally attached to my people,” she said. “But when we started to scale, some people evolved, and some didn’t.

“I felt guilty that I was not doing the right thing by these people by letting them go, but by holding them on, I was hurting the whole ecosystem.

“Sometimes it is the best decision to make for both sides.”

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