Style

How Stacey Bendet Turned One Pair Of Pants Into An International, Multimillion-Dollar Brand

Despite having no formal design training, the Alice + Olivia designer created one of the most successful American labels to emerge in the last decade.

Bendet’s fall 2013 Alice + Olivia presentation at New York Fashion Week in February. Jennifer Graylock / Getty Images

BuzzFeed Fashion’s “How I Made It in Fashion” series takes you behind the success of the industry’s most important players. Here, Alice + Olivia founder and designer Stacey Bendet shares her story.

I don’t have a traditional design background, but it’s inherent to me. My father was in the fabric industry, and even my grandfather and my great-grandfather were lace manufacturers. Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to make things. I always made dresses for my Barbie dolls. When I was 13, I designed my Bat Mitzvah dress. I sketched it and I went to the patternmaker and everything — it was beaded lace, and it was this little shift with a little matching jacket. I think the dress is so beautiful today. You take those pictures when you’re 14 or 16 or whatever and you’re like, What was I thinking? And I look back at that dress and I think it was cute and elegant.

When I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, where I studied international relations and French, I studied abroad in Paris for a semester. I think when you’re there, you can’t help but be immersed in fashion because it’s such a part of the city. At that time, I just realized I wanted to do something in fashion — I didn’t know I wanted to design.

I had to support myself when I graduated, so I guess somewhere around my senior year I taught myself how to build websites. I started building flash websites for people, friends at first. I did the site for a friend’s PR firm; I built [New York society photographer] Patrick McMullan’s first site. I built sites for this one company that was starting a few different clothing lines and I was in their offices for a couple of months. I was learning about design, so I saw that’s the patternmaker and this is that. And when I was there I decided to make some pants and see what happens. I had taken sewing classes, so I knew the basics. They were striped — this wide waistband two-button style with a flared leg, and they were super sexy and bold. (Now bold fabrics and colors are really inherent to the line.) But they became the signature pants in the Alice + Olivia collection.

I don’t think there was anything like those pants at the time. Everyone was wearing jeans then — it was when Seven for All Mankind and Earl and all those denim lines had just become really popular and everyone had 100 pairs of jeans, and I was like, I want some pants! In the cut of a jean, but pants. And that was how we started.

Stacey Bendet.

The next few years after that was design school for me — I started learning about patternmaking and silhouettes. We launched in 2002. For a year and a half I only made pants — and the line really grew item by item. For that first year after I started making clothes, I was bartering to pay for the line: “Hey, will you make this dress? I’ll make this website for you.” The first version of our website I built for the first two years, around 2002 to 2004. My father had a fabric company, so I was using his credits to buy fabric. And then Andrew Rosen became my partner, but he wasn’t a financial backer, he was more like my partner. There was really only around $100,000 invested in the company to start — and now we’re at $150 million.

I did my first show show at the Russian Tea Room with topless models carrying flowers and just wearing pants. The first store I ever sold to was Barneys in 2002, and I remember walking in and all the mannequins had our pants on and I was like, Oh my god.

I think an important approach for designers to take is to have a very not singular, but focused point of view. You can’t just be “edgy” or “boho” — you have to create something that everybody has to have. Like, “I’m going to make the best pant ever.” Because if you think about every major designer that’s emerged anywhere, there’s something they’re famous for. Donna Karan got famous for the bodysuit, Ralph Lauren got famous for the tie. For me, it was the pant, and then it was the dress, and within each category you have to have something that speaks to the voice of your brand.

In 2006 we really started to emerge. With a gentle hand, Andrew Rosen has always guided me in the right direction. When we partnered, he was like this mentor from God — the first pants I fit on myself, and he immediately was like, “You’re not a fit model, you’re not a size 0 — you need to fit on a fit model, and you can’t fit these like this.”

More from the fall 2013 presentation. Jennifer Graylock / Getty Images

Our first store was really small — it was in East Hampton, and it was more of a pop-up. I think when we opened our store on Robertson in L.A., that was the moment when we were like, wow, this is amazing. We definitely had those moments when we built our shops at Saks and Bloomingdale’s, too, where we thought, Wow, this is amazing, and these are our clothes and people love them. I’m still excited when I see a woman in our pants or one of our dresses.

A lot of the time, designers chase the trends. I think what we constantly try to do for better or worse is say, this is what we are, and sometimes those trends work into that and sometimes they don’t. And you have to have a firm perspective on that. Whereas in a lot of companies, if you don’t have somebody taking a strong position about who or what the brand is, you can end up diluting it, and then the lines all look the same.

I handle all of Alice + Olivia’s design and marketing. A certain part of your job as a designer is being creative and creating a brand, but you have to understand what that means — you have to understand what you do with that. You have to be very in touch with what is happening on the business side, what’s selling and what’s not. I don’t have to look at spreadsheets and budgets, but I need to understand what it costs to make something and what’s happening from a merchandising standpoint in stores. If you look at Michael Kors, Donna Karan, all the icons in the industry — they’re creative but they’re also smart and they’re savvy.

Things have changed a lot since I launched. I think in some ways, 10 years ago it was simpler to launch a line. Certain people or celebs wore your clothes and you’d get buzz, and now there are so many places to get that buzz — Twitter and the weekly magazines and blogs. There are more ways to get your name out there, which can be overwhelming. But I think if you make something beautiful and you showcase it the right way to the right people, you can make it work.

I do presentations instead of shows during fashion week because I felt like it was important to distinguish between designer runway and contemporary, which is Alice + Olivia’s category. It’s not like my clothes are inexpensive, but it’s $600 for a jacket [versus a couple thousand for a high-end designer piece], and I’m actually showing clothes that people will wear next season, and I want to create a story around that.

I would tell young designers, no, don’t show at fashion week unless you have some huge amount of backing and PR and all that. I think for a young designer it’s better to show off-season so you have more opportunity to generate press and buzz. Showing during the week is so hard because you’re competing against really big people who are going to command the pages of all the magazines. It’s overwhelming.

Having a mentor is so important. You have to search one out, get in touch, work a little bit at it — things don’t just happen. I think anyone you ask, it’s not like an overnight success — I worked my ass off since I was 19 years old. It’s hard work to really build a brand, to build a company, and to design.

But the most important lesson for any young designer is you have to turn lemons into lemonade. You have to take criticism — you can’t be destroyed by it, you have to say, OK, that’s a lesson, and I’m going to go from here to here. You need to have positivity to grow, you need to be resilient, and you need to look at the good. We always try to build around the positive and don’t take things too seriously. Fashion should be fun, and fashion can make people feel good.

— As told to Amy Odell

Bendet at her fall show in New York. Jennifer Graylock / Getty Images

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