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Mentorship and Tutorials

You’ve got mail! And it’s an invitation to your first fashion show. Now what?

In the life of any designer (fingers crossed!) comes a moment, when they start thinking about designing a collection, which can be showcased at a fashion show and propel their business to the next stage of visibility in the fashion world and among their potential clients. Few of us are lucky enough to know exactly what to do or to have a good mentor to guide us. We asked Chloe Dao, the winner of the 2nd season of the competitive reality show Project Runway and the Founder and Lead Designer of Dao by Chloe Dao, to share some wisdom and experience.
You’ve got mail! And it’s an invitation to your first fashion show. Now what?

Glitter Trotter: There is nothing more thrilling to an aspiring designer than to get an invitation to the very first fashion show. Most designers dream of it from the day they decide to be in fashion – the lights, the runway, the cheering crowd! Then here it is – an invitation! A celebration ensues!

But eventually the reality sets in, right? The lights! The crowd! The runway! Where to start?! For a designer taking part in a fashion show for the first time, this might become overwhelming and ruin the day.

At Glitter Trotter, we are on a mission to provide useful information, to help make the first fashion show a celebration of the designer’s success and a joyful experience that can open many new, exciting doors.

So, we reached out for guidance to Chloe Dao, a fashion veteran and a winner of the Second Season of the Project Runway, a competitive reality TV-show, where 14 designers from across the USA were competing for one big final award.  

In the early 2000s, Cloe opened her first fashion boutique -- Dao by Chloe Dao – in her hometown of Houston, Taxes – followed by another boutique and an online shop. Cloe has multiple fashion shows under her belt – in the US and abroad. So, we asked Chloe to share some tricks of the trade with the designers, who are only getting ready for their first, very important show.

Thank you for joining me today, Chloe! We appreciate any tips you can share -- How to prepare for the show, how to keep it cool during the event, and how to stand out and make the best of the experience.

Chloe Dao: Wow, these are a lot of questions. But hey, I have the answers! So, let me get started, and we will see where we get.

GT: Yes, please!

CD: In my experience, the first and most important step in preparing for a fashion show is to understand, who is going to be in the audience. Is it just family and friends or are there going to be buyers – whether individuals or shop owners, or even buyers for big brands like Nordstrom or Bloomingdales. Once you know, who is going to be in the audience, do your research. This is a really important part -- as a designer, you need to understand your audience really well, and you need to know what to offer them to get them excited.

GT: How do you do the research?

CD: You would laugh – the best way for a designer to do the research is to go shopping! This is how you can understand the aesthetics of your potential clients – shops and individuals. Let’s take Nordstrom – their buyers are attending a lot of fashion shows. If a designer wants to have their clothes sold at Nordstrom, they need to spend time studying a Nordstrom shop, for example, which designers they carry, what the overall layout of the shop looks like, which designers are given more visibility, what aesthetics Nordstrom promotes, and at what price point.

GT: Talking about the price point, I think this remains a tricky question for many designers, especially young ones. You do often get conflicting messages, when a client says, “Oh, I would buy more of your products if you priced them under $50”. And then you see the same client wearing a Valentino dress for $5000. How does a designer decide, what price point is right for them?

CD: So, let’s make selecting the right price our point number two. This is really important, and there is no one right answer. But here is my approach. First, as I said – go shopping and try to understand, what is an acceptable price point for the buyer you are targeting.

Next, you have to make sure as a designer that your price covers all basic costs for producing the garment – the cost of the fabric, the cost of all the trimmings, the labor costs, etc. These are the costs you cannot change, the hard costs of your business. And then you multiply that cost by five – this is your price point, which allows you to pay for the materials, your employees, your own time, and all the overheads – including rent and utilities. Plus, this price allows you to continue going – buy more fabric, hire your tailors again, keep the lights on. In my experience, multiplying your basic costs by five is a good rule-of-thumb, until your manufacturing costs go down (for any reason), or you build a big brand that justifies higher prices.

GT: I have been wondering about that -- How do you know when your brand is big enough, so you can start charging more?

CD: A simple answer is – once there are people, who are willing to pay more because it is done by you. You know, I made a dress about 4 years ago, which sold for $450 at my stores. I’ve recently seen a new Valentino dress, which is almost the exact replica of my old dress – and it sells for $4500. In both cases, there were buyers for this dress.

The funny thing about the price is that it is as much about hard numbers as it is about perceptions. If you want to sell a dress for $4500, you need to look like “that” designer, and the dress has to look like “that” dress. You, as a designer, have to create “that” value for the buyer.

What I mean is, how a designer presents him or herself matters a lot. They do not need to be wearing Gucci top-to-bottom, but they have to carry themselves with confidence and conviction; they need to look professional, fashionable, unique. And so needs to be the dress!

For example, you can never buy cheap fabric as a designer and hope that a good design will make the dress look expensive – this will never happen! Yet many young designers make this mistake – they believe that a great design can mask the flows of the material. No, a great dress needs great fabric, quality trimmings, and exemplary craftsmanship.

But this is not it! A dress that worthy of $500 needs to have a story explaining why it is worth all that money. In the case of African designers, I can see how you can create value by explaining that the dress was inspired by traditional wear documented in a museum, that it took 200 hours and maybe 20 people to create the beadwork, and that the materials for the trimmings were sustainably sourced from a factory recycling waste. And the designer has to be able to tell that story eloquently and inspirationally – this is super important.

GT: Lots of great tips there, thank you very much! Now let’s go back to preparing for a fashion show. We talked about researching your buyers, setting the price point right, and creating value. What else should a designer do as they plan for showcasing their work.

CD: So, number four – it is important to make real clothes. Designers, especially young designers, tend to be very artistic. And there is nothing wrong with that. But among the clothes that a designer showcases on the runway, there need to be real, wearable pieces that will look well in a boutique and in the street. Buyers need to see themselves or their clients wearing some of the pieces in real life – hence, real clothes.

GT: Any particular proportion of the collection should be real, wearable?

CD: That's a hard one, because it really depends on the designer. Let’s take Alexander McQueen as a reference. At a glance, all looks in his fashion shows are very artistic and edgy. But once you start breaking them down into actual pieces, you can see that each look is a collection of classic garments each of which can be worn by a regular person. McQueen’s fashion shows make you want to go to his shop and look at those pieces up-and-close; the runways are exhilarating. And then you get to the shop – and great, you find pieces that can easily become part of your existing wardrobe. It takes a true master to create both – the “wow!” and the real. 

If we take my clothes as an example, it’s all about elevating how the model looks on the runway. I make pretty, wearable, real clothes. So for the runway it’s all about styling up, lights, music – i.e., the feel of the show. There are different ways to make the show exciting, and usually young designers succeed in that aspect. But I think it is important to both wow people attending the show but also make sure they see your clothes as part of their own or their clients’ closets.

Talking about the “wow”, my next point is about standing out in the crowd. It might sound cliché, but every designer needs to be very, very clear, who they are, what their creative identity is. Young designers tend to work together – it is great for cheering each other along, for bouncing ideas off each other. But then you come to a showroom, and there are 5-6 designers, who suddenly look exactly the same. We all have a tendency to subconsciously copy people with whom we spend a lot of time. For creative people, it is critical to be aware of that and to make every effort to preserve their identity and their unique voice.

GT: Great point! So, we talked about collaborations. What about competition? How do you manage that?

CD: Competition is good, because, the beauty of fashion is, there is something for everyone. A designer should never try to be everything for everyone – that’s where competition becomes damaging. The most important thing is to find your niche. There are people, who love my designs – and there are people, who hate them. I accept it, and I make sure I target the right clients.

And once you find your niche, your competition can actually be your inspiration. As I mentioned, I make pretty women clothes. Some other designers in this niche are Carolina Herrera and Oscar De La Renta. This is my competition, but I do not compete with them – I research them to better understand the aesthetic of my chosen niche.

In fact, for a young designer it is always helpful to have such reference point, to be able to say, “I follow the footsteps of…” or “I compare myself with…” It shows to the buyer that you know fashion history and understand different aesthetics. It also helps the buyer to “place” you as a new name alongside some of the established brands – surely, you have your unique identity and voice, but it is important to help your buyers identify familiar trends in your works – create connections to the fashion industry.

As to the stress, I think it will always be part of our lives. I feel blessed that I get to do what I love every day, but I still get stressed and overwhelmed. So I take time for myself – take a walk, read a book. We are not dealing with issues of life and death; we are making people look pretty and feel happy. Our clients do not need to know about our worries and stressed as designers and business owners. So, it’s our responsibility to find that balance, because at the end of the day – it’s all about our clients and keeping them happy.

GT: I am glad you mentioned fashion being a business. I think a lot of stress among young designers might result from thinking that fashion is all about creativity – and then they start getting utility and rent bills, and they realize it is a business, yet they are not sure how to run it.

CD: Yes, I believe it’s quite common for creative businesses – many of us believe creativity is enough to build a fashion empire. Unfortunately, it’s not, and you do need some basic business skills. But fortunately, it is much easier these days to start a business without having to rent a shop or a workshop. Social media – Facebook, Instagram, TikTok – are the new storefronts. Young designers do not have to sell their products via traditional ways – it is easy to test their concept online to see if their business is viable before they even start.

Right now is an amazing time to be a creative person. You can have as big or as small a niche as you want to. For example, I know a designer who only makes women’s corsets, that’ is. And they do have a very successful business covering just that small niche.

All you have to do it continue perfecting your skills and craftsmanship and put yourself out there. It does not have to be all perfect. But as the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakley says, “The failure is not trying.” I think it is more than true today. We just have to keep going.

GT: Thank you very much, Chloe!