I’m over the moon to be introducing you to my friend Kristin Hassan, as the next designer in our Becoming a Designer series! Kristin is incredibly talented, so hard working, and has achieved an amazing amount at such a young age. I think she’s truly inspirational, and she has been an incredible support, encouragement and sounding board for me as I was launching my line and starting out. I think her story is amazing, and her advice is some of the best you will get – so I recommend taking everything she says to heart! Once you’re done, don’t forget to visit her website, store, blog and catch a sneakpeek of her Fall 2011 lookbook! So with out further ado, here’s Kristin…
After a few hours of soul searching and an entire bag of Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar potato chips, I proudly present to you:
Kristin Hassan’s 7 Easy (yeah, right!) Steps to Becoming a Fashion Designer
I didn’t always want to be a fashion designer. As I kid I modeled after my businessman father making fake bank forms and taking pretend phone conferences. My mother and grandmother though, constantly surrounded me with crafts. They made everything from our curtains to my prom dress. Back then, I was more interested in playing street hockey with my brothers, but somehow found the time to have lemonade stands, sell jewelry, make potholders… so I guess you could say I’ve always been inclined to be an entrepreneur of sorts.
But then the bug bit. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth pulled, the day before senior year started, (DUMB.) I was laying on the couch enjoying the warm fuzzy feelings of pain relievers when a commercial for one of those art schools came on. My boyfriend, now husband, said ‘Hey, I bet you’d be really good at that.’
Step 1: Go to school.
With those simple words my mother and I launched a full on attack against every art school in the city of Chicago. I went on every interview and tour and I decided to take the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago up on it’s offer because the vibe of part business / part art mix appealed to me. It was clean, and it’s location was amazing – in the heart of Chicago, right next to the Merchandise Mart. My college years weren’t your typical college years. I went to school year round in quarters, graduating in 3 years instead of 4. I wasn’t in a sorority and I didn’t date frat boys. I slaved over school projects and deadlines. I went to art galleries and lounged in the library. And I had the starving artist’s wardrobe/style down to a t. I participated in and worked at fashion shows. I graduated with honors and one of the highest gpa’s in my class so I guess you could say it paid off. I can brag about it now because to me, I completed my mission: suck everything you can out of these people… instructors, professors, classmates. Work ridiculously hard at mastering my skills, expose myself to new experiences. I put so much effort into my education, I’ve been rewarded with feelings confidence in my craft. But I could only learn so much in the classroom. I wanted real world experience, too.
Step 2: Work in the industry.
My first job was as a clerk at our local fabric store, Hancock Fabrics. But by the time I was 16, I had managerial responsibilities. I guess my boss, Ms. Ange, saw some sort of potential. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the vast amount of knowledge I soaked up about fabrics and from Ms. Ange would only add to my arsenal of strengths in the future. As my college years played out, I was ever thankful for that experience and for that boss. (Ange and I remain great friends to this day who have watched each other get married and become mothers.)
I quit the fabric store and took a job as a showroom intern (PAID!), just upstairs from my school. The building I went to class in was called the Apparel Center, and upstairs was where the magic happened. Buyers from all over the Midwest would come to view collections and place their orders for the up coming seasons at fabulous trade shows 4 times a year called StyleMax markets, and the girls that worked as road reps (traveling salesmen) were as chic as the window displays and endless racks of clothing. It was a colorful dreamy kind of place to work. Except I was an intern. My office was in the closet. I was responsible for order entry and invoicing, answering phones, and cutting my boss’ sandwich in half at lunch (no joke). I worked as an ‘intern’ in the showroom for 3 years – before class, after class, even while skipping class – but by the time I left, I had more knowledge about how the business was run than some of the full timers. Oh, and I took on a second job – I also worked at an unpaid internship for local sustainable designer Lara Miller. It was an amazing eye-opener at what life would be like as a small designer in Chicago. I worked directly with her and her contractors. I saw the design process and the work ethic. Best part, she didn’t make me cut her sandwich in half.
But the sweet comfort of college only lasts so long. The Fall after I graduated college I found myself married and ready to launch my career… but where to start?
Step 3: Manage your relationships.
I started freelancing for some random clothing companies, thanks to a few great college instructors I stayed in touch with. (Network! Network!) I consulted for a maternity line, designed some skateboard decks, and helped develop a plus sized children’s wear line. These adventures took me all over the place, most notably New York and then Guatemala, where I oversaw said childrenswear line. I had been building a pretty decent portfolio and had some steady paychecks. So of course I spent it all on sketch pads and fabrics to start my own designs. And then there was the fork in the road: to start a label or not. I had the education, I had some experience, I considered myself talented and creative, and I had support. There was one last ingredient.
Step 4: You need to have money to make money.
It’s sad but it’s true. If you can’t buy a sewing machine and some fabric to sew, how will you ever sell anything? I would have to work years still as a freelancer to save enough to start my own business. So I looked into the most common way to get funded – a bank loan. It’s hard for me to think of a designer I know who doesn’t have a loan attached to them. I was lucky though. My business partner, aka Mr. Wonderful, some potential in me and filled up a bank account. To this day, the money I make goes right back into my line to fund the next collection. I can’t pay the mortgage with my work yet, but one day :)
Step 5: Be part of the community.
Immediately after I decided to take the plunge, an amazing opportunity was presented. Mayor Daly had launch the first ever Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s on State Street. It was a city funded program that chose 6 designers to help launch their careers via mentorships, showroom space, office space, and a team full of advisors. After an intense application and interview process, I was chosen for the inaugural class. It was an amazing experience in which I learned invaluable things and was introduced to resources beyond my reach. More importantly, it introduced me to the fashion community in Chicago – a truly supportive and diverse group. Because of CFI I’ve shown my collection for the last 3 years (this October will be 4) at Chicago fashion week!
So the Incubator was a very, very good decision. But one thing I’ve learned is that as an entrepreneur, you will make bad decisions.
Step 6: Don’t go on a reality show.
It was a very random day that the opportunity to compete in a Project Runway knock-off (The Fashion Show) show was dropped in my lap. I barely had an interview for the show; when I was unavailable to attend the casting because of previous travel arrangements, the producers whisked me away to a hotel room for an immediate ‘on camera’ test and cast me almost immediately. After the Incubator experience had wrapped up, my mindset was to gain further exposure for my brand. The two seemed to go hand in hand so I packed my bags for NYC. And then I quickly repacked them and came home, learning that I am not a reality tv star. Sure, I could not take the stress, the pressure, the absolutely-no-contact-with-your-family part, but more importantly, I wasn’t a fame-seeker, money desperate, I’ll do anything kind of designer. I was kid from the suburbs of Chicago with good intentions to get additional exposure for my brand. For me, being on tv simply didn’t work, and that’s ok because…
Step 7: Business plans are written in pencil.
My father always, always reminds me of this. He says that part of being a great entrepreneur is knowing when you have to go with the flow, when you have to change, and when you have to hold strong to your vision. You see, a lot of my path wasn’t planned. It was just the weird natural way fate swings. While I still consider myself a small fish in a small pond, I am proud of my achievements and work ethic thus far.
My biggest plan change was when I became a mom. I realized that the amount of time and energy, love and strength it takes to raise a child, was far more rewarding and enjoyable than the time and energy, love and strength it takes to run my own apparel business. As a result, I’ve majorly shifted my life. I’m a mom first, and a designer second. I make baby food and play ring around the rosy during the day, and I sketch and sew at night. My business is growing sloooooow. But that’s because I want it to. And my amazingly supportive husband, parents, family, and friends allow me to continue to pursue this life long creative path.
The most important thing is to learn who you are and who you want to be, make a plan, work ridiculously hard, and go after it. You will change, and so will the plan. That’s part of the journey. And the journey my friends, is what it’s all about.