Recently, I was honored to be asked to write a guest post for The Style Almanac's "Influencer Series" that just kicked off. You can read my post below, but I also wanted to let you guys know about the giveaway that we are doing this week with them - if you go to both of our Instagram accounts (here and here), you can enter yourself to win a free tie!
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses a theory he has about the “10,000 hour” principle, which basically states that regardless of your past, income, or inherent talent, if you spend 10,000 hours at something, you will become an expert at that thing. There are apparently no true prodigies, just young people who were in the right place at the right time and had the ability to put in those 10,000 hours at a very early stage in their life. The reason that there aren’t more so-called experts running around is because not everybody has the drive or opportunity to put in the necessary work to develop the necessary set of skills. Gladwell cites Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mozart (among many others) as not necessary being born better than their peers, but being uniquely positioned to develop into the icons that we know them as today.
The same thing can be said of many greats in the fashion industry. Donna Karan grew up in the fashion industry with her mother being a fit model and her father a suit designer. She quit school at 14 to sell clothes, yet began working at Ann Klein while she was still a student at Parsons, eventually becoming their head designer at only 26. The same could be said for Alexander McQueen or even the Olsen twins, who have said that even though they didn’t finish at NYU or study fashion in an academic sense, they spent their childhoods in fittings and working with costume designers and stylists.
Growing up in Houston in the 90's, I didn't have a similar experience. I think that the younger generations who have grown up with Project Runway and social media would probably be much more equipped than I was upon arriving at RISD in the fall of 2004. Going to art school - especially one so far north - wasn’t really an applauded choice. “Are you sure that’s the smart thing to do?” “Now…is this a real, four year degree that you’re going for?” “What do you expect to do with a degree in art once your graduate?”
I wish I could say that I didn’t care, but I did. I felt this burden to prove all of them wrong, that I could make it as an artist or designer, that I had what it took. It didn’t really matter that I had never used a sewing machine before. My gut said to go for it, and I did.
In terms of performance or talent, I was probably an average student. Some of my classmates were out of this world, even as teenagers. Most of them had the advantage of having parents in the industry or going to an art magnet school. This was intimidating, but I was already in it, determined to succeed, somehow. So, I spent hours in the studio. It wasn’t uncommon to find me there at 2am on a Saturday night.
Fast-forward to 2008. The day before commencement, I was offered a job as an assistant designer at a well-known, corporate company. I was thrilled. My family was thrilled. My dad, an engineer who had been extremely on the fence about my career choice, was suddenly telling everybody that his daughter was now going to work as a designer for a major company. My degree choice suddenly had credibility. I was offered more money than I thought possible to make as a 22 year old, especially as one who had been basically broke and unsure about how my college loans would be paid off. And then there was the actual work. I was designing clothing that would be made on the other side of the world and that I’d see strangers wearing on the street. I even had the opportunity to go on paid, shopping trips to scout out trends and on production trips overseas. This was the dream.
Until…it wasn’t. At first I naively blamed the company. I thought, if I can just get out, things will be fun again, and I’ll remember why I chose to do this in the first place. Now, part of that attitude was simply the disillusionment most college grads experience in their early 20’s. But another part of my discontent had to do with this idea that things could be done differently, that there could still be heart in a profitable company. I started looking into other types of companies. (This was back around the time that Toms and several other NFP’s were sprouting up, most of which had a focus on using fashion or jewelry as a means to create industry or employment in countries where there wasn’t much opportunity for anything else.) These companies sounded great, but I just didn’t feel like they were for me. Even though I’m not one for the rules of corporate company culture, I’m not really well suited to the sometimes hippy, carefree culture of most non-profits, either. I also hate asking for money, so the often necessary fundraising that non-profits must do makes me cringe. I felt at an impasse, not wanting to waste anymore time feeling miserable but hesitant to spend my late 20’s “finding myself". Going with my gut (again), I decided to quit my job and take a year off to travel and volunteer overseas before eventually accepting a teaching position at a high school and starting grad school.
The turning point came in a class that I took during my first semester. The class was called “Career Development for Artist Entrepreneurs”. The class was an unorthodox one and had us spend a lot of time examining our personalities and inherent skill sets before we even began discussing our careers. At that point, I had already started my company but still lacked vision for where I wanted to take it.
After a lot of introspection, I realized that I had a prime opportunity to turn my frustrations with the fashion industry into a mission statement for my company. Here was my chance to set the rules: why not take a stand? I wasn’t audacious enough to think that I had the power to change the fashion industry, but I realized that if I didn’t try, why would I expect other, more established companies to?
I’ve been on this journey with my company for almost 2 and a half years now, and while it hasn’t been easy (seriously, this has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done), I’m so glad that I went for it. The closer I come to reaching that 10,000 hour mark, the more I realize that it’s not so much about where you’ve come from, so much as how much work you’re willing to put in towards reaching your goals. Don't be discouraged if you're not where you'd like to be, as it's just a sign of the goodness to come if you're willing to work for it.