A Conversation With Gary Wassner On Rocking Sustainability, Fashion & Technology

We take a moment to talk to Gary Wassner, whose business approach to fashion, or, better yet, his ‘common-sense’ approach to fashion, is that fashion is in all intent and purposes like any other business.

Gary Wassner is a man who believes that the concept of a product that falls apart after a couple of wears goes against the psyche of humanity today. Named as one of Fashionista’s 50 Most Influential People in fashion, Gary’s company Hildsun has financed many of America’s most iconic designer labels. Among them are names like Vivienne Westwood, Betsey Johnson, Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam, Jason Wu and Alexander Wang. Some of you might know him from Project Runway, the fashion Startup reality show where fashion designers pitch their businesses in front of a jury of investors. It is a show that made him popular to the non-specialised audience.

I met Gary at the Fashion Tech Berlin conference last week, where he gave a talk on all things fashion, technology and sustainability. He was bold in admitting that the millennials do not even read the September issue any more and that making it to the cover of Vogue is not what young designers are dreaming of today. The fashion game has changed court: you can find the players all over Instagram.

Can fashion designers who don’t know how to do business find a way to make it nevertheless?

It depends on what their problem is: for some, it’s the product, for some it is organisation or funding; there are so many different problems that can put an end to a brand. I can address each one of them with a designer once I study what they have done and what’s right and what’s not working. And sometimes my answer is “you’re in the wrong business, you are a great designer, who should be designing for another firm, not your own.”

What are your 5 hot tips for young designers who want to grow their business?

  1. Be true to yourself

If you’re not authentic today –and I hate that word, because it’s overused –the consumer will feel it. We’re on social media all the time if the consumer feels that this is made up, that this is not real, that’s its some advertisement you’ve lost your ability to move forward.

2. Know who you are as a designer and be flexible

You cannot be a designer if you don’t know who you are. And you cannot be a designer if you have too much ego. A designer with an ego destroys the company. When I choose who I want to finance, if I feel that that designer is out of touch, if that designer has got the wrong attitude, I won’t work with them. And I’m not the only one. Retailers would feel the same way.

“You cannot be a designer if you have too much ego. A designer with an ego destroys the company.”

3. Know your customer

You need to know whom you are designing for: define these men or women. Where do they shop, where do they eat, where do they go to restaurants, what’s their body type, what do they like, what movies do they see, tell me everything about them.

4. Design into a merchandising plan

If you design for a millennial, for instance, the price is an issue, so you need a merchandising plan first. Most designers don’t do that, it’s a journey for them: “I want this fabric, and I want that fabric, and this comes from France, and this comes from Italy”, and they make the most beautiful object they can and that’s fine if they’re designing for couture market, but they’re not. They’re designed for a contemporary market most of the time, and in this case, you’ve got to be realistic about your merchandising plan. Ask yourself: what fabrics can I use that keep my price where I need it to be for my consumer?

5. Find a business partner

I always encouraged people to find a partner. Doing this alone is challenging. A designer can’t be expected to be a great businessman and a brilliant designer at the same time, find someone you have synergy with, someone you can work with, you can handle.

“A designer can’t be expected to be a great businessman and a brilliant designer at the same time, find someone you have synergy with, someone you can work with, you can handle.”

All the great companies that design has both sides, whether it is a Jason Wu or Michael Kors or Kalvin Klein, they all had their counterpart. There is always someone who handles the business side of it, cause you can’t expect the creative to spend their time on that. So that’s the secret, find someone, pull your resources, don’t be afraid to partner with somebody who you really believe in and who are adding value, because the value of the business side is as great as the value of the design side, one without the other is useless.

Can you explain what exactly a merchandising plan is?

It’s simply I need two blouses, three dresses, two skirts, I need some leggings, and I need two jackets –that’s a merchandising plan, that’s what I’m going to design into. It’s a collection, it is not random pieces, so you choose your fabrics to fit into that merchandising plan. You decide how many styles and colours you need and then you go for them, don’t just go on designing beautiful things.

What about sustainability? Is it here to stay?

For the sake of the planet, we must be aware of sustainability. You must think that way as part of who you are and what you do. We’re not going to get everybody to do that, but more and more people are aware that there are ways to do just as beautiful things, just as nicely as you’ve done in the past, economically as well with sustainable production.

“There are simple things you can do that don’t change the way that you design or merchandise like zero-waste.”

There are simple things you can do that don’t change the way that you design or merchandise like zero-waste. When you sit down to design, you create a pattern that is going to utilise all the fabric, so there’s zero waste, there’s nothing left on the cutting room. That’s sustainability; that anybody can do. It’s a little bit more difficult because you have to be an excellent technical designer and you can’t do everything, that you might want to do, pleating is hard to count and calculate, so there is waste. But if design at the bias, if you drape, you utilise the shape and size and texture of the fabric appropriately you know that you can create zero waste product. We all have to be aware of it, and we have to find those ways that suit our designs, and there are ways for everyone.

Have you supported businesses/designers just because of their ethics?

I’m much more democratic. I’ll support any designer I think is doing something well, has a product that makes sense and answers the other questions I mentioned before.

To the sustainability issue, I’m not a fan of cruelty, whether it is cruelty to the planet, to the animals and so on and I don’t think there’s a future in there. So from a financial perspective, I don’t want to bet on brands that have no consideration for the environment or animal cruelty, so, yes, I may be a little more selective in this regard. It is also because I don’t think they have a future, not because what they’re doing isn’t beautiful.

“I think the concept of a product that falls apart after a couple of wears goes against the psyche of humanity today.”

Do you think fast fashion will disappear at some point?

I think fast fashion has peaked; I believe there are more negative things about it now than there was positive for the consumer. And it will always be there, not every consumer thinks alike obviously. But I think we’re looking at more artisanal products, more unique products, not mass produced; I don’t think any of us wants to look exactly like the person sitting next to us and fast fashion tends to do that. I think the concept of a product that falls apart after a couple of wears goes against the psyche of humanity today.

Share Your Tips & Corrections

Lets Connect

Muchaneta Kapfunde

Founding editor-in-chief at FashNerd.com
Founding editor-in-chief & WearableTechStylist of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta has worked in the fashion industry for over 14 years. She is currently one of the leading influencers speaking and writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology and a regular contributor to digital news sites like Wareable.
Lets Connect