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How to make an American fashion brand

Social media popularity, not sewing capability, is the secret ingredient

Sheila Marikar| NYT 

Lara Pia Arrobio at the LPA studio in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: New York Times)
Lara Pia Arrobio at the LPA studio in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: New York Times)

Two summers ago was working as a designer for the company Reformation when she was recruited by Zara, the fast-behemoth, for a job at its headquarters in Spain.

“I got wasted with the HR girl after my interview,” Ms Arrobio recalled recently. “She said, ‘You’re going to gain weight. All the American girls eat so much pan con tomate and drink so much beer.’”

Ms Arrobio embraced this possible destiny. Recently split from a boyfriend, she envisioned falling in love with an attractive Spanish man and settling down in La Coruna, the port city where is based. But first, she wanted to take advantage of being in Europe on someone else’s dime.
A friend, the model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, joined her for an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-style romp through Italy. Ms Ratajkowski had mentioned Ms Arrobio’s plan to Raissa Gerona, the chief brand officer of Revolve, a company for which Ms Ratajkowski modelled.

“It sounded crazy,” Ms Gerona said. She followed Ms Arrobio on Instagram and admired her unfussy style and real-talk captions (“I had a bad day, OK?” alongside a hamburger and fries). She asked Ms Ratajkowski for the designer’s phone number. “I told Pia, ‘You’re great, you’re super-talented, I love what you stand for. If we can do a brand with you, I don’t want you to move to Spain.’”

A brand? Of But Ms Arrobio couldn’t sew. Ms Gerona’s response: “‘It’s all good. We have all those systems in place to incubate people like yourself so you can focus on what you can do. And what you can do is build a brand: have a vision of who your girl is, what she likes to do, what she likes to post about. That’s what makes a brand now.’”

Within a month, Ms Arrobio backed out of the gig and signed a different set of papers.

So goes the origin story of LPA, a year-old line that has been taken up with enthusiasm by many in Hollywood and beyond who are perhaps weary of the official calendar’s incessant drumbeat, and its prices.

The clothes aren’t masterpieces of tailoring — something Ms Arrobio, 30, is the first to admit. With prices mostly in the two or three figures, her studded and slinky slip dresses look not unlike what stuffs the racks at and Forever 21.

But while corporate boardrooms the world over strive to reverse-engineer an aura of feminist independence for their brands, Ms Arrobio’s is genuine. And it has attracted a number of vocal, high-profile fans, including Lena Dunham, who may succumb to big designer names like Prada or Giambattista Valli for red-carpet appearances but wore a black halter neck dress for a recent Hollywood Reporter cover.

The Kardashians, Violet Benson and Ms Ratajkowski also consistently champion clothes in public. And taking a page from a playbook of pop creation that was written by and Yves Saint Laurent, among others, in the 1960s, Ms Arrobio often brings these muses together for alcohol-soaked photo shoots and raucous parties.

“We’re from the camp where it’s about supporting other women,” said the model Erin Wasson (at 35, she is a veritable tribal elder). “You don’t climb the mountain alone because you get to the top and it’s no fun. I’d rather climb the mountain with my girlfriends and get to the top and have a party.”
As one of 13 labels under the umbrella of Revolve and Alliance Apparel, a design and production house based in downtown Los Angeles, shares auxiliary staff — accountants, fit specialists, IT whizzes — with other brands. The clothes are made mostly in India, in a factory vetted by the house for ethical practices.

Because of her technical deficiencies — “I can’t make a pattern to save my life,” Ms Arrobio said — she has a right-hand man, the designer Tim Nguyen.

Another important staff member is Theresa Anderson, a fit technician with whom Ms Arrobio worked at Reformation. “Often, girls write to me and say, ‘I bought this onesie and the fit was perfect’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to do any of that, it’s literally all Theresa.’”

 “If you don’t know how to do it, get the person who’s better than you to do it,” Ms Arrobio said.

Ms Arrobio is but one in a growing number leveraging social networks to make brands. Every few months, Iris Alonzo and Carolina Crespo, alumnae of American Apparel, ask people they admire — the model Adwoa Aboah, the photographer Jean Pigozzi — to describe one item that’s missing from their closet, then they make it for Everybody.World, their made-in-Los Angeles line.

In its first year, did approximately $5 million in sales, according to Revolve. By comparison, Zara’s annual sales, according to Forbes, were $17.2 billion. Of course, revenue is an important goal. “It’s great to have feelings about what’s going to sell, but ultimately numbers don’t lie,” Ms Gerona said. “Revolve is an incredibly data-driven company, and we train all of our designers and creative directors like this: ‘Here’s what really moved, here’s what some of the misses were.’”

But along with wanting to make money, Ms Arrobio wants to be a role model, envisioning herself as a sort of older-sister figure to her customers.
“There are two ways to build a brand,” she said. “To get things on the most popular girls in the world, or to get things on girls that are relatable. For me to be able to do both is the most important thing. That’s where the struggle lies, sometimes. There is power in numbers with the influencer thing, but I also want to be responsible for my influence and what I’m telling girls.”
©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, August 28 2017. 22:45 IST