Utelier spoke to designer Magda Daniloaia about how she got her start in fashion accessories. She gave us some insight into how to be successful in the industry.
How did you begin your journey in the fashion industry?
When I was growing up in Romania, my father had a studio where he would make custom-made articles in leather. Everything from leather jackets to shearling coats to handbags. The craft was in the family; his father used to do it and also my two uncles. When I was little I used to say that when I grow up I will be a businesswoman, but at the same time, I was spending a lot of my time being creative, playing with bits of leather from my father’s studio, drawing fashion silhouettes, making clothes for my dolls, and painting.
In the end, I decided to pursue architecture, because I was also interested in mathematics and especially loved geometry. I thought this would be a perfect career, where I could combine these interests with my creativity, whilst ensuring I have good job prospects when I leave university. In the middle of the first year at University, I felt that something important was missing and that this was not the right path for me. I did not know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew I had to stop what I was doing. Somehow I stumbled upon the Cordwainers course at London College of Fashion and I thought to myself… ‘what a fabulous course and what an amazing university! It would be so cool to go!’ I applied and got accepted.
I completed the three-year course, which was excellent. We learned about handbag construction and 3D prototyping – things that are not always common in fashion colleges. Normally you are expected to do really good illustrations and then leave the rest to the factories, which I think is a mistake because not all factories have creative people that can really help designers with their ideas. Also, you discover so much when you play in 3D yourself. I love that way of creating something with your hands rather than just sketching.
I had a few jobs and internships during and after college, working for Void of Course (a company that used to make pieces for Lady Gaga), Lilifi, Roksanda Ilincic and then Bill Amberg (where I was the leading designer, working with the director and designing two full collections) but I always wanted in my heart to have my own company. I always felt I had a different vision, I had something to offer, something more to say.
After leaving Bill Amberg I went on to work in a much bigger high-end fashion company – I wanted to experience that kind of environment but I soon left, as they would not want to negotiate the contract, which had a clause for intellectual property that basically stated that during my employment, whatever intellectual property I may produce, even if it is not related to the company, even it is in my free time, it is essentially the company’s and it must be ‘handed in’. According to that version of the contract, even if you write a poem on the weekend that intellectual property does not belong to you. The idea simply did not work with me. And of course, these were the conditions of a job for which I would have been paid an extremely low salary. That is one example of how ‘big fashion brands’ work and it was just another confirmation for me that it was time to carve my own way into the industry.
And here I am! I think I learned 100 times more since I started to build my company than I would have learned in 10 years working for others, whilst having huge levels of satisfaction!
What sparked your interest for fashion?
I think my interest for fashion started whilst growing up around my family – my father used to be absolutely obsessed with shoes when he was young and also had his atelier, my mother had cupboards full of clothes (and still has), my sister used to change 3 times a day when she was a child (unlike any other children around – and she still does sometimes…). Having many foreign fashion magazines in our house, my cousins looking effortlessly elegant even in simple clothes – I think all of it created an environment in which my passion for fashion and what fashion can mean to people was kindled.
What challenges have you encountered along the way so far being your own boss?
Hmm… where do I start?
I think the challenges are different depending on what kind of person you are. I am a self-learner, so whatever I did not know I took my time to find out. Especially today – it is so much easier to find information than it used to be. I think it is a huge advantage to someone starting a business. So I did tremendous amounts of research, from market research to factory research… That was hard but step by step it can be done, with lots of patience.
Financing the business also seemed to be a big hurdle. I have applied to a few competitions and did not win. I think it is quite hard when you don’t have an incredibly innovative idea – such as something in tech, 3D printed clothing, etc… In the end I stumbled upon the Small Business Centre, where I could get a loan relatively easily for my business. That was a great help and not much hassle, which is what you want when you are starting out, because some of these competitions and pitching to investors can take an incredible amount of time. That really put the business on its feet and now I am preparing to put my project on KickStarter where personalisation will be available exclusively for the products!
Another big challenge was finding the right developers (pattern cutters) that can really make your products perfect, exactly the way you want them. I started working with an Italian atelier that was recommended to me. They worked with many top luxury brands but they only did ‘execution’ – in other words, they only made the production after the prototypes were 100% ready. But after working with them for over 6 months, I barely got one handbag ready; they simply had a ‘no, can’t do’ attitude instead of ‘yes, we’ll try’ attitude – all this whilst charging huge amounts. Then I re-started my manufacturer search because I felt I cannot work like this anymore, it was not only expensive but also extremely frustrating. I found this factory in Romania that does prototypes, it is much smaller (which I prefer) but also works with some big names. My experience with them so far has been amazing; we solved all the issues with the collection in a few months. It honestly felt like heaven working with them.
Initially, I wanted to have the products ‘Made in Italy’ but now I like the fact they are made in Romania. It is my country, it has some great and talented people and it is one way of giving back. Not to mention that a lot of luxury brands are manufacturing there, but then assemble the products in France or Italy and have a ‘Made in France’ or ‘Made in Italy’ label, which is misleading and ignored by the industry.
So your working relationships with suppliers are crucial?
Yes, absolutely! If you have good relationships, then when you have a problem, the other party will be as flexible as they can and they will help you. If not… they won’t. For example, the zips for my collection were delayed with three weeks from the initial estimated delivery date. If I didn’t have a good relationship with my factory they could have refused to adapt to the situation and that could have been a disaster.
In general, I think both with clients and suppliers respect is essential and then it helps if you show appreciation and recognition from time to time.
Give us an example of something that is important for people to know and do in order to create and maintain good relationships with their suppliers and factories they work with?
It really depends on the factory and generally people but in my case, I like to not be too rigid. No one likes to work with someone who is too serious – it is good to have a laugh sometimes – but that must never affect the professional results. Visiting the factories for good relationships is kind of a must. It is possible to work without visiting but I think it makes quite a big difference.
Also, I think it is very helpful to be clear and concise; no one likes to receive and read ten emails on the same subject. Try and be very considerate of the other people’s time. Generally, the more organised you are, the more everyone will like working with you!
What was an “A-Ha” moment in your career so far?
I think the A-Ha moment was when I realised I don’t need to spend months and months making some products perfect as long as I was working with the right people… and also when I realised working on other projects can be really fun when you appreciate the concept and the person you are working with.
What sparked your particular interest in accessories and leather in particular?
While I think leather is an amazing material, I don’t exclude the possibility of working with other materials in the future. My main interest is in the product, probably because I love architecture and geometry, I love interesting silhouettes and volumes. I enjoy accessories because you have absolute freedom. You can create anything you like. It is almost like creating a sculpture, does not have to exactly fit a body like clothes or hats, or shoes. I would like to expand in other areas in the future but I believe I will keep the same approach – of ‘product design’ rather than ‘fashion design’. That is why I love accessories – I will create a concept, then I will create the handbag. I don’t think I will ever start from the idea that ‘this needs to be a handbag’ – I don’t think that takes you very far creatively.
What were your challenges with freelance work you have done whilst creating your own business?
With working freelance, the biggest challenge is to find enough work! There isn’t a secret recipe, you have to try and increase your network, be an expert in your field, have accounts on all relevant websites, reply to ads looking for freelance designers and the list goes on. You have to be prepared to put some time into that, but normally the pay is better for freelancers, which makes up for all this lost time in many cases.
How do you work with clients – what is the process usually?
It really depends on the client and their project. I am approached by several people and companies but I only pick the projects that I think I can add a lot of value to and that I can enjoy. I can also work alone on a brief or in collaboration with the client, depending on what they prefer and what is more efficient. This can be either in design (creative concept), development (sketching, prototyping, range construction) or technical side (CAD drawings, working on improving already made prototypes, materials selection).
Do you like to oversee the development of your designs to production stage or do you just design, pass the drawings to a client and leave them to develop and manufacture themselves?
It is totally up to the client. I am happy to get involved in the development and also production if that is requested. I normally assist with the amendments on the prototypes once they are done to make sure the products are perfect and then leave the rest to the client.
What is the one thing you wish clients knew of before they contact you, wanting to work with you?
One of the most important things is how you put together a brief – the client needs to know what they want, clearly present the stage that they are at – so we can know where to start.
Also, it is good to describe the amount of work needed in detail: ‘ I need to design a collection of 6 simple/complex handbags and 4 small leather goods. I have/don’t have a concept – an idea of a distinctive design element that can go on the whole range. I need/don’t need illustrations of the handbags in a presentation and/or technical drawings. My timeline is… my budget is…’.
What is your weakness as an entrepreneur?
I am a little too perfectionist and I let things around me affect me sometimes.
What is your strength as an entrepreneur?
I have lots of ideas, I am a problem-solver and I have stamina.
What is the best advice you have been given?
Have patience. Great things are not done overnight. (My mother)
What is the one thing you wish you knew before you set on your fashion entrepreneurial journey as a designer?
I have been to many seminars and lessons on business and especially fashion business before embarking on my journey so I roughly knew what I was getting into.
I would advise people who want to start to do the same. Read lots of books, go to seminars, read interviews, read articles.
What advice will you give to people just starting out and wishing to be like you?
Plan well, try not to procrastinate, believe in yourself, take a shot! When one approach does not work, try another!
What are you working on currently that really fires you up and excites you?
I am currently contacting boutiques to buy my products and it is a really exciting thing to do because I am contacting retailers in a lot of countries and I am really curious to see if my assumptions of which countries are suitable for my brand are correct!
I also prepared a photoshoot for my brand in April with an incredible photographer and filmmaker and two beautiful twins and I cannot wait to see the results and to share them with the public.
How do you cope with professional disappointments?
I have always tried not to take things too personally. Especially for the people who are trying to get a job in the industry, I would say this: try different channels (company websites, people working in those companies on LinkedIn, agencies and even guessing emails…). It is tiring looking for a job… so don’t be too harsh on yourself and don’t take it too personally when you get rejected, because there is a lot of competition out there in the industry and it is not really a matter of who is good or not. It is more the suitability with that particular brand and also sheer luck and perseverance.
If you can recommend a book to our readers that you have found inspiring and game-changing for you, what would that be?
There are many, but a recent one would be ‘Lean In’ by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
What does “success” mean to you?
I believe success is when you feel satisfied with your life and feel you are adding something to society and the world.
You can find out more about Magda Daniloaia, or contact her to work with her via her Utelier profile.