Breakout designers are not born . . . they are made. But as MARISSA WEBB, founder of her namesake designer collection and Creative Director of Banana Republic, will tell you it takes more than sugar and spice to build a designer business. Having spent years designing at J.Crew she drew upon her courage, aspirations, and family to risk it all and launch her designer collection in 2013. Soon Banana Republic came calling and Marissa Webb became a fashion first, a Creative Director at the helm of a new designer business and a Creative Director at the helm of one of the world’s greatest vertical retailers. The Impression sat with Marissa to discuss her designer launch, sweat and sacrifice, working in two worlds, family, and Go-Pro cameras.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Marissa, thanks for chatting. We would love to hear about how and why you decided to launch your own collection.
I think it was time. It was something I had been planning for a number of years and even when I was at school, it was one of those things I thought I would always do. It was the right moment.
It was something I had been building up to. My fiancé was moving from London to New York, and a lot of changes were going on. I had been at the same place for many years and I had been in the industry long enough and realized I was not pursuing my original dream and goal, which was to start my own label. I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish where I was and didn’t leave anything unfinished so that’s when I decided to take the time and go off and take that risk.
Taking the risk and imagining what the risk is are two different things. Were there any surprises in launching your collection that you didn’t expect?
Oh yes, everything is a surprise actually! (Laughs) It’s fascinating because I’ve learned so much over the past couple of years and it’s been an amazing experience. You have a dream but there are so many levels to running a business that you don’t anticipate until you actually do it. One of the things I’m always joking about is that I feel like I’m taking a crash course in legal or in building management. There are so many different things that come your way but you have to figure it out and problem-solve. Luckily, I’m not afraid of challenges or problems.
Understand you have a bit of family working with you. What is that like?
Yes, my sister works with me and I fortunately love it. Her name is Jessica and she started with me from day one and that’s been amazing. I’m sure she wants to kick me in the ass sometimes, as you know it is hard to be around your family constantly. Especially when your holidays are spent with your family and then your workdays are spent with your family. But I would spend every minute with her if I could. It doesn’t bother me at all but I’m sure for her it must be annoying at times. I love having her here.
It also seems that you have an extended family with your social media followers. You are so inspirational and influential with a number of people in our office. How important is social media to you and how important is it that you inspire others?
Everything is important. It is very important just to be inspired in general. I find everyone else inspirational and the people I surround myself with inspirational. I find life in general and walking out the front door inspirational. So if I inspire anyone else, that is a big bonus for me.
Thank you to the people on your team that are following me. I consider that an honor and I don’t take any of that for granted. It’s an honor if I can inspire other people, and if they find anything I post inspiring, that makes my day.
I love to see people comment and have a conversation on social media. Negative, positive, whatever it is. Just giving genuine feedback. That’s one of the most interesting things to me is actually hearing back. I don’t want to just put up a post and have it sit there and people love the post. I’d rather put up a post and have people dialog about it or tell me it is stupid or whatever! That’s fine and I welcome people to share that with me. I can then respond and say, “Thank you very much for responding and I hear you.” I can agree with it or disagree with it, but the biggest trick for me is that it is a conversation.
That’s partially why social media feels like a relationship and why some of the people that I would say are “friends” I’ve never met in person. It is only because of Instagram that I would say we are friends because they are consistently supportive or consistently have a conversation with me and I appreciate that.
I’m sure they appreciate it as well. How important is marketing to you in launching your brand as well as working on other brands?
I think marketing is really important but I think that marketing done well is even more important. You can market the hell out of something but if it isn’t done well, I would put it on the side until you can focus on it honestly.
There are so many types of marketing and I think just having a personality and a point of view is important. You don’t have to own the biggest billboard, you don’t have to have the loudest voice, you just have to be able to connect with people.
I think that is the biggest marketing tool, being able to connect with people on a human level, being honest and having integrity. Even if you have a small brand you can be genuine and honest with the people that support you and I think that is the most valuable form of marketing.
Are there areas of marketing that you would like to explore but haven’t had the chance to yet?
There are so many different ways to market right now. It’s constantly changing and evolving. So is there one way in particular that I would say, “That’s the one?” No. I would say there are areas that we are already involved in that I would love to do better and focus more on for both brands that I’m working on. In general, I’m focusing on keeping up with the new tools that are out there, learning them and learning best practices. Making them feel personalized to the brand we are using them for.
You did something rather innovative with Banana Republic recently that we thought was innovative with low cost high return. Placing a Go-Pro camera on you. Can you tell us about that?
It was fascinating because the marketing team at Banana Republic is lovely and comes up with a lot of ideas. Some of which I say, “No, you can’t follow me around here.” But they know that I don’t like to take myself too seriously.
When they came to me with the Go-Pro idea, I remember the moment exactly as they scooted up to me in chairs and were like, “So, Marissa.” And I always know they are up to something when they scoot up on chairs and are like, “So, Marissa.” I’m like, “What is it?” And they said, “ How would you feel about wearing a Go-Pro on your head during the fashion presentation?” And I was like, “Hell yeah! Totally, I will absolutely do that!” I found it interesting and fascinating because you are sharing and bringing people into the world of what you do. It’s more personal, interesting, and different. Plus it wasn’t so serious. So I didn’t care that I had to wear a funny hat on my head for the entire day.
Did they come to you with that idea the day of?
Yes, that was the actual day of!
It’s fascinating having dual worlds because one day, I could be at the studio where you are on the ground doing a thousand different things, like making sure the plumbing is going and the lights are on and the heat is on. And then the next day, you are at the Banana Republic office and there are so many people and everything is set up perfectly. There are so many more resources and so many hands on deck that it is a very different atmosphere.
So if I could take a little part of the well-oiled machine of the big corporation into the smaller company, that would be amazing. Then I would also love to take the flexibility and organic nature of the smaller company into the big corporation.
You touched on this earlier, but what are some of the roles that you play that those desiring to start their own label may not realize come with the job?
There is a lot that you have to manage on a daily basis, especially with two jobs in the industry, that you don’t see, that you don’t anticipate if you go to school for fashion design. Some day, you will have to deal with a budget. It is one of my least favorite topics but it is one that is a daily occurring topic. It doesn’t matter how big or small a company is, budget is huge. You have to go through numbers and make sure you are being responsible. Deadlines and managing deadlines is also a big priority. Making sure I’m meeting my deadlines and the team is making their deadlines is important.
Design is really 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Do you find that there are misperceptions about how you came into your success?
I think some people want to think everything is very easy and has been handed to you. Because for them it is easier to look at someone and think, “They didn’t have to actually bust their butts to get there,” or “They had the money to do it.” Sometimes people don’t want to hear the hard truth of what your background was or how you got to where you are because it is not a pretty story.
I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was adopted when I was young. I lived in an orphanage. I worked while I was growing up. I worked all through college. I worked my butt off to get to where I am now and I’m still working hard every single day.
I plan on making mistakes and continuously growing for a very long time, but it is not always easy. You have to work hard for it and you cannot sit back and wait for someone to hand it to you.
You’ve another show coming up in NY this February. How important are runway shows for your business and what is your favorite part about doing a show?
Doing a show is an important way for me to highlight my styling point of view for the collection. One of my favorite moments is actually when the last look has gone down the runway. There’s so much energy and preparation that leads up to that moment and the feeling of accomplishment is the best reward.
What is next for the Marissa Webb brand?
I hope everything! We are thinking about timing on how we want to expand. Next categories. There is a whole world of different opportunities, categories, and brand expansion out there for us. It is all about timing. After each collection it is an ongoing topic of discussion.
Well we look forward to continuing that discussion and watching both of your businesses grow. Good luck on your upcoming show.