Over the years, our team has interviewed hundreds of creatives. Designers and business people and other insiders that fill every corner of the industry we love. Until now, never has a designer’s point of view and attitude about her life and business felt so refreshing and balanced. Meet Emerson Fry, a womenswear designer based in New Hampshire. Perhaps this is the answer – get out of fashion’s epicenters and allow oneself to live and truly be inspired. Create the business everyone tells you is impossible…and succeed.
Are you from the Northeast?
Not born there, but grew up there for the most part, yes.
As a trained artist, did you always know you would be a designer?
Yes, for as long as I can remember. I design for work and paint for personal enjoyment now, and the two work well together. I went to trade school for design (pattern making, draping, construction), and then was focused heavily on painting while living in NYC.
I actually really love that you’re based in New Hampshire – you produce high quality ready-to-wear and accessories without living in an obvious fashion epicenter. What led to moving the business out of NYC?
We started the company about the same time we were moving from NYC. In that sense it was somewhat of an ironic coincidence, but more of a personal decision then a professional decision.
Obviously, this probably creates some production or logistical challenges? How do you overcome these?
As you point out, initially the challenges were significant. We were doing our development in NYC and having to go back and forth from NYC to NH. The main issue was direct and constant access to the processes and activities. Eventually we put together a team in NH and now do all of our development internally. Ultimately, the biggest difference is company structure. We traded uncertainty and variable cost for certainty and fixed cost. Every step along the way has had certain advantages and disadvantages. The key is to focus on the advantages and find creative solutions for anything else. When we started, people said ‘you’re crazy to manufacture in the USA, you will never be competitive with China’s low cost manufacturing’. What’s great to see is that the garment industry business in the USA is growing and thriving rapidly in recent years. A USA-made industry creates a job market in so many fields, from creative to trade. The bottom line is whenever someone says what you’re doing is crazy just forge the fuck ahead anyway and see for yourself. Either way you did what you believed in and that’s certainly worthwhile.
Why New Hampshire?
It’s business friendly and no taxes. But the main reason is we both grew up there, and our families are there. Being close to wilderness, and being able to run in the mountains is great and the summers are beautiful.
How is your NH-lifestyle reflected in your designs?
Not sure NH finds its way into our garments specifically, other than to look into nature as inspiration for color. We are catering to a customer who is looking for versatile, long-term wardrobe pieces and a less-is-more aesthetic. Our customer base is primarily in cities and coasts, so there is a varied lifestyle, but the aesthetic principles are the same.
Did it take a while to establish a team? Are you able to do all sample-making in house? Do you produce in New York?
It took time to establish a team. But as time goes on and your team quality grows, it does get easier. An interesting factor has been how many industry people have been leaving cities to get more space and be near natural areas more, and it becomes easier to hire. Our approach has been to focus on one group at a time (i.e. development, customer service, design, etc.). But yes, we basically do everything in house, our process being design, sourcing, development, sample making, art, shipping, and then production which is mostly done in NYC, or more recently, experimenting with some LA operations.
Why did you make the name change from Emersonmade to Emerson Fry?
Emerson Fry felt more streamlined and it was a different business overall. It coincided with some aesthetic and market positioning changes.
How did this affect sales and overall branding?
Sales increased and branding took a step closer to what we ultimately wanted. We started this business from the ground up with no backing whatsoever. When you start like that, you have to make some compromises and be patient. We are at a place now where we can evolve exactly as we want.
Your caftans are very popular – how did this style become an Emerson Fry signature?
A friend in India introduced us to the traditional artisan technique of block printing. Block stamps are carved by hand and the fabric is hand stamped. It’s a beautiful art form that is disappearing with the replacement of machines. Originally they were meant to be a seasonal product, but we have continued to make a small line of caftans each season with artists in India. They are easy to care for and wear, travel well, and people like giving them as gifts.
After 6 years in business – what have you learned?
There are many obvious things: the right people and team are key in order to scale, there’s no way around hard work and long hours, etc., but there are a few things I find interesting and challenging:
-Evolution: It’s critical to keep evolving. Many times this does not come easy. But evolution is life. And it keeps things exciting.
-Ideas: Don’t marry ideas. Flexible thinking is creativity, and creativity is life.
-Challenges: Growth does not mean easier. The stakes get bigger and the challenges are different.
-Management: Growing means more managing. This can be difficult when you prefer to do rather than to manage. Oh well.
-Principles: Sometimes personal beliefs are more important then the bottom line. For example, we have been moving towards organic, sustainable, eco dyes, recycled fabrics due to the obvious concerns about industries effects on environment. But with that goal often materials are more difficult and costly to source.
-Make space: As a business owner, you have to make your company work in harmony with your lifestyle. Otherwise it’s not sustainable. Creating and sustaining a company takes a lot of energy. Space is where you refuel. Space in life, space in the mind. Make space.
-Hype and PR: These are never as important as the product, the quality, and the way you treat people.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I only care about the future. The past is the past. And I don’t drink alcohol.