The other day, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Aella's Eunice Cho and Ariyana Smith, Founder and Manager of Marketing and Business Development, respectively. After visiting their pop-up shop on Larchmont, I wanted to hear more about this crazy concept of comfortable, machine-washable, affordable, and actually attractive women's suits. They kindly invited me in to their showroom in Downtown LA, where we talked concept, fabrics, LA manufacturing, and even the future of fashion. Read on to learn more about these intelligent, talented young ladies.
Marissa from The ELA: So basically, when we met at your pop-up shop, I just thought the concept was so interesting. I feel like you see a lot of these concepts pop up that are supposed to be supposed to be utilitarian fashion and a lot of them don’t work because they don't do the fashion part well, they just do the utilitarian part. They end up closing because people like the whole idea of wearability, but then it also has to be something that you want to wear and looks good. I was really drawn to the fact that you guys have clothes that people want to wear and look good, and so...I wanted...to learn more about your concept and where you see everything going.
What inspired you to create the brand?
Eunice Cho: I have a creative background and I used to work for a painter and had no work uniform or dress code at all. After that I was working for a fashion company in New York...where the President of the company would show up in like, ripped shorts with her bra showing...In the meantime, all of my friends from college went into consulting or finance, so they would be wearing these suits and business formal clothes to work. But I never understood what that was like or the pain points of that world at all until I decided to go to business school and decided to buy my first suit when I was 25 and I was kind of really shocked at how boring the clothes were and how expensive everything was. And also just really uncomfortable because I was so used to wearing leggings. And once you wear leggings, you can never go back to anything else because it’s so comfortable! But leggings are so unprofessional...
So then that's what I was kind of like “Ok, you know, why is there an option that's like professional all but also really comfortable?” There’s are a lot of fabric innovation out there, and my family business is in textile manufacturing and fibers. So I was kind of thinking “Ok, maybe I'll be able to look into this from a fabric perspective." Once I came back here to business school, that’s when I started doing the research and trying to figure out if can we engineer the clothing to look polished without having to look like you're wearing leggings. Because that's what normal knit fabric ends up looking like. No matter what you do to it, t-shirt fabric will always look like t-shirt fabric. It took a lot of iterations and a lot of development to sort of get it to the kind of look we have now.
M: Who do you see as your target woman? You do you envision wearing your clothes?
EC: Our target customer is anybody who is living a super busy life. It's really somebody who is looking for comfort and versatility without having to compromise. The phrase that we use is the “24/7 woman.” Somebody who's juggling a lot of things. We have a lot of customers who are such amazing role models, which is why we decided to do that campaign “Women Who Inspire.” Basically we decided to interview and feature women who are amazing and inspirations, and some of them are already our customers or really represent who our customer base is. They tend to be founders of start-ups or women in high powerful positions in the corporate world. It really runs the gamut, but they're all people who are very hardworking. It's always very inspiring to talk to our existing customers because they always tend to be very impressive.
Ariyana Smith: Like Eunice said, we pride ourselves on the fact that pretty much all over our styles are approachable for a wide range of ages. So we have customers that are just leaving college and getting their first getting job and wanting to have something that is approachable for them and something that they're familiar with that looks really nice. And then we have people in their fifty's or sixty's that just really need comfortable clothing because they have the busiest lives imaginable. Because our designs are simple, they can easily transition to any wardrobe or type of style that you have. Whether you’re 18 or 65, you can wear our pants.
MP: Yeah. I think that's true too. Finding something that's in that sort of that mid-range price that is still quality that will last you and allows you to transition from life of leggings and sweatshirts into the professional world is huge. And I typically don’t believe that comfort should be your first priority, so it’s nice that you don't have to choose.
Speaking of comfort, I'd love to hear more about like your fabrics and your design, and how these elements play a central role in your vision?
EC: So everything that we use, it’s either a performance fabric that comes from a very special mill, or that we created ourselves. Our main fabric is something that’s called “Matte Skin.” It’s an Italian fabric and something that I found after literally months of research. For awhile, people were so focused on using natural fibers, but what people don't realize is that natural fibers are great, except that its like shopping for meat. It’s not about the material itself, its about how it was processed that makes a huge difference.
But I realized in my fabric research that high quality synthetic fibers can be much better in the long run because its more durable. The main fabric we use, matte skin, is a nylon and spandex fabric. High quality nylon can last you such a long time. No matter how much you wash it, the color wont fade if the material itself is stable and high quality. This is the main fabric that we use, and technically its a knit, which means that its made like a t-shirt fabric, but because of the fibers that it uses, it has a much more polished look. It's very opaque because of the size of the fiber. It’s a microfiber... and has a ton of spandex in it so it has a lot of give. But because of the nylon...the fabric won’t shrink. It’s breathable, machine-washable, and wrinkle resistant. It’s soft, super comfortable. And then we have two other main fabrics that we use. One of them is... basically just a really beautiful cotton blend that has a polyester dry fit layer on the inside. So it’s cooling and it dries really quickly, so if you sweat, it will keep you cool and dry all day long. And then the third fabric that we use that’s immensely popular is a fabric that comes from Turkey. It’s a more traditional suit twill material, but its still super buttery and soft and comfortable.
MP: Speaking of that, do you see your clothes as being transitional for work and working out? Or do you see it mostly as work and hanging out?
EC: Yes, but we don't advertise this as “workout clothing.” You can technically— this is fabric that people can use to create gym wear. But our purpose isn’t that you should necessarily go to the gym in this. The focus is really more of the versatility and transition then actually using just this as your gym wear. But it is possible!
AS: I personally do it, but thats because my life is sometimes too busy for me to change. I’ve gone rock climbing in my pants, I’ve done pilates in my pants, I’ve done hip hop dance classes in my pants. I’ve done a lot in the pants, and it works. There are definitely benefits to wearing these pants over traditional cotton or spandex leggings that you would wear to work out, because...these are really great in terms of being machine washable and fade resistant and just holding up over time. It’s athleisure in the sense that its active wear inspired.
MP: I know that you’re based here in LA. Do you do production here? And can you tell me a little bit about the production process and how important it is to you if its made here vs in other places?
EC: We produce in downtown LA, so we source our fabrics either locally (like our t-shirt fabric, we make here, so that’s local) and then we import our other luxury fabrics. It’s more of a strategic decision because I’m a huge proponent of Los Angeles becoming a manufacturing hub again. For businesses like us, its not advantageous [to produce abroad] because creating manufacturing overseas has a huge lead time. Actually, with shipping and everything, it doesn't make a huge difference in terms of the cost. If you produce locally then you can react to market changes faster. We’ll run out of something…and then we’ll be like “Ok, let’s make some more of that.” And then it will be ready in two weeks. It’s more about reaction time rather than volume. I hope that more and more people do local production so that many of these businesses can stay in business.
MP: I would love to hear a little more about your backgrounds and job history and what you lead you all here.
AS: I studied marketing and business strategy at SC. I knew I wanted to be in fashion so I was interning at Bloomingdales doing PR for their SoCal stores. But I also wanted to get really well rounded experience and be able to see what its like to work with bigger budgets, so that when I was able to start my own business or join a growing business, I would be able to scale the business. I worked at ad agencies, I worked at Guthy-Renker at some of their beauty brands doing their digital marketing and e-mail display ads. Then when I linked up with Eunice, it was a really good connection that we had and we knew that we would work well together.
MP: Going in a little different direction, its so great to see another cool start-up by millennial woman. You are millennials, but I don't know if you guys see yourselves as millennials (sometimes I don't see myself as one either). Has there been anything about your age or being women that has sort of affected your success or business, in positive or negative ways?
EC: For me, definitely negative. When I first started, it works against you to be a woman. Any kind of business pitch meetings with potential investors or advisors, they hold it against you that you're a young woman. When there was no brand and there was no product, it was really hard because people automatically doubt your credibility because you seem so young. People would straight up ask me “how old are you? How much experience do you have?” And every time I would have to remind them that I have an MBA. I went to Yale. I’m not doing this without a clear reason.
On the same coin though because its such a universal problem for all women, whenever we come across older women who are able to help us, we’ve been so supported. A lot of our business leads come from our customers because they want to help us, because they see what we’re doing. They see our mission and want to help us because they know how hard it is.
MP: And where do you see the brand going in the next couple years? Do you see it remaining small, direct-to-consumer or do you see it becoming like Lululemon with stores everywhere?
EC: We want focused growth. Something that we want to do this year is have a flagship, so its not just a regular flagship, but our flagship will always be a combination of office plus retail because its really important for everyone to be really close to all of the product and all of the customers and be in touch with that. We’ll have that, but it wont be like “this flagship is doing really well, so let’s roll out 20 stores in the next year.” I think thats dangerous because you can oversaturate people’s pysches. But at the same time, this is something we want to share with every woman out there, so we definitely want to grow as much as we can. But when it comes to our actual footprint, we’ll always be growing in a focused way. Even with our products, we’re never rolling out 100 SKUS at a time. We just want to do a few things and do it really well.
MP: Well that actually brings me to my next question, which is what is happening with the next collection? Are you coming out with a new collection anytime soon? Is that under wraps, or can we get a preview?
AS: One thing thats really cool about Aella that sets us apart from other brands is that we have signature styles, and they are available all year around. But we do come out with different styles, different colors, new designs.
EC: We’re redeveloping our fits. So for our signature pant styles, every pant is going to come in 2 different fits, because we noticed that our customers have two very distinct body types.
AS: We have the curvy girl with a small waist and the straight woman.
EC: I actually feel like a lot of millennial women can go either way depending on where you want your waistband.
MP: Yeah I feel like I know girls that have small waists but some curves, or I know girls that might be a little bigger around the waist but then have these really skinny legs.
EC: Yeah that’s our straight!
AS: That’s exactly it! That’s what we’ve been finding.
EC: We’re also going to be rolling out some fashion silhouettes for our tops, and we’re going to be rolling out more colors. We’re going to be reworking our blazers, so the fit will generally be consistent. It’s either going to be cinched— the classic blazer style— or like the single button boyfriend straight cut. But we’re going to be reworking the details and the construction. And we’re going to be reintroducing the convertible trench.
AS: That sold out so quickly. Everyone loved the idea.
EC: So yeah we have a lot of really exciting things coming up, and basically, towards the end of February, we’ll be relaunching and previewing everything.
MP: And my last question, this is a bit separate, but I’m always curious to hear about this because I think the fashion world is changing so much right now. And it’s gone through some drastic changes and people are reacting to a lot of things like fast fashion and their processes. What do you guys think are the biggest challenges facing the fashion industry today and what do you think the industry needs to be doing to addressing these problems?
EC: My perspective is coming from the manufacturers side and the industry side, kind of independent from the consumer. I think its really tough in terms of the fashion calendar because of the supply chain thats changing. People are now buying directly from brands and also going to department stores still, but all of that is sort of melding. And because of social media, this idea of buying collections months in advance and having that launch at department stores, all of that is getting so blurry.
And because the consumer has so many places where she can shop things, from a manufacturers point of view, it really messes up your calendar. For us it doesn't matter because we have a signature collection that runs all year long and we can release things whenever we want. But then there are all these other brands that are wholesale brands that rely on retailers to distribute their goods, and then it just becomes so confusing because you have to take their orders to create the product and you need time for that. And then the majority of the fashion industry is still built on that timeline, so if you're the kind of business like us thats just constantly creating and releasing, there aren't that many options for factories and supply chain wise who can be as flexible as we need our business to be. So I don't know whats going to happen with department stores, because its a completely different kind of a business.
AS: I would have to say two things. One its kind of related to media, but fashion as well. I think theres an interesting trend with a lot of the sites and magazines and they're starting to have affiliate links, but the brands that they choose are tied to whoever does paid advertising on their site or in their magazine. And that also has to do with who they write articles about and who they feature in round ups. Of course theres always going to be the fashion giants of the world, but its difficult for smaller brands to get noticed. I think thats going to be one of the biggest challenges of 2016 is trying to figure out for brands, and also for fashion writers, bloggers, editors to figure out how they're going to balance this. Giving their advertisers what they need but also to find brands that are doing something different and interesting and being able to highlight that. And also something that we noticed is that theres a trend now to clothing that looks a certain way, but that really isn't customer friendly. Many women cant wear a lot of the clothing thats out there right now and I think thats always existed, but even moreso now. This boxy shape thats fit for a Scandinavian model.
MP: I feel that way all the time.
AS: For us, its doing something different. We just have to make sure that the editors and customers notice that and find out about us.
MP: I wonder, though, what you think about the way traditional PR and marketing, in terms of brand relationships with these big magazines, is changing. Because in a way, all of these fashion websites are looking more towards affiliates, but because of social media, theres a bit more freedom for small brands to become known. Smaller brands that have targeted certain bloggers, and of course I’m sure they have good marketing budgets to throw money at them, have sort of exploded on social media. I think of like Anine Bing and those types of brands.
Do you think there is a place for smaller brands because of social media, or do you think it comes down to affiliates and who can pay for all that?
AS: I think its tough now, because I think that there was a place for smaller brands in 2014. I think that there was kind of a place for smaller brands in 2015. 2016, its getting more difficult and thats because the traditional fashion blogger is changing, she's evolving. And fashion publications and fashion sites are changing and evolving.
EC: Because we’re such a small company, we’ve never been in the mindset of “let’s jump on whatever bandwagon social media.” We just focus on our customers and where they are, because it just makes sense for us and thats what we can do. I think it makes no sense to spend any kind of man hours on a platform where our customers just don't exist. So thats why we focus so much of our efforts on customer service, because thats how they place their loyalties.
MP: I feel like a lot of smaller companies exist almost by word of mouth. In a world where people think that your Instagram following dictates your ROI, I feel like still having that ability to excite people to the point where they're talking about it and communicating through word of mouth, thats something I feel like you can actually do and be successful at. Because other companies that just sell a typical t-shirt— young 20-somethings are not going to be telling all of their friends about it, so they have to exist through Instagram and Facebook.
EC: I think that the more varied the landscape becomes for marketing, its more important than ever for a brand to stick to their DNA because otherwise your voice will get lost.
AS: Our pieces are fashionable, but we’re still a solution-driven brand, so we have a very clear story that needs to be told in order for you to understand the benefit of our product. That’s why more than ever, PR, having an article written about us or being featured on a blog means so much because the person is able to articulate whats special instead of just us coming out with cute, trend-driven pieces. It’s not our brand DNA. And also our packaging and the way we communicate with our customers that we don't get to see face-to-face, its so important to us. We spend a lot of time— we have notes in each of our packages that are personalized to the individual. We have really cute folders that explain how you should go about doing something really simple, like trying on your pants to make sure that you have the best experience. We even have shareable cards that you can give to your friends that comes with each and every order. Focusing on small ways to communicate with our customer and to enable them to share with people is more important for us than going online and trying to communicate with people that way.