In this live interview conducted May 03, 2012, ExploreCreateRepeat sat down with Toronto fashion designer Nordem Hirst to talk about education, entrepreneurship and the evolving role of social media in the fashion industry.
ECR: To start off, you were taking Computer Science at The University of Waterloo, how did you choose to make that shift from a well-established, reputable computer science program amongst the best known in Canada.
Nordem: It’s a guaranteed position at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, whatever...
ECR: Right, you’re in this field, you’re in school - what is it that comes into your head, to then say you’re going to make this very substantial shift to not just fashion school, but to pursue a career in fashion on the whole.
Nordem: Well, here’s the thing, I was twenty or twenty-one years old, but essentially I realized if I want to change, it’s easier to make the change now than rather than finish the degree and then go to another school for two years. Because finishing a degree is very draining at the end of the day because it only get’s harder. And I just feel like my passion isn’t there. So at that time, you know how University is about exploring your interests and trying different things; which I did and I realized that Fashion really interests me more than ever.
So I decided to make the change.
ECR: You say to yourself alright, “I’m going to jump into fashion”, what thread did you decide to follow? You obviously went to Toronto’s George Brown College, how did you come to that decision? Was it based on research that you’d performed, friends you had in the program?
Nordem: I actually really didn’t know anyone in fashion at that point, I just really don’t know, but I ran into it, and I knew if I ran into it I’d start knowing people. Deciding to go to George Brown was a strategic move, because first of all I can’t read and I can’t write, I can’t do university because university focuses on too much of that, which isn’t necessary for Fashion Design. As long as I can read email, reply to email, and maintain my public relations, doing my marketing, that’s good enough to me. I don’t need to be able to write an essay to run a business.
In this industry, nobody cares if you have a diploma or a degree, so why would I spend that $6,500 extra into a program from a university that’s not necessarily going to benefit me in terms of getting a job or starting a business.
As a result I decided to go to college, tuition is only $3500 a year, spending as much for a two year program as I would for one year somewhere else. You might get more internship opportunities, but since I’m good at networking, I can cover that on my own. So it’s mostly a practical and financial choice.
ECR: Since you have been in both the university environment and the college environment, relate your experience; you managed to get the best of both worlds so to speak. University and what it has to offer and college and what it has to offer, what would you say that you have as an advantage that someone who only went through one program or another might not have?
Nordem: Ok, the main thing about university is that it teaches you how to figure things out. So once you go through university you can kind of be independently working on a project or something that you don’t need too much guidance to finish what you have to do because that’s part of your university training. Not to mention, I went to Computer Science and the whole thing about Computer Science is problem solving. I learned a lot of problem solving strategies and a lot of problem solving techniques that I can actually apply, and it’s actually very useful to apply this knowledge when I’m doing fashion.
And in college it's more hands on, its solid, about how to execute the actual designs. College doesn’t teach design at all, but it taught me how things are done. When I can design, I can just get things done and design is a kind of thing that at the end of the day, in real-life industry, design is more like what things people want. It’s not what you want. Design school is sometimes more about what you want and not what the client wants. So it’s different angles. I am not so upset that I didn’t actually learn any design in college, which yes, it does put me into a disadvantage because I had to learn design on my own, but it certainly saves me time and money. I can learn it through the industry, through consultations in the industry, through talking to other people and figuring things out.
What I’m selling right now is basically a plain design that people can wear from day to night, it’s not even something that’s just crazy on the runway. So it’s very different from what design school would teach and what I would actually do in the industry I think.
ECR: That sort of idea, that you’re learning something both practical but then having to bring yourself to it is a really common theme you end up hearing from a lot of people who are in the creative arts generally. They sort of felt they already had the inspiration or they already had the passion for whatever it is they’re actually creating, and it was more about the business skills, the marketing, the branding that they had to sort of incorporate. With that, right now your flagship product is The Shirt.
You’ve made a pretty conscious decision, and I have to ask, if this is inspired at all with what you’ve learned through both your network and through your education, whether you’ve consciously narrowed your market to sort of fill a niche. The Shirt is clearly targeted towards men of a narrow frame, you know, with a certain sort of build, with a certain sort of idea of what they might be looking for, and I think that speaks to exactly what you’re describing in terms of looking for what your client’s trying to get out of you as opposed to you creating something and putting it out into the world and hoping people look for it.
Nordem: So, in terms of those fancy garments on the runway, it’s for marketing, it’s not for generating profit, but to generate profit, I need those flashy things on the runway to generate attention and for people to notice me, for people to still remember me, to refresh everyone’s mind that I’m in the industry so to speak.
But The Shirt, I wouldn’t say I’m narrowing down my market, I’d say I picked the market that’s not satisfied by the current industry offering. Because I personally couldn’t find a shirt, and many people like me couldn’t find a shirt. The first shirt that I sold, about two weeks ago, he’s coming back to me already to ask about other colours, because it was that good that he wore it for two weeks and he felt like he wanted other colours.
And I mean, people who haven’t found a shirt that fit them well, someone like me, someone like you, someone like my first customer, we all have the same problem. And I realized, the more I do research, the more I figure out there are way more people than I expected having this problem, like way more. Therefore it becomes intuitive that there’s a market because if I can satisfy every one of these people who are looking for a shirt that will fit them right, and they couldn’t find them, and now I’m here, and they will gladly come to try on my shirt, and once they try it they will know that they can always trust me on buying shirts, and they will always buy from me.
So just narrowing down to one product is strategic, because I can focus in on just selling this product, and make this product famous as a representation of me. Just like underwear with Calvin Klein and ties with Ralph Lauren, as the polo shirt to Lacoste. Lacoste makes polo shirts perfectly, everyone knows it. Everyone knows underwear with Calvin Klein, ties with Ralph Lauren, that’s how Ralph Lauren started the business.
Why can’t I just make The Shirt as a thing that’s going to be something special? There are many different underwear around, but Calvin Klein managed to make something special out of their material. I’ve made something special because I cut it differently and I have a specific market, and it’s a strategic move and focus on one thing instead of being scattered and nothing gets sold.
As a sole proprietor, I only have one person to work on every single different aspect, like marketing, like branding, like sourcing pattern-making, sample-making, production management, show production, photo-shoot production, lookbook, which is part of marketing, and sales. So how am I supposed to have one person do all of these? I really have to narrow down to one thing that can be on the rack and keep on selling non-stop after doing the marketing. So right now the product is ready, I’ve launched the product, now all I have to do is sales and marketing, sales and marketing, sales and marketing, to the point where everyone wants to try it.
Well not everyone, but my target market; once they try it they know how good it is, they’ll want to buy it even if they don’t have money right now, but maybe in two years, they’ll have more money and come back to buy it. So right now it’s just a waiting game and a marketing game. And that will make my life easier, to just focus on one thing and really make it famous and really make it famous and really make a name with it. And then branch out to something different.
And this is kind of like a reverse of what usually a fashion house would do. Like fashion houses, like the biggest fashion house McQueen, he does all the fabulous, fancy things on the runway and then tones it down to sell something that people can actually wear. But I go from the other way, I focus on the necessity, make sure my customers are happy and make sure it’s a simple shirt but it looks super good.
And that’s the purpose of the runway show, because essentially I’m just showing ten shirts on the runway, but each shirt looks fantastically amazing on the body, so people think that it’s a basic shirt, but to just wear The Shirt magically you would look so much better. Focus on one thing instead of focusing on thirty different products in one season.
ECR: That neatly leads into the next question, which is that you clearly have to strike a balance between what you’re going to be putting on the runway and as you say, that tends to be your marketing material, that’s how you’re garnering attention, but then you have to be able to lead people into this necessity. How do you find that balance, and what strategies do you employ to lead people from that runway material which may not be designed for everyday-wear, to then this everyday material that you do have?
Nordem: Here’s the thing: for a photographer, you only need that one shot to make you famous. For a fashion designer, you actually just need that one thing that makes you famous. I’m not talking about The Shirt, but one fantastic look that people will remember you for. And if that’s the case, I just need that one shot. So, one fancy look, two fancy looks, three fancy looks a season for marketing and promotion and make it like a limited run, so make it special, make those fantastic garments special, as a limited run, will generate interest.
People will just want to buy the limited run and I still don’t lose the point that I’m mostly selling The Shirt, does that make sense? Make things limited run I can break even with those limited run garments. Like for example this show, I would definitely make my capes limited run, make one of my coats limited run.
Outside of that, I’d just say, once it’s sold out it’s sold out, but you can still buy The Shirt.
ECR: That serves then as that introduction, people who are interested in that marketed, limited run, they get to see that quality, they get to see that innovation.
Nordem: They get to see what the designer is capable of, but at the same time it doesn’t hurt the business of focusing on The Shirt. That’s why I had a show with coats and capes with The Shirt, so those things will generate a lot of fantastic things, and people will understand that yes it’s a shirt, but you can wear a shirt on many different occasions with many different garments, and you can look so good with it. And that’s my sole purpose with my show that I just finished.
ECR: You also raise the point there that when you’re putting on a show, when you’re creating a lookbook, you have to work with other professionals in the field - how do you find those relationships are generated, and how do you end up keeping them? With your photographers, with your models, with your makeup artists. Your job is to help people look amazing, how do they help you make sure that your work is presented as best as possible?
Nordem: Well they’re my friends, just make friends with them and be a good person, be a smart person and be a sincere person. Smart people will know what’s bullshit, so you be smart, and you will know the smart people who can do the good job. So I make sure that I network with people who are solid, and when I do my management, I do my management through Facebook. I send messages, I do my castings, I have a list of people. I have a list for male models, I have a list of female models, for makeup artists, for photographers.
So when I need someone, I send a group of people a message saying I’m looking for this for this project. I make sure that I’ll explain this is what you can get out of it. So for example for the video, it’d be good exposure for someone waiting for exposure in the industry.
It makes people want to help me and I can help them get to somewhere, because I’m essentially showing things with their work and I do spread out their names.
ECR: Social media has now become central not only to how you’re promoting yourself but even how you conduct business. So this is something that’s a fairly recent phenomenon, how would you say that’s impacted the industry on the whole?
Nordem: In this creative industry everyone uses Facebook a lot, and it’s just easier because it’s getting to the point where people check their Facebook more than their email, a lot of people. A lot of people don’t feel like replying to their emails but they’ll reply on Facebook.
So you see that Facebook is much more important in this kind of fashion industry, just because everyone already sets up their events, finds their contacts that way. So now more than ever, Facebook, social media, you’re using it for your real business, not just on the side or for marketing.
ECR: I think that wraps us up, unless there’s anything else you want to add?
Nordem: I think that’s good, thanks again Stefan.Nordem Hirst's online portfolio on 4ormat