When it comes to fashion, Trina Turk makes decisions on the basis of what makes her happy. But when it comes to business, she has learned to be methodical. Turk, who learned to sew at 11, launched her namesake clothing line in 1995, after years of designing for various clothing companies on the West Coast. Her line, known for cheery, bold prints, was quickly picked up by Barneys, Fred Segal, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Now, Turk’s Los Angeles-based company has annual sales of more than $60 million and 150 employees. The clothes are sold in high-end department stores, as well as in seven Trina Turk boutiques and on the company’s website. Turk also has several licensing deals and recently partnered with Banana Republic, which carried a Trina Turk collection in 450 stores. When she isn’t working on her line, Turk uses e-commerce stats and other data to help plot her company’s growth. –as told to Liz Welch
In the beginning, I just wanted to work for myself. But now, Trina Turk has a certain DNA and identity. I see my role as design police and arbiter of what is Trina Turk: I make sure that everything that we produce is upbeat and happy.
We’re constantly in production–we do 11 collections a year, and each collection has 65 to 70 pieces. We do three for fall, two for spring, three for summer, one for winter, and two resort collections. Our customer shops a lot and wants to see constant newness. We’re basically shipping new merchandise every month, so that when she goes to the store, there’s something new for her to see.
I usually get up at 6:30 and go to a Pilates class near my house. Exercising helps me maintain calm. Before I leave for work, I have a cup of decaf coffee and spend 30 minutes reading. I flip through Women’s Wear Daily and a ton of magazines I subscribe to. I’m interested in anything design related, whether it’s fashion, architecture, interior design, the arts, or film.
I usually end up tearing out a lot of pages–it’s very old school. It may be an article about a museum exhibit I want to see or one about a book of fashion illustrations that I want to sell in one of our stores. I try to pass along each sheet to the right person on my team, but that doesn’t always happen. I have piles of clippings in my office and at home. Sure, there’s a lot of trend and fashion information online, but I started working in this industry in 1983, so I’m set in my ways.
It’s about 20 minutes from my home to our office in Alhambra. We’re in a neighbourhood that is not known for fashion. We’re right next to a cabinetmaker. It’s not very glamorous, but it’s safe–a lot of young women work for me–and it’s close to the garment district, where many of our sewing contractors are based. About half of our clothes are made locally. We cut those patterns in the Alhambra offices, and then we send them to outside contractors for the actual sewing. Our office has its own loading dock, which is very convenient.
I get to the office by about 9:30 and go through my emails. I have an old-fashioned daybook where I keep my calendar and take notes. At the end of each day, my assistant, Carol Meadows, puts everything into the calendar on my computer and my iPhone.
I do three fittings a week. Each lasts about two hours. The first fitting is with Laurie Carrasco, our Size 2 sample size model. Laurie tries on the very first drafts of all our styles. After we make adjustments, we create our sample Size 6 and try it on Janelle Bishop. She has been our perfect Size 6 fit model for 17 years.
Fit is critical. If it doesn’t fit, no one’s going to buy it. I often try on clothes during fittings, because my body is very different than Janelle’s. We’re trying to fit an American woman. A Size 6 woman could be 5 feet tall or 6 feet tall. A piece has to work for as many people as possible.
If it’s an import style–made in one of the factories we work with in China–then someone from our import production team will be at the fitting, too. When I started out, it didn’t make sense to produce in China, because you needed at least 300 pieces per style for it to be cost effective. That’s why we started manufacturing domestically. But as we grew, it made more sense to do some pieces in China. Any type of beaded embellishment or embroidery gets done there. We could not afford to do that here. The disadvantage of China is that you have to order way in advance–it’s a 120-day process from start to finish. So, if a certain item sells really well, it’s hard to reorder. Plus, if something isn’t working, the back-and-forth is done through email, whereas for pieces made in L.A., I can look at and touch the garment. We’re in a tactile business, and that still matters.
When I’m not in meetings, I’m usually thinking about my next collection. Each one starts with a colour, idea, or theme. For instance, I saw a show of artist Sonia Delaunay’s work, and that was the inspiration for our first fall 2012 line, which used very bold colours and graphic designs. Our second fall line was inspired by the women of Hitchcock films.
I look for ideas for new collections everywhere but often find them just by rooting around the vintage closet in our office, which has more than 1,000 items my husband, Jonathan [Skow], and I have collected over the past 20 years. Vintage-clothing shopping has been my hobby since high school, and L.A. has the best vintage. I go to the Sunday flea markets and several vintage shows each year. I will buy an item for any detail I like–a button, the fabric, the colour.
Sometimes, I will grab a piece–like a bolero jacket–as a starting point. It may not necessarily be where we end up. I’ve learned that you can’t knock off vintage exactly. Our body shapes are different, and we have different comfort thresholds. For instance, a lot of the dresses in our collection from the ’60s have very high armholes. So we’ll pick a look and modernize it.
In the afternoons, I meet with my team. I may work with our sweater designer or our jewelry designer, or I might spend an hour with Carrie Gallun, who works on Trina Turk Residential, our line of home décor. That started after we made some pillows out of our fabrics for a photo shoot. Afterward, we threw them in our Palm Springs store–and they sold immediately. Around the same time, Peking Handicraft, a San Francisco-based company, approached us about licensing the brand for pillows. Our residential stuff is less than 10 per cent of sales, but it is growing quickly. We recently launched a bedding line that just took off.
Other than a few meetings, I rarely see my husband during the day. He’s a photographer and shoots everything for our website, as well as the look books we send to buyers. He’s usually off shooting, either on location in Palm Springs or in the photo studio at the office. He also does our social media, including photos for my blog. I’m the worst blogger. I posted about my birthday party–one year later. Jonathan actually responds to people on Instagram as if he’s me. He also is solely responsible for Mr. Turk, our men’s line.
Jonathan and I travel often, and always together. I visit each boutique at least once a year. We have seven stores–three are in Southern California, and the others are around San Francisco, Miami, New York City, and Dallas. We opened Palm Springs first, in 2002. We picked that spot because we liked the architecture of the building–which is a terrible way to choose. We did not account for foot traffic or rack space.
Now, we’re a lot savvier. We choose store locations based on our clients. We get a ton of information through Google Analytics and our e-commerce business. We also can get information from department stores and credit card companies. Recently, I was invited to speak at a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, which I thought was random. But we did research and found that North Carolina is one of the top places where people Google Trina Turk. Now, we have a list of 15 potential places where we could open a store and are working on a structured plan of how to best do that. Instead of saying, “Hey, let’s open a store,” we follow a formula.
When I visit a store, I can immediately notice a list of things that could be better. Sometimes it’s that the sunglasses have fingerprints on them or that a chair needs to be reupholstered. Retail spaces get trashed. I’m also a little obsessive-compulsive about how things are displayed. We used to let store managers put together outfits, but now we tell them what should go on the mannequins.
Price is everything in this industry–you make money when you sell at full price. When the recession hit, in 2008, department stores responded by taking brand-new merchandise and putting it on the floor at a 70 per cent discount. That was devastating to us. We’re still recovering. Everyone wants to wait for the 70-per cent-off sale. That said, I think the recession changed the industry for the better. People are thinking more about what they are purchasing. The customer is thinking, “Am I going to spend $350 of my hard-earned money on this dress?” That’s how I shop–I’m only going to buy something that I love. It’s forcing the entire industry to create better products.
I usually leave the office at around 6:30 or 7 p.m. If dinner is being prepared at home, Jonathan is doing it. He’s the cook in the family. At night, I watch a few shows to unwind. I like Project Runway–I would love to be a judge. I also like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Jonathan and I travel to New York pretty often–at least six times a year. When we’re there, my days are always jam-packed with meetings with potential licensees, with fabric or jewelry companies, or with department stores. But I always make sure to squeeze in a few gallery or museum shows.
For real time off, we’ll head up to Seattle once or twice a year, because both our parents are there. We try to take a longer trip every summer. This year, we went to Bali for eight days and only scratched the surface. Everything amazed me: the people, the food, the textiles. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m always thinking about work. Anything I do or see could become an inspiration for a collection.
My goal these days is to spend as much time as possible on the creative part of the company. In the early days, I did everything. My biggest challenge has been letting go and letting people do their jobs. I cannot know about every little thing anymore, so instead I focus on the brand–which is more fun anyway.
This post originally appeared at Inc.
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