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The Harsh Reality Of When Mass Retailers Find Indie Designers

It’s an up-and-coming designer’s dream. You’re laboring over handcrafting earrings or oils or needlepoint in your apartment to sell at flea markets and on your Etsy shop, and then you receive a single order from a retailer (one you’ve actually heard of!) for more units than you’ve sold in the entire time you’ve been making them. Validation!


If you’re this kind of indie designer, that big order more likely than not comes from Urban Outfitters, which also owns retail brands Free People and Anthropologie. The pseudo-boho company has made it its business to discover fresh talent, and you’ll often find American-made, hand-dyed jumpers proudly displayed alongside racks of factory-produced graphic T-shirts.

But Urban tapping an indie designer is nothing like a fairy godmother tapping Cinderella; small-time designers are suddenly thrust into making hard new business decisions that could lead to their demise. Now, they may need to figure out where to get the money to order $10,000 worth of materials, whether to upgrade their equipment, and how to find, hire, and pay several new employees. And these decisions have to happen…now. Because retailers often want that order filled within a few short weeks.

In 2013, Carrie Morrissey of the accessories company I Still Love You NYC was at her first-ever trade show when she got an order from Urban Outfitters for 1,000 of her Alien ID choker, which up until that point, she had only made 10 of using a laser cutter in her apartment, then heating the pieces in an oven in her back garden to bend the plastic into shape.

She had less than one month to fulfill the order: “My mother came down and I had to teach her jewelry-making so she could help wherever she could," she says. "I ended up hiring eight people. I did sleep but not a lot — half due to getting it out, half due to anxiety. We filled our entire living room and kitchen with chokers. We had to ask for an extra week just to pack everything.”

It’s excellent that a corporation with deep pockets wants to support independent artisans. (In any case, it’s a much better alternative than allegedly ripping off designers.) But from the artisans' perspective, it’s hardly the lucky break they’d dreamed of. When Free People or Target says they want 400 necklaces — by next month — are you prepared to quit your job, barely sleep for three weeks, and max out your credit card? Because according to the designers we talked to, that’s exactly what it will take.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
You Gotta Spend Money To Make Money
Shabd Simon-Alexander, a textile artist who makes hand-dyed accessories and home goods under the name Shabd, got her biggest order ever last year right before the holiday season from Urban Outfitters, for 1,000 Magic Jar Dye Kits.

"It was a little daunting,” she says, and that’s putting it mildly. Because the DIY kit was a new product, she couldn’t order any materials until she had all the orders in, so she could buy in bulk and get the best price. Oh, and she had to pay for those materials out of pocket, which cost her over $10,000. Finally, there was the timing. “After getting the materials in, I had two weeks to make 1,000 kits,” she says. She hired an office assistant (who ended up not working out) and paid several Cooper Union students to work full-time to get the kits out on time.

When Tanwi Nandini Islam of Hi Wildflower Botanica got her first big order from Urban Outfitters for 400 hand-poured candles last year, “I was completely freaked out,” she says. She had already invested in a $1,000 industrial melter, but had to spend an additional $10,000 on labor and materials.

Morrissey put those costs on her credit card. “By the time I got paid, it was 30 to 45 days after [Urban Outfitters] received the goods,” she says. “I racked up interest.” She suggests turning to a type of business called a factor for the cash, which lends money to small businesses to buy supplies, then takes a percentage of the final payment when it comes in.

Rules, Rules, Rules
Every designer speaks with awe about the myriad guidelines that come down from large retailers. “I felt overwhelmed by learning to navigate the back-end and corporate process,” Islam says.

"Retailers like Urban Outfitters, Nasty Gal, Nordstrom — who we work with now — have a lot of requirements that you have to fulfill,” Morrissey says. “There’s testing that has to happen for lead and other materials. There’s very particular requirements for labeling, the way you have to box everything up, the type of boxes you use, the way you mark things… Or else you get charge-backs, which is when you get fined by the company for errors. There’s specific terminology. Everything is shorthand, so they’ll say, 'We need this, this, and this,' and you’ll be like, 'I have no idea what that stands for.’”

Annabel Inganni of Wolfum, who collaborated with the popular e-boutique Of a Kind on a special project for Target earlier this year, is more blunt. "Hire a lawyer. Those contracts are intense!" she says.

When Erica Bradbury of the occult jewelry and lifestyle brand Species by the Thousands got her first big order from Target several years ago for 300 screen-printed sweatshirts, she was floored by the requirements. “I had to get some kind of insurance for the products; a limited liability just in case something happened to someone wearing the sweatshirt.” She asked Target to double its order to make the insurance worth it, which it promptly did, to her surprise.

Urban Outfitters, for its part, has a supplier-only website with videos, tutorials, and step-by-step instructions. “If you’re confused about something, as long as you’re on top of things, you keep up to date on your emails and stay organized, the buyers are so willing to help,” Morrissey says.

And designers are often grateful for the learning experience. "Yes, the rules are strict, but it was important for me to be treated as if I were a bigger company,” says Ellen Van Dusen of the apparel brand Dusen Dusen, who got her first big order from Anthropologie. For Van Dusen, figuring out how to make it through this period of intense growth paid off: “It marked a shift in my business to where I started thinking more about the business end of things, instead of focusing all my energy on the creative end.”
Picky, Picky
But for many other designers, the business side is much harder to figure out — especially if there’s a ticking time bomb in their laps. Says Wolfum’s Inganni, “There are so many opportunities these days, it is smarter to grow responsibly and evenly, then to blow up.”

At their first trade show five years ago, Katie deGuzman and Michael Miller of the fierce jewelry brand K/ller Collection were approached by a retailer with more than 50 stores. But deGuzman and Miller decided not to send samples for consideration. "Many of our friends thought we were crazy to turn down such a large retailer. While we knew a purchase order from this company would be a game-changer and bring in a ton of money, it was a lifestyle clothing company that really didn't fit where we wanted to take our brand,” says deGuzman. Today, K/ller is carried by luxury stores like Barneys New York, Helmut Lang, ABC Carpet & Home, as well as over 60 high-end boutiques — retailers that deGuzman believes wouldn’t have placed orders if the company had initially sold to the first mass retailer. “It's so important to stick to your vision,” she says.

K Thx Bye
After the thrill of seeing their product on the shelves, and some social media love, designers face the fact that the first large order doesn’t guarantee success. In most cases, it’s just one step toward fame and fortune, with the added headache of needing to entirely overhaul how you do business.

"It was like a one-time thing, so I got paid what I needed to. But it didn’t change anything for me in the long run,” Shabd says. “Don’t hire people or rent a space based on that income stream,” she cautions.

“You’re only as good as your last collection,” Morrissey says. She now has a proper studio and regularly fills orders for up to 700 pieces for Nasty Gal. “Just because you’ve worked with a brand doesn’t mean you’ll work with them again.”
The Urban Outfitters Economy
All the designers I spoke with still love boutiques. Their passionate owners support them season after season, albeit with smaller orders than the mass retailers. But Urban Outfitters and outlets like it seem to be single-handedly supporting a whole emerging-designer economy.

“I do have orders from Urban and Free People regularly now,” Bradbury says. “Having those big orders helps with cash flow. Yes, I’d rather work with small boutiques, but a lot of them have closed.” And now that Bradbury’s store is right down the street from Urban’s Williamsburg location, she gets people wandering in after seeing her work there.

“Without the bulk orders that bigger stores like Anthropologie place, it wouldn't be feasible for me to continue making clothes,” Van Dusen says. “It brings the cost down per garment across the board.”

After successfully fulfilling the order for 400 candles, Islam of Hi Wildflower Botanica went back to Urban Outfitters this season and pitched a custom candle based on her brand's perfume. UO ordered 7,000 of them, and wanted them within a month. Unfortunately, Islam’s first novel had just come out, so she had to ditch any plans of celebrating to fulfill the order, all while planning a national book tour.

"This was a really hard move. They asked me a preliminary, ‘Is this cool with you to put in a big order?’ I let them know my capability. I wasn’t getting any sleep. I made mistakes. There was hardship. They did check in to see if I was on track, and thank goodness I was,” Islam says. “I left for my book tour just a week after we sent out the Urban Outfitters order!”

“It was pretty bad timing, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to be in stores for holiday season. Having a business means you take risks,” she says. “It’s one month of hardship, and $10,000 to pivot my brand onto a national scale.”