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"Interning post-college was the easiest decision I've ever made," exclaims Catherine Smith, founder and CEO of Plan de Ville. The site, one of fashion's newest (and most exciting) e-commerce platforms—and dubbed the Retail Rising Star by Fashion Group International—specializes in emerging and undiscovered designers. Smith's business (like any successful one) solves two problems: one, emerging designers struggle to obtain liftoff in the climate of major department stores and e-comm giants who don't have the time or the appetite to invest in risks; and two, the high-end customer and the entry-level luxury consumer are frustrated by the style sameness in their social circles and in the stores they frequent. In other words: why should a woman purchase a designer dress or jeans she knows her friend is bound to buy as well? And why should a customer new to spending at the luxury price point empty their savings on an item that's bound to feel less special when two other women in her office own it in three colors?
Smith and I are sitting in Plan de Ville's new office and showroom in Manhattan's fashion district, just two years after she founded the company out of her downtown apartment. At just shy of 30 years old, Smith's career trajectory from college to corner office is inspiring. Even as her friend, I'm stunned at how far she's come in such a short time. A loud-and-proud "professional coffee getter," her time spent low on the totem pole at an internship atWmagazine and then an assistantship at Yigal Azrouel, means she can rescue a garment bag from the depths of a corporate messenger center or a package lost in transit–skills she uses to run her own business. The pivotalDevil Wears Pradascene where Miranda Priestly tears apart Andie Sachs during a run-through comes to mind as Smith connects the problem solving skills she learned in internships with her current talents as a buyer, founder and CEO.
"Owning something from a new designer communicates insider status, which is priceless."
"It's about identifying that you have a problem based on an instinctual realization–like a dress that you intended to have on hand is missing–and figuring out how to get it back efficiently because you understand that the dress isn't just a dress," she says emphatically. "It represents jobs and people's income and livelihood and a designer's dreams. If you can track down a rogue messenger in time for a key press or sales appointment, you can do anything."
Catherine wears a Beaufille dress and bracelet, her own belt and Chloe Gosslein shoes.
Working for a designer also allowed Smith to witness a collection's production cycle–how an item goes "from sketch to draping, to pre-production samples, a runway show, market appointments to landing on the floor at Saks." She took that knowledge with her when she went back into publishing, this time to be an editorial assistant atBrides, and continued styling freelance with her boss' blessing. "It was when I was dressing women in emerging designers' product–because as an emerging stylist it was all I really had access to–that gave me the idea of a shopping experience like Plan de Ville," she recalls.
This was around 2013, when Instagram introduced "this idea of aesthetic economy on an app, so young designers were using it to craft their brand identities and launch collections direct-to-consumer." According to Smith, Instagram allowed both her and young designers to launch something without the roadblocks of industry protocol."A designer can now say, 'I've designed seven bags, let's go to market on Instagram.' That's not going to be the most profitable business, but that kind of hype allowed brands like Mansur Gavriel to sell out their collections and waitlist their key styles from the outset."
"A dress isn't just a dress. It represents jobs and people's income and livelihood and a designer's dreams."
Smith noticed a trend: a demand for luxury designer products designed by relative no-names. "But, there was no single shopping destination that just owned that market," she says. Whoever dared to, by default, would stand to please fashion editors, stylists, and the leagues of cosmopolitan women with access to any and every designer brand who were tired of their style overlapping with friends or, even worse, acquaintances. Smith's gut feeling and what Plan de Ville's growth in its early stages have proven is that in this new world of social clout, dropping a brand name that nobody else knows rather than a household one can instantly equate to style star power.
Catherine wears a Maison Pére coat and fur scarf, her own pants, Bionda Castana shoes and a Kallmeyer bag.
"Owning something from a new designer communicates insider status, which is priceless," Smith confirms. "I've been lucky enough to attend Couture Week in Paris, and that customer desires a real sense of exclusivity. When you drop that psychology down to shopping off the rack, the experience is ruined for a women who spends ,000 on a dress for a party only to see it on someone else that same night."
Smith understands that nobody wants to spend ,000 to feel buyer's remorse–and so few customers can afford to. "I don't really subscribe to this whole 'more is more' thing; I'm definitely about less is more where you have a real connection to the things that you buy." In ushering a new wave of young talent, Smith has also championed a graduating class of customers in her own age bracket, who until recently (and likely still) were pillaging sample sales and fast fashion for their statement pieces.
"I'm definitely about less is more, where you have a real connection to the things that you buy."
" I like to say we have statement pieces that have a high degree of wearability. You bought a dress you coveted on the site because it was priced well and you'll love to wear it again and again. I gravitate towards pieces that don't really require a lot of self styling–I want a woman to shop with us, put the pieces on and immediately feel like a rock star." The site aims to "buck the idea of seasonality" where items are selected to withstand the test of time in a buyer's closet and inventory stays on the site until it sells out.
Catherine in an Ellery top and jeans.
Early on, Smith pulled away from approaching angel investors to grow her business and decided to run on the smallest budget she could. Starting with fine jewelry and handbags might not seem like the most affordable starting point, but Smith feels confident in her decision to launch ready-to-wear one year in. "It's one thing to sell beautiful earrings that have no size requirements when you have about this much space for inventory, but to jump into ready to wear was a huge endeavor. I decided to do it around the holidays because the site had editorial support from the launch." Her first season was Fall/Winter 2015; she launched with eight designers including Ellery, Gayeon Lee and Giacobbe. "It was basically about who I could get to say yes to selling with us and can I get them to deliver on time–eight designers was the magic number," she admits.
A graduate degree from Parsons under her belt helped her shape how she plans to scale her business, but Smith does not claim to be in the big leagues when selling prospective newcomers to the site. "From the very beginning, I have said that we place very small, conservatively-structured wholesale buys–period. I have never misrepresented my ability to order from brands, but I pay on time and my buys are not on consignment." This is where that problem for designers to obtain liftoff is solved by Plan de Ville; rather than offering to host the sale of their products on her site, Smith pays for her (albeit, limited) product buys in full and on time, and does not require brands to incur fees on sale or unsold inventory.
"I really have to credit Instagram,..I spend a lot of time looking at everything on there from young design students who are posting sketches to people who are just communicating during market."
As for advice to young designers looking for a jumpstart on her site or any other, Smith has a few keys to success: "Focus on a category, don't try to design an entire collection. Decide what you are very good at and design the best bodysuit or the best dress a woman can wear from coffee in the morning to the beach to lunch. You have got to have a singular vision because there is so much noise in the market–the only way to be seen is to stand out." The other credos she insists on? Having a cohesive distribution strategy, ask for help, and don't spend too much money–whether you choose to cut back on hires, travel or participating in every single tradeshow. "Design really strong, core product and put it on the internet. Be strategic about when you hire a team and know full-well what that team is going to do for you," she explains. In practicing what she preaches, Smith has just made her first full-time hire, "a really enthusiastic" recent graduate.
From left: Lee Savage clutch, Beaufille bracelet, Richard Braqo sandal, Bionda Castana pump, L'Afshar clutch, Beaufille cuff & Tilda Biehn rings.
There is no room for fluff at Plan de Ville; each brand is hand-plucked with intention–but there are some that are undoubtedly tentpoles for the site who customers recognize off the bat, ushering them in to shop the even lesser known labels available. Of those, Ellery immediately comes to mind, as does L'Afshar, a minimalistic line of evening clutches. The fashion markets she predicts are the ones to watch for emerging talent include Tbilisi, Georgia as well as Australia and New Zealand.
As for how she scouts these markets, Smith credits the thing she claims started it all—and the fact that she has no shame when it comes to finding the next big thing. "I really have to credit Instagram, I need to call those guys and we need to work together. I spend a lot of time looking at everything on there from young design students who are posting sketches to people who are just communicating during market. I stop women on the street if they are wearing something and I can't place it. I have no shame going up to a women and touching her skirt and asking about the fabric and where she got it."
Catherine wears a Georgia Alice top, her own jeans and Chloe Gosslein fur-trimmed pumps.
As far as her goals for Plan de Ville, Smith is open-minded: "I want us to eventually become a partner for a larger retail entity to do all the due diligence needed to incubate young brands. We're dabbling in that right now, but I want to do that on a larger scale, be able to reach more women and be empowered to place big orders that really make a difference in designer's first few seasons."
"I have no shame going up to a women and touching her skirt and asking about the fabric and where she got it."
Plan de Ville has also nailed down tactics to get buyers excited to shop the site over other larger e-tailers, launching new products each week rather than seasonally, per their desire to remove a season's trends from how women invest in their wardrobes. For next season, PDV is speeding up its revolving door of new designer product. Expect labels like Brandon Maxwell, Atea Oceanie, Lee Savage and Brother Vellies as well as newcomers like Rejina Pyo, Mari Giudicelli, Stephanie Rad, Frater Paris, Elenareva and Georgia Alice.
As for Smith, she is looking toward the future for Plan de Ville as quickly as she's expanded its current iteration. "What has been very exciting for me is to partner with brands exclusively to help with their distribution." Smith smartly employs the mantra 'if you can't beat 'em,' and has chosen to represent L'Afshar in the United States, scoring them an audience with Moda Operandi after introducing them to the market in their founding stages. "We are not a showroom, but because we work as a retailer, we are in a position to help introduce designers to the market.
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