How to Start a Fashion Retail Business and Maintain It

Retail Business, Relationship Marketing

Do you dream of not only starting a line- but also running your own fashion retail business? Watch our founder, Christine Daal’s interview with milliner, designer, and retail business owner, Susan van der Linde, where she talks about how she got started and the key component of her success as a designer and fashion retailer. Share your thoughts below and share this video with any aspiring designers and business owners you know. For more interviews like these, join our Fearless Fashionpreneur group on Facebook!

The Beginnings of Susan van der Linde’s Millinery Career

Christine Daal:  Hi everyone, we’re live with Susan van der Linde, who is a fabulous designer and retail business owner.  She actually designed the fabulous hat that I’m wearing. So, tell me a little about yourself: how you got started in this business and how you started your career.

Susan van der Linde:  Well, I started making hats in New York and it was after working in Paris, I was a model and I came to New York and I wanted to really do something that I loved, so I took a little sewing job down in the Millinery District, where they had a lot of bridal and things like that.

Christine Daal:  So what area is the Millinery District?

Susan van der Linde:  That is like 38th Street between 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th then up to 40th and down to like 30th. It was a very large area where you could get all your straws, all your felt, and everything, so, it’s great.  So, I started working in this little place. It was a very small little place and it wasn’t very interesting; but I had like a real epiphany there and after probably about 4 to 5 months, one day this very tall man came in.  My brother is about 6 feet 8 inches and this man was at least 7 feet 2 inches. He was very tall and had a very long like African robe on with a soft macramé hat and I said “How may I help you?” and he said, “I need a form for this hat.”  So, I knew exactly what I could get, it was like a little pill box in buckram so I took it and I went in the back. By that time I put his fabric on that form and I started to come back, the time had stopped.  It’s a very strange thing to explain and people said “Oh, it’s an epiphany,” but it was really like the hand of God just stop and there was no noise, no nothing. It was just a beautiful area.  Yeah, that area is so busy; it’s in between 5th and 6th on the 38th Street– the traffic, the taxis!

Christine Daal:  Yeah, that’s amazing.  So, it was great; I love it. God always works in mysterious ways and it’s so amazing to see how His hand is on your life.

Susan van der Linde:  In the middle of a day, in the middle of, you know, not really liking your job- taking it because it was something that I knew how to do easily. So, that’s where it started.  That weekend, I had a visit from my little French sister, Isabelle. She was visiting and someone loaned us an apartment in the Hampton for the weekend, so we took it. So we took two little pillboxes, some raw silk, glue, pins, and a needle and we both made a little pillbox on the beach that weekend — and I never stopped.

Christine Daal:  So, that’s such a great story; that’s so amazing. It’s really awesome to see just how people get started in this industry.  What kept you going like after that initial…?

Susan van der Linde:  Well, after the initial, I really started working– like I had a couple of jobs during the day.  I supported myself that way and I started to make hats at night in my little studio on the Upper Westside. I was just filling up the walls with all these hats.

Christine Daal:  I understand that! That’s like many of my clients. You have your day job and then you’re working at night on your dream to make it happen.

Susan van der Linde:  So, it started.  I started that just very simply. You don’t need to think about it.  You have a desire that’s been created and you get home from work and that’s what you want to do.

Susan’s Mentorship Lessons: “Adaptability is Key”

Christine Daal:  So, really your passion fueled what you were doing. I know you studied with some amazing mentors.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Susan van der Linde:  Sure. When I started making hats, I had some friends who said, “Oh you should go to FIT.”  I was like, “What’s that?” and they are like “That’s the Fashion Institute of Technology.” I was like “Ooh, that sounds very fancy.”  So, I went to look.  They did offer some hat classes and there was a very special teacher at that time, Jeanine Galimore.  She was French.  She has passed since then and she studied under Balenciaga back in the day.  So I was like “Oh that’s who I want to learn with.”  So, I took my classes.  I didn’t do anything in fashion, but I just did my hat classes with her.  From that class, she chose me to take her spot because she was working with Mr. Marshall. Mr. Marshall was a great milliner who had a hat studio and retail business in New York, Paris, and Los Angeles.  By the time I met him, he was a little older and it was just New York. My teacher wanted to just work at her other job in bridal and have somebody else go and do that.  So, she tossed me out of class and I went to Mr. Marshall.  He didn’t take me right away. But he did after a while, and then I ended up working with him for eight years.

Christine Daal:  So you studied under him and were basically being mentored.

Susan van der Linde:  I learned everything.  The thing with Mr. Marshall that was so amazing– it wasn’t just that I learned a whole way of sewing. He is a specialist and his hands were just magic with beautiful little headpieces.  During the period when the Beehive came in, all the hat designers went out of business; but Mr. Marshall, he came up with a “violette.” It’s a little veil that he had made in France and he put little velvet bows on them. He made over 5 million dollars when everyone was going out of business.  He was an interesting man.

Christine Daal:  That’s a good lesson to learn; you have to be adaptable.  You have to be willing to adapt and change and be flexible.  I see so many businesses, especially retail businesses shut down because something comes that they’re not prepared for or that they don’t know how to adapt to and they just stick to what they know. They don’t expand and they don’t really go outside to their comfort zone or think outside the box.  Like what are you going to do when some girls have this Beehive so high and you can’t put that on her, right?  So, that’s amazing.

Susan van der Linde:  And when you go to the theatre, you can’t have a hat.  You have to have something small. When you were so dressed up during that time period; people wanted a little something on their head.

Christine Daal:  So, that’s amazing and I know you also learned from him how to deal with customers.

Susan’s Mentorship Lessons: “The Art of Customer Service”

Susan van der Linde:  Yes, he had some catchphrases, which were very helpful.  He said, “I want a hat to look like human hands never touched them.”  So, that means it just looks effortless and that’s been a motto that I stuck with. He was also just very good at listening to the client, understanding where they were going, whether they want to go to the opera or they going go to France for a wedding. I learned how to ask the pertinent questions that not only got me in the right direction for that woman, but the woman felt comfortable. She said, “Oh somebody actually cares enough to be asking these questions.”  So, the rapport starts off very nicely…

Christine Daal:  And you’re building a relationship with that customer. Maintaining a fruitful business is all about relationship marketing. You’re building a relationship with those people and if they don’t know, like, and trust you; they are not going to buy from you. Maintaining a fruitful business is all about relationship marketing. You’re building a relationship with those people and if they don’t know, like, and trust you; they are not going to buy from you. Click To Tweet  So, that’s really, really important. Then the listening aspect! As women, we love to have people listen to us. We feel like our husbands are not listening, so who is listening? And so here you come along, you’re listening, you’re paying attention, and you know exactly what they need and how to give them what they need for that situation.

Susan van der Linde:  And also there is a lot of pressure because a lot of women are in situations, very high level with their husbands. They go into different situations; they have to look a certain way and you have to take that very seriously, to make them look just perfect.

Christine Daal:  I read an article one time that said you’re judged within seven seconds, that’s fast.  So, what you are wearing really, really matters.  So, tell us about that day that you got your first sale ever as a designer. What was that feeling like? And what happened?

Susan van der Linde:  I don’t know if it’s the first, but it’s the one that I remember. I was making a lot of hats down in Tribeca and I had a little workroom there. I met a lovely young girl. She was younger than me and she was from Spain. She came and she wanted a hat for a girlfriend for a present.  So, I thought that was just so cool; this young girl is going to buy a hat for her girlfriend for her birthday! it was a brown chocolate felt and it was like what they call a “rattan.” It’s a brim that goes up all the way around. It was very classic. That’s what she wanted and I guess, it worked out for the friend and her and I’ve been friends ever since.  We don’t see each other enough.

How Susan Started Her Retail Business

Christine Daal:  That’s such a great story; the hat made a lasting impression.  So, tell us about the steps that you took to finally have your own physical retail location.

Susan van der Linde:  That happened, like you said, in steps. So, the first thing was Mr. Marshall had passed away and that was a really big inner jolt for us because I wasn’t settled and there wasn’t a transition.  That was another moment just like that moment in the little millenary shop.  He was failing and I was sitting on his little couch in the office. It had been a long eight years working with him.  Again, I had shed a cup of tears and I said, “Lord, you’ve got to help me because otherwise, I don’t know what I am going to do in New York” and about 20 minutes later, there was a knock on the door. There was a good friend of Mr. Marshall who came in and she just looked at me and she said, “Suzy dry those tears, “We’ll go on across the street to the Lombardy Hotel.” There was a beautiful hotel right across the street from Mr. Marshall’s office and I always admired it. So, she brought me to a dressmaker’s shop, Ms. Isabella’s, that still in existence and she said, “Marian, Joanne, this is Susan. You guys are going to share this space.” It was so unbelievable that I was speechless.  She just took me by the hand.

So, that made me start my retail business and that was on the second floor.  It was beautiful.  It was affordable to start a business like that and that’s where I started. I was there for maybe eight years or so and then at that point, my husband came on board with me and we started the shoes and felt like we needed to expand the line. So, we expanded with shoes, handbags and the hats and then we needed more space.  We found a beautiful space at 57th Street in between Madison and Park.  We were 10 blocks down and then after a certain amount of years, they tore the building down and they put up the big skyscraper.  We weren’t expected to leave and so this current space– we knew the people who were in it, but we did not know it was going to be up for availability. This has been an amazing, amazing location. We have been here for about four years.  The neighborhood is great.  The management is great.

Christine Daal: They are right on 67th, right off of Madison Avenue. It’s a perfect, perfect spot for you.  I love it. You’re on the ground floor.  So, I’m sure you’ve seen a huge change in the amount of traffic you are getting from that.

Susan van der Linde:  Absolutely. It has been just a really nice neighborhood experience.

The Personable Business Approach in the Age of E-Commerce

Christine Daal: So, let’s talk about retail and how things have changed because you have your store roughly 12 years. So, in the last 12 years how you’ve seen retail business changing? What’s going on? Is online is going to take over?

Susan van der Linde:  Well, I think that 2008 was a huge dip in retail business.  You had to hang on tight.  This is another dip.  It’s a dip and things are shifting.  There is definitely higher-end that is selling online, which didn’t occur before. Jewelry, gowns, many things are being sold and you can send it back and forth; so that is shifting. You really have to get your website up to par.  With hats– people like to come in and try them on.

Christine Daal:  Exactly! You need a professional to tell you how to wear it, how to tilt it, what side the decoration should go on, all those sorts of things. And I’m sure it matters what shape and size, and all these things are very important to find the right hat.

Susan van der Linde:  Sometimes people will come in and see right away and go and that’s it. Some people know very quickly what they want-  and that’s fine too.

Christine Daal:   I’m praying that the retail business culture comes back—especially for your type of business which is so personable. You’re making that relationship with your customer. You’re almost doing couture and making a one-of-a-kind piece for your client. That’s very specific and people want that one of a kind attention that you just can’t get online.  So, I’m praying that your business excels and does well and that all the other businesses can hold on and survive. But having a niche helps– having a really specific target market and knowing your customer is so important.

Susan van der Linde:  We still do a lot of bridal.  So that’s been really a lot of fun.  That’s just the special moment with the mom and the aunty.  We’ve really had some very interesting and different cultures.  So, you learn so many specific things that you have to do because of a cultural religious thing and that’s been really fascinating.  I’ve had great experiences with that.

Susan van der Linde’s Daily Motivations

Christine Daal:  So, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about what inspires you and what motivates you. Do you have a favorite quote or anything?

Susan van der Linde:  Well- motivation, I have always really enjoyed architecture.  So, lines, texture, color; I think more in the abstract because when I design, I think of my customers’ face. I think of where they’re going to wear it and what kind of life they have. But for inspiration, I think about architecture, design, texture, and fabrics.  A quote that I love of my father’s, or he stole it probably. I think it was like a Dale Carnegie quote, but his quote is “Success comes in cans, not in can-not’s.” Success comes in cans, not in can-not's. Click To Tweet

Christine Daal:  I love it.  I love it.  My dad used to always say “There is no can’t.” Anytime we were trying to say the word can’t, he said to change it to a can. You can do this.  I adopted that motto even when I was the captain of the Color Guard. If someone said they couldn’t twirl their flags or something, I would say “There is no can’t in Color Guard!”  It’s a great quote– “Success comes in cans, not in can-not’s.”

Susan van der Linde:  And another phrase he had that I try to tell the younger generation is, “If it was easy, everybody will be doing it.”  So, it’s not easy. It’s not for everybody, and it’s not the end all.  You can be very happy in a company working in design or other things. This is just how I landed.

The Importance of “Knowing Yourself” Before Starting a Business

Christine Daal:  And it works for you; otherwise you wouldn’t have been doing it this long.  It’s important to know yourself. When I coach my clients, I tell them you really need to know how you operate as a person and what really works for you.  Owning a business, especially a retail business, doesn’t work for everybody and it may take a certain type of mentality.  It takes a certain kind of perseverance; it’s not easy.  I think if we all knew how hard it was before we got to it, we probably wouldn’t get started– and I think that’s part of it.  The mystery behind owning a business is appealing to a lot of people, so they get started and then they have gone so far that they are like, “Okay, I’ve gone this far, I can’t stop.” They just keep going like that and stay motivated.

Susan van der Linde:  It’s different for everybody.  It is really different. Again, I feel very fortunate and blessed that I had Mr. Marshall and it’s not a given that those clients would have followed me, but they did- because that is not 100% sure thing.  They could have left and said, “Oh, Mr. Marshall is not there anymore, I don’t want to deal with you.”

Christine Daal:  You obviously learned enough that you’re able to carry what he taught you through and really give them the same level of service. I think customer service is so important even today. There are companies founded on the fact that their customer service is impeccable and now social media can bad mouth you every five seconds.

Susan van der Linde:  I mean, we still deliver the shoes or the hat if someone lives not too far from this area. It’s that little extra touch.

Christine Daal:  Now, was there ever a time that you wanted to quit, thought about quitting or you got really down? And what did you do?

Susan van der Linde:  When I was with Mr. Marshall for those eight years and I wasn’t really advancing too much, there was a wonderful client, Dorothy. I said, “Oh, Dorothy, I can’t take it, it’s just too much.” She said, “Suzy, you have to hang on because that’s going to be your business.” Sometimes you just need a very simple voice to help you.

Christine Daal:  Yeah the motivation and encouragement from someone on the outside looking in. You can’t always see it because you are in the trenches.  You are doing the work and grinding away daily.

Advice for Aspiring Designers and Retail Business Owners

So what advice would you give to new upcoming start-up designers? What would you tell someone that’s maybe starting her own line or thinking about starting a retail business?

Susan van der Linde:  Right now, I don’t think it’s the time to just open up a new store.  I think you have to get creative. Make your line, show it to friends and family, get feedback, and then bring it to a store. Find a store that you feel goes with your line. Let’s say, it’s hairbands or something and you find a clothing store. Find something that does not already have that product. See if you can make a little corner and if you can incorporate it with the other companies. That way it’s not that heavy burden of carrying the whole store on your own.

Christine Daal:  Right, exactly, because the overhead is killing people. That’s why the retail is not doing so well and I find that a lot of stores are now doing that. They are selling off little sections– little corners of their shop because they can’t even pay their own rent.  They are willing to have designers come in. That’s really, really great advice!

Click here if you’d like read more about Susan and visit her online shop here. You can also follow Susan on Instagram @svdlnewyork!

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