How to Start a Sustainable Fashion Line from Scratch with Noor Zakka, Founder of Noorism
Do you want to start a sustainable fashion line, but not sure where to begin? Do you want to see a new wave of fashion brands that design with environmental responsibility? Join us as we interview designer and founder of Noorism, Noor Zakka!! We hope you get inspired as she talks her disappointment in mainstream fashion and how to start a sustainable fashion line.
If you plan to start a sustainable fashion line, and want more specific advice, book a Strategy Session with us. Our founder Christine is a passionate fashion veteran who has helped a number of designers launch their business successfully.
Start With a Critical Point of View: Imagine Better Ways of Producing Clothing
Christine: Welcome to our weekly Facebook and Instagram Live. I’m Christine Daal from Fashion Angel Warrior. I have a very wonderful guest- Noor Zakka from Noorism is here with me today, so thank you so much to Noor for coming.
Noor: Thank you for having me.
Christine: Yeah, definitely. So Noor, thanks again for being here and tells us a little bit about yourself and the kind of how you got started in the fashion.
Noor: Yeah, so I always wanted to sew when I was a little girl. I started sewing and making clothes for my cousin and then when I was about 15, I realized that a job of the fashion designer existed. So then it was my dream to go to New York and go to FIT and be a fashion designer.
Christine: Okay and where did you grow up?
Noor: South Florida.
Christine: Okay, so you came up here to go to FIT and what was your major at FIT?
Noor: So, I majored in fashion design and I spent a year abroad in Italy my final year.
Christine: I always wanted to go to Italy. I never got a chance to go. I went to FIT too. So you’re really lucky that you got to go. Now, do you speak Italian?
Christine: No, what happened?
Noor: It’s really easy to not learn Italian in Florence.
Christine: So, you went to Italy, you came back, graduated, and then you started working in the field?
Noor: Yup, so then I interned at Zac Posen for five months. It’s an interesting experience.
Noor: And then I worked for Hardy Azal in the Bridge Suites Apartment and then Ellen Tracey before I started Noorism.
Christine: And what kind of made you branch out on your own? Did you always have the desire to start your own line or did it come about naturally?
Noor: Yes, so I’ve always wanted to have my own business, but just up until I started Noorism, I couldn’t figure out how to actually do it.
Christine: Tell us a little bit about why you started Noorism and how it became what it is today?
Noor: Yes, so when I was working at Ellen Tracey, I became more and more disgruntled with the fashion industry and there was more and more of a disconnect between what I was doing for work and who I was at home. I spent more time reading and researching health, nutrition, and buying organic food. But at work, I was part of this process of making clothes that were sold at Macy’s for 60% off, not very well-made and pretty much end up in a landfill after one use. So I decided to leave the fashion industry and said I was never going to work in fashion again. I also have kids. It was when my youngest son was born, so it was also probably a baby move.
Christine: Right, yeah, kind of get out of the city, just have your children. I can totally relate; I remember at one point in my career- I was like that’s it, I’m done- I had it with this industry, I can’t stand these Devil Wears Prada people. I’m never doing this again and then you just kind of get sucked back.
Noor: Yes, then I spent about three years trying to re-invent myself and I came full circle. After reading business books; I realized that if I wanted to do business, fashion really was the right business for me to do because I still had all these skills. And it was the easiest one to enter the market without spending a lot of money.
Find Waste-Free Approaches to Fabric Sourcing:
Christine: So, you started Noorism and where did the idea come from to reuse jeans? Did you like to cut up jeans and make them into things as a kid?
Noor: I did it a little bit. I definitely cut up a lot of my dad’s clothes, but it wasn’t really the reason. It’s just kind of ironic that I used to cut up all of the clothes. So, when I started Noorism, I started working on the concept for this sustainable fashion brand that was going to make a positive impact. When I got around to sourcing fabrics, I found out that it’s really expensive to buy sustainable fabrics and it’s really difficult because if you order sample yardage the mill can’t guarantee that that fabric will be available when you are ready for production. So, your only option is to buy the whole 50 yards of fabric and hope that it sells. So, besides needing too much money to spend upfront, I didn’t even know if my product was going to sell. So, instead, I started going to Goodwill- just buying jeans and using them as fabric.
Christine: So, you just one day said, “Let me go to Goodwill and buy some jeans?”
Observe Your Industry and Market
Noor: Well, also at this point it was 2015, so Reformation was starting to break through. Redone was selling their reworked vintage Levi’s, so I kind of knew that the market for sustainable fashion was starting to break through. And people buying vintage jeans and denim was starting to get hot, so kind of knowing all those things also.
Christine: Yeah, so that was perfect timing for you. With denim being an upcoming trend and with sustainability at the same time- you just put the two of them together. That’s awesome. And now talk a little bit about where you get the jeans from today, like where you get the denim fabric from?
Noor: Yeah, so when people donate clothes to Goodwill or other second-hand stores, what they don’t realize is most of it does not end up in the stores. There is just so much clothing consumption in this country that there is not even enough room for second-hand stores to carry it all, so a huge amount of that gets donated to developing countries. I was actually looking up this statistic yesterday. It’s the eighth largest export of the United States. Yeah, so I buy the jeans in bulk.
Christine: So, you can work with Goodwill and they sell you bulk discounted pairs of jeans?
Noor: Not exactly Goodwill, but yeah, I intercept it before it gets exported to developing countries.
Christine: I never knew that. I just figured out if you donate something to Goodwill it ends up in a store. I never knew that it goes to third world countries. That’s interesting and now I’m sure everyone probably asks you this question; how do you clean the jeans once you get them? Because there is this whole idea that people have worn them and they have stains on them and that sort of thing. Do you go through a cleaning process or something?
Develop Efficient Systems for Your Business Approach
Noor: Yeah, so when the fabric approaches, we probably buy two, three, four hundred pairs at once and then they go straight to an industrial washing facility and then we bring them to the studio, just to make sure that they are clean before using them.
Christine: Okay, that’s good. Good to know. That would be a concern I think for some people. So, then you bring them in and then you start to take them apart, deconstruct?
Noor: Yeah, then they get sorted into color like medium and dark. Some of them have a slightly different texture, so those get sorted out for certain styles and then we design into them for production. We sort through and we say okay, we’re cutting this jacket in medium denim, so that takes about two pairs of jeans to make one jacket. So if we are producing 25 jackets, we need at least 50 pairs of jeans and probably 5 to 10 extra pairs because the production processes can be pretty difficult- especially for the larger sizes. You have to have a pretty large pair of jeans to fit all the pieces. Sometimes it takes more than two pairs of jeans when it should take two and then there are other things that come up. They are old jeans, so they have stains on them and they are stains that have been sitting on the fabric for a long time So, I considered the idea of having them cleaned, but it just not realistic or cost-effective to do that. So, at this point, we just mark the stains so the factory does not accidentally cut into them and just cut around them.
Christine: So, I imagine it’s very similar to making a leather jacket. When you have a cowhide, the edges are not good, there are usually stains and holes and things from the actual animal being bruised and you have to cut around them in a similar type of way.
Noor: Yeah, exactly and just kind of like leather we can’t stack the fabric when we are doing production, so instead of cutting like a 100 pairs at once, it’s one at a time. This is probably because the jeans that I end up with are mostly Levi’s- but different brands, different styles, and different sizes. We are still pretty small, so we are not at the point where we can buy volumes and volumes. If we were buying thousands of pairs of jeans, we could really sort them into style, size, and then we probably could start stacking them, but right now it’s just too small to do that.
Christine: So, it doesn’t make it worth for you. And what’s the likelihood that you actually get two pairs of the same jeans? Does that ever happen?
Noor: Yeah, I mean Levi’s does not make that many styles; however, they are mixed between years, but I think if we had a larger scale operation, we could estimate within a certain parameter and at least you know- do a little bit better.
Christine: Yeah, I imagine if you are buying hundreds and thousands of jeans, you would get more duplicates of the same types of jeans.
Noor: Yeah, exactly.
Christine: That’s so interesting. It’s such a unique idea and a totally different way of doing fashion. I mean it’s unlike anything that’s truly out there right now. A couple of people are doing sustainability, but not a lot of people are re-using actual fabric and making it into something new- so it’s really awesome that you are doing that. So, let’s talk about how you actually got started with the business. So, if you are comfortable sharing, how much capital did you start with,? How did you get off the ground? Did you bootstrap it the whole way? Did you hire a bunch of people? How did you kind to get the business part of it going?
Noor: Yeah, so I was bootstrapping.
Christine: I think a lot of people are strapping it.
Embrace Small Beginnings: Build into Your Concept Before Expanding Product Categories
Noor: When I started two and a half years ago, I had more time to invest that money, you can either invest money or time and I had more freedom of time than money and money was a risk. So, I put in the time and I built a website. That’s the first thing I did; I came up with the brand, the name, the logo. With the logo, I came up with in college and I thought it was just once I will use it someday when I had my own business. So, it was started with just a website because that’s pretty much your window to the world. It’s your facade and just who you are. So it started with just a concept and then from there I decided to design a product that fits into that concept and so the first product I made was a hat.
Christine: Right, you started out with a hat. Now, is there a reason you started out with a hat? Was it because you were worried about finding pieces of denim and you wanted to kind of like make smaller items? I don’t know, I’m just guessing.
Noor: The process of making and producing clothing can be complicated and so at this point, I was in my basement in Connecticut and I was still disconnected from the fashion industry and so I didn’t have a lot of resources, I didn’t have a community around me, and I had never had a fashion business before. So making a hat that was one size fits most, enabled me to figure out the process and sort of warm up to all the tasks that I have to do as a small business owner and things I hadn’t done in years like pull out my sewing machine and make patterns. So it also was a great way to start because at that point I had two hat styles and hats were easier to get into the stores. They were well-made hats, so I started selling them to friends and walking around New York just going into the stores and e-mailing and walking by.
Christine: So, you just ran and would go to stores and walking and sharing your idea about the hats?
Noor: And so that’s how I got my first two accounts, one through e-mail and that first photo shoot, I took the pictures myself.
Christine: So, you really took them yourself?
Noor: Yeah when I look back at those photos. . .
Christine: You are like “Oh my gosh, they are horrible!“ — right?
Noor: But it’s okay and one thing I knew or I heard when I first started was like when you are starting a business, don’t spend a lot of money on your website the first time around because you want to change it every six months and you are going to hate it from where you started and so it really has evolved a long way since I started.
Minimize Overhead Costs in the Beginning
Christine: I’m so glad that you bring that up as I tell all of my clients and it’s so, so important, don’t spend a lot of money on your website in the beginning because like Noor said, you are going to change it. It’s going to evolve, your brand is going to evolve, and you don’t need it right away. So, I’m definitely glad that you mentioned that for sure.
Noor: And just like your skills as a designer or as a creative director- the way you’ll run a business evolves over time. You know I evolved from taking the pictures myself to hiring a model and doing the photo shoots. Sometimes that didn’t exactly come out right either and I wouldn’t be able to sell it based on those photos. Sometimes having it not quite styled in the right taste level to appeal to the stores that I’m going after.
Know Your Customer
Christine: So, would you say then it’s good to kind of know, who it is you are targeting, whether it’s a store, whether you are going direct to consumer, really understanding who your target market is before doing your photoshoot?
Noor: Yeah, before even designing a product, it’s great to know what’s out there and who your customer is.
Just Go For It
Christine: So, going back to the two first stores that you got into. Was there anything you did, was there something specific in the e-mail that that got them to buy from you? Do you think it was luck?
Noor: It's, you know for every 100 stores, you send e-mails too, you could expect like one to come back.
Christine: So, you pitched a bunch.
Noor: So, I pitched a bunch. I pretty much sent the same thing to all of them, but this particular store liked the product. They were able to see past the photos or maybe it fit with that person's taste, but it happened to be like a really well-known store in Union Square. It’s a really tiny store, but it's a good store to be in so that also helped propel the brand just by being in that store and it was literally two hats that she bought from me.
Christine: Wow, that's awesome and did she buy like a full ten pieces of each or just one of each to start? What was the order?
Noor: Just two hats. And she has ordered every season but in very small qualities.
Christine: So, that was the start for you which is great and do you feel like because you got into that store, it led to other stores now wanting to purchase from you because you could say, Oh well, I have already sold on this store?
Noor: Absolutely, it's led to other stores and other opportunities.
Christine: And I know that you also sold to Anthropologie as well. How did you land that account?
Run After Opportunities That Will Expand Your Business
Noor: So, once I was in a few stores, there was another store in Brooklyn that I had gone in wearing my first jacket sample and trying to sell hats and they said they would buy. So a few months later I was calling them to follow-up and the lady that owns the store was like, I'm so sorry, I really love your product, but I can't buy it and I was following up because I was about to do my first production run at a factory in the garment district. I just want to put all the numbers in and so she was like I've recommended you for this opportunity. Call this guy and she gave me a phone number and I had no idea what it was. It turned out to be this opportunity to get selected to show in a gifted booth at a tradeshow for the following September. So, this was like April or May and so I called the number. They said okay go to our website, fill out the application form and then I had to submit samples anyway. So, because the first store that took my hats is a well-known store and it's a small world, and everybody knows each other in the fashion industry- the woman who recommended me for this thing knew the owner well for the trade shows. So because of the stores, I was in and because of my recommendations, I think I made it to the next round where they actually looked at my clothing. At that point, I had the badly styled photos and so part of this process before the tradeshow was meetings with the owners of the show and getting feedback and getting some constructive criticism. They told me that based on those photos, they never would have selected me, but when they looked at the clothing, the clothing was so well made and really stood on its own.
Christine: So, you got into the tradeshow and that was the first tradeshow that you did and how was that? Did you find it very successful?
Noor: It was very successful, especially because I had no downside at this point and it was well promoted as they picked 12 designers and it was subsidized by the NYC EDC.
Christine: So, you didn't pay to be in the tradeshow?
Christine: That's nice, okay.
Noor: And so, at this point, I didn't even realize that I should be doing tradeshows because here I'm bootstrapping and e-mailing stores and …….
Christine: You are not even thinking about 20,000 dollars for a show!
Noor: Yeah, exactly. So, that also helped me to realize, oh this is how you sell your line, this is part of the process! And you have to put this money out-- if you can’t, it's harder to get sales. So, that show went well. We had six accounts, Anthropologie was one of them.
Christine: And so you kind of started out primarily directing towards retailers and then steer towards direct-to-consumer or did you build them both at the same time?
Noor: When I first started, I had these grand ideas of being direct to consumer and not following the fashion calendar or system and, to build an audience; but it takes time. So, once you put a website out there, then you are like “Oh.”
Christine: No one's coming to my website.
Noor: Exactly! So, at that point, the opportunity to do the tradeshow came at the right time. I focused on wholesale only because the opportunities came to me and now I'm really trying to crack direct-to-consumer.
Christine: So are you doing a ton of social media and blogging and things like that?
Noor: I should be, I should be doing more of it.
Christine: No, that's good. I mean we all need to be doing more of it. There are not enough hours in the day.
Execute a Cost-friendly Approach to PR
Noor: But the longer I'm in business, the more opportunities I have to be doing events and things like this. Last week I was invited to do a fashion show at the UN that was part of a sustainability panel. So, just things like that also help because then when you can tag other people in your posts and have content that looks like you are out there doing things. It just organically helps to build.
Christine: It's good for direct-to-consumer for sure to have that social media aspect. Now, as far as PR is concerned, you have a lot of press already. Was it natural or did you hire like a PR agency? Did you bootstrap that whole thing?
Noor: So, being selected as one of 12 designers for the tradeshow automatically got me two articles in Women’s Wear Daily. That was the starting point, I think that was the first press. I also got like little bloggers, just by reaching out to bloggers. Then for every 10 or 20 or 50 you reach out to- maybe one comes around.
Christine: Depending on how high up they are right? There are high-level bloggers that probably won’t respond.
Noor: Right and it’s all depending on what they are looking for and whether they even read the e-mail and how well known you are. So we are starting up- it's especially hard to do that and it’s challenging and then just every season since then- once I have photographs, I create like a list of press and people I have met at tradeshows and events. I reach out to them and send them the look-books and the line sheets and sometimes that works and then other times they find me. And around the same time that I got into the DNA tradeshow, I was accepted to the BFDA which is the Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator.
Christine: Which is why we are here today in Noor's studio!
Noor: And so this was when I had moved back to New York. I literally got in here about a month after moving back to New York when I moved back from Connecticut. The city just called me back. I knew that there were going to be so many more opportunities for me here than in Connecticut. It was a good thing that I got in here because my studio was taking up half of the living room in the apartment for about a month.
Christine: Oh, yes, I've been there for sure.
Noor: But also, the BFDA has a pretty big following and so being part of the BFDA has helped, people find me and just having a community has been really helpful.
Christine: That's so awesome, that's great. Yeah, I know the BFDA is really great on bringing you guys together and having that community aspect, which helps you to grow as entrepreneurs. So, keep asking all of your questions. If you do have any questions, we are going to write them down and I'm going to continue to go until we get some more questions going here.
Why did you decide to manufacture everything in New York? Was it like a thing or it just happened that way?
Noor: I mean I have always loved New York. I always have a thing for the garment district here. My first apartment was actually in the garment district. So, my senior year of FIT, my grandfather found it in the New York Times and it was rent stabilized. When I moved out, it was like $1100 which is like nothing.
Christine: That's nothing in the garment district people.
Noor: It wasn't like a neighborhood then. It was between the Javitz Center and the entrance at the Lincoln tunnel.
Christine: Yeah, so a little far out.
Noor: But it was very, very convenient. So, anyway, I used to walk through the garment district on my way to work and dream about having my own business. I would love to see all the racks of clothing out of my sidewalk and the rolls of fabric.
Christine: Yeah, the garment district is so such an amazing place and it's sad that it's really dwindling. I'm really hoping that more designers like you will continue to mass produce in the garment district to bring it back and keep it going because I feel like it's part of New York and it's like what makes New York the way it is.
Noor: And it's convenient for keeping everything close to home, it makes a lot more sense for me.
Christine: Exactly, yeah, I know there has been a lot of talks in bringing a lot of garment district people to Sunset Park. It has not quite happened yet, but I don't know what your thoughts are on that. Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea?
Noor: There is mixed opinions- pros and cons. I don't know.
Christine: I think it's tough to move everyone from there to Brooklyn because most of the design houses are still in New York and they are not going to want to come to Brooklyn for a fabric appointment or to see their manufacturer. Their time is so limited; they barely want to go across the street. At least that's how I felt when I was a designer; I barely wanted to take 15 minutes to run across the street. There is no way I'm going to take a 45-minute train ride to Brooklyn.
Noor: It's also the retail stores on the street level- and being able to just go from one to the other. If all that moves to Sunset Park, it's going to be hard to find them and they are not going to be on the street. It's the way it’s set up- there is no nearby transportation; it's about a mile from the closest subway. So, that's one part and then just the way it’s set up. There are the big warehouse buildings rather than the way the garment district is set up. The problem with the garment district is that the buildings are so old and you can't really fit modern equipment in those buildings-- so something has to give.
Christine: And the rent keeps going up there and of course hotels want to take it over and it's very close to Time Square, so it's a prime location in New York City, so on and so forth. So, I guess we will have to see what happens with that.
Alright, so let's see if we have any questions. So, the question is do you think you get different credibility when you graduate with a fashion degree versus not having a degree. So, I guess, they are asking do you think it makes you more credible that you have a fashion degree from the FIT.
Noor: I think it always helps to have a degree and I think it always makes you more credible, but when you have a business all that really matters is this what you can do.
Christine: That's kind of what I typically say like it's nice to have a degree. I have a degree from FIT as well, if you are working and you are looking to get a job in the industry, I will say 100%, its required to have a degree in the industry, but if you are starting your own business, it's not necessarily required, although it does add credibility.
And everyone wants to know what your company website is. So, please tell us?
Noor: Oh, of course, www.noorism.com and you can follow me at NoorismNYC on Instagram as well.
Christine: Yes, definitely. Make sure you follow her at noorismnyc, Instagram. Okay, great. Any other questions. Now is your chance to pick Noor's brain. I asked her some good questions. We will close with a piece of advice or something you want to leave with new budding designers that are just getting started. What would you tell them?
Advice to Emerging Designers- Start Small and Embrace the Process
Noor: A piece of advice I would say is to start small and figure out the process first. Spend as little money as possible in the beginning until you get a sizable order or have opportunities where it's necessary to spend money.
Christine: Yeah, awesome- great advice. I would also say- I just love that she started with the hats. Anyone that's thinking about how they can start small or how they can spend the least amount of money or do it the least complicated way- try an accessory first. Doing some kind of accessory that does not need to be sized or graded is definitely one of the ways that you can do it and that's how she got started.
Christine: Awesome, well thank you so much, Noor. It was so great having you. I hope you all enjoyed it. Can you repeat the website? Yes, noorism.com. Don't forget to go to her website and buy everything.
Okay, that's it for tonight. I hope you all enjoyed it. Thank you so much to Noor again for coming and we will see you next week, bye!
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