What are young fashion school graduates to do? Spend years trolling the underbelly of a design house, developing sketches for the Big Deal Designer who hasn’t seen the inside of a sewing room since the Carter administration; take up residence on their couch back at home, placating their parents with vague promises of a law-school career change. Or they could start a line of their own—but fresh out of school, that’s a bold gamble, with only a lottery-ticket probability of success.
The designers of Vena Cava—Lisa Mayock, 24, and Sophie Buhai, 25—may have just won the lottery. A mere three years after graduating from Parsons, their line has received mentions in Vogue, Elle, and the New York Times, and is sold at over 80 retailers, including Barneys and Fred Segal. Lauded as subtly elegant and everyday-functional, the line—which includes refined silk dresses with hand-designed prints; jersey tops with triangle cutouts;—embraces an easy, unfussy aesthetic accented with charming, vintage-inspired details (an unusual mustard trim here, a row of buttons framing the collar there).
It’s difficult to explain why certain lines break through to the big time, while others trudge along in semi-obscurity, and still others flame out after just one season, never to be heard from again. It helps, of course, to have a vocal celebrity fan: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Buhai’s childhood next-door neighbor in LA, has enthusiastically followed and supported the young women’s line from the start. But both Buhai and Mayock also display an impressive business acumen rare for designers with so few years in the business. Inquire about their line, and the ladies can rattle off their target customer and industry niche. Vena Cava lies within the “design contemporary” category (think Barneys Co-op); has the look and feel of pieces at designer price-points, but is “taken down a notch” so the pieces are “less precious” and suitable for everyday wear. There’s no wide-eyed fantasies with these two, no talk of “compromising their art” for the masses, no toiling away in the reclusive ivory tower of ideas that amuse them and them alone. “People confuse artist and designer,” remarks Mayock. “If someone were to ask what we do,” adds Buhai, “we’re designers, and we’re businesswomen.” Balancing creativity with marketing sense is not a skill that fashion school necessarily teaches. “Parsons was excellent in terms of craftsmanship,” says Mayock, but there were only two business classes, and they were fairly general. For young upstart designers, the women suggest taking business courses, and pursuing internships on the production and well as design side.
With the startup costs for launching a clothing business so exorbitant—”we were told you need a million dollars,” says Mayock—the designers had to be creative with what little cash they could cobble together. Their first show, clothes included, cost under $5,000. “It was so guerrilla style,” says Buhai. “We sewed half the collection ourselves, and had a friend from film school do the lighting.” But the industry came, perhaps lured there by the ladies’ creative choice of invite—scarves printed with the show details and stuffed into small Lucite boxes. The two took odd jobs to support themselves (Mayock worked behind the counter at Nolita restaurant Rice and did “some creepy catering jobs,” Buhai babysat and scored an unusual gig as a hand model); received a loan from their parents of $4,000 each; and financed most of the business in those lean early months with trunk shows. Four accounts and a few mentions from Vogue and the New York Times later, Vena Cava was accepted into The News, a showroom that has repped Mayle and Clements Ribeiro. “After that, our business took off,” Buhai remarks. They had 40 store accounts in their first season with the showroom, and it went up to 90 the season after.
Even with their quick success, Buhai and Mayock don’t hold any illusion about how difficult it is to survive as a brand. Jerome Chazen, one of the founders of the Liz Claiborne brand, shared with them the honest truth early on.
“He said there’s almost no chance of succeeding with your own line,” Mayock said. “Well, there is a chance, but it’s very slim.”