If you want to become a fashion or lingerie designer, but have no idea where to start, take your cue from Steff Pitman. She’s the woman behind the sustainable lingerie brand Zuela – best known for putting a pocket of healing crystals into each of its bras. After studying at the London College of Fashion and working for well-known designers, such as Julien Macdonald, Steff decided to go it alone by launching her own lingerie brand. It’s a decision that has not only scored her a feature in Vogue, it’s also given her an opportunity to make her mark on a notoriously hard-to-enter industry. Here she shares how she took Zuela from dream to reality and how you can do the same.
TAP: You’re the founder and CEO of the sustainable lingerie brand Zuela – that’s a dream job for many. Does the reality live up to the dream? And can you tell us a little about what your typical day involves?
SP: I would say in some ways it’s a dream and in others it’s not. I think the dream of owning a brand is centred on the belief that it’s easy to make a lot of money. However, it’s really hard work and it’s one of the most challenging things I have ever done. But, I have also had some amazing opportunities that have lived up to the dream, such as being asked to have the brand featured in Vogue’s Designer Profiles.
My typical day involves going to my studio where I spend the morning doing gratitude, visualisation and then either a walk or light yoga. I answer my emails in the morning and then I don’t look at them until the evening or the next day. I usually do everything by the quarter (of the year), so I plan all of the content, marketing and influencer collaborations for 3 months.
I then spend the rest of my day working on upcoming pieces, events and shipping out orders. Each day is completely different because it’s just me – I perform all of the roles in the company, although my family help where possible. I’m also practising as a crystal healer, which gives me a nice break between working on the computer. It also goes hand in hand with the brand as we incorporate crystals into the lingerie.
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V O G U E // Our little brand is in @britishvogue ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We are so pleased to have been asked to be featured as one of their designer profiles this month ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Photography @jenna.bitar Model @lilyludovici Edit @thejourneyofjames • • • • • #femalefounders #womensonly #millennialwomen #soulpreneur #spiritualentrepreneur #femaleempowerment #inspiringwomen #mystudiotoday #empoweringwomennow #divinefeminieenergy #bossbabe #womensupportingwomen #smallbusinesswomen #womentrepreneur #womantowoman #healingjourney #underwear #zuela #zuelawoman #withyouinmind #zuelawomen #designerprofiles #emergingdesigner #shopethicalinstead #womenempowerment #womeninbusiness #organiclingerie #minimalistfashion #madeintheuk #vogue
TAP: How did you get started in fashion design?
SP: I always wanted to be a fashion designer. When I was around 4 or 5, my mum brought me a Press Out Paper Dolls Book and I just knew I wanted to be a designer. I studied fashion at college and then costume design at university. When I left uni I started interning at fashion houses. I had my first internship with womenswear designer Liz Black and then worked for couture designer Julien Macdonald.
After working on several fashion week collections I decided to leave and apply for head office jobs in retail places. However, I kept being told I needed retail experience, so I decided to work in retail and gain some insight into sales and customer service, etc. I became a supervisor at Jack Wills, but I still didn’t feel like it was the right path for me, so I took a lingerie course at the London College of Fashion as I felt drawn to lingerie and starting my own collection.
After 2 years in retail, I left to start Zuela. I had been planning Zuela since uni, but it still took me a year to launch the brand. Having worked in a variety of places, I realised how unethical the fashion industry was, which is why I decided to make Zuela a sustainable brand and do everything to make it eco-conscious.
TAP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and launch their own fashion/lingerie brand?
SP: I would say, do all the research you can and choose who you work with very wisely – only work with people who are aligned with your mission and values. Networking is so important, so go to every event that is relevant to you. I have social anxiety so this was hard for me but it has been so valuable. I would also say you should talk to other female entrepreneurs, make friends with them and support each other on the journey. It helps a lot because not everyone will understand what you are going through, so having friends who do really helps.
Do all the research you can and choose who you work with very wisely – only work with people who are aligned with your mission and values.
TAP: What do you wish someone would have told you when you are starting out as a lingerie designer?
I wish someone had told me:
- Things will not always go to plan but it’s how you adapt to situations that matters.
- Ask for help when you need to and remember that not everyone is going to like you or what you do. That’s OK, don’t let it stop you.
- Listen to your customers, ask what they want, look at the latest trends, and try to ignore the noise of everyone and just focus on your ideal client.
- Don’t get too caught up on the little things, it wastes time.
- DO NOT COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS!
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TAP: Tell us a little about what setting up your own fashion label involves.
SP: Setting up your own fashion brand involves a lot of work and you have to take on several different roles. I have a manufacturer and team who help with that side of things, but I handle everything to do with the design and daily work myself. For e-commerce I would recommend starting with Shopify. I started with a web developer but it took ages to get changes made and I did not understand the way my website worked.
If you are designing and making your own clothes as I do, then you’ll need to work with manufacturers and pattern cutters, as well as sampling, testing out fabrics, fitting models and refitting when something doesn’t work. And don’t forget about designing your product’s packaging, logo creation and writing!
In terms of marketing and PR, utilise Instagram if you can. Create and grow an email list because that is yours and it can be a great way to connect with your audience. Send out press launches to all the magazines you would love to be featured in. You may think they aren’t watching, but actually, they are and one day they might just reach out.
TAP: There are many ways to break into the industry. What are your thoughts on working as an in-house lingerie designer for an existing brand versus starting your own label – what are the advantages and disadvantages of both options?
SP: Having done both I would say a big advantage of working for an in-house designer is you learn on the job – you learn how the industry works and how the seasons work. Another advantage is that you can make contacts and connections that become so valuable if and when you decide to start your own label. You also get the buzz of being in that environment.
The disadvantage is that it may take a while to get to the job role you actually want and even then, it may turn out to be a The Devil Wears Prada scenario. It can be very competitive and you are very much replaceable. I remember working for 48 hours without any sleep during Fashion Week. It was the same every year and anyone who went home was told to not come back. We were exhausted, overworked and not getting paid, however I loved every minute of it. I thrived on the rush of everyone being together, and I loved being involved in making a couture collection and dressing the models. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was great to have that experience, but it was also hard and knocked my confidence.
The advantage of having your own label is that you make all the decisions, you have creative freedom and you have the ability to do more because you have to take on every role. This is also a disadvantage because it can be hard to take on every role, especially when you are still learning and don’t know the best decision to make for the brand. It’s a lot of pressure and can be overwhelming, but you also get to reap the rewards!
When you work for someone else that is all it is, but when the brand is yours, you get to go to the events, be the face of it and promote it. Your confidence grows and you get to work on yourself too. It gives you a better sense of accomplishment.
The advantage of having your own label is that you make all the decisions, you have creative freedom and you have the ability to do more because you have to take on every role.
TAP: Can you share three resources that are invaluable for breaking into the lingerie design industry?
SP: The first resource for anyone who wants to become a lingerie designer is Van Jonsson Design. It has so many tools for aspiring lingerie designers, and they are all affordable and fun. It’s a great place to start.
The second is networking. I attended Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris last year and I learned so much. They have industry professionals who give talks on different elements of lingerie design. I was able to see all the upcoming trends and I made some great connections. There are also a lot of fabric suppliers and manufacturers there. Even though their minimum order quantities are high, you can get a good idea of the type of materials you want to source.
The final resource I would recommend is any book about lingerie. In Intimate Detail by Cora Harrington is a really good, modern read, but you should read as many books on lingerie as you can. When I studied costume design at university I read so many books, went to expos at museums and researched the history of lingerie. It’s true that who you know will help your career, but you also need to know what you are talking about.
TAP: What is the biggest misconception about your job?
SP: That it’s easy and you can make clothing quickly. I think a lot of people assume that it is glamorous, most of the time, it’s not. It isn’t all sitting around designing – in fact designing is only a small part of what I do.
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