Q: Who is your fashion icon?
A: Right now, I’m having a moment with Diane Keaton! I also really love Sophia Loren and her incredible confidence. I’m really interested in the clothing artists wear to work in as well. For example, I love to look at photos of Helen Frankenthaler painting - style icon for sure!
Q: How important is it to have your 'partner in crime' be both your business partner and your spouse as someone who truly believes that their work is their calling and the thing that keeps them going the most? I know that a lot of people struggle to find a balance between their work and their personal life and that not everyone can work and go home with their spouse. At the same time, I know that others struggle from separation that such dedication can pose on a relationship. What's your take on this?
A: This is a great topic and something I've thought about a lot. We get asked quite often how we can stand to work together all day and be married, and I'm always a little shocked - we did agree to spend forever together, right?!
I think looking at our relationship now, working together is almost a necessity. For me, work is certainly what drives me the most. I need to be building, thinking, productive. If we had separate jobs, we would see each other very little, and, when we did see each other, I would want to be talking about what was happening at work. It would feel like we were always discussing our "work life" and giving little attention to our "home life." But, for us, our work life is both of our lives, and we are equally invested in it. Sharing a bottle of wine and talking about fabric over dinner doesn't feel like I am hijacking the conversation to talk about work - it feels like a genuine discussion of something we both care about.
I do think we could (and should) both unplug more and make more time for extracurricular things together, but right now we are both driven and passionate about our business and are happy to focus on that part of our life. I also think that working together has strengthened our relationship - we have had to develop the ability to problem solve together and disagree about things at work without getting overly emotional, and that has been valuable outside of work as well.
I know that we are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work like this, but I think you are right - I don't know if I could give the necessary investment to a marriage and build this business if the two weren't related.
Q: What did your husband do or study before you started your business?
A: He went to Vanderbilt Law School - that's what brought us to Nashville. He is brilliant, but law was never a huge passion for him, and he was helping me with administrative elements of the business while he was still in school. By the time he graduated, Elizabeth Suzann had grown to the point that it could support both of us financially, and he has an incredible head for organization and management. He became the COO, which is a great fit for his skills and knowledge. If he had already started a career that he was invested in, I don't know that things would have turned out this way, and I don't know that I would have been able to devote myself as fully to the business without him here each day. We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to work together this way!
Q: What are some of the biggest influences in your life?
A: In my life as a whole - family, our animals, film and literature. In design - the intentionality of Japanese culture, sculpture and art from the 1960s and 1970s, music from the same time period, and the simplicity and essentialism found in nature.
Q: What is your advice for people who want to do business like yours?
A: Don't spend money on advertising or marketing or anything gimmicky before you have a solid product and a solid plan. Work your ass off - be prepared for late nights, no holidays, figuring things out on your own, being everything from the CEO to the janitor for a while, and, when the growth kicks in, don't let up the pace. But, before that, make sure the product or service you're selling is valuable, unique, well made, and fills a need that will make the world a better place. If you are designing something great, the rest will fall into place.
Q: As someone who came to consciously consuming via an environmental/ethical perspective, I am curious as to why you support Coke by drinking Diet Coke. Do you try to practice conscious consumerism beyond material goods like clothes? I am curious as to how people, especially leaders/makers, make choices and triage the needs of conscious consumption.
A: This is a good question. The honest answer is that it's simply a vice. It's something I've been drinking since I was a teenager, and, while I wish that I could make the ethical and "right" choice about every product I buy, activity I engage in, and thing I eat or drink, unfortunately, that's just not feasible. What I try to do is pick my battles wisely and right now my battle is running this business effectively to combat issues in the garment industry, provide good jobs, and create great, long-lasting products.
My husband and I are working on transitioning our food consumption to mostly locally sourced, organic and grass fed products because we feel like that's the next biggest place we can make an impact, but that's still a tough project for us and we're just getting started. Caffeine is a critical part of my day and right now that means continuing to drink DC.
I appreciate the dialogue about it - it's a good reminder that choosing to focus on something necessarily means choosing not to focus on something else. I'm just trying to do the best I can and, right now, that means focusing on getting through the workday to grow our impact. :)
Q: What do you find is the most rewarding part of your job / business?
A: Oh! Most rewarding part. I think it's hearing from people who have benefited from what we do. Receiving testimonial emails from customers who have been touched, inspired, or comforted by our garments is always so special and I get a little teary every time I read one. Hearing our employees talk about how working at ES has impacted their life in a positive way is incredibly moving to me as well. It surprises me a little every time, and, when I realize that what we try to do here to create a healthy, happy environment is working, it makes my heart so full.
Q: How much of your wardrobe is your own line? What other designers do you like? What articles of clothing do you prefer to wear most?
A: Surprisingly, not a huge part of my wardrobe is my own. I’d say around 30%, probably! I always feel guilty adding items for myself to the production team’s workload, so I try to keep samples and one-offs rather than new pieces! Usually employees will force me to take things home - Ha!
In addition to ES, I love vintage, and I really love jeans. I’ve got quite a few pairs of vintage and new jeans (only 100% cotton, no stretch!). I love vintage cotton tunics, dresses, and basic tee shirts. If it’s new, designers I love are Lauren Manoogian, Rennes, Commes de Garconne, APC, Dear Rivington and Josi Faye.
Q: What brand of jeans do you like?
A: I swear by Chimala. I also have a few great pairs from Madewell, and vintage Levis are always a safe bet!
Q: What is your favorite shop or clothing line besides ES?
A: I have lots, but right now I'm loving Lauren Manoogian for knitwear, Mari Giudicelli for footwear, and I always go to Rennes when I want to shop, but I don't know quite what I'm looking for. I always buy pieces that I know will last, and, even when they are pricier, they pay off when I wear them 1000x over!
Q: What are a few pieces of advice you would pass on to a young girl (age 12-14) aspiring to start her own business?
A: Oh boy! The first thing I would say is congrats for being way ahead of the game! My best advice for someone starting young is to go ahead and prepare for the tough parts. You haven’t had time to grow callouses yet, which is often a huge advantage. You don’t know what to be afraid of. You’ll take risks, believe in the impossible, and act out of genuine passion rather than what you think you know - and that will get you far. But, being young and naive means that the failures will hurt, bad. Don’t let the painful parts stop you!
Q: What is one thing you would like to achieve with ES?
A: There are lots of things I hope to achieve, but something that has been occupying my mind a lot lately is a new facility outside of the city. I dream of a place where our staff can see green from every window, a cafeteria for our team that serves food we grow on the premises, a place where all of our dogs can run wild, and where we can run our machinery off of solar panels.
Q: What is the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
A: I always struggle with this question! I’ve been given a lot of advice (both solicited and unsolicited), and the honest truth is that I don’t like most of it. It’s hard for anyone outside of yourself to understand your circumstances and vision as well as you do, so input can often feel like it misses the mark. But, there is one piece of advice I will be eternally grateful for.
It came when I was still working from our apartment. I was selling on Etsy, and I had started to gain traction at a few craft fairs I participated in. I was getting steady orders, but things weren’t going wild or anything. I was just browsing Craigslist one day, daydreaming about working from a real studio rather than our spare bedroom, and I found a little yoga studio for rent. It was just barely something I might be able to afford, in the back of a gym, and it only had three walls. But, it was so exciting to me.
I called my mom and told her about the studio and how I had called the landlord but ended up telling him I wasn’t interested. She immediately said to hang up the phone, call him back, and tell him I would take it. I don’t remember her exact words, but she basically said, "If you can pay the first month's rent, you’ll figure out how to pay the rest." I took him a check that night and started moving my stuff in the very next day. From that point forward, things haven’t slowed down, and I haven’t looked back.
Q: If you could swap making clothes for another craft or art, what would it be?
A: I have always wished desperately that I could illustrate, paint or sculpt. I would love to be able to communicate and express emotion through a medium like that - so I’d say painting! Although I do have a major, major weakness for ceramics.
Q: What are three things you love about Nashville?
A: #1 - The food! All the hot chicken and tacos.
#2 - The people! I will never get sick of southern hospitality; I just really like when people are nice.
#3 - The creativity! It is such a creative city with a lot of great young businesses, and it’s nice to know we aren’t alone here.
Q: I know you studied art history - what person or time period did you study or who are you favorite artists (fashion or otherwise)?
A: I studied Art History in undergrad and didn’t specialize in a particular style or time period, but I do have some favorites! I love 20th century female artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, and Eva Hesse - but I really fell in love with the study of visual culture when we got into the masters from the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
These were artists in the 1400-1600’s, and the style is just mesmerizing to me. They painted everything from still life to portraiture to wild, imagined realities, and every piece was chock full of symbolism and meaning to decode. I loved the concept of something visual representing so much more than what you see at the surface level, and these artists were geniuses. I love the big ones like Vermeer and Rembrandt, but also others like Bruegel, Bosch and Hals - and one famous female from that period Rachel Ruysch. SO GOOD!
Q: What is one thing people get wrong about what you do?
A: I think one thing people get wrong about the business - not necessarily me personally - is that they don’t understand our made-to-order process. Sometimes folks don’t know that we are made-to-order at all and assume we have inventory on hand, or, that because we are made-to-order, that means we can make custom or bespoke garments. It’s tough sometimes to explain that we don’t have a stockroom full of finished products, but we also can’t customize each garment for every customer. It’s definitely not a common business model, so I understand the confusion, and we are working on making what we do and why we do it clearer and easier to follow.
One thing people sometimes get wrong about me, specifically, is that they assume that I spend all of my time designing and creating. In reality, I spend most of my time running our business, which involves a lot of cleaning out the fridge, rearranging the warehouse, sending e-mails, working on the website, answering questions, and a whole laundry list of little tasks that keep things going.
Q: French Toast or Pancakes?
A: Oh my gosh - this is possibly the hardest question yet. I used to be a total french toast girl, but lately I would have to say pancakes! Though, only when drowned in butter and cinnamon sugar.
Q: What is something that you wish you had known before diving into business with your spouse? Are you professional at work and family at home? Or does it all spill over? And, which do you recommend?
A: I think I wish I had known how easy it would be for work to consume our lives when we are both invested in the same project. I think if we had separate jobs, we’d be more likely to have some kind of an extracurricular life together, but, with both of us working at ES, that means it is very easy for it to be all we ever talk and think about. However, I wouldn’t change it if I could.
He is the best partner I could hope for. He understands me and thinks like me, and I also don’t know if anyone else could challenge me the way he does. The fact that we’re married means he’s not afraid to vehemently disagree with me, and the fact that he’s my husband makes me able to tolerate it.
It definitely all spills over into one another. Most of our dinner conversations are about sales or payroll, and the first thing we talk about in bed in the morning is the meetings we have on the calendar for the day, and who’s going to open up the gate and unlock the building. I think, for us, it works - we are both young and passionate about what we’re doing and are at a stage in our lives where we want to pour everything we have into our career and are fortunate enough to be able to do that together.
So, if you’re like us, I recommend letting it spill away. It can be quite romantic to be invested in the same struggles and victories, and, at least when we’re tired, we’re tired together. It may not work that way for everyone though, and I think you have to know yourself and each other to decide how strict your boundaries should be. We do have to step away at times - for a few days or a weekend occasionally - to simply get some perspective and to look at each other instead of ahead.
Q: What is your sign?
A: I am an Aries!
Q: What mistake do you see women making in their everyday style choices?
A: Not dressing comfortably! This is the biggest one I notice because it is the biggest mistake I made. Things that are too tight, heels that are too high, crazy accessories, leather pants, elaborate hardware. Wearing clothes that don’t feel comfortable - physically or emotionally - is the quickest way to an unflattering outfit.
If you don’t feel comfortable physically, you’re going to be fidgeting all day, and your posture and body language will give away your unease. Worst case scenario, you remove the offending article halfway through the day and then your intended look is lost altogether. If your clothing isn’t comfortable emotionally - either because it is too risqué or modest or just doesn’t represent who you really are - it will be written all over your face. Nothing looks good on someone who doesn’t feel good.
Dressing in something that makes you feel beautiful, but that also feels good on your body, something that you can move in, and something that’s appropriate for what your day has in store for you - that’s my best advice for improving everyday style.
Q: What made you fall in love with Nicolas Cage?
A: Ha! This one is interesting. It actually started as a spite-crush. I casually mentioned that I thought Nicolas Cage was cute in National Treasure (when he’s in the tuxedo at the president's party or something like that), and my brother was floored. It started a whole big debate - with everyone in the room arguing that he was objectively unattractive, and I couldn’t possibly actually think he was good-looking. So, I dug my heels in and committed, mostly out of spite, but now I’ve learned to really love him. I mostly like him in his early movies - Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, a little bit of Con Air. ;)
Q: What are your favorite books?
A: Non-business related: Harry Potter. Hands down.
Business-related: Everything by Seth Godin. The "Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading"
series is incredible as well. And "Let My People Go Surfing" by Yvon Chouinard is also one of my favorites!
Q: What other designers are staples in your wardrobe right now?
A: Lauren Manoogian, Han Starnes, and Mari Giudicelli
Q: How did you choose your major in college? And, when you did choose that major, what were you aspiring to become?
A: I picked an Art History class on a whim early on in college, and I fell in love with the professor. She was this crazy woman who always wore a beret and she had the most incredible stories about traveling the world and studying art. Her passion for the field inspired my own, and I knew it was something I wanted to keep studying. We became good friends and she encouraged a career in museum curation or academics. I pursued the major without anything specific in mind, I just knew I enjoyed it. I wasn’t ever one for thinking very practically - Ha!
Q: Face Off or Moonstruck?
A: MOONSTRUCK ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.
Q: If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
A: Oh dang. I feel embarrassed that I don’t have an immediate answer! I think I would really like to go the countryside of France. I’ve never been to Europe, and I think I would die from happiness spending a week in a charming cottage, eating cheese and baguettes from a little village market. Antique shopping, wine tasting - yeah, that sounds right. Then maybe a quick hop over to the Amalfi Coast? Can I squeeze that in?
Q: Do you actually ever sleep?
A: HA! Yes. Surprisingly, I sleep quite a bit. We work from 7am to 9pm, but when we finish work it’s pretty much dinner and straight to bed. I am such a grandma. I am asleep by 9 or 10pm most nights! During crazy periods like product launches, big production weeks, or the holidays, I’m usually up pretty late, but I always squeeze in a few hours. ;)
Q: What is the best way to encourage consumers to shop with shops like yours versus fast-fashion lines that manufacture overseas with poor conditions for workers and the environment?
A: We are still trying to answer this question for ourselves. It’s tempting to point out the terrible shortcomings of the fast-fashion industry and to shame people into making better choices. But that’s not the approach I want for our brand, so we try instead to highlight what our products offer that less ethical brands can’t in terms of quality and sustainability and to focus on the positivity of our process. We will occasionally discuss the darker side of the industry when we feel it’s merited, but I want our focus to always be on education and improvement rather than guilt. I would hate to think of exploiting a tragedy (like a factory collapse, fire, etc.) for our own gain. I do think awareness is critical, so we are learning how to walk that line.
Q: What is one thing you wish you had known when you started ES? What is your favorite way to spend a few free hours?
A: I wish I had known that pretty much everything costs twice as much as you think it will cost and takes twice as long as you think it will take. Either that, or I am just really, really optimistic. I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the past several years, and, whether it’s launching a collection or managing a renovation, it is always harder and more complicated than I think at first.
My favorite way to spend a few free hours right now is definitely on the couch with my dogs, husband, and Netflix. We’re re-watching Grey’s Anatomy right now (I know, I know) and the drama is getting so intense!
Q: You're relatively young for a designer and business owner. Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
A: Ten years from now, I would love to have a beautiful, sunlit new building for ES on a big piece of land with a cafeteria and a greenhouse and chickens running around. An ES daycare full of our employees' rugrats. A big cabin nearby for my husband and I with tons of glass, white floors and a clean, open kitchen. A front porch with trees all around - crickets and birds chirping. In this wonderful world, I read more, drink more wine, exercise every day and know how to cook, knit, and really relax.
Q: Is there such a thing as a work / life balance?
A: This is a good question, but one that I usually avoid answering because my answer is controversial. I think for me, the answer is no. My work is my life, and I think that’s okay. I don’t think there is a way for something that you spend 8-10 hours a day (at a minimum) on to *not* be your life. Whether it’s a life you like or not is a separate thing, but it is, in reality, your life.
I do occasionally crave a break or an opportunity to truly unplug from work, but the goal of that is usually to return to my work with new energy, new motivation, and new perspective. The goal is not usually the break itself - the break is a means to improve my work.
Perhaps, I am flawed, but I find it hard to imagine what a life would be outside of work for me, and even harder to imagine enjoying it more than learning, creating, innovating, or improving this thing that I am so passionate about. This is not to say that we never relax, or that I am literally always working, but I definitely would not say I have a work/life balance. I would say that I have a life, and that life is mostly spent working because that is what I feel most strongly about right now.
I do think it’s important to make time for our families outside of ES, and we thoroughly enjoy unplugging with them when we get the opportunity. Outside of family, it’s work, sleep, or Netflix.
Q: If stranded on an island for the rest of your life, and you could take only one fabric with you, which would it be?
A: If I could take one fabric for the rest of my life, it would absolutely be linen. It’s my spirit fabric - it’s so comfortable, so durable, and just feels like me. Not too perfect or pristine, but also not too granola. Linen, forever!
Q: Where did you study and for how long? Do you think there are a lot of skills I can learn myself through working after study?
A: I actually did not study fashion or design; I am self-taught in sewing and pattern drafting. In college, I studied Art History and Political Science. Learning about visual culture and anthropology was really inspiring to me and certainly influenced my decision-making, but I never studied design or technique formally. I bought textbooks, watched a lot of YouTube videos, and learned what I needed to as I needed it.
Everyone's path is different, but I definitely believe you can learn almost anything yourself if you're willing to commit to it. I think my liberal arts education taught me how to think and analyze ideas, and perhaps, that is what you're seeking with a transition to a more conceptual program. Either way, I think you are capable of learning on your own and could study both the conceptual elements and the technical elements outside of school if you wanted. I believe there are huge benefits for teaching yourself - you retain the information longer, end up with a firmer grasp on why things work the way they do, and are able to focus your efforts on the things that really interest you and are relevant to your needs.
Q: Are you influenced by the current renaissance in southern crafts/artisans/makers? Do you think your company is a part of this bigger movement?
A: I think, geographically, we would be considered by others to be a part of this movement, but, internally, we are definitely moving forward of our own accord. I think, because of the scale we have reached, we feel more like a company and less like a craft-based business. I love what I’m seeing happening in so many industries in the south - people returning to lost crafts, making high quality products in small batches, and artisans finding new audiences and outlets to sell their work - but I wouldn’t categorize us as part of any movement. I’d be doing this no matter where I was located or what other businesses were doing. We’ve got a bit of an independent streak. ;)
Q: What piece of apparel is still on your must-create list? If there are three must-have Elizabeth Suzann pieces you'd want every customer to pick up, what would they be and why?
A: I would really love to make some beautiful silk evening wear that feels totally approachable and wearable for everyone. A simple, washed charmeuse cowl-neck midi, something that would look right at home quite literally anywhere, but that is completely comfortable and flattering. I don’t know that we really have a market that needs a dress like that - but I’d love to make it!
The three pieces I would have an ES customer buy would have to be the Georgia Tee in Flax Linen, the Harper Tunic in Ivory Linen, and the Clyde Pant in Black Cotton Twill. I think those are the three most versatile pieces in the collection and give the best representation of the capabilities of our clothes. They look good on literally everyone, are extremely comfortable and flattering, and make a great little capsule wardrobe. You could hop on a plane to almost anywhere with those three garments and be good for at least a week!
Q: If you could have your life written as a film, a TV series, a book, a concept album, or a Broadway musical - which would you choose and in what style would it be? What was your journey to choosing Nashville as home for you and your brand?
A: Oooh! I would definitely say a movie and probably in some kind of crazy flashback/alternate universe style of the Cage classic, The Family Man. Ha! :)
And choosing Nashville was actually not a conscious decision in terms of ES. I moved here with Chris, my husband, because he was starting law school at Vanderbilt. I hadn’t started ES yet, but I knew I wanted to try making clothing and figured I could do that from anywhere really, so we came here for him and figured we’d be moving after he graduated. As my business and our team grew, roots set in, and now we’re here for good!
Q: Should we have regulations to limit the negative environmental, social, and human rights impacts of fast fashion? Although these impacts are now being better documented and publicized, it's still a "personal choice" for those with resources to choose more sustainable options. Do you think legislative actions are needed to offset these negative impacts and create a more level playing field for sustainable/small brands, and if so - what are some example regulations you think would be helpful?
A: My belief is that, typically, the consumer and the marketplace have the most power when it comes to getting companies to do things. If customers decide they want better, more sustainable, and ethical options, companies will figure out how to make it happen so they can get those dollars.
I also tend to believe that regulation is the least efficient way to elicit the behavior you want, but I do think there are some practices that should clearly be prohibited - like the dumping of toxic chemicals into the environment and the use of child or exploitative labor. Those things are not simple to regulate, though, and it’s difficult to get a consensus on what “acceptable” is. I think the best way to motivate greedy companies to change their behavior is with the one thing that incentivizes greedy companies, and that is with money.
Customers need to demand better products and be willing to use their purchasing power to effect change. I don’t know that we need to level the playing field - I tend to believe that small companies actually have the advantage here. Small brands are young, agile, nimble, and don’t have huge infrastructures in place to rebuild. New companies can choose exactly how to operate, and can talk directly to their customers about why they’re doing things the way they are.
Q: What book would you recommend for a gal just getting into pattern-making?
A: I would recommend going with a drafting textbook. I don’t like the beginner books that try to over-simplify the process or have a bunch of fancy graphics and a cute cover but barely skim the surface of the actual drafting strategy. I think if you jump right into the real stuff it will be confusing at first, but you’ll end up with a much better grasp of the concepts and real skills.
I would start with “How to Draft Basic Patterns” and “Designing Apparel Through the Flat Pattern” by Ernestine Kopp. They aren’t pretty books, and the garments in them are mostly ridiculous, but you’ll learn how patterns work and how to make good ones. Once you understand the theory, you can make anything you want.
Q: How do you balance taking feedback and input from a creative and energetic young staff while maintaining your personal vision and direction for the company?
A: It is incredible to have a wholeheartedly involved and enthusiastic staff that cares about and wants to be a part of our vision and mission. The fact that they empathize with what we do and feel so strongly about their involvement is what allows them to work so hard for us and to produce incredible work that we can be proud of putting our name on. If they don’t feel like they are a part of the DNA of Elizabeth Suzann, then the chances of us getting the quality of work we need are slim.
So, we encourage their feedback, input, and involvement whenever we can. We try to get a pulse for what they’re feeling, are always open to suggestions for improvement, and frequently put the onus on them to improve systems and operations in their departments or role. Giving them ownership of their work helps them feel fulfilled and takes some work off of our plate.
As far as managing that freedom and ensuring our vision for the company, we have to work hard to frequently define and remind the staff of our goals. We have found that openness and honesty about our goals and our vision is the best way to have everyone’s work align with them. If we have been up-front and honest about our goals at the beginning of the year, it is very easy to explain why a suggestion or an idea doesn’t fit within them at a certain time, and no one’s hopes are dashed because we’re all on the same page. If you haven’t clued them in to your goals and vision, then they don’t know why their feedback or ideas aren’t a good fit, and how could they?
So - clear communication, generosity with knowledge and plans, and frequent reminders of the path you’re on and why should help to keep everyone’s agenda in sync.