Creating With the Customer In Mind
Tiffany Bean, designer of a line of clothing by the same name and owner of the 2013 award winning Best Boutique NW Mabel and Zora, invited me to her upscale shop to chat about trends, style and Portland fashion. Bean, married, with a four year old and another due in December, knows many facets of the fashion industry having worked in it in many different aspects. From retail, to purchasing, to store owner, to designer, Bean certainly knows her way around the industry.
Tell me a little about Mabel and Zora, how did it start?
We started in 2006. We opened on Alberta Street and I had been through a course of events. My father had gotten sick so we moved to New Mexico to help take care of him. We lived in a tiny little tourist town, and the only job was managing a boutique. I had been in retail but I was a furniture merchandiser, so fashion was new to me. The owner had just opened a new boutique in Texas, so she was gone because she was busy at the new store. So it was kind of sink or swim. I loved it because it was pretty much like my store, the owner of it hardly ever came and I got to make all the decisions. I did all the buying. I had such a good time doing it and realized I could do it for myself. We really wanted to move to Portland after my father passed away. My brother and his family moved here and we thought that if we moved here my mom would want to come with us, which she did. I had lived here before so I knew Portland was such a good city for supporting local so it seemed like a good spot to open our store. We opened in June of 2006 on Alberta street and have been doing it ever since. It’s evolved a lot. When we first opened, you know the clientele on Alberta and the Pearl district are totally different; at one point we had both stores and we were just exhausted. We had to carry different lines for both stores to fit the clientele and buying was like a huge ordeal and keeping everything straight, it was two totally different stores. We ended up closing the Alberta one and that was when I started the clothing line. But my husband and I, we’d do it together. I didn’t intend on it, but after being open for two weeks we had to hire someone and he was like, “What if I just do it?” So we somehow managed to make it work, we’re trying to support a family of four so you know how that goes.
How did you evolve from running and making all the major business decisions into the creative aspect of designing?
I’ve always wanted to design clothing, but I was scared to death of it. It was one of those things that seemed out of my realm; I didn’t have any training in it. I’ve always been in retail and I’m really good at it. I love merchandising, so after having the store for a few years we kept having customers ask for things and we kept going to different markets and not being able to find them. It was just the same type of stuff over and over and over. I finally started thinking what if I figure out how to do this so that we could meet these needs? Fashion is so trend driven; sometimes those trends don’t really relate or translate to our customers. Like right now crop tops are really big and I don’t know anybody who wears a crop top my age, so it’s really hard when you go to the market and that’s all you can find. I started thinking what if I could start designing things that would fit our customers. I have some customers that buy everything I’ve made. They have 10 or 12 pieces from my line. I try it on all different body types. I just go crazy about it to try and make sure it fits just right. We’ll fit a range of people. It’s less focused on trend and more just being a really classic, flattering piece that you have forever. I’m really picky about fabrics so I’m not making as much for spring as I usually would because I’m not able to find the fabrics that meet the quality that I want. I feel like that kind of sets it apart, I have really high standards and I won’t sacrifice those. And people have figured that out so I have some good following for it.
What was the first piece you made? What was the first dress you knew you needed to fill a niche for?
The first dress I made was a little strapless sundress and they called to say that it was finished the day that my daughter was born, so I named it the “Frances”, which is her name, because I was literally in labor. But you know there’s like hours there where it’s not bad. I was in the hospital, but just waiting, and the sewer called and was like: “We just wanted to let you know that your dresses are ready”. And I’m like, “Well, I’ll get there when I can”. So I gave birth and the next day my mom and I sat there sewing the labels in them, in the hospital, so we could get them in the store. We still make the “Frances” dress all the time.
Who is the Mabel and Zora woman?
Well, she’s over thirty. We have customers anywhere from 20-80, so we have a huge range. But on average, she’s probably in her forties. I think because there are so many yoga and Pilates studios in the Pearl, we tend to have women who are, super fit and travel a lot for their jobs and dress up for their job and have lots of events to go to, and just want to have pieces that they don’t have to replace. So just classic and they keep them in their closet and they maybe switch the jewelry out or something.
What do you think about Portland fashion? You’ve been around here for many years now, what is your opinion about Portland fashion compared to the rest of the country?
I had a fun conversation this weekend with someone about this. Portland is definitely more casual in its fashion compared to anywhere else I have ever been. I lived in the south and then I lived in California for a while and New Mexico, Colorado (Colorado’s really casual too). In the South, people really like to get dressed up, and you really focus on it. It’s an event, just the actual getting dressed up. That’s not the case in Portland, and its different from California as well. People, even if they are going to an event, like to get more wear out of what they’re buying so, we’ve learned it can’t be a onetime dress. It’s got to be something that you could then pair with boots and make it so it doesn’t look so dressy. As far as designers in Portland, I love how creative they are. I feel like we are in a little bubble up here. We’re not in New York, we’re not in L.A, we’re not exposed to all of the same stuff that everybody is. Everything comes out of their heads and this is what they want to do as opposed to what everyone is doing. It’s less trendy and more creative, and I really respect that and love it. I think that’s one of the coolest things about Portland is that you see a huge range of styles here.
Is there a difference between the Tiffany Bean woman and the Mabel and Zora woman?
A little bit, I mean the Mabel and Zora covers a large gamete, there’s that whole casual, Michaels Stars and James Perse Collection. I don’t do casual for Tiffany Bean. I do some summer pieces that are kind of casual, but it tends to be a little dressier. The collection for holiday that I am finishing now is really dressy and we were a little nervous about it. The dress colors have Fuchsia pink, so it’s all black, brown and Fuchsia. I just love it. I think they are beautiful. It’s beautiful fabric, really luxe and very dressy so we weren’t really sure how well that would go over in Portland because it’s pretty targeted. But we’ve had wonderful comments, we’ve sold out of most of it, and it’s just coming in the doors so that’s really exciting to have happen.
What’s the networking like in Portland for a small boutique owner and designer?
I love it. The boutiques are great. There are a lot of boutiques that have been in Portland for a long time and you run into each other, so I feel like all of my best friends own boutiques in Portland, and I love it. It’s just fun because you can all complain about the same things and help each other through the same things. The fashion industry is typically a very closed industry. It’s really hard. People just don’t share information in fashion. They’re so concerned about you taking their idea or their resources and so it’s generally just a very hush, hush. It’s not in Portland. I have found people pretty willing to share information. I started consulting last year on marketing. We’ve had so many designers come to our store and try to sell us their line and it was just really obvious to me why I wasn’t buying their line but it wasn’t to them. I started teaching a class at Portland Sewing with Sharon Blair two years ago and I teach it once a season. It’s about marketing to buyers and if you’re a new designer, how to think like a buyer does and see it from their perspective. I started consulting new designers and some established designers, on how to really get your stuff ready to meet with a buyer and everyone’s been different. It’s mainly marketing and getting your materials ready and your product ready to show them. But with everyone, it’s been a little bit different concept. I’ve been able to help designers in Portland that have great ideas, but maybe their construction wasn’t up to quality or they had no marketing, or maybe they were really poorly made or they didn’t know how to interact with buyers or even how to make that first step. I’ve been able to help them make that bridge.
What would your advice be to an up and coming designer? What is your “This is what you really need to know the most” advice?
There’s nothing like on the job training. Interning or working for someone who’s doing it, there’s so many little aspects, that I think if you just go to school and start designing, you have no concept of. If you can work for another designer or in a boutique that’s buying, that would be a huge amount of information you can get. I also think that business classes are the most important thing you can do. I would say with Tiffany Bean Designs, the actual design process is 10 percent of the work. The business side of it is 90 percent of the work. You go to school and spend so much time trying to learn all these technical skills; that is a minor portion of producing collections and have it be successful. Never underestimate that business side of it and being prepared.
Have you noticed that those who tend to be more creative have less interest in the business side or are you finding that today’s designer realizes that you can’t just be creative you also have to think with a business mind?
A little bit of both. I think being naïve about how the process works for buying in stores would be the thing I notice most about designers. You design a line and you think it’s great and you know you believe in it and you think others will too. We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds of lines that people have designed and think they’re great and a lot of them have 30, 40, 50 years of experience, so competing with that is really hard. I think that’s the part that lots of new designers don’t get. Taking you on as someone no one’s heard of when I have this option that people have heard of and I know the quality, is a real risky situation. You’ve got to really step up to get that buyer to look at you instead. Especially when you’re not just trying to sell to Portland. It’s one thing when a Portland designer comes to a Portland boutique and we love supporting local here in every way possible. You’re not going to make it if you’re just selling in Portland boutiques, so take that same designer and try to sell in Seattle or LA or somewhere else, you’ve really got to step up to a new level. That’s the part I see most designers being naïve about.
Where do you see Mabel and Zora in five years and where do you see Tiffany Bean and her collection in five years?
Well, I hope Mabel and Zora just keeps growing and doing its own thing. We love where we are, we love our store, and we keep evolving. We’ve dropped lines and we’ve gained lines and changed lines as we grow and get older. I feel like we make better decisions now. I had somebody tell me that: “The best thing about you is that you never stop trying to get better”. I think that’s awesome, my husband and I both feel that way. We don’t ever seem to have the sense of, “Okay we’re there so we know what we’re doing”. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful for so long, is we don’t ever get stale. We keep trying new things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but at least we keep trying and we do keep getting better. In five years I hope we have just figured out a little bit more and managed how to do the family with two children and a store thing. Tiffany Bean is a good question. It’s kind of hard right now because I’m taking a little breather just to be focused on being a mom and I hope that after a year I can get back in and start growing the wholesale again. It’s fun and it’s exciting to see it in other stores and I really believe in what I’m making and people seem to really love it. So I’d like to keep doing it and keep growing it.
Is there any last thing you want Portland to know about Mabel and Zora or Tiffany Bean?
I am so happy to be a part of the Portland design and fashion world. I couldn’t think of a place that I would rather be. It’s exciting to see the growth happening here, I’m glad to be a part of it. All the Portland designers that I see, everybody is doing something totally different, and I think that’s really cool, but equally awesome in different ways.