Oh let’s say that the fashion industry were looking to deep six the stereotype of the typical “designer” (you know: divalicious, bitchy, deeply unbalanced, inaccessible, but fabulous, dahling, just fabulous on TV).
Well here’s our casting suggestion: Lauren and Josh Podoll, the designing duo behind The Podolls.
OK so San Francisco, where they’re based, isn’t exactly NY, Paris, Milan or London. But, the Podolls are creating an influential clothing brand that’s got fans around the world, and sells to chains like Calypso and Anthroplogie. They’re also pioneering responsibility in fashion and design, and are getting kudos for bringing clothing manufacturing back to the urban Bay Area, helping create an eco-system that’ll (hopefully) serve other designers.
Lauren: bubbly, enthusiastic, words tumbling out over each other. Josh: a touch more contained, serious, and very cool. (Ironically–or maybe not–they later reveal that Lauren is risk averse and Josh is the risk taker.) Together, they’re a couple of the most balanced, seriously lovely people you’ll ever meet.
Laid back, but passionate, committed to what they do, obsessed with the craft but filled with entrepreneurially savvy. Oh, and they’re even new parents to Dashiell who charmed (then slept) his way through the interview. You get the sense that these two (or three) love their lives. And that translates into what they do and how they do it.
We sat in their light-filled, loft that had the same stylish, playful, offhand cool their clothes have. The clothes, the loft are very creative-urban California: utterly comfortable with no sharp edges, but self-assured, forward, and thoughtfully, sophisticatedly designed, with a dash of humor, a lick of irony.
A little history, please. (LP) Well I’d been a buyer at San Francisco’s AB Fits (the legendary denim store that sold $300 Japanese denim and hand printed T-shirts long before it became so de rigeur among the trendy set). I loved buying but always found myself thinking about how to change things to make them a little more interesting, a little more saleable. And that was really the start…
Had you always had the urge to design? Where’d you study? I’d studied art history and psychology at Duke, and had always dreamed of being a designer, but never thought I’d be one. Was there any fashion in your family? Well yes. My uncle was a fashion designer in the ‘80s (think Dynasty and Dallas). I used to visit him in his work space. And I remember taking an after school class and we made clothes for our Cabbage Patch dolls. (Classic.)
And Josh? (JP) I was an abstract artist (he got his MFA in painting University of Iowa) but I made T-shirts for fun.
(LP) Josh’s sister came into AB Fits wearing one of Josh’s Ts, and I really liked it. It was so funny: he came in to sell us some T-shirts but had no idea what he was doing. But I did place an order, and people started buying them right away. And…we connected…6 months later, we had our first date. (Awww.) We kept dating. And we started designing t shirts–reworking vintage, and one thing led to another.
And it all just took off from there? (LP) Yeah. I took Josh to LA and through the remarkable Stella Ishii, (whom I’d met when I was buying for ab fits) we got introduced to lots of people. (JP) We started early on in Barney’s, and got into a number of Japanese stores early on…our first season! That was kind of amazing. We took that momentum and started adding things to our lines. That was in 2005.
How did you find working together? (LP) From pretty early on, we started to blend our ideas. We just sort of work together, bounce ideas off each other.
So The Podolls was a smoothly running machine from day one? (LP) No! Craft and luxury are two things we’re obsessed with, so we did a line called Podoll. It was very exclusive, very hand-based craft, and sold at places like MAC. It was really high end, really amazing, and really put us into debt! (This is accompanied by a burbling laugh/giggle from Lauren.) Neither of us went to design school: THAT was our education.
So you had T-shirts as your base, and then you had this high-end venture that wasn’t quite working. (JP) We were realizing that the economy was turning, and trying to figure out how to make things that weren’t t shirts or amazing dresses. We wanted things that we could dress up or down that were elegant and amazing. And we wanted them to be sustainable, and American-made.
(LP) This was one last shot before we moved onto Plan B where I’d become a yoga teacher. Josh was already advising and guest lecturing at CCA. And we were willing to let go. But one thing we learned along the way: success leads to failure and failure leads to success.
In 2008 we did our last Podoll collection. We didn’t actually produce any of the collection, just made the samples. (JP) We made another smaller collection under our T shirt brand…and everyone responded to it. People bought in volume and suddenly we were in business (again).
Talk about your commitment to local production. (LP) It’s very important to us: we never made anything abroad in our whole history. We know that our margins aren’t going to be as high, but it was important to have our work reflect the way we live.
(JP) We wanted what we did to reflect out lives, our values. So our pattern maker and sample maker are in SF, our cutters are in the East Bay, and our sewers are in South San Francisco.
That’s pretty gutsy, when it’s so, so easy to move the work to China, Vietnam, or wherever. (JP) You know, we have great relationships with these people, the kind you can only dream about. And it’s so great and fulfilling to work with them because you’re able to give people jobs. (LP) It’s the other part of sustainability.
OK, so other than local manufacturing how does your business work? (LP) We have a show room in LA, and we do fashion week trade shows in NY every year, and smaller trade shows. That’s how our work with Anthropologie came about. They had seen our work and we began to talk.
We’ve heard from others that the blessing of a big chain order can also be…well, a challenge! True. We had to drop our ideas of what we could make in terms of margin, but the volume is so high. We had to make 25K pieces for that order. We shipped our first orders in July. But those orders from businesses like Calypso and Anthropologie–they really help. (JP) And it really does give work to our sewers: they had to bring on new people. It’s very real, the impact of an order like that.
You two started out with not a lot of the nitty gritty, production connections in the industry, or even locally. How did you meet the people? (LP) Some of the contacts came to us through the work I’d been doing. How did you evaluate who to work with? (LP) It’s important to us at all levels that communications are good. We had worked with some contractors in LA but that felt that it was too far.
(JP) We like to be able to see how things are going. We try to get to see how the work is going as often as possible. It’s so incredibly easy for little things to go wrong.
(LP) And some times large things!
(JP) You have to really be on it… (LP) It’s like Murphy’s law every day.
(JP) Fitting, sizing, cutting, sewing…it’s endless. (LP) And that’s not even worrying about the fabric being right, which is what we get into when we design our own fabric.
What else have you learned along the way? What’s it like being a smaller label in this economic environment? (LP) It’s an exacting business. Like if you’re late with stores, people will cancel. (JP) We’ve become more discriminating about who we work with and who we sell to….it can be the coolest store that’s getting all the buzz, but if they don’t pay their bills, all the coolness doesn’t matter. We’re cut to order. It’s supporting us and now our baby…we’ve had to be clear about that.
OK, let’s talk about style. (LP) We talk about the elegance of every day. We use classic lines, and want it to be functional, but in a way that has beauty to it, whether it’s a silk dress or a T-shirt. As a woman, I think about what I’d use, what if I were packing for a trip. And it’s got a West Coast feel. But beyond that, I’m pretty loath to define us. (JP) People tell us it feels good. They want to touch it. (We’d agree.)
Fabrics are really key, aren’t they. (JP) Oh, it always starts with the textiles. We can go crazy with textiles. We often buy things we shouldn’t because they’re too expensive!
But along the way, we’ve also discovered that fabrics dictate what we design and make. There’s an appropriateness thing. We’ve found that certain fabrics want to be certain things. There’s a quality of not forcing. Design is not forced. It can’t be.
What do you want to see happen for your business? (LP) You know, there’s been serendipity in everything we’ve done: our whole career…our meeting, our launch, one thing after another. The way we found this space. Everything. Sometimes I think we were blissfully naive, and sometimes lucky. I would love to continue doing what we’re doing.
(JP) If we can make this work and make this our thing, this can be our dream job. We don’t have to have an empire.
(LP, a little wistfully.) Maybe a store…and I’d love to design shoes. (Cut to a mutual shoe appreciation session.) In this space, it’s been great to be able to put things in context where you can tell your own stories, and understand the designs a little better. But having run a store, I know what it takes.
We can’t wait to see what happens. And by the way, we’re still obsessing over that bathroom wallpaper!
The Podolls is also sold at stores such as: