WHO: Marianne Dorado
WHERE: NYC, NY
WHAT: FSAD 2014
STARTUP: Unfair Advantage
Think the fashion world is dictated by massive conglomerates and uptight Devil Wears Prada designers? Well evidently not to Marianne Dorado, a senior in Cornell’s fashion management program who has launched her own clothing company Unfair Advantage.
I had the chance to sit down with Marianne and pick her brain about everything from first steps to launching the company to what a smart brand means.
E@D: Tell me about your company
MD: Unfair Advantage is a women’s apparel and lingerie brand catering to college women who want to encompass three things: sexy, casual, and comfortable. College women today have a lot going on. We want to be comfortable while still conscious of our appearance. I’m trying to let you look nice without a ton of effort.
E@D: How did you get started?
MD: Really it was a spur the moment decision. I had been making clothes for my friends for a long time having even done personal orders. Then I got involved with a local business owner in downtown Ithaca and after some minor modeling work she continued to reach out to me to be a vendor for her store. She was launching a store/website Art & Found and thought my lingerie line would work perfectly with her product mix.
E@D: Could you support the order she was looking for? What was the design process like?
MD: I’ve always had interest in the design side and was able to seriously try my hand at it for the first shipment. I started by finding my design, making patterns, manufacturing the products and develop a line with a fairly easy price line. I ended up getting a ton of extra lace and material from a fabric jobber (middleman) who picks up excess materials from production factories. Being a small business, this was great as I had access to really high quality materials at fire sale price.
E@D: How did you find this supply chain?
MD: I’m from New York City and have started to realize what a helpful background that has been. I’ve been able to run around the whole garment district and see some pretty hole in the wall places and some massive warehouses. This is pretty much the fashion hub for this side of the world, so its perfect to be set up there.
E@D: How are you doing in Ithaca?
MD: Great! Every item I’ve made has sold, especially in the physical store in the commons. I would love to expand to other small liberal arts colleges with similar downtown areas. The location is so key: plant your business where people are! For me, launching a boutique store in the commons was great. There is a real need for boutique stores that offer cute trendy clothing for people who may not have the time shop around themselves, or feel compelled to go to Wal-Mart.
E@D: Do you ever see people wearing your line? On the outside at least…
MD: One of the coolest things was seeing people wearing sweaters I had made. I’ve even seen some girls in the velvet dresses I created.
E@D: How has Cornell helped you with your business?
MD: Immensely. I’ve been able to use resources from the fashion building – equipment that would have cost me thousands of dollars. I’ve found from the business side a lot of classes in the AEM program have helped. Specifically Entrepreneurship & Private Equity (NBA3000 ) and Consumer Behavior (AEM3440) I’m actually using the tools I developed to help grow my business. Particularly in the marketing side of things; I’ve learned that for a small business leveraging social media is the most powerful marketing tool you’ve got. I’m building a brand on pinterest, instagram and all visually driven social media platforms. Those are the most important for a small business that revolves around appearance. You want your customers to be talking and sharing.
E@D: How are you planning to grow your business?
MD: I’d like to get my own website up and running. Also, thankfully my sister is pretty knowledgeable with photography and we’re developing a product catalogue of my line. It’d be easy to just work with an Etsy or some type of website that links small designers to markets but I find it limits the growth potential and is a bit too costly regarding commissions.
E@D: If I gave you $100,000 seed capital right now, what would you do with it?
MD: Invest it in manufacturing infrastructure. I would outsource pattern making and product manufacturing internationally. Honestly, the biggest challenge for me is simply making the products. The demand exists, but at my scale its pretty time intensive, a couple hours for a product alone. Part of successful business ownership is knowing what you can outsource and for what cost.
E@D: Any potential for this to turn into a full time gig?
MD: I’d love that. For now, I’d like to get a job in the industry. This summer I worked for a designer in NYC where I learned a ton. I was working with manufacturing partners in India and Hong Kong. I was also able to meet with local manufacturers all over the garment district to learn how production works at home. As of now I’m interested in choosing a role with similar activities at a large parent company and see where it goes.
E@D: Alright, for those aspiring Cornell-entrepreneurs out there, what advice do you have to lend?
MD: Sure, here’s a couple of my most important tips to entrepreneurship:
- Develop A Strong Brand: A brand becomes a lifestyle. You want your customers to say “I’m wearing this t-shirt because it embodies the lifestyle I want to lead.” You want something people can identify with.
- Know Your Customer: It takes time, but you can develop along with your customer. Its important to work together to maintain consistency in the message you are trying to deliver to your consumer. Take into account how they receive your messaging and from what sources they receive this information.
- Think Small: I was able to break even half way through last year. Most companies take at least three to five years to turn over like that. I was able to do it in one – and now I’m making money with it. I think that’s pretty cool.
- Take Advantage Of Every Opportunity That Comes Your Way: This venture fell into my lap. I debating how intensely to pursue it but decided to just go for it. I haven’t looked back once.
- Utilize Your Time At Cornell: Build connections you never know who you’re going to meet and who may be helpful in the future. Maybe its your computer science freshman year roommate, and you call him up when you need a website, like me! Don’t be narrow minded about your major because building a business is collaborative and requires wide perspectives. You need a lot of skills across the board to make it work.
You can find Marianne’s apparel at The Art & Found at 171 E. State St. Ithaca NY.