Deirdre Quinn: Co-Founder & CEO of Lafayette 148 New York

Episode 454

Deirdre Quinn, Co-Founder and CEO of Lafayette 148 New York, is here with us today to share more about the brand that she has co-created and her journey in scaling it to be the massive contemporary brand that it is. We hear all about what it means to be one of the few genuinely vertically integrated fashion houses in the world plus all the lessons she has gained in building her company along the way. This episode is super inspiring and you don’t want to miss it! On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Speaker 1 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be, I want to just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So

Kara Goldin 0:14
your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest, my friend, Deirdre Quinn, who is the co founder and CEO of one of my favorite favorite apparel brands, called Lafayette 148, New York. And so, so lucky that we’re here today. This is a brand, as I said, is one of my favorites. She has a few stores around but the one that I really enjoy going to is in Soho were originally the brand kind of incubated, and we’ll get into a lot more about that. But she co created the brand with some incredible co founders and really has stayed true to her brand. It is one of the few genuinely vertically integrated fashion houses in the world. We’ll talk to her about what that means to her. And I can’t wait to learn more about how they’ve stayed so true to their mission, while staying super classy, and a refreshing approach to design plus all of the lessons that she’s gained in not only starting this company, but scaling the company over the years. So welcome, Deirdre.

Deirdre Quinn 1:55
Thank you so much, Karen, certainly, it’s

Kara Goldin 1:57
such a pleasure to see you again, to do this with you because I think we both are equal in the amount of passion we had for what we’ve built. Totally, absolutely. So before we get too much into all of the backstory about you, I would love to talk about what prompted you to take the leap into entrepreneurship.

Deirdre Quinn 2:24
You know, it’s funny, I didn’t even realize I was doing that. But I did spend a lot of time the first probably 15 years of my career, working in other brands, whether it was you know, Donna Karan, let’s Clairborne SCADA or Michel de Azania, I had worked so much with other brands, and I got a little burned out on it, I, I traveled extensively in the world, physically going around the world 11 times in one year 70 countries, just, it was always to find manufacturing less expensive. When I came back to New York after living a few years in Hong Kong, my present business partners approached me about us becoming a vertical operation. So instead of looking for production all over the world, you know, I would put my energy into other areas, like building a brand. They would manufacture everything, which we did in the beginning. I point 48, Lafayette Street where the name came from. That was, you know, that was, like, for me, he was the entrepreneur, she was the entrepreneur, because they were running their own factory, they had this business and lower Manhattan, I came with this sort of corporate background ready to leave the industry and maybe go teach school. And honestly, it was the desk of phone and a million dollars. And what are we going to call it, I didn’t name it after myself, because I’m not the designer. And, you know, we was it was tough. The first five years were really tough. We needed more than 10 million and we figured it out. And then the planes went through the Twin Towers, not that far from the offices. So the decision to move the factory to his hometown in China, after 40 years in America was a big one. And honestly, that was a shot in the arm that we got. And we were able to then build a 240,000 square foot manufacturing facility and become completely vertical and in everything from nits to leathers to wovens and you know, if you if you had my background and you want to become you reinvent yourself but being modern, being vertical was really not What brands do. It’s it’s it’s basically Do you own the restaurant, but do you also make the wine or buy the wine like we we were doing everything and we didn’t make the fabrics but we made everything else. I found out it was an entrepreneur when Ernst Young said oh my god, you need to apply for the entrepreneur of the year. was like, wow, that’s cool. That’s cool. You know, I didn’t think of myself as one. But now, years, many years later, I get it. I am, you know what it takes to be, you know, that risk that adrenaline that focus that team that you build? You know, I don’t think I can go back to not being an entrepreneur now. But I believe that I learned it from amazing entrepreneurs.

Kara Goldin 5:24
No, it’s so so true. So I was going to ask you this question later. But I’ll jump in on it now. So the vertically integrated piece of this, did you intend on being vertically integrated, or

Deirdre Quinn 5:38
1,000%, from beginning to defer, that was what would differentiate us from the other people in the industry, because nobody owns in apparel, very few companies are vertical, you know, they might own parts of a factory. And in some cases, some Europeans do own their own factories. But the culture that I grew up in was you would never want to own factory. But I had these, the these partners that knew how to run the factory. So that wasn’t what I needed to do. So all of my career in running around figuring out manufacturing, I didn’t have to do anymore. That alone was the biggest, best idea for me to say, okay, amen. And you know, we’re vertical to this day. And it is it is a game changer in being competitive. Definitely. So I don’t recommend it to other people, though. People have said to me, oh, so should I buy a factory? I’m like, none unless you know how to run it. Yeah. I mean, it is a completely different business.

Kara Goldin 6:39
And are you doing everything in China? Or are you Are you still not 100%?

Deirdre Quinn 6:43
You know, we do our denim in LA. Yeah, it’s incredible, sustainable denim with an Italian supplier. We do our bags, belts, jewelry, scarves, shoes in Italy, right, we buy most of our fabrics from Italy. And you know, the bulk of it is still in our own factory, but it’s not 100%. And some things we do in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, because we moved over here about five years ago,

Kara Goldin 7:10
I remember when you were talking about that, I think you and I saw each other up the EY conference. And I think you were right in the midst of that. So that’s that’s was

Deirdre Quinn 7:19
a great move for the company. We went from 10,000 square feet per floor, in on Lafayette Street, which we had seven floors in the building to come into the Navy Yard. I mean, it takes it takes guts to leave New York and move to Brooklyn as a fashion company. But we have one floor of 70,000 feet. So So I came to, to sort of read and take the money and put it into opening our own stores. Because our our biggest expense was and still is our product. Our second biggest expenses, our people, the third biggest expense was the rent. Because, you know, Soho got expensive over the 22 years, we were there. And I was like, you know, I really didn’t want to change the product or the people. So instead, we came over to the Navy Yard and saved enough money to open Madison Avenue and Manhasset and, you know, today we have 12 full price stores in the US we have 20 in China. So So retail has been great expression of our brand, and the ability for us to sort of show who we are and and what what the brand is all about.

Kara Goldin 8:36
So you worked for some incredible brands, Liz Claiborne, Donna, Karen, you mentioned a few of these a SCADA. What do you think you took away from those experiences that makes you a better entrepreneur and leader? CEO?

Deirdre Quinn 8:52
Sure, you know, I used to tell people, it was, it’s really good if you want to start your own business to start by working for other people. You know, that’s my advice. I think without that, that 15 years behind me, I wouldn’t have been ready to do this job. So let’s play boring to me was the IBM of the garment industry, they had systems they had processes, they they were very merchant driven company, you know, small percent was spent on marketing. Then I went over to Donna Karan and that was fashion fashion fashion. It was huge talent run by design. Joe just exciting times. It was very different. Then I went back to Liz and Liz was very successful. So the fun part was both worked. donna, donna when they launched he can why? I mean they sell the clothes before they hit the stores. You know, it was very strongly marketing driven. But it was also both companies were about great product. Then starting I worked for Italians and Germans and really learn that They’re focused on product they’re focused on, you know, it was it was unbelievably interesting how they develop their businesses, you know, they have much more history in Europe. Brands are not, you know, quick okay, you know, unfortunately when you when you think about let’s clipboard today I don’t think it’s around anymore. You know, maybe it’s owned by somebody you know, I, I learned that I want to build something unique, something long term, you know, this is this is pretty much what I love to do. And I, you know, still young enough to to even though we survive the tough times of COVID to rebuild and have that entrepreneurial attitude that you can learn from the hard times and enjoy the good times once you figure it out. I want to

Kara Goldin 10:53
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Deirdre Quinn 13:50
you know, Mr. And Mrs. Sue, were the my partner’s were the jacket factory. They were the tailored beautiful jacket factory. And we still are so focused on the beautiful tailoring and fit of our jackets. You know, you could say we’re known for the suit as well, because, you know, we do sell a lot of suits, we we sell beautifully tailored products. And ultimately, our paint fit is a really important thing for our customers, they stand on line to show me how that’s wearing it, how many colors they have it in so so I think that loyalty of product even when we launch new products, they trust us. Consistency of fit is from being a vertical company. You know, when when you’re shopping online, you want to know that that that fit is there, you know so all the tricks of the trade are from experience for sure. But it’s also from staying true to what you started out as. It’s never cheap enough. I learned that from traveling around the world. And although all our clothes are not current, and I don’t consider them we’re entry price point luxury. But it’s all about luxury. It’s all about the finest than the best quality in in the world materials that we buy in, and the money that we put into the tailoring of the clothes.

Kara Goldin 15:17
And you can tell I mean, the quality is just so there, you know, not only in the, the feel of the fabric, but also the softness, all of those things is just unbelievable what you’ve what you’ve created. So the signature white shirt to you didn’t mention that that’s, I mean, that’s. Yeah, it’s such an incredible, such an incredible piece to have in your closet for sure. So you guys recently launched a campaign with Maggie gluon gluon Hall. Is that how you pronounce Guillen Gillan Hall? I should know that. How did you guys decide to do that campaign?

Deirdre Quinn 15:57
I’ll give all that crediting to my PR and marketing team along with Emily. Emily is our designer. She likes sophisticated simplicity. So Maggie is our first brand ambassador. And wow, what a homerun. Yes, such a pleasure to dress and for the team to work with.

Kara Goldin 16:19
Now she the ads that you’ve done are just beautiful, too. So it’s really, really It’s spot on. So the pandemic changed all businesses. And I think now that so many businesses are hopefully coming out of that time period. I mean, obviously, it was a really challenging time for all for different reasons. But if you had to sum it up the experience overall, like what made you guys a better company, and you a better leader? Having been through that?

Deirdre Quinn 16:52
That’s a great question, a great learning experience, certainly nothing we ever predicted, although, I definitely saw it coming because our factory was shut down. And then our mills shut down our shoe suppliers shut down. And then it was like the tidal wave was here. Um, the learning the learning curves were were survival. It was, how do you come out of it a stronger company, you know, we literally had 77,000 garments cancelled in one day. And you just never want to have that happen to again. So putting more legs on the table became a really important experience. I remember being at work as being in the Navy Yard, we were open, we turned our manufacturing into gowns for the hospitals. If you had a sewing machine, and you were in the Navy Yard, you were asked to come in, whether it was one machine or 200 machines, anyone who, who was manufacturing apparel here, group together, and we help the city and we were really proud of that. I wasn’t sewing. So I was in my office and I cleaned out my, what, 22 years of history, all those charts, all those reports, all those history, because I realized it didn’t matter. What you know, it was only what is the future going to be? How are we going to come out of it? Build a better company, maybe smaller and in our case, it is a smaller company. But and how do I protect the factory? I mean, the the production immediately went from manufacturing 900,000 garments to 400,000 garments. Wow. So yeah. Wow. Okay, and I think if someone would have told me to prepare for that, I don’t think I would have been as strong as just knowing you had to prepare for it. You just had to figure it out. So we decided to go more luxury and put more work into the clothes more hand on you know better even better product than before, so that we could keep the factory busier, but not by just sheer volume. You know, decisions could have been made to do a sub brand at that point. You know, many, many apparel companies have more than one division or more than one brands. But I am a big believer in building one beautiful brand and not having the sub l 148. Studio 148 Like I just I don’t want to do that. I want to build one brand. It doesn’t have to be the biggest brand in the world but it’s definitely an American luxury brand that I’m so proud of. So we survived it we are much more direct to consumer. Pre COVID We were 70% wholesales 30% direct to consumer, it is completely reversed. Today we are 30% wholesale and 70% direct to consumer we want more stores we we You were able to get good leases. It during that time because, you know, people, not everyone survived it, then opportunities became available. And we have some beautiful stores that we’ve opened. So into the ramping, but they take time to ramp. So I, I’m really happy with where we’ve went, I didn’t go downstream, just to protect the volume instead, you know, the partners, the my executive team, which is it’s all about your head of design. She’s amazing. My executive team, all supporting the company, and, and my decisions and my partner. So, you know, you put all that together? You know, I consider them the Dream Team.

Kara Goldin 20:45
Yeah, that’s incredible. I’m so happy to hear that. Your business was humming, but now you’re seeing it falling short on what’s needed your team that has shown up and outperformed through all the chaotic twists and turns over the past couple of years. They all seem buried in too much manual work and taking forever to close the books. But having one single source of truth would be the dream yet, it seems so difficult to even imagine. If this is you, you should know these three numbers 36,025 130 6000. That’s the number of businesses which have upgraded to NetSuite by Oracle. NetSuite is the number one cloud financial system streamlining, accounting, financial management, inventory, HR and more 25 NetSuite turns 25, this year, that’s 25 years of helping businesses do more with less close their books in days, not weeks, and drive down costs. One, because your business is one of the kind. So you get a customized solution for all of your KPIs. That’s key performance indicators in one efficient system with one source of truth, manage risk, get reliable forecasts and improve those margins. Everything you need all in one place. I can tell you firsthand that when we made the switch at hand to NetSuite, so much angst was alleviated. Our business just got better. And our team was achieving what they needed to having key metrics finally available in one place allowed us to run the business better and easier. And by doing that we were able to spend more time as a team thinking through and executing on growth for him, and what CEO wouldn’t want that to happen. NetSuite is everything you need all in one place for your business finances, inventory, HR DTC and more. Working with NetSuite is really a no brainer. Plus, with NetSuite unprecedented offer, it’s really easy to make the decision to give NetSuite a try right now download NetSuite is popular KPI checklist designed to give you consistently excellent performance, absolutely free at That’s To get your own KPI, checklist So knowing what you know today about being an entrepreneur and a fashion entrepreneur, like what advice would you give to people just starting out? Like maybe something that you didn’t focus on? But sure, boy, do you wish you would have early on because you had to play catch up?

Deirdre Quinn 23:54
Absolutely. Thank you. Yeah, that’s a great question, Kara. And I, you know, besides I do believe that you should work for other people first. And you should certainly when you go into business know who your competition is. Even if that competition changes over time, you still have to have competition. Right? And you have to understand, like I shop all the time, who are my competitors today, we’re not who my competitors were back when I started the company. So this constant, evolving your business and not taking it for granted is is is really important. But the one area that I didn’t have experienced that so I didn’t focus on was marketing. You know, marketing was, was you know, I know some fashion companies spend three 5% on marketing. I know others can spend 15 20% on marketing. You know, I didn’t focus so much on the percentage of marketing. We focused on the product. I think they both work. You know, Liz Claiborne was product on a Karen was product anymore. Getting boats very successful from my experience. The Europeans, that same thing, you know, the there they were product and marketing. So if I had to do it again, I would have focused more on marketing. But since we’re, you know, still at its move, like Maggie Gyllenhaal was, was was a move into marketing. So we’re, you know, we’re focusing on that, as well as the product. So you got to do everything good today.

Kara Goldin 25:27
I totally agree. I think it’s, it’s interesting. I remember the early days of hint, when we got hit on the shelf, and I found out that somebody had actually bought the product. It’s like, Wait, they’re buying it, that it almost happened too fast, right? It’s and, and I can imagine, you know, you guys are trying to create a company and a quality product. And, and so things like marketing, I’ve also asked that question to people things like keeping their books, and records all straight, because some people run into that problem, they’ve had a great product, but there’s all kinds of things on the back end to that are really important to be able to have and, you

Deirdre Quinn 26:06
know, branding is another one like, you know, we had originally opened, I don’t know, if I mentioned this five stores. In 1996. When we started the company, we were going to go that vertical. And then we closed five stores. By 1997. Like within the first year of business, we figured out we don’t have a brand. We can’t do that. So we went wholesale, and wholesale is wonderful, but it’s it’s not complete control over your brand. So someone asked me back in the 90s, if I’d ever go back into retail, I would said no. Today I can tell you never say never. Yeah. Because you never know. Right? I love our stores are still people walk in and they’re like, Wow, is everything in here, Lafayette. You know, it can because this is where you get to showcase what your vision is what your brand is. So you know that those are a few things, I think, opening a flagship store that lets everyone know who you are. And then building on that is is something we probably could have done sooner than later.

Kara Goldin 27:11
I love that. So when do you know that a business is successful?

Deirdre Quinn 27:17
Yeah, that’s a good question. I still don’t feel I’m successful. I’m always a little worried. But when people like just like you, when, when your customers tell you, when they can’t wait to show you, you know, when people say to me, oh, so how long have you been with Lafayette? And I’m like, Well, I, you know, the founder, you know, and they just think so happy to tell you, you know, that black dress must be 1000 of them by now. But I just I love how excited people are about the brand. And that is the biggest Hi, for me. Yeah, they still, you know, you still successes is is something I think you just constantly want to evolve as well, you know, the second you think you’re successful, you might not be so I think living a little bit on, you know, what, you know, what’s next is really important. You know, I think for us, you know, are the most important things for this company are kindness, intelligence and integrity. I wouldn’t trade them for for anything, I wanted to build a company that I wanted to work at, in a culture that was important to me. It’s a tough industry. Not every I worked in plenty of places, not just the ones you named, but others that, you know, we’re we’re joining Seventh Avenue. And there’s times I’ve told some of my young employees, you should go, you should, you should go over there. Because it’s a great experience. And one of my favorite stories is one young girl left and said I couldn’t believe the CEO would tell us okay to leave the company and go work in Seventh Avenue. Just came back and said, I’m never living again. Okay. Wow. And I’m like it happened to me. It’s good experience for others first.

Kara Goldin 29:07
No, absolutely. I remember in the early days, I work for CNN, and Ted Turner had a saying that never stopped people from leaving, that you should let them go and fly. And and you know that that is you should be excited that they were able to give what they gave to your company, but he would never try and prevent somebody from actually leaving. He would great advice. No, exactly. Because he said people have thought about it a lot longer than then you’ve realized it right. They’ll tell you after they’ve had it sitting and incubating inside for a long time. And typically his his view was that if you tried to save somebody, and maybe you paid him more money or gave them a different title, chances are they would actually be leaving? Soon enough anyway. So always let them go if they’ve actually, yeah, which I, I still think about a lot as I’ve managed our company over the years, too. So when you close your eyes and you think about the brand that you’ve built, I always love this question. Because I think that so often you’re not able to sort of talk about the things that you’re most proud of, that you’ve been able to, you know, really grow, right? A consumer might say, Oh, that black dress, or, you know, the vertical integration isn’t another thing. You’ve done a lot of things, but the the ability for a CEO to actually go and talk about things that they’re most proud of? What what is it?

Deirdre Quinn 30:49
I would say it is the team that I’ve built, you know, I’ve had people that have been with the company, 27 years, 26 years, 25 years, like, you know, this is an it’s not just them, it’s their families, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s that they count on you. And that drives you, or drives me. I think one of the hardest moments I’ve had was losing my business partner. I lost them July of 2013. And my proudest moment is to continue to his legacy in his honor. You know, he was such a beautiful man, his wife is, you know, still running the factory, She’s incredible. We still have our School of with 350 children for 12 years now, that was his vision of leaving a legacy, I think his legacy was much more the school than even the company. But you know, when you get a chance, I, you know, we they do say this, and I agree with it, when you get a chance to build something, you also protect it, you know, and I do see my role in the company today is, you know, fashion is a young industry, let the next generation grow, let the leaders at my point in in our careers, be mentors, and to teach them, you know, I’m on the board fit. So going over there and seeing the next next generation and education into the industry making a difference. I’ve got a Fashion Institute, we gave them an innovation center. Inside the Navy Yard on one of our we have to we have a floor and a half here. It’s funny, we’re on the 14th floor, I needed another half a floor. So the yard offered eight. So it’s 148 wherever I go. So their innovation center is down on the eighth floor. And it’s wonderful for the school and it’s wonderful for the company, because we can be an incubator for them. So those are those are some of my proudest moments. I

Kara Goldin 32:52
love that. So what is the best advice? This is the last question. So best advice that you’ve ever received? About? Maybe you think about during those challenging times that you think I can do this?

Deirdre Quinn 33:06
Somebody I never met, I could say is Winston Churchill never, never never give up. I mean, that is just, you know, I look at athletes, I look at Special Olympics, i i Look at what people are able to do. You know, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just get on with that, you know, and I think it’s the lessons you learn and how you get up and get, you know, get back into the game or, or what it takes and really hard work. You know, I mean, there’s nothing glamorous about it looks beautiful on the outside. It is really hard work. It is a commitment just like an athlete is committed to the Olympics. I really believe that.

Kara Goldin 33:51
I totally agree as well. Well, thank you so much for all of your wisdom. Everyone needs to go to Lafayette 148, New York and not just the brand, the physical stores, but also online. And thank you so much for creating what you did and just such a beautiful story.

Deirdre Quinn 34:14
That means a lot coming from you Kara as I really admire what you’ve built as well. So thank you for thinking of me. It’s it’s it has been my pleasure. Thank

Kara Goldin 34:22
you so much. Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin and if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Write a and thanks everyone for listening, have a great rest of the week and 2023 and good bye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening