The keys to success in fashion have changed. Recently and rapidly. If you had asked me a decade ago, I would have said, you’d have a fighting chance if you had: Vision, Talent, A Read (cultural pulse), A Story (point of view), and Luck (hard work + connections). Today, I would say the most important key to success is Awareness. Obviously, the “brass” keys, if you will, still have value, but the “digital” keys of Community and Influence are critical. Essentially, the role of designer has changed from being behind the camera to being in front of it too.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Ringholz, Founder & Chief Designer of PLAE, and Jonathan Spier, CEO of PLAE. Ryan is an internationally-recognized brand expert and designer. As lead designer at Puma, he launched the $1B+ lifestyle division. He then went to Diesel, growing their footwear division to over $300M; and subsequently to UGG, where he created the strategic plan that grew the business from $250M to $1B in 5 years. He has launched his own men’s footwear line and consulted for dozens of the world’s best brands. Jonathan is a 15-year start-up veteran. Most recently, he was co-founder and CEO of NetBase, a leading provider of social media marketing solutions to blue chip customers like Coca-Cola, JD Power, and SAP. Jonathan is an alumnus of HBS and, prior to joining PLAE, served as an EIR at Altos Ventures, where he mentored and advised numerous CEOs.
Thank you so much for joining us Ryan and Jonathan! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I actually fell into the fashion world, I didn’t plan to be a designer. I went to school for engineering and product design and headed to work for New Balance doing running shoes. From there I was recruited to Puma when they were totally focused on being the next ‘it’ athletic brand. But when a lot of the premier athletes signed to Puma were leaving for other endorsement deals, we were left to re-evaluate, kind of scratching our heads. Around that time, a study came out that 85% of people wearing athletic shoes weren’t actually doing anything athletic in them, which raised the question: what if we made great looking sneakers? Simultaneously, we got a call from Jil Sander. She wanted to have shoes like football cleats on the runway, so we made a handful of samples for her, and they unexpectedly became a sensation after the show. We ended up signing a deal with Jil to make them with her name on them, and she became the first designer to co-brand with a sports brand. Thus began the lifestyle division that ultimately became what I ran at Puma. I was thrown into fashion as a result but it was never originally the goal — it was serendipity. It was exciting to be at the forefront of sport and fashion together and this is still what puma is known for today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in design?
I’m not sure there is just one story, but I think the idea of being at the forefront of new segments in the industry is the most interesting things that’s happened over the years — and it is more luck than skill. I’ve been lucky to be at those places at the right time in my career. For example, at Puma we launched a brand called Nuala. It was a yoga lifestyle brand collaboration led by Christy Turlington. We also worked with Marc Jacobs on it, we shared the same office address in Soho so there was nice synergy to work on it. Nuala was ultimately closed down for a variety of reasons, but I ran into Christy years later and she shared a great story. One of the top Nuala accounts was a little yoga shop in Vancouver — they sold more clothes than any other shop. When Nuala closed, they started making their own — and that became Lululemon. I had no idea! All credit given to Christy and her vision — but I have been fortunate to be at these intersections of fashion and function, with what has become known as “athleisure.”
Can you share the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
There are many mistakes! Although they probably weren’t funny at the time. I once heard that “tragedy plus time = comedy,” and I think that’s true. But you have to have both to get this equation. I think the biggest mistake has been getting caught up in my own ego. I once designed a shoe for Puma, and I was so excited about it, it was conceptual, and I hadn’t been paying much attention to anything other than what I wanted to do. We brought it to a very influential buyer in the industry. His feedback was: “it looks very Creative Director”- then he began pointing out things about it that could have been better had it been properly thought through. I ate humble pie for that. It was a good reminder to listen more to everything that’s happening around you. It’s easy to fall in love with your own ideas, but sometimes you have to do a gut check on what you are doing and why. From that experience, I did a different design and, thankfully, that new design was a huge success.
What tips would you recommend in your industry to help colleagues thrive and not “burn out”?
You have to step away. I think its cliché to say but you have to take time off. As a designer, inspiration trips are important, but equally if not more important is taking the time to truly disconnect from everything so you are not “trying to be inspired.” For me I have a place that I go where I feel free and relaxed and comfortable and don’t have to think about anything. You need that decompression time. You need to exhale before you can get inspired. It seems simple to say but you have to de-couple true vacations and inspiration trips.
What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”?
The keys to success in fashion have changed. Recently and rapidly. If you had asked me a decade ago, I would have said, you’d have a fighting chance if you had: Vision, Talent, A Read (cultural pulse), A Story (point of view), and Luck (hard work + connections). Today, I would say the most important key to success is Awareness. Obviously, the “brass” keys, if you will, still have value, but the “digital” keys of Community and Influence are critical. Essentially, the role of designer has changed from being behind the camera to being in front of it too. Candidly, as a naturally private person who prefers my work to speak for me, it is tough transition; and one I am still working to get comfortable with. Marc Jacobs (@themarcjacobs) has done an amazing job evolving in that way — from his long hair, big sweater days. I don’t know that I’ll ever be THAT comfortable in front of the camera, but he serves as a good encouragement.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
It’s an exciting time to be a direct to consumer brand. As much as we hear about the retail apocalypse, companies struggling with the rise of the internet and social media, for brands born online it’s a really cool time. There’s a few ingredients you need to stand out — one is a strong ‘reason to be’ as a brand — you need to be authentic, then you need great products that back that up. Last, you need to really deliver the goods in a way that delights customers. PLAE has all of that. Our reason to be is all about play. There are so many brands that stand for “fight,” “compete,” “win”…the world needs more play. Our product is a combination of function and fashion — things that don’t normally co-exist. We have a sleek look but its super functional.
Do you see any developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about?
I think it’s the acceleration of community models. I also think retail is evolving, while multi brand retail is having challenges. Single brand retail gives you a chance to tell a brand story — and its going through a renaissance! It’s really exciting.
Every industry evolves. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself?
Sustainability is critical. In business, prior practices didn’t focus as much on sustainability, but now it’s imperative. Fundamentally, when you are making products and moving them around the world you need to recognize the role you play in environmental preservation. So, we work at it. We aim to be, sustainability minded in everything we do. On the kids side that means things need to last through multiple kids as things get passed down. On the adult’s side, we aim to use recycled materials wherever possible. Our consumers expect this and we are happy to be part of the solution.
How have you used your success to bring good to the world?
It was important to us when we built PLAE to stand for something. For us, we’re driven by play. Play is one of the ways we connect with each other — it’s part of the human fundamentals, like eating, sleeping and breathing. We believe in creating a world better than when you found it — which is the origin of our PLAE it forward initiative where we donate part of every sale to a variety of incredibly worthy organizations. It’s been foundational to the DNA of the company since we started. Play is about happiness and satisfaction and that can also be derived from helping people in need. I’m super proud that as a young company we have already given back over 1.5 million dollars. Another key element is being thoughtful in the way we create product, we need to protect a world worth playing in by taking care of our environment — the best way to do that is to create product that lasts. We are very eco minded, and we frequently hear stories of people handing shoes off to the next person — so our shoes have second and third lives. We are part of an active resale market, which is amazing when so many of today’s products end up in landfills.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant in your life?
My dad often said to me “there is never a reason to be a yeller.” You can be loud and blustery with employees or colleagues but that doesn’t necessarily mean work is getting done. You can have authority without having to yell. You can lead by listening. I have followed this advice always. For PLAE to be successful, it has to be a great place to work. Moreover, the concept of play is inclusive — and you only have that by treating other people with respect, by treating other people’s needs as importantly as your own. When you listen and interact with people directly online, its critical. It used to be that the customer would only be involved at the tail end of the pipeline — and in some companies that’s still the case. But today’s world is different — the customer can be part of the experience from product development through the final sale. You want them to stay and be a part of your community.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Imagine if every marketing dollar went to doing good in the world, I believe we can get there. I believe we can all collectively work together to promote the cause AND the company. I’d rather have money going to helping people than to Facebook advertising and promotion. We need to find a way to funnel marketing dollars to do good. It won’t be easy, but it seems doable.
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Thank you for all of these great insights!