Design a product the consumer market needs and wants to buy at a price you are charging. If you are struggling with this, do small runs and test the product. Host focus groups. Listen to your customers. They can provide free advice on how you can improve your product. Don’t get emotionally attached to your designs — be open to critique from paying consumers…“paying consumers,” being the operative word. Anyone who has taken money out of their wallet to pay for your product is your boss…listen to them.
As part of my interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aysha Saeed. She is the CEO and Creative Director of AYSHA New York, launched in 2016 in Manhattan’s Garment District. AYSHA New York is a luxury fashion brand that adorns a niché group of driven women who want to elevate their wardrobe to express both their achievements and individuality. AYSHA New York has successfully pivoted during the pandemic through its new capsule collection Dressing for the Now, which builds on the brand’s key pillars of sustainability and social impact.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the USA with my family when I was 12 years old. My teenage years were difficult as I tried to fit into American culture while attending a small-town high school in New Jersey where I stuck out, had no friends, and lacked confidence. To overcome this, I made a conscious decision to become the best-dressed girl in high school. Whether I really was the best dressed or not I am not sure, but I did accomplish getting a lot of attention and compliments from others. Those compliments made me feel great, which boosted my confidence. I learned at an early age that clothing can play a pivotal role in our lives. As an adult, I continued to use fashion to express myself and build my confidence throughout my college years and into my adulthood at my various jobs in the financial sector in New York City.
Even though I did quite well within the financial sector, my heart was not filled with joy. I took a leap of faith and quit my secure job to pursue a dream of becoming a fashion designer. I spent the next five years working mostly in Milan and Paris, learning all things fashion. I took any paid or unpaid freelance jobs that I could, as long as they were in the fashion industry. Instead of going to fashion school, I treated my time in Europe as on-the-job learning. Eventually, I had the great privilege of working with Dolce & Gabbana and Dior as a hand embroidery and production consultant. At these luxury houses, I started to develop my own sense of style, which inspired me to start my own brand in New York City. The journey of building my own brand took many twists and turns, but eventually with sheer force and determination, I built AYSHA NY, against all odds.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started?
All my life I have been a very shy person. I was the girl who would never raise her hand in school even if I had the answer. I never stepped forward to take credit for a job well done. I just did not want any attention — I wanted to do a good job, and that’s it. But when you create a fashion brand that has your name on it, that is self-financed by you and that you have put your heart and soul into, you have to leave shyness at the door and become a bit of an extrovert…at least when it comes to your work. For example, many times my customers would ask me why I was never in any of the photographs in our brand marketing efforts. One day I was lucky enough to meet a very talented photographer, Julien McRoberts, and we struck a friendship. I felt comfortable with her, so I asked if she would take a photograph of me. That’s how the “famous” Grand Central train station photo came about. We did that on the fly, nothing about that photoshoot was previously planned, we just winged it in 15 or 20 minutes. I felt so uncomfortable being the “model” as everyone in Grand Central stared at me. Julien gave me a piece of advice: she said, “Walk with a purpose,” so I did! At first, I did not think much of the photo, it was nice, but that was it. Then when my customers started to see it they went crazy over it. It became our brand image and we put it on postcards to our VIP customers. Wallpaper of the photo was created and put up in our studio. The dress I wore in the photo became a hot item that was purchased by hundreds of women (in many colors). Women even went to Grand Central to take the same photo. It was very flattering, of course, to see such a reaction. But most importantly, by doing this I learned that AYSHA NY needed a face, and that face had to be mine, so I better get over my shyness.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am not sure if this story qualifies as funny, but it definitely was a mistake, from which I learned a life-changing lesson. When I launched my brand, I had hired an individual who had close to 30 years of experience in the fashion industry to be my advisor. One of the first pieces of advice he gave me was not to use my name as the brand name. He said my name was “too different,” and was not easy to pronounce or to remember because my name did not sound American. Because I was so new to all this and I was paying him to advise me, I listened to him. With his help, I came up with the word Signette as my brand name. Over time, I realized this word had no real meaning or connection to me and I had a hard time communicating Signette’s vision or strategy because it had none. Then one day I had an opportunity to attend a weekend workshop, which gave me clarity on my WHY. An instructor challenged me to discover my WHY and turn that into my vision. After much hard work and a bit of an emotional breakdown, I uncovered my WHY, which fueled my confidence to change my brand name to AYSHA. It was at that moment I realized what the AYSHA brand stood for:
– Designing clothes that give women confidence.
– Educating women that clothing can be used as a tool to create and change perception.
– Building a community of women that come together to lift each other up.
That was a very powerful and pivotal moment for my brand and that is why I always put so much emphasis on having clarity on your WHY as you start your entrepreneurial journey.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Today AYSHA NY is so much more than just a fashion clothing brand. AYSHA NY has become a hub for women who want to be catalysts for change and are unapologetic about their ambition and success. Our AYSHA’s Table live events (pre-pandemic) created a movement that allowed like-minded women to connect with one another. We provide workshops that inspire women to reach for their goals and dreams and we continue to do so virtually. The most beautiful thing about the AYSHA NY community is that these women are climbing ladders, breaking glass ceilings, and they are reaching out to other women to bring them along. It’s a true sisterhood. I am extremely proud of this achievement. There aren’t too many brands that can claim this.
In addition, our ethical business practices are anchored on adopting sustainability and social impact, such as working with artisans locally and in rural parts of the world, reducing our carbon footprint by manufacturing locally in New York City to support the Garment District, reducing the use of plastic and paper in our showroom, keeping inventory tight to avoid textile waste, and incorporating dead fabric into our pieces. Sustainability is an important pillar at AYSHA NY and our entrepreneurial spirit enables us to pivot and follows through on that value, unlike big brands that manufacture outside of the country.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Work in the fashion industry because you absolutely love it, don’t do it for a quick buck or fortune or fame. Be in it for the long run. Don’t expect to sprint, it’s a marathon, so pace yourself and celebrate small wins each day so that you can maintain positive momentum to keep moving forward. One day, your small wins will turn into a big win.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love supporting causes that help the advancement of underprivileged women. My entire life I felt like an underdog, an outsider looking in. As an ethically driven brand, we are dedicated to working with organizations that help women go after their dreams and live a safer and healthier life. Last year we partnered with Her Justice, a nonprofit organization that helps women get connected to one of the most powerful legal networks in New York City, in the area of domestic violence, family law, and immigration. I am passionate about female voices being heard. My goal for 2021 is to dress 100 women who cannot afford to buy our brand and dress them up so that we can build up their confidence. When you look and feel confident, you feel bold, you feel strong and you feel comfortable to take steps forward. AYSHA NY wants to play a role in their journey.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
The phrase “Failure Is Not An Option” contributed to the NASA/Apollo 13 Mission. I can’t remember when and where I heard this quote, but it captivated me immediately. At one point, it became my daily mantra. I wrote it on a Post-it Note and pasted it to the side of my computer where it lived for many years so that I could see it all the time. This quote has distinctly summed up my entrepreneurship journey.
Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
In terms of clothing trends: I see comfort over anything else. Stretchy fabric over structured fabric is what consumers will demand as we are in a pandemic and this will continue even after we come out of this.
On the business side, consumers will demand more transparency from the brands they support in terms of the brand’s sustainability efforts, ethical production chain process, etc.
What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”. Please share a story or example for each.
Here are my top 5 things needed to build a successful brand in the fashion industry.
1) Have a clear vision of what you stand for. Ask yourself why are you doing what you are doing? Have crystal clear clarity on your WHY? It’s okay if you don’t have all this sorted out early on, but be aware that you need to get clear on this first. Once you have clarity on your WHY, you can build your brand around this. It provides you with a solid foundation and a vision. A vision that is deeply rooted in your WHY will differentiate your brand from the competition so that it can stand out in a very crowded space.
2) Build the right team. Having the right people around is key to your success. But finding those team members can be difficult, especially when you are starting out and what you can offer them is limiting. But when you have a clear vision for your brand, you can easily share this with them to see if they are right for your brand and vice versa. Also, before making long-term hiring commitments, test them out as a short-term hire. Have this conversation with them upfront. Be very honest and direct with them, so that there are no misunderstandings, and from my experience, the right person will take you up on your offer.
3) Cultivate a network by being social and putting yourself out there. Your network should not be limited to your industry only. Knowing successful and smart people from all walks of life will serve you well. Most importantly, contribute to your network, don’t have them around based on what they can do for you. Before asking for anything, ask yourself what you can do for them first. For example, to build out my social network, I started to host sit down dinner parties in early 2019 and called them AYSHA’s Table. At each dinner party, I made sure the right women got to meet the right women. These dinners were all about my guests, I made sure they received tangible value out of them. Over time, these dinners became so popular that we had a waiting list and they became a pipeline for new clients for my brand.
4) Design a product the consumer market needs and wants to buy at a price you are charging. If you are struggling with this, do small runs and test the product. Host focus groups. Listen to your customers. They can provide free advice on how you can improve your product. Don’t get emotionally attached to your designs — be open to critique from paying consumers…“paying consumers,” being the operative word. Anyone who has taken money out of their wallet to pay for your product is your boss…listen to them.
5) Know your end consumer. Know him/her like you would know your best friend. Know their needs before they even know their needs. Once I had that clarity, it transformed my business. I was able to design styles that surprised and delighted them. For example, our new relaxed luxury Dressing for the Now capsule collection is a success because I knew my customer so well — what her needs were, how she was living, how her life changed during a pandemic and what would make her feel good about herself and smile. With all that in mind, I designed the Dressing for the Now collection. Even though it was a complete departure from our past collections, it was an instant hit. Because I know my customer extremely well, it led me to foresee her needs.
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
1) The fashion industry needs to become more approachable. Design and market fashion for real women’s needs not fantasy women.
2) Media outlets should give new up-and-coming brands a platform and not only cover the big brands because they advertise with them.
3) Fashion weeks are becoming obsolete. Find innovative ways to market new collections.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love for AYSHA NY to not only be a brand whose mission is to make beautiful clothing that women love to wear, but also to change the lives of women who have not had the same opportunities I have had because I was fortunate enough to move to the USA. My ultimate dream is to build a fashion trade school in the town I was born in, Lahore, Pakistan. It will be an all-girls school inspired by FIT or Parsons in New York City. It will be strictly for women who can’t afford to school otherwise. This school would teach them basic education in math, English and science, but the major focus will be on practical skills they can apply to earn a living, such as computer coding, graphic design, pattern making, sewing, etc. The goal is to have these women become a vibrant part of their society, by being able to contribute to their household as men have always done. Yes, it’s a very lofty dream to build out an actual school, but hey, I never thought I could build a brand that had my name, so one ever knows! We just have to continue to dream big and work hard for that dream.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Aysha Saeed