Dagmar Spichale: “Reach out when the going gets tough”

Reach out when the going gets tough: Is it imperative to create a network of like minded people and reach out when we get stuck. This applies to asking for actual advice to just stating “I’m having a tough week”. The power of someone being compassionate is hugely valuable. There are times when I put […]

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Reach out when the going gets tough: Is it imperative to create a network of like minded people and reach out when we get stuck. This applies to asking for actual advice to just stating “I’m having a tough week”. The power of someone being compassionate is hugely valuable. There are times when I put out something like “I am stuck on XYZ”, and immediately my people chime in with stories about how they are faced with similar challenges, or solutions they have already discovered because they were in the same position a few days ago. This immediately makes me feel like I am not the only one who’s stuck with this problem, and opens up new channels and ways for finding a solution.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dagmar Spichale.

Dagmar is the founder of her namesake brand of luxurious yet urban women’s dresses that can be found at Born and raised in Germany and now living in the US, Dagmar has built a career and a business in apparel production management before arriving at design. She has worked extensively with both manufacturers and designers in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I was born and raised in East Germany. It was the 80’s, I was a teenager, and I wanted nothing more than to study fashion design. But I wasn’t allowed to (more on that later…) so I chose a major in Textile and Clothing Engineering which covered the manufacturing side of apparel production. The Berlin Wall was brought down by the people in November of 1989, and in January of 1990 I moved to a small town in West Germany and stayed with an aunt of mine. As exhilarating as these times were, it was also a bit scary to start all over in a culture that was familiar and foreign at the same time, and so I thought I had better continue on the path I had begun instead of switching to design school at this point. A few years later, I finished college with a degree in Production Management and started the journey of trying to find my place in the industry that took me from one job to the next, and the next, without ever feeling like I had arrived. I was very inspired by people who were passionate about their jobs, and I wanted the same for myself. In 1998 I moved to the US. Soon after, during a brief stint in Hong Kong, I started Prodway, LLC, where I worked with smaller-to-medium sized high-end designers based in the US and managed their apparel production in Asia. It was my first wildly successful enterprise. And then I hit a wall.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The most powerful story of my journey came with a mighty reminder of the truth behind the saying “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”

My first company, Prodway, LLC came about through a rejection: I arrived in Hong Kong with the name and telephone number of a small business owner who I was told was in search of a production manager. Instead, to my surprise, she told me the position wasn’t right for me! I was not going to let that discourage me but set out on my own instead and created Prodway.

After returning to the US I enrolled in the 5-months business planning program at Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco to learn all the ins and outs of running a small business. I really applied myself and started being successful while still enrolled in the program! The business grew fast. I enjoyed the lifestyle that came with it. This could have been huge — had I only liked what I did. Instead I was miserable as never before because my heart wasn’t in it.

It was mind boggling. Here I was, on my way to being hugely successful, and it meant nothing to me. Deep down I was still the designer that I always wanted to be. Yet I felt stuck because I believed that it was somehow too late to start over again. I took two big lessons away from the experience. First, success is not a straight line, and there are no rules about how one’s career “should” unfold. Second, if you have a strong calling you must follow your heart because at the end of the day you will never find peace of mind if you chose not to. I eventually took the plunge and fully embraced these lessons, and accepted that in order to be happy I must create and work as a designer. I went back to school for a design degree and founded my namesake brand, DAGMAR SPICHALE, and I have never looked back.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

First and foremost I am a problem solver. That alone gives me a different angle. I have always felt that clothes need more than to fulfil the need to be either practical OR pretty. Often, day clothes are just practical and special occasion clothes are just pretty; or, day clothes are pretty but not practical. It might be a bit far fetched but the maxim coined by architect Louis Sullivan — Form Follows Function — has always made sense to me. We can do both — beauty as well as everyday function, and we deserve both. In addition, in my designs, I put as much effort and consideration into sustainability as I put into the design details. Sustainability can look good and must look good to become ingrained in everyday fashion. Only if sustainability becomes mainstream will it effect the impact necessary to create meaningful change within the industry.

This really clicked on a trip to Mexico. With around 95 degrees and a relative humidity of 65% on average I needed my wardrobe to function big time: natural fabrics, breezy designs, comfortable cuts. But I didn’t want the dresses to look “natural” and “comfortable”. I wanted them to look stunning! I figured, if something worked under the weather conditions in Mexico, it would work back home as well! And so the vision for my work was born: whenever I design something, I ask myself: Can I wear this every day, and will I be able to wear this in an exaggerated version of the environment I am planning to wear it in?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to think about everyone who has helped me, inspired me, and influenced me along the way, and there are so many amazing people that come to mind. And yet, the one I am going to name inspires some reluctance. I would not be true to myself if I did not pay the tribute he deserves though: my ex-husband, Tevya. He always encouraged me to follow my dreams. He made me realize that there is no set path I have to follow. He believed in my abilities and talent, and he pushed me to go beyond what I thought I could be. While our marriage did not last, back then he was my oak — supportive and encouraging, and pitching in when needed: watching the kids or taking them out of the house so I could finish a project, giving business advice, being my soundboard, and helping with my business plans.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience according to Merriam-Webster is “a person’s ability to bounce back after a jarring setback.” It is the art of getting back up after having been brought down, and letting life flow through us. We are resilient when we can let mistakes and failure wash over us and maybe knock us down for a moment, but ultimately emerging on the other end. It means keeping the big goals in focus and finding the gift in our supposed failures. I feel that recently the definition of resilience has shifted from pure powering through our setbacks towards allowing our feelings of pain in the face of failure and rejection, and letting them pass through us. There is an amazing amount of power in allowing our feelings and working through them instead of against them. Resilient people don’t take their setbacks personally. They strive to find the message within and use those in determining a solution. They have a mindset of “Oh, so this didn’t work. Lesson learned, thank you. Let’s find out what does work then!”

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

My long-time friend Stephanie comes to mind. After she went through a difficult divorce she rebuilt her life for herself and her daughter. Then out of the blue she received a cancer diagnosis, and went through surgery and chemotherapy. During that time, she created a new business, an enterprise that helps and empowers other women. I have not heard her complain or take a victim stance once. She moved through every phase of the ordeal with so much grace. She has always remained positive, inspiring, her usual funny, and strong. I am in awe of her!

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

When I was 17, and dreaming of becoming a fashion designer, a teacher asked me to make an impossible choice. It was the mid 80’s and the ruling party in communist East Germany where I grew up controlled everything, including college admissions. My teacher point-blank declared that if I wanted to go to art school and be a designer I would have to join the communist party. That was so far out of the question — everything about the reigning political system went against every single thing I believed. I declined, and the teacher burst into a rant of how he would make sure I would never reach my goal. That moment felt very heavy and I remember thinking that from that day on my focus would be to one day leave this country. It never came to that though as fortunately, just a few years later the Berlin Wall was brought down. It took quite a few years and a detour into the field of production management, but in 2014 I graduated from California College of the Arts with a degree in fashion design — one of my happiest and proudest moments ever!

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

In the early 2000’s I was trying to find my place in the field of production management. I had just returned from living in Hong Kong where I had created my first company, Prodway, LLC, a production management agency for the apparel industry. Right out the gate I was successful. I attended the business planning program at Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco and won “Best Business Plan”. I was profitable from the get-go — even before I finished the program! Then I hit a wall: I was miserable. I did not enjoy what I was doing. And I was devastated: I had spent so much time in this career. I was successful and yet I felt like such a failure. I was stuck in the story that I should have made up my mind about what I wanted to do before I set out, and that I should finish what I started (a very German belief, by the way). It took me 2 years to come to terms with my feelings and make the decision to close the business. At that point, I didn’t dare to dream about what I would do next for fear of making another mistake in my choice. Eventually, I started by casually taking some art classes. Next, I signed up for an informational tour at California College of the Arts (CCA). The friendly admin officer encouraged me to submit my portfolio. She said that way they could advise me on where I needed to put in more work should I ever decide to apply. I became curious about how my skills and the quality of my work would be judged at CCA and I handed in my portfolio. I was surprised beyond belief when instead of a letter laying out the classes I needed to take, I received a congratulatory note that I had been accepted into CCA!

I felt like I had arrived, and I have never looked back. I know now without the shadow of a doubt this is the path I must follow. On my journey I have seen many facets of the fashion industry including many aspects that fill me with sadness and a passion to change them. From the moment I decided to follow my calling to be a designer I knew I would have to carve out my place in the fashion industry rather than fit in, and push for change as much as I can. I feel the strength and excitement that only comes with doing what we absolutely love!

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

Growing up my teachers would tell me I was never going to graduate from college. They decided for me that as a woman, I would get out of school before I was 20 years old, get married, have children, and become a homemaker. In their mind there was no need that I should even be admitted to high school. This way of thinking and control is as shocking to me now as it seems foreign — looking at what I have become I almost find it hard to believe that I grew up in a system that supported such oppression of women. I now hold two college degrees but back in the 80’s I had to become resourceful to get where I wanted to be. At the time, I was 14 years old and a little young to maneuver this challenge on my own. Fortunately my parents stepped in and provided a powerful lesson in modeling resiliency by encouraging me to stay strong and not give up, by brainstorming alternate ways, calling on connections, and ultimately helping me find my way to a solution. Together, we discovered and decided on an educational path that combined the preparation for college that high school provided with a vocational training. This enabled me to later apply for college as much as it gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of apparel manufacturing.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Keep the big picture in mind: The road towards the launch of my clothing design business has not been a straight one. Many times the path was a different one than what I thought it would be. In these moments I remind myself of my WHY, and of the vision I have. I am a visual person and love creating moodboards for my dreams and visions. If I feel like I have come up against a road block I can just glance over and take a deep breath. Knowing why I am doing what I am doing, and where I am headed puts setbacks in perspective.
  • Meditate: Meditation is helpful in turning my mind back onto the big picture, but it is also and possibly even more so a helpful front-loading tool. Meditation will bring underlying issues to the surface when they are still manageable. It also helps to get out of my mind and separate an obstacle from myself and lets me not take setbacks personally. For example, I sometimes notice seemingly random anxiety but am not sure what it’s about. Taking the time to meditate shows me where the issue really lies so I can resolve it and focus my energy on working down my to-do list rather than wasting it on feeling anxious.
  • Reach out when the going gets tough: Is it imperative to create a network of like minded people and reach out when we get stuck. This applies to asking for actual advice to just stating “I’m having a tough week”. The power of someone being compassionate is hugely valuable. There are times when I put out something like “I am stuck on XYZ”, and immediately my people chime in with stories about how they are faced with similar challenges, or solutions they have already discovered because they were in the same position a few days ago. This immediately makes me feel like I am not the only one who’s stuck with this problem, and opens up new channels and ways for finding a solution.
  • Dismantle your stories: talk to yourself more than you listen to yourself: Never underestimate the destructive power of our own stories, or the power of learning to recognize and disable them. Our stories have a knack for showing up right when we’ve hit an obstacle so they’re usually a double whammy. I’ve developed a surefire detector for those stories: Every time a thought pops up in my head that starts with “I should…” an alarm goes off in the back of my head. “I should already be done with this project.” “I should have known the answer to that.” “I should have started sooner.” Those are examples of rules I never wrote, contracts I never signed. When I face those stories and tell them “Those are not the rules I live by” I am actively choosing to strengthen my resilience.
  • Don’t let setbacks get to you: look for the gift within and surrender to the message: This one is often overlooked as we have been conditioned to simply put those pesky failures behind us. Every setback has a message that we need to hear though, and we will be stronger and more resilient if we learn to find those messages and listen. Had I not felt so miserable in my previous business I don’t know if I would have had the courage to start over. I do know this was the best thing that ever happened to me, though, because I now love what I do every day! The message I needed to hear and let in was: You need to follow your heart, and ignore the voices that try to tell you you can’t switch careers and start over.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 to inspire the movement of consumers demanding from manufacturers to take their products back at the end of their lifecycle for recycling. That would require manufacturers to consider recycling from the very beginning of creating their products and encourage them to choose materials that are conducive to recycling.

A movement like this would really disrupt the world of Fast Fashion. My hope would be that it would cause manufacturers to rethink the use of blends in fabrics. A single-material fabric is much easier to recycle than a blend. Creating this movement would involve a lot of educating consumers about the difficulty to recycle clothing articles. But in the long run, hundreds of thousands of pounds of textiles would be saved from ending up in landfills every year. And putting that much effort in recycling would not just create many new jobs, but an entire new industry! It excites me to think about the possibilities, and I believe we have reached a turning point where we not just have the opportunity but the responsibility to create this kind of change.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Arianna Huffington. I admire her dedication to seeing people thrive as a whole, and her angle of mindfulness to do so. I love her disrupting views on fashion, her refusal to give in to the pressure to wear something new every time she steps into the limelight, and her pointing out that it is important to wear the items we love repeatedly, because that’s what a well made garment deserves, and because we don’t have the time to fuss over our wardrobes for stretches of time daily. I love for her to see vulnerability for what it is: strength, and to encourage and support it every day in people.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you!

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