Lunch With: Sandra Sing Fernandes and Melanie Love
A legend of Alberta’s fashion industry shares insights and trade secrets with an up-and-comer in the full-busted clothing world
by Michael Ganley
Photograph Ryan Girard
Young exec: Melanie Love, founder and CEO of Front Room, a clothing-design company for full-busted women
Senior exec: Sandra Sing Fernandes, founder and creative director of Western Canada Fashion Week
Melanie Love launched her clothing line, Front Room, out of necessity. She was a Bay Street financial analyst and often found herself in boardrooms surrounded by men in well-fitted suits. She is also a full-busted woman. “I would be sitting in a boardroom in New York City and my blouses would be held together with tape and pins to keep the assets under control,” she says. “I would spend more on tailoring than I would on clothes.” To explain, for the gentlemen in the audience: Love is not a plus-sized woman. Plus-sized clothing would hang off her like drapes. But regular-sized blouses are not cut to fit her bust.
She did some research and found fewer than 10 suppliers for the full-busted market in the world, most of them in Europe.
So she launched Front Room a year and a half ago. She designs the pieces – mostly blouses – with the help of a pattern maker and sells through her website, at pop-ups and at the designer boutique espy Experience in Calgary.
But she’s been having her share of challenges: Her orders from the factory have been late; she’s stuck with inventory; she’s not sure how to market and what the best approach is for getting her creations to the women who need them.
As a lunch date, she asks for Sandra Sing Fernandes, the founder and creative director of Western Canada Fashion Week. Love drives up from Calgary for lunch with Fernandes at Cibo Bistro in Edmonton. She brings along a number of her blouses, but starts by showing Fernandes Front Room’s website. They click through the site as Love tells her story. Her target market is the professional woman, 35 to 45 years old and on her way up, if not already successful. She travels for work, so the blouses must take her from the boardroom presentation to the client dinner and then be able to be remixed with jeans and boots to go to the local art gallery. “I’m style conscious but I’m not fashion conscious,” she says. “I don’t care what’s in or the colour of the season.”
Fernandes thinks she might want to pay attention to trends. “As much as we don’t think we’re influenced by them, we are,” she says. “Especially colour. Besides, if you know what’s coming in spring-summer 2016, it’s important because all of the mills are going to have those fabrics.”
Love has been using contractors to help her with design and is contracting with factories in Vancouver for up to 100 units per style. Her launch last fall was late because her order from the factory came in 10 weeks late. With the low Canadian dollar, they’re getting lots of orders from the U.S. and her runs are relatively small. The delays have made it hard to market and distribute her products.
Fernandes is suitably impressed with the way Love has been handling the business side of the venture. “A lot of the designers that go into this don’t have the business side and they don’t have access to money,” she says. “You can invest it fast in this business and you can lose it fast.” But she doesn’t think Love should be doing pop-ups. “You’ve done so much work and you want to go big or go home. I see the space in big department stores. It’s a more commercial venture. I see Macy’s and The Bay.”
Love has started to build her team, recognizing that she can’t get to the level she wants by doing everything herself. She has an accountant and a lawyer, and has hired people to help her with social media, public relations, graphics and visuals. She’s hired stylists and photographers to help her with photo shoots.
Fernandes says she should go further in terms of seeking out help, particularly on the creative side. “Where is the continuity and connection in what you’re doing?” she asks. “You’re doing item blouses, not a collection with a flow of fabrics and styles. One of the things I’ve learned is to hire when you need to. You’ll get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ more quickly. You’re still the creative force behind your brand, but if you need a designer to come in with some ideas for the season, well, they do know more than you do. You’ll start to find the look of your brand. It’s a much deeper thing than, ‘Here’s my website and these are my six blouses.’”
Fernandes also expresses some concern about the scale of Love’s production. “You don’t want to end up with a lot of stuff you can’t sell,” Fernandes says. “If you do end up with extras, you have to have your sample sales and sometimes you have to let things to go without such a big profit margin to get rid of them. In this business, hanging on to merchandise kills you.” She suggests that Love might want to take the samples she has and present them as her spring-summer line for 2016. “It’s a good way to unload that and get ready for the next season,” she says.
Love wants to continue to produce in Canada, which has come with its own challenges. “Do consumers really care and will they pay the prices?” she wonders. “My sewers get $16 per hour.” Fernandes says it would be great if Front Room could stay Canadian, and not just for patriotic reasons. “Producing outside comes with another set of dilemmas,” she says. “If you’re not there to oversee production, it can come back terrible.” Plus there’s the cost of travelling to the factory from time to time and of shipping from it. “If you find a good product made locally, it can work out to the same thing.”
Love has one final question for Fernandes. “Would it be blasphemous not to do a fashion show?” she asks. “I don’t know that my target market want or needs one, but I don’t know if I’m missing out by not doing one.”
Fernandes says she should absolutely do a fashion show. “You look at all the successful brands, why do they keep doing fashion shows? Does not everyone know who Versace is?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s the excitement that you create about your brand with the new customers that are sitting there, people who talk about fashion, people who tweet and blog.”
“My stumbling block is, where am I going to find the models?” Love wonders. “Women who are full-busted and know how to walk a runway?” She explains that she has tried to upgrade the visuals on her website by searching for appropriate models as far away as New York and London, with little success.
Fernandes says Love should come and sell at WCFW, which is happening 10 days after the lunch. She could get some feedback there. “We’d be a great first one for you to do,” Fernandes says. “We see all the agencies and get girls from far and wide.” Love commits, and two weeks later she’s back in Edmonton, showing at WCFW.