“I think that highlighting [stories] of collaboration especially with females in the industry is important, portraying them in a new light from the past fashion stereotype. It is important to continue to celebrate each other, connect with each other.”
The Édité Team is very excited to introduce Hillary France, a #WomanWeAdmire, who has learned the ins-and-outs of the fashion industry while working at a variety of leading labels. Today, she uses this industry know-how to help small designers make their mark. After studying art history and studio art at Duke University, she took her unique perspective to a myriad of fashion houses, building a sharp analytical and marketing mind along the way. She developed wholesale and retail buying sensibilities working at Rachel Zoe, Kate Spade, Guess?, Kimberly Ovitz, and more. In 2013, Hillary was selected to participate in the first NYCEDC Fashion Fellows Program for 2013 initiated by mayor Bloomberg to promote fashion business and commerce in NYC and is currently a Mentor for the NYCEDC Design Entrepreneurs. The very same year, she established Brand Assembly, a unique business model designed to help emerging fashion brands grow their business by providing a platform for brands to support one another through back office services, trade shows and co-working spaces.
Our conversation with Hillary was full of warmth, energy, and an excitement for collaboration—we suspect that these are the very qualities that have allowed her to foster such a successful business community. We spoke with her about her hope to remove barriers to entry for small businesses and the inspiring ways that women are lifting one another up in a more accessible, transparent vision of the fashion industry that we’re shifting towards today.
Given what you studied, can you speak to how a background in art history informed your interest and start in the fashion world?
In school I was a student athlete, so I wanted to study something that already was an interest of mine. I was always doodling and making things, so I thought doing art and learning the history would be of interest to me. After graduating, I thought I would go the auction house or curating route, but it just didn’t feel right. I took a job at the Kate Spade retail store to figure out what I wanted to do. I had no prior interest in fashion really, but I did like the creative aspect… even at the retail level, I enjoyed the visual merchandising and appreciated working for a brand that had such a strong visual identity.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned while working for various designers, such as Kate Spade, DVF, and Rachel Zoe?
All of the women that I worked for had such strong identities and visions for their brands. Making sure that that was at the forefront of anything they did or designed was of the utmost importance. They taught me to have your standards and don’t divert from your intentions. At DVF I really learned the importance of community in a workspace, making sure that we were reaching across departments and meeting new people. We always looked forward to our holiday talent show which everyone had to participate in. I always felt comfortable talking to executives and learning from them.
Where did you get the idea to start Brand Assembly?
I formed the idea of Brand Assembly while running the company of a very talented designer, Kimberly Ovitz. After working for larger brands my entire career, I went to a smaller but well regarded company. I became very interested in smaller designers and how I could support them in the beginning stages. They often were the only ones operating the business so 80% of their time would go to operational tasks, when they actually wanted to spend their time designing and growing the brand. Both systems and people are expensive for a tiny business, so I set out to create a company that would leverage operational resources and package them at an affordable price, reducing burdensome costs. All the other components of the company like the trade show and the community spaces stemmed from the original idea.
Tell us about the beginning of Brand Assembly. What did the company look like at it’s beginnings? Do you think it has carried its original identity into the business it is today?
What’s interesting about Brand Assembly is that it was started the same way a small designer starts, where the founder is doing all the things, but I really enjoyed it. I would be entering orders and setting up EDI for clients, but also moving furniture at the trade show. As the company has grown, we have not lost that hands-on mentality which is an element that I think all of our clients really appreciate. We truly are a passionate and caring bunch and want all of the companies we work with to succeed and also have the best possible experience.
How has the pandemic affected Brand Assembly? Do you think you will carry any certain practices you have picked up into post-pandemic?
Where do I begin?!?! The pandemic has definitely hit Brand Assembly hard. Without the possibility of physical events our revenue has been severely impacted. We are working on developing an online wholesale platform that we hope will be a long term complement to our physical shows. I think the most important lesson or practice that I have learned as a leader is that it is okay to let smaller opportunities pass if you have a clear vision of the bigger picture and what you are working towards.
How does Brand Assembly’s work environment compare to other companies you have worked for in regards to uplifting women?
When I started a company, I set out to create an environment that I wanted to work in. One that empowered people, that encouraged participation and sharing of ideas, and of course have fun along the way. I love how diverse of personalities my team has been, we are a family. Naturally, by creating an environment that is comfortable and open, it opens the door for team members to grow and flourish and try new things.
Can you tell us about being an influential woman in the trade show industry? What are some challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
I think that I have been very lucky in the trajectory of Brand Assembly. I attribute a lot of the success to the amazing team that I have built over the years. They are as much a part of Brand Assembly as I am. COVID is definitely the biggest challenge that I have faced to date. This time unfortunately has led to me to have to reduce my staff. Each day I am constantly thinking about how we can continue to support our community of brands but also create revenue. As a business that has never taken an investment, and has grown sustainably, this time is truly heartbreaking. Of course, as we are still in this pandemic time, I have not overcome these challenges yet, but I am constantly pushing myself to consider what the industry will look like post-pandemic and how we can still be a major presence in that world.
You’ve spoken in past interviews about your experience helping fashion labels overcome the 2008 financial crisis. What would you tell young entrepreneurs hoping to launch their fashion business in this unusual economic and cultural moment?
What we all witnessed post-recession was the increase of the “sale.” What happened was this spiral of trying to make enough product to feed the markdowns, especially in department stores. This pressure would then squeeze margins for brands because they would either have to discount product, take back slow selling product, or pay on margin agreements. I would often tell brands that they needed to focus on their brand worth and not make concessions just to be in a store. Focus on strong partners that believe in the brand. I think now 12 years later, though we have been talking about this rectification, the decision is almost made for these brands. They see now who the true partners are and hopefully they are taking ownership back of the brands. Though these times are rough, I have always signed up for “short term pain, long term gain.” If brands can figure out how to survive organically through this time they will be much better off long term.
How do you think-WE- as the fashion industry community can do better at uplifting & empowering women?
The fashion industry as a whole has had a stigma in the past of being a place of cattiness and back stabbing, which over the last decade has been somewhat dispelled in my mind. With the progression of social media and e-commerce, there are many opportunities now for brands to exist on their own. With that dilution of larger brands, the industry has become more community-oriented and less competitive. I see designers sharing resources and knowledge and even teaming up to better their businesses. I think that highlighting these stories of collaboration especially with females in the industry is important, portraying them in a new light from the past fashion stereotype. It is important to continue to celebrate each other, connect with each other.
What woman inspires you?
I am going to go back to my tennis roots on this one, but both Billie Jean King and Serena Williams are women that have inspired me. Not only are they basically tied in being the best female tennis players of all time (39 Grand Slam titles each), but they both are huge activists for women’s rights. Serena, in addition to being a mom, is also an investor, designer and businesswoman and is still competing at the top level at 39 years old.
Is there anything you’d love for people to know about you, that they wouldn’t necessarily know from looking at your career path?
Hmmmm….. Well despite having a career in “fashion” my entire work life, I am very much a homebody and like being behind a computer with a good spreadsheet. It might not seem that way as someone that runs a trade show business, but I have actually had to work hard on making sure that I am connecting with others within the community. In a way, having a trade show has helped me be more outgoing! 🙂