The famous Timex tagline “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” comes to mind when looking back over the professional career of thirty year old fashion prodigy Esteban Cortazar.
At the tender age of thirteen, Cortazar was already putting on a fashion show at his elementary school’s annual talent show. He was the youngest designer ever to show at Miami International Fashion Week and at the ripe age of 17 he was showing his collection during New York Fashion Week and finding support from industry heavyweights like Kal Ruttenstein, the Director of Fashion at Bloomigdale’s. Then in 2007, when he was 23, Cortazar was tapped to become the artistic director of Emanuel Ungaro, only to leave the company two years later when the owner decided to bring in Lindsay Lohan as an artistic advisor.
Cortazar emerged from the Ungaro experience, having withstood a steep, if not rewarding, learning curve to find himself in the unique position in 2012, of becoming the first designer to be given financial backing by the online luxury retail giant Net-a-porter. The e-commerce platform sold his signature line exclusively on their global site. Now Cortazar has a new investor that has taken up a minority state in his eponymous fashion house, supporting his rather revolutionary fashion strategy of seasonless collections, that are shown to buyers well before the fashion press. The idea being that clients will be able to purchase his pieces within a month of their unveiling to the press, rather then having to wait the traditional six months.
MH Luxe Ltd, a London based family run company which has invested in other fashion related companies such as the modeling company Marilyn Agency - and is looking to support other budding designers - has chosen to underwrite Cortazar’s expansion.
While online sales will continue to be made exclusively with Net-a-porter, the Colombian-born Cortazar wants to target a handful of luxury brick and mortar retailers to carry his collection in their multi brand stores. His first collection under this new financial partnership, which is being produced at the Studio Roscini factory in Italy, will be presented by appointment to buyers during the up coming menswear and haute couture show in Paris.
NOWFASHION spoke to Cortazar at length about his perseverance, innovative selling technique and the need, even in the lightning fast digital age, to take the time to get to know people and companies before starting any new collaboration.
NF: So how long has this partnership with MH Luxe Ltd been in the works?
EC: It’s been in the works around, pretty much around the same time that the Net-A-Porter collaboration started because from the beginning of the partnership with Net-A-Porter, I knew that at one point I needed to then go to the next step. I said to myself, if I am going to do a collection exclusive for them, and it’s gonna be sort of a way for me to re-launch my brand, I needed to think about: What is gonna be the next step after that? And how will I open the distribution after that? I’m not gonna expect Net-A-Porter to fund the distribution for all the source. So I said I’m gonna need to get some financial backing and I am gonna need to figure out a way to go to the next level and do it timely, and do it smartly. So it’s been 2 years in the works, and it all happened spontaneously actually.
NF: How did you meet up with them? It’s not a name that usually comes up when you hear about companies backing young designers.
EC: I have a very good friend that works at Marilyn Agency, which is one of their acquisitions or whatever, and he was telling me about them for long time, saying, “You should meet them, you should meet them,” and I said wait until I get this going with Net-A-Porter and then I will have something more to say and something to show. When we finally met we had a really good feeling and it went from there.
NF: Let’s take a step back because a cautionary tale is perhaps not the right word but you’ve had so many lives and your only just 30 years old. How do you pick yourself back up after the Emanuel Ungaro situation? How do you come back from that?
EC: I always looked at the Ungaro opportunity as just such an incredible stepping stone for so much. I always was very aware that when I got that opportunity it was kind of a huge opportunity of a lifetime for a 23 year old to get. And that was very clear in my head. I knew that wasn’t just gonna come again right after. And I knew that it was going to be difficult from day one. But it wasn’t really that difficult at the end. I learned more than I could’ve ever imagined. Working with the atelier and working with the women that actually work with Mr. Ungaro, being embraced by the team, I loved them and they were great. It was difficult with the president and it was difficult with the owner of the company because they just had a very different vision than what I had for the brand. I think I was more in tuned with the rest of the industry, of what’s best really for this kind of legacy of a house. And it all comes down to a respect. For me that’s what it was, really. It was just about respect. So when it all went down, yeah it was a very scary period for me because I knew when I made the decision to leave, lots of things were just going to stop and it was going to put me in a shaky situation, but at the same time I looked at myself as a 25 year old at the time who had already had partners and business partners and investors, and shown in New York and in front of the entire industry since I was 17 I was sort of prepared for another hit any way. I just took it positive for me. The negative was there but in the end it wasn’t so negative. It’s funny because had I not had that opportunity, I don’t know if I would have met Natalie Massenet in the same way. And the way I met her was so, I mean we just clicked right away, from day one. She was the first one to call me when that whole thing happened, to tell me that their doors were open for me in any way shape or form. And if I had any ideas to do it with them, to just shoot it and they would do anything in their power to make it happen.
NF: So even as you were walking out the door from Ungaro you were getting calls?
EC: Natalie was basically like don’t worry because we are here for you. If you wanna do a little capsule for us, why don’t you? And then that little idea of a capsule became more like: Well why don’t you just re-launch your line and we’ll back it, you will have it exclusive for us for a couple of seasons and then we see how it goes? But she was the first one to tell me, if you’re gonna do that, think about what’s next. And then that’s why I was like ok, yeah if I do this its a stepping stone to something else. It was a kick-start for me. So I never felt so much like I fell down and had to pick up myself back up. It was a part of the journey and a lot of realisations happened to me also at that time. One was that I wanted to stay in Paris. I did not want go back to New York. I wanted to stay here. It made me think so much, the experience here. It made me think about the craft so much more. It made me think about just how to merge the commerce with creativity and make it something meaningful and saying something and making it intellectual at the same time and what Paris really is, it’s just a melange of all those things. In the end, when you come to the shows here, when you come see the collections here, they are for the most part, they all have something that makes you dream.
NF: But you’re doing something different. You seem to have a different perspective on fashion in general. So can you talk to me a little bit about that?
EC: I had to really present Net-A-Porter the entire project because they’ve never been involved in making samples and doing any of that. It was totally new for them, totally new for me. And I said if I am gonna relaunch my line it needs to be done in a way that will speak about the future of fashion. How are things gonna be in ten years from now, how can I be a part of that? Their platform just seemed like the best possible way that you can just go straight to your consumer and speak to her and get to know her. I wanted it to work so that when people came and saw the collection it’s actually online and they are available to buy it.
So when people are instagramming it and people are putting it out there, you can go to Net-A-Porter and you get it. So that made me think and say ok then, everyone was so excited about it at that moment. Maybe that’s how I should actually do this with a wider distribution that can somehow find a way to show the buyers a collection prior to when I show them to the press. That way when the press views the collection it is closer to when it is actually in the store. Things have changed so much and things are so evolved that now you see shows right away, but then you still wait 6 months to get it in the store. Before it was all in synced, it was controlled by the newspapers, the magazines and the retailers. Now, we control it in a way. It’s out there for everybody to see so I wanted to kind of be a part of that somehow and that was also one of the things that has taken a long time to figure out. How are we gonna do this? What are the pros, what are the cons? If we do that, how do we tackle the long lead magazines? They work so far in advance. Some of them also need to see the collection far in advance in order to shoot it, so we have to be selective.
NF: Magazines with long lead times seem so out of fashion now in this digital age of the industry.
EC: Yes, that’s the biggest issue but at the same time I am a digitally driven house. I want to do a lot of things digitally. And I want to do a lot of things that are like a motion media kind of experience and use the digital platform as this oyster of an opportunity. So many things are possible. I think print is super important but the right type of print. I’m not interested in being in just any type of print. To me it’s not what it used to be.
NF: And the new backers are clearly on board with your unique production plan.
EC: First of all, they really love the whole thing with Net-A-Porter and then when I presented them the overall idea, and the business plan that stemmed from the Net-A-Porter collaboration then they were sold on that. Because they were like ok, not only are we investing into the talent and a designer that has already a following, etc. We’re also investing into a designer that has a new and modern idea on how to communicate himself and his collection.
NF: To present it in a way that feels much more in keeping with your generation?
EC: It also made sense for my brand. I relaunched it online and I relaunched it through a new pioneer in the retail world that is already super established. So it made sense for me to keep going in a way that spoke about that rather than being like: ok we did Net-A-Porter and now we go back to the regular way of doing things.
NF: Will you ever go back to showing during a fashion week?
EC: I’ll be honest with you. I…if someone were to tell me tomorrow that fashion shows are going to end and there’ll never be another fashion show ever again for designers to show their collection, I would probably think twice if I wanted to still be in fashion. Because I think that’s such an important moment for a designer, for a collection. You cannot destroy the moment of giving birth to the collection, which is really what it is, being able to incorporate the models, the music, the set, the emotion in the room. It’s gotta be emotional! And what happens with fashion shows nowadays is not all of them are emotional. And you gotta to be able to leave the show and be like wow! This was so beautiful and it inspired me. So until I feel that everything is aligned to do that, I don’t wanna do a fashion show. It will when the time is right. And especially because I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’ve done the shows, I’ve had the big girls in the shows, I’ve been there done that. And been there, done that too soon! So I know what that is like and I think young designers get so much pressure sometimes that that this is how they need to start, by doing the big shows, getting the support of all the big models, getting the things and then through that to get the support of the retailers and I’m doing it the other way around.
I wanna get the support of the retailers, get my stuff into the right stores, get things going, speak to my customer and the word of mouth of the customer, all of that. What I’ll do is, I’ll show a collection to the buyers so that they can place their orders at the beginning of July and the first of January during Couture and when they’re here to buy pre-collections, etc. And then I’m gonna show the same collection I’m showing to them in July, I’ll show it to the press at the end of September during fashion week through an informal presentation – we’re gonna see exactly what that will be like. It won’t just be appointments. It will be something special.
NF: So who are your customers? Who is the Cortazar woman?
EC: I wanted the collection to speak for itself obviously, this is gonna be a collection to really reflect on my experiences since being born in Colombia to having a British mother to then moving to Miami and living there in the early nineties and then going to New York and then coming to Paris, all of that, and what I’ve learned from each kind of woman that has been around in my life. I feel like I’m not really into pinpointing this is my woman cause I feel what I love is going to the different characteristics a woman can have and her different moods. One day you feel like being sexy and the next day you wanna be a bit more intellectual. It depends on where you’re going. But I always say I look at where she’s going and with who and what’s the occasion and at what time? I want to ask those questions to myself so I can understand.
I’ve learned through the collaboration with Net-A-Porter also, that a woman in Sydney, Australia was desiring the same dress as a New Yorker and desiring the same dress as a Parisian woman. They come from different cultures, they come from different ways of thinking, they do different things for a living but they all want the same dress. So what about the dress is making them gravitate towards it? Maybe it’s my way of celebrating the woman and making her feel beautiful because at the end I think that’s what women want to feel. Making them feel desirable, making them feel seductive at the same time.
But she’s clearly an intelligent woman so at the same time she has different kinds of interests and she’s international so that’s why we go back to all my experiences to the different cities that I’ve lived and the different influences I’ve had in my life. I think the collection almost is divided into different chapters. There’s a chapter that kind of speaks about one kind of mood of this girl then it goes into a darker mood then it goes into a more feminine mood. It really depends. I think this collection will be a really big exercise for me. To really start securing that language of the house.
NF: You started very young, 23 with Ungaro and before that you showed your own collection in New York. Where does that drive come from?
EC: I am so lucky that I have parents that, since I was little, never even attempted to cut my wings. If anything they put more feathers on them. They would be like “If you want to do a fashion show, do a fashion show. You want to love another man, love another man.” It was all about letting me be me.
For me it’s very important to find even a deeper meaning to what I do than just making clothes, making women feel beautiful like being part of the consumption world, for me it’s also important to humanly inspire other people. And so whenever I go back to Colombia there’s always so many young kids from Colombia that come up to me and are so inspired by my story and they say we wake up everyday and we dream about being a designer, we dream about being an actor, we dream about doing this and we see you starting so young and having that drive and that courage to do it, and that in itself is more important to me than getting a good review or if the collection sold or not. That is so much more important as a message to inspire others to do what they love and to be who they are and also to inspire parents to let their kids be who they are.
NF: Tell me more about your new investor. Can you talk about how much money they put in to the company?
EC: I can’t disclose that. They have a minority stake on the brand. They gave a significant investment for a minority stake in the brand. And I would say all the information but they want to keep it quite private for the time being since we just announced it.
NF: It took two years to put this deal together. Did you intentionally take it slow?
EC: Again, I have been around a little bit so the reason why it took two years is I have been extremely strong about things like the ownership of my name. I am not just a new kid on the block that just arrived with a collection and got an investor. No. There’s so much paved way already that I’ve done to achieve this so I have been very protective of my name and the future and how things will roll out.
NF: What’s been the biggest hurdle for you to do this outside-the-box way of presenting a fashion label?
EC: I think that remains to be seen. Now when the buyers and the ones who place the orders see the collection in July, then it’s about being in perfect timing with the production deliveries so that we can stick to the strategy really well. And I think that, if anything, it will be the challenge. Because it is a new strategy and since it’s a new way of doing it, it’s got to be perfect in the way it’s done.
NF: Are you using the same people you used to create your past collections for Net-A-Porter?
NF: And you picked them because they were open to the idea?
EC: I’ve been talking to them for two years. They do amazing quality work. They’re a bit more expensive than the other factory I had but we’re working on it and we’re gonna see how it goes. And we might open the production into other factories as well. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. These are all the things I think as progress, we’re gonna see what works and what doesn’t. This is gonna be a huge testing season because we will see what other retailers pick it up. We’re gonna see what kind of support we get and again I’m not putting too much pressure on myself for these kinds of things. It’s not going to make or break me. No! I think I am made of steel now after all of these experiences.