Here, she shares how she got her start, the challenges she faced balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship, and the importance of diversity in the hiring process.
What originally inspired you to launch Clare V. and how has your focus changed and/or evolved over the years? Originally, I started making laptop bags for women like me, who wanted something cute and stylish and not too professional. That led to making the totes that the laptop envelopes went into, and that led to the laptop envelopes being great clutches. So eventually it occurred to me to make handbags and totes that were more scalable because laptop sizes kept changing every year.
Describe a specific turning point in your career that drove your current success: It was a hot Fall day in New York circa 2010. I had an appointment with Steven Alan at his office in Tribeca to show him my collection. It was my first appointment with a NY store. He loved the collection – I remember at the time my limited collection consisted of mini sacs, weekenders, and messenger bags – 3 styles I still have on my line. After a successful meeting with him and his buyers, he invited me to meet his showroom to see if they could sell the line for me. I followed him on the walk 3 blocks east on Franklin St, dragging my roller suitcase along the cobblestones and working up quite a sweat. No sooner had I arrived at the showroom and started to unpack the bags from the suitcase, Lynn, the showroom director, had already begun shaking her head “No”. I distinctly remember Lynn saying in front of me, “Steven, how do you want me to sell these bags, they do not look like what is selling right now. I mean, it’s your showroom, but I’m not going to hit my numbers with this collection.”
I quickly put all the bags back in the suitcase and zipped it up. I couldn’t have gotten out of there more quickly. The sweat from dragging the suitcase through the hot streets had turned into a stressed and embarrassed sweat and I needed to flee. Out on the street, Steven caught up to me and apologized for Lynn’s bluntness. He said he was thrilled to order the bags for his stores, and he knew they would sell well. For one year he sold the crap out of my collection at his stores and after one year, Lynn called me herself to ask if we’d reconsider their showroom. I said yes, and it was the beginning of a now 12-year relationship. I recognize the belief that Steven had in the collection - and the role he had in getting my bags onto the arms of New Yorkers - to be a very specific turning point for the brand.
Describe your leadership style: Encouraging and hands-off – my philosophy is that our employees are grown-ups and are there to do their jobs. Most people want to do a good job, so I get out of their way.
What are the essentials to building a strong brand? A good idea, tenacity, a strong team, and authenticity.
How do you think the fashion industry is evolving in a positive way? What areas do you think need help? When I started my line over 10 years ago, no one thought it was important that it was made in the USA – that was not a selling point, even though I knew it was. Creating local jobs for our community and having a lighter carbon footprint were two elements that were important to me but the consumer had some catching up to do. Also, at that time, it wasn’t as prevalent for a brand to be giving back. But, as soon as my company was profitable, I knew I wanted to figure out the causes I could give back to, like Planned Parenthood and Every Mother Counts. Now, it’s more commonplace for brands to not only be concerned with creating clothing and accessories that make people feel a certain way but also to be a part of a bigger community.
Favorite part of your job: The people I work with and when I get to be creative and actually make things.
When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business? It is an advantage to be a woman making accessories that are for a largely female market. Me and my all-female design team are creating things we actually want to wear, not just an idealized version of what women should wear.
What’s missing in your line of work or one thing you would change? How would you fix it? As a Mexican-American woman in the fashion world, I can speak firsthand that there needs to be more diversity in the business. I think it is changing, but just not fast enough. Just like all different types of businesses, we are stronger when our team’s composition is a reflection of our culture. In order to fix this, we not only have to make sure the people of color on our teams feel comfortable, but we also have to utilize our resources to find diverse team members by rethinking the traditional recruitment systems.
A business mistake you made and what you learned from it: I’ve hired people too quickly and I’ve learned that that is not what you want to do – a bad fit is something you potentially have to live with for a long time. Take more time in the hiring process.
Career highlight (to date) (or unexpected career highlight): Collaborating with Mike D. from the Beastie Boys twice, going to Paris both times to launch the collection, and meeting a whole community of creatives through him. Also just two months ago, opening our 10th store at the Brentwood Country Mart, and then our 11th in Amagansett – and doing the store design ourselves, like hanging all of my husband’s photos on the walls and sewing the sofa cushion covers myself. It turned out beautifully and is a true reflection of just how personal the brand is.
A business culture priority for you now is: Our number one culture priority is to add more diversity to our workforce.
Was there ever a time your career was at risk? If yes, how did you overcome it? My fledgling dream of having my own company was shelved (potentially forever) when I had my son and didn’t see a way to justify spending time on something I wasn’t getting paid for, while at the same time paying for childcare. It didn’t make sense for us as a family. I was a stay-at-home mom for 3 years, then my son Oscar went to preschool and I used the half days I had to myself to re-start my company. I hustled for 3 hours and got a lot of work done so I could pick Oscar up from preschool at midday. It was not a lot of time. Thankfully, I had a neighbor who was also a stay-at-home mom with small kids so I could drop Oscar at her place often so I could get more work done. We never had a nanny for him, we just juggled everything. And when I eventually got busier with my business, my husband slowed his work so he could pick up slack in childcare and Clare V. could take off.
Women on your radar: Naomi Scott - producer, advocate, connector of good humans. Jodie Patterson - writer and trans advocate. Audra Robinson - founder of Rocky Robinson body care products for young brown girls. Saehee Cho - chef, caterer, food advocate.
Productivity hack: When you’re feeling stuck, unmotivated in work, stop what you’re doing and make something with your hands. Embroider, collage, string beads, anything that gives you the satisfaction of having a product at the end – it is a solid mood lifter and re-jiggerer for your brain.
What motivates you? My work – I love what I do, and now I have so much motivation from my employees. Not only is it the motivation to keep people employed and the satisfaction of knowing that my idea has provided the livelihood for many folks I care about, but truly just the employees themselves – they stimulate and motivate me.
Find Clare on LinkedIn