Independent designers unite to survive

Posted: October 22, 2017 at 2:27 a.m.

NEW YORK -- For an independent designer operating in a world of megabrands such as Amazon, Zara, Nike and H&M, an old maxim could hold the key to survival: United we are stronger.

At least that was the thinking Elizabeth Solomeina applied when she was struggling to find a way to show and sell the jewelry she designs without spending huge amounts of money on rent or outsourcing her work to various boutiques.

"I needed a place to sell my stuff, I needed a customer base," Solomeina said. "When stylists wanted to come over to my studio, I would tell them it's in Brooklyn, and they would be like, 'Never mind.'"

"I wasn't alone," she said. "I had friends like this, too."

So in summer 2016, she gathered 34 of them and together they pitched in money to open a boutique called Flying Solo on Mulberry Street in NoLIta (north of Little Italy). Within three months, the group had expanded to 45 designers. In June this year, it grew again, adding more than 20 to the roster and moving to a two-floor shop on West Broadway, on the same block as Missoni, Aesop and DKNY.

In September, during New York Fashion Week, the group of 68 held a 2-hour presentation and runway show in the store, displaying more than 350 looks. During the presentation, models in neutral colors showed off jewelry and accessories.

The runway show included a variety of aesthetic visions. Most of the pieces were the kind you could walk out onto the street wearing, and all were available immediately after the show.

As techno beats and songs by Little Dragon, Migos and Sango pounded through the speakers, models strutted by in metallic and brightly colored pants and jackets (from Daniel Silverstain, who has designed for Solange and Lady Gaga); long coats with "Proud Immigrant" written across the back (from Ricardo Seco, a Mexican designer); tweed suits and knit dresses (from Kathrin Henon, who works with Dennis Basso); and much more.

Between each section of the show, models in silver pants and Flying Solo T-shirts created by the designers walked by with signs denoting the next designer's Instagram handle.

Flying Solo operates as a grocery or building co-op, with members paying a membership fee that goes toward rent, production and marketing costs for events such as the Fashion Week show. Each member is required to work eight hours every week, opening and closing the store, cleaning and helping customers on the floor.

When the team members opened their first store on Mulberry Street, they put together as much of the interior themselves as they could. "We designed the racks, the shelving," Solomeina said. "Our designers were sketching, running to Home Depot, assembling racks." They were ready for customers in three days. On West Broadway, it took all of four.

Flying Solo has had help from outside. Early on, Solomeina secured funding from Alex Barnett, an investor who has worked with technology companies and charities. Barnett saw in Solomeina's proposal a model for the future.

"A lot of them are really brilliant designers," he said of Flying Solo's members. "It's a tragedy that the brilliance isn't rewarded. A lot of times it's who has a lot of capital or who gets picked up by a big brand or whatever the trend is at that moment."

Speaking of the changes in the retail landscape that have been spurred by the advent of technology and the expansion of giants such as Amazon, Zara and H&M, Barnett said: "I don't think change should be feared. It's creating space for innovation. Independent designers need to stop working against each other and realize they're all on the same side."

High Profile on 10/22/2017