Growing a brand and business requires a few things: A dream, determination and the right team backing you up. For fashion entrepreneurs, Mary Vallarta is someone you want to have in your corner if you hope to find success. Amy Zhou, COO of Brandboom and host of the Brandboom podcast, sat down with Vallarta, the founder of FAB Counsel — a fashion and business consulting company that offers tools and support needed for the the modern fashion entrepreneur — to talk all things retail, merchandising and how to get your line into stores.
Listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Or just click play below. Scroll down for a deep dive into show notes and a transcript.
- “FAB Counsel stands for Fashion and Business Counsel and what is that is a support and resource for fashion entrepreneurs” Mary at 3:09
- “The fastest way (to get in to stores) is to have proven sales” Mary at 6:44
- “Buyers are always looking for some type of reassurance that what you’re going to them will sell at their stores” Mary at 8:17
- “If you’re going to invest money in a trade show make sure you have a plan to make that money back if you’re going to miss it” Mary at 11:15
- “Listen to your customers and the way customers speak is through sales” Mary at 15:39
- “As a fashion brand you’re not just selling a piece of clothing or a piece of jewelry you’re selling a feeling” Mary at 16:45
Who is Mary Vallarta?
Vallarta got her start in fashion at a young age, only 22 to be exact. Since then, she’s grown her knowledge in retail so much that she now runs her own fashion consulting firm to help designers grow their empires.
“I started being an assistant buyer at Macy’s and that’s where I gained a lot of my knowledge in the retail space. They have a really great training program and the buyers that I worked with at the time were such great teachers. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that program in terms of my career. So that’s where I started,” Vallarta said in the podcast.
After her start, she continued on to work for designers like BCBG, Metropark and Bebe, where her love for fashion went from passion to expertise.
“I got a really great sense of the way apparel merchandise is bought. And, I was able to also make a lot of different connections with so many different vendors and brands and that I think was one of my favorite things because I just really enjoyed the process of buying and creating an assortment with them and figuring out the right cost, figuring out the right types of colors and and assortments that we wanted to create for each season that we bought from,” she said.
What is FAB Counsel?
These jobs gave Vallarta the wisdom she needed to then go out on her own in the world of fashion.
“I started doing part time, free consulting for different independent brands just because I really liked that part of it and I saw the big gap or the void in the industry where a lot of the new designers or new fashion entrepreneurs coming in have a creative side to them and that’s usually not the problem. The problem usually comes in when they don’t realize or understand how to take things to market, how to make it sellable, how to package it correctly, what goes through a buyer’s mind or a retailer’s mind. So, that’s what I would sort of talk to them about,” Vallarta said.
That’s when FAB Counsel was born and Vallarta took her services full time in January 2012.
“It’s a support and resource for fashion entrepreneurs. I don’t focus too much on the creative side. I focus on the business aspect of fashion because I realized that that’s where most of the fashion entrepreneurs need support. They need support in how to launch their business, how to create a fashion brand or a retail shop that’s going to be profitable, but also sustainable for what they want to do. Figuring out the type of prices they should have, the assortment they should have, who their customers are. So, basically a lot of the business and retail principles that I have learned from my past experience working in retail I applied to fab counsel,” she said.
Advice for New Brands: The Value of Sales
Through all of this, Vallarta now has some concrete evidence on what it takes to get brands into stores. First and foremost, she says the most important of them all is to **have proven sales**.
“It’s so important for you not to rely just on wholesale, but try to sell your brand directly to customers. You can at least tell the buyer or the retailer information about how much sales you’ve accumulated thus far and then you can tell them information about what really are your best sellers. You know, what are some of the most popular styles that people like. Buyers want proof that your products are going to sell,” she explained.
Advice for New Brands: Social Media
Outside of making sales, turning to the power of social media has also helped brands get noticed by buyers.
“If you have a thriving Instagram account that’s something that can also prove that there’s a demand for your brand and for what you’re selling, even if your sales aren’t that big yet, because you’re still new,” she said.
Advice for New Brands: Trade Shows
With trade shows starting to become a thing of the past, Vallarta advises brands to be as strategic as possible when it comes to attending any shows.
“I always tell my clients before they commit to any trade show to walk it, because it will allow you to see if that trade show is even good for your brand and it also allow you to see the different areas of the trade show so that you can determine where you want to be placed,” Vallarta said.
She also recommends locking down appointments with buyers way in advance to make sure a trade show is worth the pretty penny you’ll spend to attend it.
“Don’t just go there thinking that traffic is going to send people to your booth. Make appointments just like anybody else in the industry… If you don’t have any appointments think about other ways that you can get people there. Nowadays a lot of bloggers a lot of influencers come to the trade show. So, look up who’s going to be there” she advised.
Once a buyer is locked down, Vallarta stresses the importance of maintaining the relationship.
“If you do a good job nurturing that relationship and delivering what you said you would deliver, that trade show could end up making you a lot of money in the future,” she said.
Advice for New Brands: Pay Attention to Customers
And of course, Vallarta reminds designers to always listen to their customers.
“The way customers speak is through sales. Your sales will tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. And, if you pay attention to that, you’ll always know the new type of styles that you should create, the next colors that you should come up with, the silhouette that you should keep, the updates that you should make,” she said.
At the end of the day, Vallarta says that if you come up with something new and fresh while also listening to the needs of your customers, then you’re well on your way to getting your designs into stores.
Here is a transcript of the whole conversation between Amy and Mary.
Amy: Welcome to the Brandboom podcast, where we discover trends, and share tips, and stories from the savviest retail brands. My guest today is Mary Vallarta. She’s the founder of FAB Counsel, a consultant of fashion brands. And we’re gonna be talking about how to get your brand into stores today. How is it going, Mary?
Mary: Everything’s going great. Thank you for having me here.
Amy: We’re so excited to have you here. Now, I really wanna get to know you a little better because I know that our audience is excited to hear what FAB Counsel is, what you do, what kind of work you guys do with your clients and kind of like what their profile is. Well, what’s the inspiration behind starting it? I know you have a background in merchandising and buying. I would love to hear a little bit more. I’m sure our audience would too.
Mary: Okay. Let me start with my background. I worked in fashion retail buying since I was 22 years old. Basically, fresh out of college. I started being an assistant buyer at Macy’s and that’s where I gained a lot of my knowledge in the retail space. Because they have a really great training program. And the buyers that I worked with at the time were such great teachers. And I wouldn’t be who I am today definitely without that program in terms of my career. So that’s where I started, and then after Macy’s had gone through their…what do you call that?
Restructuring, where they moved all the buying offices from the different regional places to New York. I moved back to LA because LA where I was from. I moved from companies to companies for a bit. I went to BCBG, worked there in the buying offices again. And then landed at Metropark where I stayed for a bit of a time. And then after Metropark, I worked at Bebe. From working at different companies, I was able to work on different departments. So I was able to do fashion accessories, and women’s t-shirts, and dresses, and tops.
So I got a really great sense of the way apparel is merchandised, bought, same thing with accessories. And I was able to also make a lot of different connections with so many different vendors and brands. And that I think was one of my favorite things because I just really enjoyed the process of buying and creating an assortment with them. And figuring out the right cost, figuring out the right types of colors, and assortments that we wanted to create for each season that we bought from. And then while I was at Bebe I started wanting to have more creative freedom.
And I really realize at that point how much I loved working with people. So I started getting a little, I don’t wanna say sick of my job. I started wanting more. And so I started doing part time free consulting for different independent brands just because I really liked that part of it. And I saw the gap or the void in the industry where a lot of the new designers or new fashion entrepreneurs coming in have a creative side to them. That’s usually not the problem, the problem usually comes in when they don’t realize or understand how to take things to market. How to make it sellable? How to package it correctly?
What goes through a buyers mind or a retailer’s mind? So that’s what I would sort of talk to them about. And I did it all for free just because to me it was exciting and it was fun. And then, word started getting around and I started charging people for it. And I was telling my partner how I really like that and I wish that’s all I can do. And he’s an entrepreneur at heart. I don’t think he’s ever had a job in his life after college. So he asked me, “Well, why don’t you just do this? Why don’t you just quit your job and do this?” And to me, that was the scariest thing in the world. But I really, really enjoyed it.
So I went from part time to full time in January 2012 and started FAB Counsel. I taught myself how to create a website. I was literally obsessed with doing that for three days. I don’t think I did anything else, but that website. And God bless that website’s heart it worked. But, it is not pretty at all. But, I was able to get a website up during 2012, and that’s when it officially got started. And FAB Counsel stands for Fashion and Business Counsel and what it is, is that it’s the support and resource for fashion entrepreneurs. Again, I don’t focus too much on the creative side, I focus on the business aspect of fashion.
Because I realized that that’s where most of the fashion entrepreneurs need support. They need support in how to launch their business. How to create a fashion brand or a retail shop that’s going to be profitable, but also sustainable for what they wanna do. Figuring out the type of prices they should have. The assortment they should have. Who their customers are? So basically a lot of the business and retail principles that I have learned from my past experience working in retail, I applied to FAB Counsel.
Amy: Got it. Got it. So if you don’t mind me asking, I mean this is all really incredible. It’s great to hear that it comes from a place where you feel super passionate about. Which is you know from all your work experience and working with these brands and entrepreneurs who are really creative, but may lack some of the business acumen that you have accumulated over the years to actually take their business to the next level. So my question is, usually for clients that kind of reach out to you, what stage are they in in building the brand or their business?
Mary: It depends. A lot of them come from the stage of not having launched yet. So they are in the process of launching. And they always tell me I just wanna make sure that I’m doing things right. So I don’t wanna make huge mistakes and then try to fix them, and end up spending more money or spending more time. So that’s one group of customers or clients that come to me. Another group or clients that have unknowingly tested out their concept. Because a lot of them don’t even understand that word test or minimal viable product, until I tell them that that’s what you’ve done.
So I do have clients who’ve gone out, tested their concept and now they come to me and say, “I wanna make this into a business now because I see that it has worked.” So that’s one group. And then there’s another group of clients who come to me that’s been around for a while, you know maybe one, two years. Within that group, half of that group might be doing great, but they don’t know how to move past those growing pains so that their business can expand. And then, the other half are the people who unfortunately are not doing so great.
But they don’t understand what they’re doing…what they need to improve, I should say. So I work with them on figuring out what is it that we need to change. What is working, so that we can do more of that. What is not working so we can take that out and replace it with something else. So those are usually the people who I work with. And most of them do come from the fashion side because that’s the industry that I mostly focus on. And typically gosh, I’ve worked with so many different types of companies. Typically I worked with obviously designers, retailers whether it’s Brick & Mortar or online.
And I’ve also worked with an influencer marketing platform that’s…yeah that one was really cool. it was targeted towards fashion and creative companies who use their influencer marketing platforms. So I consulted with them on how to make it useful for brands who were looking to work for influencers.
Amy: Got you. That’s super, super neat. So Brandboom actually have a lot of these like type one and two customers that you kind of mentioned earlier when you were discussing the type of client and profile that you have. Which are people who are kind of in that concept phase and they’re probably getting their samples ready and they’re thinking about getting you know into potentially retail stores. And some people might have you know like you said launched their MVP already. They’re starting to get some orders in from you know retailers that might wanna carry their brand and they’re thinking about scaling.
But they’re still kind of in this you know first year, you know just launched type of phase. So we have thousands of these brands that are using Brandboom, and if they’re listening right now I think one of their biggest questions for someone like you who has so much experience working with brands like them and also having your buying background. The biggest question is what is the fastest and most effective way to get a new brand or a new fashion line into stores?
Mary: The fastest way is to have proven sales. The reason why I know it’s kind of like a catch 22, I’m a new brand, right?
Amy: Right. Where are the sales coming from?
Mary: Where are the sales coming from, right? And that’s why I always tell my clients or even just people who are inquiring, it’s so important for you not to rely just on wholesale. But try to sell your brand directly to customers because you can at least tell the buyer or the retailer information about how much sales you’ve accumulated this far. And then you can tell them information about what really are your best sellers, you know. What are some of the most popular styles that people like? Buyers want proof that your products are gonna sell. That’s what will drive us to do that.
If you don’t have sales, another type of advantage that you can get is having some type of social following also will help. So if you have a thriving you know Instagram account, that’s something that can also prove that there’s a demand for your brand, for what you’re selling. Even if your sales aren’t that big yet because you’re still new. But if you have a good sizable, interactive Instagram following or some type of social following, that can also help. But I always tell my clients, especially in this type of retail climate, buyers are always looking for some type of reassurance that what you’re going to sell to them will sell at their stores.
If you can prove that you already have sales from this type of customer demographic that matches their customer demographic then it’s going to be a lot easier sell for them to buy. Does that make sense?
Amy: Yeah, that totally makes sense and you know I’m glad that you point out two different ways of approaching it which is you know like if you wanna get into stores, make sure you have some kind of direct to consumer sales channel. I mean opening a Shopify store is very easy these days. So like get that going and then, of course, this social following which is social proof that people are resonating or at least engaging with your product, right?
Mary: Yes, at least engaging, yes. And I always tell brands like, “Do not buy followers. Do not buy anything because people aren’t stupid. They’re gonna see that if you have 80,000 followers and you only have 100 likes…yeah, it doesn’t make sense. It does not make sense.” It also doesn’t make sense for your brand to be so new, but then you have 100,000 followers on Instagram already. Something is kind of up there. So you know just be…
Amy: The buyers are savvy.
Mary: Exactly, just be authentic with what you’re presenting. Just give the buyer a reason to buy your line.
Amy: Got it. Now I have been chatting with a lot of our brands and even you know buyers who are also using Brandboom platform to obviously review products from you know brands that are on our platform. And the recent stories that I’ve been hearing is that 20 years ago, I’m sure you know yourself trade shows are really the way for new brands to be discovered by buyers. Because they you know [inaudible 00:13:03] buyers there and they have a budget to go for this like large like say Macy’s and Sears and all that.
But these days when I talk to both the brands and the buyers they kind of talk about how trade shows feels like they’re dying. There’s really no actual budget to attend, not a lot of buyers are going there. And in moreso, you know just from your expert point of view, what do you think about trade show in this retail climate, is it worth the expense especially from newer brand? Like do you have any feedback [inaudible 00:13:38]? Yeah.
Mary: I think that it can be worth it if a brand is strategic in how they use trade shows. I always tell my clients before they commit to any trade show, walk it. Because it will allow you to see if that trade show is even good for your brand. And it will also allow you to see the different areas of the trade show so that you can determine where you want to be placed. That’s also really important is where you get placed in the trade show. So that’s number one. Number two, trade shows are expensive especially for new brands.
Which is why I always tell my clients, “If you’re going to invest money in a trade show, make sure that you have a plan, right? If you have a plan to make that money back if you’re going to miss it.” Some brands have capital behind them. So they go to a trade show not necessarily to get orders but maybe just to be seen by the right people. So that’s fine. If that’s your strategy, great. But if you’re the type of brand who really has to see a return on that, create a plan on how you’re gonna get buyers to your booth. Because just because buyers are gonna be walking around doesn’t mean that they’re gonna stop at your booth.
So you have to come up with a way, a plan to get them there. I always suggest, make appointments, make appointments ahead of time. Don’t just go there thinking that traffic is going to send people to your booth. Make appointments just like anybody else in the industry. They have appointments lined up. If you don’t have any appointments, think about other ways that you can get people there. Nowadays, a lot of bloggers, a lot of influencers come to the trade show. So look up who’s going to be there and that’s basically what I tell my clients is trade shows can be profitable or can be useful depending on how strategic you can be to use them.
But nowadays because of technology trade shows have gotten a little, I wanna say it’s not necessary basically. It’s not as necessary as it was back then because now you can basically hit up a retailer on Instagram, you know. And possibly get a response or you could email them, or you can go to their store even if it’s a boutique. So there is a lot less need for going to a trade show as looking at it as a way as you have to go there as a new brand. You really don’t. You can be creative in other ways to get to different retailers, but I feel like trade shows still do have a lot of relevancy in our industry.
You know buyers still go. A lot of the big brands still do attend trade shows like Project and Liberty and Magic and all that. So I don’t think it’s gonna go away anytime soon. I feel like it’s going to go into a different transition of what the trade shows are going to look like in the next few years. Just like how retailers going into a transition on what is going to happen to Brick & Mortar. How is Brick & Mortar going to change based on people’s different shopping habits and different shopping patterns because of what has happened online.
Amy: It totally makes sense. You know like it’s really important you know from personally speaking from working with all these brands, you know Brandboom to kind of see them diversifying their tactics and make sure that they pick a one that works with them. There’s really no silver bullet at the end of the day, but you know making sure that you understand how to distribute resources potentially, right?
Amy: And is it for like you said is it for, you know, orders that you’re trying to chase or is it for the branding because a lot of the times when you strike a deal with the large retailers, you’re probably going to be maybe even just breaking even. You probably have to give them a discount, but potentially down the road because they give you so much exposure it becomes like a return on your investment.
Mary: Exactly, one of the things I always tell my clients is usually when you do meet new accounts, it doesn’t mean that they’re only going to buy once. They buy once during that season, but if you do a good job nurturing that relationship and delivering what you said you would deliver, you know that trade show could end up making you a lot of money down the future. That one trade show because you met six new accounts there. And those are six accounts that you could potentially keep selling to forever. So that’s another benefit. You basically get to be in front of retailers that you might not have gotten in front of without that trade show.
Amy: Yes, absolutely. So that’s really great, I mean it’s just amazing that these options are available now for you to choose from. So Mary, because we have so many options now with technology, trade show stills exist so you can do that. Like you said you can hit them up on email and I can’t believe people are now also doing business on Instagram.
Mary: Yes they are.
Amy: I’m hearing that a lot and a lot. So for you, if I’m a brand that is on a tight budget and you know I’m just one or two person strong trying to make this happen for me. If they come to you and I’m sitting down buying you coffee like what is that one piece of advice that you will give me to really take my brand, you know like just basically like kick start it and take it off the jumping board?
Mary: Okay that’s a huge question. One piece of advice, let me think about it, one piece of advice to get my brand going.
Amy: It could be more than one.
Mary: Okay, I’m trying to choose one.
Amy: Whatever comes to your mind.
Mary: Okay. The first thing that I would say is listen to your customers and the way customers speak is through sales. I always tell my clients that because your sales will tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. And if you pay attention to that you’ll always know the new type of styles that you should create. The next colors that you should come up with. The silhouette that you should keep. The updates that you should make. Aside from sales, obviously customers will sometimes write you, email or Tweet you. Those are also golden nuggets for you to pay attention to.
So really paying attention to what your customers say because they’re basically your focus group. And they are the people that you’re selling it to. So know what they like, know what they want, and also balance that with your expertise. Sometimes people don’t know what they want and it’s your job as the brand owner, as the leader to basically show them what they could potentially, what could potentially make their lives better. Because as a fashion brand you’re not just selling a piece of clothing or a piece of jewelry, you’re selling a feeling.
And you’re solving a person’s problem to feel something or look a certain way. So if you come up with something new, something fresh, something exciting that is very relevant to your customer demographic, that’s amazing. So that’s number one. It’s just pay attention to your customers. Number two, to really break out and grow your brand, launch your brand whatever it is that you’re trying to do.
Amy: I think those are great. The biggest one that you’ve said, you know the first thing that came into your mind which is speaking through sales is really important because you know design is sometimes very subjective. So coming from a creative background, I know myself. You know I have certain aesthetic preferences, but not everyone feels the same way. So just because you design something that you hold very dear to your heart it may not translate into sales. So being able to iterate on top of that continuously until you unlock that sales channel and then listen for why they resonated with one versus the other will really help I think unlock on the holding together, yeah.
Mary: I agree. Can I add another thing…
Mary: …now that you spoke?
Mary: You reminded me of something that I really wanna say. To really grow your brand you also have to take time to really build systems around it. Without systems, you’re not going to be able to scale any type of business whether it’s fashion, food, whatever you’re working in. And the reason why is because without systems you’re not going to be able to train additional people, to help you fulfill future orders for new customers. Your employees have to know how things are done. Information cannot live in your mind.
You have to be able to create efficient ways to perform different tasks so that you are able to produce your goods efficiently with the best margins possible. So everything that you do as a company, you should know that process and you should be able to translate that to whomever you hire. If there is no process for something, you’re going to be needed to do that then. That means that it’s going to be really hard for you to even leave your company or your business for even a day. I always tell my clients that is like, “If you leave for a week, will your company survive? Will it thrive? Or will it just fall to pieces?”
If you say it will fall to pieces then you don’t have a business yet. So if you really wanna grow your brand, scale your business then you have to be able to have systems in place for it to scale. You have to create a foundation for it to grow. That’s probably one of the biggest pieces that really does affect how a business can scale.
Amy: I love it and that is really, really, really amazing advice for all of our listeners out there. It’s actually why we created Brandboom to help you have a system in place. I mean in the beginning so hearing you, Mary, kind of reiterate that is absolutely you know 100% on point for any out there listening to this podcast right now. So thank you so much for that. Mary, this has been such a pleasure. I think it’s about you know time that we wrap this up since I’ve been keeping you here for so long. You have so much good and amazing advice. It sounds like you know if anyone who’s listening that wants to get in touch with you or your team, they can just visit your website fabcounsel.com. Is that correct?
Mary: Yes. That is correct.
Amy: Awesome, and yes thank you so, so much for joining me today on this podcast. I personally have so many more questions for you. I’m sure our listeners do too, but I’ll let them you know reach out to you directly if they have any of those questions. Because they have friends and you can probably be really, really good in coaching them from all the experiences that you’ve had. So again thank you.
Mary: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Yes, find me on fabcounsel.com, we have videos, blog posts, online courses, coaching programs, and consulting. So if any of your listeners need support in launching or growing their fashion businesses, don’t hesitate to contact us. And for any of your listeners who are in LA speaking of scaling your business, we are having a two day workshop coming up. So look at that up on fabcounsel.com. You’ll see all the details there.
Amy: Amazing and that’s coming up soon? Which month is it in?
Amy: September, excellent. All right, sounds good. So anyone listening please go check Mary out over there and that’s it for our Brandboom podcast for today. Visit us on Soundcloud for a new episode and go to Brandboom.com for all the notes and more. I’m Amy Zhou and thanks again for listening.
NOTE: We might place the section below, not included in the show, into the show notes or it can be used as social media (Facebook, Twitter) extras.
Lee: I had a question and mostly for the show notes, okay. Can you hear me okay, by the way, did I unmute? Okay, cool. You know you’re talking about all these different channels, experimentation with channels, online, trade shows. You know do we do Instagram? Sort of an undertow there which again I’m gonna put in the show notes. The ability to pivot, the ability to change, people get stuck, don’t they? It’s the whole sunk costs argument. Like you’ve been doing this thing and you don’t wanna change, but you do have to iterate on different sales channels and techniques, right? Could you just talk about that for a sec?
Mary: Yeah, sure. It’s very important to try different channels, new channels, but what’s also more important than that is to track your successes and your failures. And also have a clear understanding of what you wanna accomplish so you’re able to track the right metrics. So Instagram, trade shows, Facebook, you know all these different channels are a way for you to get more customers or just more eyeballs on your brand. It’s also a great way for you to get people to your website so there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with new channels.
What I recommend is just always make sure that you know what you’re trying to achieve so that way you can measure and track your successes and your failures. And once you see what works then you can keep going with that. And once you see what doesn’t work then you didn’t spend a lot of money on it. That’s another thing is when you’re testing out new channels don’t invest all your eggs in that one basket. Try to create a test campaign so that you can see the type of wins, potential wins that you can get before you invest everything in there.