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From the source: Ana Escobar, LMND

Just a few short years ago, Ana Escobar was general manager of creative at some of Australia’s most recognised brands, including Big W and Oroton. Now she’s running her own fashion brand, LMND (pronounced “lemonade”), and working as a retail consultant.

We chat with Escobar about the need for designers to possess both creativity and business acumen and the reality check that the fashion industry is undergoing right now.

Inside Retail Weekly: You’ve had a really interesting career, where you’ve led teams at Oroton and Big W and now you’re running your own brand with a store in Bondi. Tell me about how that happened.

Ana Escobar: Everything in my career has happened quite organically; I never had a fixed path. My journey was more about how to build a business and create something at a particular point in time. After being the GM and creative director at Oroton and working there for almost nine years, then working at Big W and Woolworths for two-and-a-half years, I had time to myself to think. I realised that there’s a space in the market for incredible basics done in a meaningful way that’s about quality – and the customer doesn’t have to pay the world for it.

IRW: Your hero product at LMND is the shirt, right?

AE: It’s been our signature piece from day one, but we have accessories like leather clutches. We have this mix of wearable basics for everyone’s wardrobe. It’s affordable; the shirts are made of cotton and can be washed and hung up on the line – those things make them part of your everyday life. I think that’s where we land.

IRW: So many brands sell shirts, but it seems like it’s hard to get right.

AE: There are many elements that need to get together. Raw materials and the way things are made are very important to me. The pattern of our shirt has a drop shoulder that gives it a relaxed fit and fits everyone. We’ve seen a lot of repeat purchases and referrals. People from every single space say they can wear it to work or on the weekend, or we can match it with shorts. It’s ageless. I have seen an amazing lady who wants to wear the shirt in every colour. I’ve seen 18-year-olds buying our short sets and wearing them in a chic way.

The big thing is the wash. We garment wash and garment dye everything, so the intensity of colour is amazing because of the process of how we dye our clothes. We garment dye all our pieces to colour match to swatches we send through.

IRW: What does garment dying mean?

AE: The garment gets sewn together, then it gets dyed. You don’t buy the fabric already dyed – that gives it a flat look. Because it’s already been washed and dyed and loved a little bit, it gives it that really beautiful worn-in look…but I don’t want to give away all my secrets!

IRW: Your brand is all about classic pieces and timelessness – two things people are discussing a lot right now when it comes to fashion since the pandemic.

AE: It’s a really privileged position for someone in fashion to tell other people, ‘This is something good’. I feel that the fashion industry has to look inside themselves and understand what our priorities are and why a brand exists. Does it come from ego or from a true narrative and story you want to tell the world?  

For me, brands have probably been failing because they’ve been concentrating on the numbers and not necessarily on being authentic and meaningful. If you’re on the customer’s radar and they love you and understand your brand and you’re compatible, they will support you.

These are hard times, but I do hope that a lot of brands will look into what we really are as an industry and what we’re here for. Is it to make people happy and feel better? Is it to make people feel like they belong and they’re part of a group? Those are all authentic customer emotions. We need to bring that back to the front of who we are and then put it into our products. I think that’s been forgotten and it’s, ‘I’m a name, you can come into a space, maybe you can come buy from me’. That’s not the way fashion should work.

People should come in and you should say, ‘I embrace you because you came into my space, and we’ve worked on something you might love, and maybe you’ll tell a friend and come back’. I think we need to change how we work, put our egos aside and understand that everyone wants to feel creative once in awhile and we should give them that space. It’s not a unique sentiment for just a few. It’s empowering. There are a lot of things that will change and there will be hard times, but it’s a reality check and there a lot of opportunities to do things better. I’m more about being positive than saying the pandemic is the end of retail.

IRW: You worked at Oroton for a number of years. What is it about the accessories sector that you enjoy so much?

AE: I’m a trained industrial designer. I studied it for five years in South America. It was an intense course because I was doing engineering and I needed to understand anatomy and how the body works because you’re talking about designing spoons and chairs. You learn to create a different narrative in design because you’re more pragmatic and functional.  

Then I came to Australia and went to the University of Technology Sydney where I studied fashion and textile design, which taught me a lot about meaningful narrative.

The day I graduated, I was working at Oroton as an assistant designer. Then I became a senior designer and worked at Retail Apparel Group and other brands, then I came back to Oroton as a creative director and from there, I went on to become the general manager of creative.  

I went through every single space within the company, so I understood every single element of how a bag was made – from putting pen to paper to actually selling the bag and how we talked to the customer. I spent time in stores and understood our factories and how it translated into an international space. I worked really closely with the CEO, so I was exposed to the numbers side of things. It was incredible for me to learn all of that.

IRW: What are some of the interesting lessons you learned at Oroton and Big W that you’ve since been able to implement in your new business?

AE: I feel like there’s two parts to it. From Oroton, I learned everything because I was exposed to everything, like driving a business. I drove it like it was mine. I worked with an incredibly passionate team of people, we all wanted to do the same thing, we loved the brand and wanted to make it happen. We had an incredible leader who took us through that journey. It was amazing to see what a group of likeminded people could actually do. Those are things that I apply every day in terms of how to bring a brand from nothing to one that comes to life.

From Woolies and Big W, I learned the power of design. When I arrived at Big W as GM of creative, it was the first time they had a full team of designers. It was great because I understood brand and the power of having one colour. It was blue at the time. The biggest lesson was learning the power of design – what it can achieve – and using design thinking.  Design thinking is an incredible thing: it’s about being flexible and thinking things in different ways.

Big W is also where my ideas around quality and value came to life.

IRW: I really like the concept of design thinking – it’s all about putting the customer at the centre of what you do, coming up with different solutions and constantly iterating. It just makes sense. What were people doing before? Were they just selling products for themselves rather than the customer?

AE: I know! I think we need to remember why we have a brand. Why are we here? Go back to the basics and think about your consumer. At Big W, it was about how to be customer-obsessed. You have to be all about the customer; if not, you’re just going to fail. You’re just having a conversation with yourself and your three friends who dress like you.

IRW: At LMND, you’ve got one store for now. Do you see yourself expanding beyond that?

AE: Right now, we believe in just having the one space. We’ll see how the market moves and what the next step will be in physical stores. This might be crazy, but I still believe it’s important to have a physical store. In Australia, people can move quite quickly from one concept to the other, but I think you need to have everything and that’s the game – it’s not just about picking one or the other. It’s not all about online for example: it’s about your customer service, your store, how beautiful your last pattern was or whether your last delivery was QC-ed. Everything has to work. It’s getting harder, but it’s great, you should excel when you have a brand.

Keeping a store is key, it is an environment about who we are. Online is extremely important for us and something we keep working on to make better every single day. I’m not necessarily looking at what other people are doing, but what a customer is telling me on Instagram or Facebook. All these conversations we’re having are helping us to move online where it needs to be, not a new app that comes along that everyone has. You can get sidetracked online, and there are so many propositions out there; but I think you have to narrow it down and make sure it’s all about customer service. That’s the space we’re in.

IRW: Your brand is stocked at retailers like The Iconic right now, but it sounds like maintaining that direct-to-consumer element is important to you.

AE: Absolutely, if I want this brand to evolve, I need to keep very close relationships with my customers. When I was at Oroton, I used to work in the QVB store to spend time with customers – they’re who we’re designing for. This came very much from CEO Sally Macdonald at the time. We used to go into the store, then come back with 100 ideas or maybe even the assistant designer would say, ‘OK, I understand why we didn’t do that pocket or why we need that price point’. It was a huge learning for me.

IRW: Some great CEOs that I’ve spoken to in the past are very passionate about making sure they still spend time on the shopfloor and talk to customers.

AE: For us, it was very much about doing it in a way that’s helpful. Sally used to say to us, ‘You’re going in there to help the team’. We were a service-focused team, so it was important that we truly assisted them, not be that annoying person from head office who couldn’t do anything. That’s the worse thing! We were hands-on. I love selling, I think it’s amazing. I just had a half-hour conversation with a customer who came in for a shirt today. It’s all about being authentic, that’s why I wake up every day to do it.

IRW: You pride yourself on having that design background with business acumen. Do you think not enough designers possess that?

AE: I think designers need to be methodical. There needs to be a method to the madness. I don’t believe in ‘I’m a creative, so just bear with me, I’ll come in and tell you later’. No, there has to be a method. And there’s always a timeline. As a designer, there are a lot of people who depend on you and the decisions you make, so you have to be quick. Depending on the brand, a speed-to-market may be required. To me, it’s very important that designers become more conscious of that and how they affect the whole economy in a way. They do have responsibilities for people in different parts of the company for production to start. I think it’s important everyone has that in mind – it’s not just about them.

I feel that if you’re a creative person and you become too close to your design, you’re on your own too much and you don’t invite anyone else in… If it’s all in your head, no one else can actually translate it. Your job as a designer means having to get the design out of your head and put it into a method for someone else to come in and help you to make it better. I remember Sally used to say to me, ‘I’m here to help you not fail, so I have to understand how the process works and how it goes from one end to the other and how it comes to life’. These are important conversations designers need to have.

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