Ask most aspiring fashionistas to name their ideal location for starting the next big luxury brand and New Orleans is unlikely to roll off the tongue. The city is a cultural powerhouse in its own right, yet most people would leap to fashion Meccas with major design schools and showrooms. Think New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Milan.
This is just what makes Cecile Hardy's founding of NOLA Couture--New Orleans-inspired ties and accessories--all the more interesting. Putting a promising career in San Francisco as a buyer at Williams-Sonoma on hold, she returned to the devastation of post-Katrina New Orleans to help the city, her hometown, in the recovery process. The move was only meant to be temporary; her life, after all, was established in San Francisco. But something happened while she was in New Orleans.
With a legal pad strewn with pattern ideas in the shaken city, Hardy knew that establishing NOLA Couture could be quite a gamble. Nonetheless, after long nights, little sleep and much determination, NOLA Couture has accrued a steady following of devoted customers who cannot resist the unique New Orleans- and Gulf Coast-inspired motifs and the thoughtful details incorporated into each print. Take the "Seafood Gumbo," for example, where flecks of okra and rice mingle with mouthwatering shrimp and gulf-fresh oysters.
Moving her ideas from notepaper to fabric required a bit of ingenuity and a whole lot of hustle. "I contacted every person I knew and made sure that I could present a well-constructed product," Hardy says. David W. Perlis of Perlis Clothing, an established upper-end New Orleans retailer, immediately gave her 20 names of interested clients, which she then tracked down for more sources.
Hardy was pleasantly surprised to find a receptive audience. Looking back on building momentum in the early days, she reflects, "Researching and connecting with people are key. Never underestimate what one e-mail to your contact list can do. I found out that people are generally inclined to try to help rising entrepreneurs like myself succeed."
Although mired in uncertainty just a few years ago, a rejuvenated New Orleans has provided a more supportive platform for business-building than Hardy could have ever imagined. Just recently, Hardy was chosen as one of seven entrepreneurs to partner with an MBA team in New Orleans Entrepreneur Week 2010, when over 150 top MBA students, corporate volunteers, and our nation's most accomplished entrepreneurial talent congregated and collaborated in New Orleans to provide 9,121 hours of direct service to 329 early-stage New Orleans entrepreneurs and to discuss the emerging entrepreneurial opportunities in the community.
In addition to shining a spotlight on Hardy's efforts and success, the event outfitted her company with a team of top MBA students from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "We placed our previous work experience and classroom learning into action in order to develop recommendations across all aspects of Cecile's business: operations, Marketing, Sales, Product Management, Finance, and Strategic Development," says Jessica Ford, a Kellogg team member. "It was a unique experience to work with a business that is at a critical inflection point and be able to evaluate it holistically."
This opportunity allowed Hardy to address her most pressing challenge for the future--designing and implementing a growth strategy that will keep the company structurally sound and successful as it continues to expand in its promising future.
As NOLA Couture blooms into an established brand with growing web sales and a presence on the shelves of stylish boutiques from Nantucket to California, the company's recipe for success is offering a product that consistently differentiates itself both in style and in quality. Here are a few cornerstones of Hardy's business philosophy:
Focus on quality, not quantity. This burgeoning entrepreneur constantly revamps the traditional tie industry, setting a new benchmark for competitors. Small, aesthetically pleasing details, like contrast printed silk tipping, set the ties apart from other brands.
As the quality of Hardy's product has remained high, the product itself has grown and adapted to the desires of its ever-growing base of consumers. NOLA Couture considers itself a New Orleans company first and foremost, but the prints now include motifs that are relevant nationwide.
Listen to your customers. Keeping a close ear to customer demands has prompted Hardy to drive the business into entirely unexpected domains. It's a well-known fact that people love their dogs. But Hardy never anticipated that applying her cutting-edge prints to dog collars would grow into such a popular item. "You just roll with it and see what people are asking for," she says. This customer-friendly attitude is largely responsible for her success.
Remember to breathe. Although she heads a rapidly growing business, Hardy strives to remain calm and thoughtful (her employees are probably rolling their eyes as they read this, but she tries). "I tell myself that we're not performing brain surgery here today, so while it's important to remain focused and ensure that things are done right, I do my best to think positively and keep things in perspective." Few aspects of the large corporate culture permeate her New Orleans office, where employees work hard for the greater good of the company, and a belief in its potential.
Everyone is critical in the success of a small business. This focus on the people behind the designs has been imperative to its success. With virtually no budget, Cecile enlisted New Orleans-loving friends with graphic arts backgrounds to contribute their ideas. She remembers those days as a creative frenzy, and incorporated suggestions wherever she could find them. One of her fondest memories is the creation of the "Shrimp Cocktail" tie by her little brother, Joe Reiss, a high schooler at the time: "I still have the sketches of cute little shrimp and martini glasses. You definitely can get the most brilliant ideas by bringing people into the process." Though she has since transitioned from engaging friends to overseeing full-time employees, her attitude that people are indispensible hasn't changed a bit.
Love what you do. As an entrepreneur, if you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: The journey requires an unprecedented amount of commitment, passion and dedication. Hardy's core recommendation for budding entrepreneurs: Make sure you're really doing what you love, because you'll dedicate all of your time and usually a lot of personal finances. "You're going to be working in overdrive, so think long and hard to understand what you really want out of the venture and what entrepreneurship really means."
Stay true to your roots. NOLA Couture's product has never ceased to remain inextricably linked to the city, both in its designs and its mission. For the future, Hardy hopes that the company's success and New Orleans-centric identity will boost New Orleans into the national limelight and attract more potential entrepreneurs by showing that even the most unlikely businesses can thrive in its collaborative environment.
This preppy New Orleans outfitter continues to be more than a fashion statement. The simple premise that the new company could give back to the city that inspires its products has led to the donation of a steady portion of proceeds to rebuilding organizations, charities and foundations. Hardy lights up when she talks about the beneficiaries, like New Orleans's Audubon Nature Institute, The Make it Right Foundation and Second Harvest Food Bank.
Four years after her unanticipated return, with many of her possessions still peacefully stowed away in San Francisco, Hardy has yet to look back.
And with more movers and shakers like Cecile Hardy, New Orleans will soon find itself on the fashion map, as well. Naturally leading one to ask the question: What can't you do there?
For more information, visit www.nolacouture.com.
The Idea Village is a non-profit organization with a mission to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans by providing business resources to high-impact ventures, and has engaged more than 880 people to support more than 580 local entrepreneurial ventures, representing 975 jobs and more than $87 million in revenue.