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Building a successful business poses a formidable challenge at any age. But for entrepreneurs in their early twenties, it may seem all but impossible. Those in need of inspiration need look no further than 22-year-old Toronto-born clothing designer Elle Hamm. Vying for position in the frenzied world of fashion, Hamm, perhaps the personification of today's new age of "girl power," has strategized her way into a niche that's as comfortable as her funky dress styles.
"I haven't seen anything else out there like this," says Hamm of her clothing line. Her Rudwear Inc. designs combine form-fitting femininity with an athletic edge and can be worn as either daywear or eveningwear. Commanding her growing business from a corporate suite in Beverly Hills, California, Hamm's Rudwear Collection boasted 1998 sales of $100,000.
Just how did Hamm gain entree into the exclusive arena of fashion design at such a tender age? Very carefully. "A lot of times I don't tell people my age because I don't think they'll take me seriously," she reveals. When it's time for power lunches with the big players, Hamm trades her everyday braids for a more sophisticated "do" and transforms herself into a fellow suit.
But her outer transformation is just the beginning. In dealing with corporate types, "I may not look equal," she says, "but I feel equal."
Just Do It
Honing a steely determination from a young age, Hamm earned a reputation for achievement with her high-voltage personality and fund-raising sales techniques. "I was competitive in everything I did," she says, "whether it was sports or selling chocolate bars."
When she was in high school, from 1990 to 1994, Hamm put her lifelong hobby to work by sewing clothing for her friends and herself. "[Originally,] I didn't think I'd make a career out of it," she says. "I just really enjoyed sewing." Her friends were so crazy about her designs, however, that she sensed there was a market for them.
When it was time to bring her business idea to life in 1996, she started with a simple line of accessories to keep fabric costs low. She shopped the line of accessories to several Los Angeles area Marriott Hotel gift shops and boutiques and met with success.
With a warm reception from Marriott, Hamm set her sights on Nordstrom and several smaller companies--and after her initial contact commenced a relentless campaign of follow-up phone calls. "I called and called and called," she says. She was surprised--and thrilled--by the single response she received three weeks after the mailing. It was Nordstrom calling, and with that magic call, Hamm sensed she was on her way.
"I finally got an appointment with the accessories buyer, and I went in and showed her my stuff," she recalls. Hamm gave the buyer prices on the merchandise, but "when she asked me how long it would take to turn around an order of 2,000 pieces, I didn't know."
She asked the buyer if she could get back to her with a time frame, but it was too late to make a favorable impression. After telling Hamm her price points were too high, the buyer showed her the door. "I just couldn't answer [her questions] quickly enough," Hamm admits.
Being forced back to the drawing board wasn't intimidating for this entrepreneur. "You can't take rejection personally," Hamm says. "All I knew was that I wanted to get into Nordstrom. I wanted to get into a major chain. So I just kept my eyes on that vision. I wasn't going to take no for an answer the next time."
From February to April 1997, Hamm regrouped, fine-tuned her goals and researched the market thoroughly. Because she still lived at home with her parents in Irvine, California, Hamm was able to pump every dime she made working at her day job into her budding enterprise, funding her fledgling company with the paychecks she earned as a front desk clerk at the Nikko Hotel in Beverly Hills.
A few months after her failed attempt to sell to Nordstrom, Hamm was determined to try again. She chose a manufacturing contractor she knew could handle the large orders the store would demand. Using her friends as models, Hamm took photographs of her hair scrunchies, scarves and bags and created a bare-bones brochure she photocopied at Kinko's. She mailed Nordstrom her brochure along with a request to show them her latest accessories line.
Within a week, Hamm scored a second appointment--with a different buyer. This time, she told the buyer she'd gone into production. "When she asked me where I had [my designs] manufactured, I could tell her. I also told her my prices were much more competitive," recalls Hamm. Nordstrom gave her a second chance.
First Things First
Supplying Nordstrom with her line of bags and accessories in June 1997 was a dream come true for the then-20-year-old, but it was only the first leg of her plan. "I knew I didn't want to just do scarves and purses," she says. "I wanted to get into clothing."
Working 40 hours a week at the Nikko Hotel, plus 40 hours a week growing Rudwear, was tough. "I was driving myself crazy," Hamm remembers of returning dozens of Rudwear voice-mail messages during her Nikko lunch hours every day. But she was soon rewarded: "When I pitched my [clothing designs] to Nordstrom [in early 1998], they bit," she says.
It was all systems go, and now Hamm needed to devote every minute to making the product line a success. "Eventually, Rudwear started supporting itself, and that's when I left Nikko," says Hamm. "That was a big scare for me because I wasn't going to have the $600 a week [paycheck]. But I knew I had to take that risk because business is a risk no matter what you do."
Before long, Rudwear faced the very problem she'd feared: the cash crunch. Turning to a factoring company brought relief. "I didn't have to wait 30 days to get paid to [be able to] make my goods," says Hamm.
As the up-and-coming clothier's cash flow increased, so did her business acumen. When a manufacturer closed shop and left town without filling one of Hamm's orders, she didn't panic: She had another contractor ready and able to step in. Says Hamm, "I always have a backup plan."
The Art Of The Deal
Hamm's newfound wisdom also includes the art of gracefully explaining to potential corporate clients that yes, she is the president of her company. "People always think I'm a sales rep," laments Hamm. Handing out her business card helps. "Their whole attitude completely flips. That's when the respect goes way up."
Hamm finds her age is a plus in keeping her finger on the pulse of the contemporaries she designs for. Her take-it-to-the-streets marketing strategy includes a "promotional team" of roughly 20 young women who join her for a weekly night on the town in the company Rudwear truck. Targeting local clubs and concerts, the team passes out fliers promoting Rudwear. "I get my inspiration from the clubs," Hamm says.
The tactic works. Rudwear fashions are getting increased exposure in MTV and Black Entertainment Television (BET) videos. The spring 1999 Rudwear Collection will premiere its new men's line by March, and Rudwear designs will appear in a Claudia Schiffer feature film, "Desperate But Not Serious," this summer.
The driven entrepreneur isn't content to simply rack up revenues from Rudwear. She recently inked a recording deal (she raps) with RTE Records under the hip-hop moniker Rudkuss. "I have so many plans, sometimes at night I can't even sleep, I'm so excited for the next day," she enthuses.
How does she maintain her sanity in her multiple quests for success? Over time, it's become clear: "You can't work seven days a week. You have to have time on your own." Says Hamm, "I get my breaks by going to church and hanging out with a different type of people [than I see everyday]."
With years to go before she turns 30, Hamm nonetheless knows where she wants to be when she gets there: "Hopefully I'll have a family [by then] and be living somewhere on the East Coast, running my New York office in a Manhattan high-rise," she says.
Whatever this daring dynamo does, you can bet it'll be from the fast lane. "To me, business is a game, and I have to win," she says. "People say `You can't be a millionaire in five years. C'mon, Elle, think reality.' But I say you have to think beyond reality."
Rudwear Inc., 292 S. La Cienega Blvd., Ste. B, Beverly Hills, CA 90211, (310) 657-3032