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Starting a Glamorous Biz

Go glam! Take a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be a fashion designer, a restaurateur and more.


It's all champagne, glitter, sparkle and photographs. It's famous clients and magazine covers. It's people wanting to meet the proprietor. It's drinks and models and A-list parties. It's your dream to run a glamorous business, to open a restaurant and bar where the elite and powerful mingle. Or maybe you'd like to run a label that the stars proudly wear on the red carpet. Perhaps you dream of coining the next hot cosmetics craze and seeing your products worn on faces all around the world.

The good news is that it is possible to live the glamorous life. The not-so-great news? It's not all glamour all the time. Like any worthwhile endeavor, it's sweat, it's hard work, it's trying, it's drama--but if you take heed from the successful entrepreneurs we talked to, it's one hell of a ride.

Sanford Bryant, for instance, has designed his own line of high-fashion menswear that graces the frames of celebrities, including a well-known late-night talk show host. Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff-Gray host Washington, DC's VIP decision-makers in their elegant restaurant. Toni Ko spends her days selecting the hottest cosmetics colors to share with the public. Read on as we unravel the mystery of these glamorous businesses--and see if you want to get in on the magic.

Fashion Forward

Sanford Bryant spent a lot of time learning the not-so-glamorous side of the fashion business before he decided to go into business for himself with the Sanford Bryant Co. A veteran of a large Italian house, Bryant traveled the fashion world under someone else's wing, but, he says, "The objective was always to get to a point where I could do it in the first person and have it be about my own aesthetic as opposed to adopting somebody else's."

He struck out in the fall of 1999 to design his own collection of tailored and casual menswear. "It was a great time in some respects and a horrible time in others," says Bryant, 42. After all, a big part of his business was tailored high-fashion suits, yet he emerged at a time when casual dress was becoming the norm for many workplaces.

His experience in the fashion world helped him, though; not only with industry knowledge, but also with connections. Bryant was even able to secure startup funding from a company he'd consulted with in the past. "One of the benefits at the startup point in 1999 was continuing to consult for other people to create a positive cash flow while still at the stage of developing the concept," he says. "One of the difficult things about design, selling and distribution is how long it takes. From the first idea to the time you've delivered it in a store-it's kind of a contradiction to the word 'fashion,' because you've had to execute that idea so far in advance."

The long cycle between trend creation and distribution varies from 18 to 24 months, says Jennie S. Bev, editor in chief of, an online resource for fashion and image careers. "You will need plenty of cash at hand to keep the product line running before getting paid by retailers," she says. "Make sure to have plenty of reserve funding, especially if you release seasonal lines."

And let it be known--all that time is not spent at fashion shows rubbing elbows with Heidi Klum or Tyra Banks. To get a new fashion label off the ground, notes Bryant, it's literally about pounding the pavement. He recalls his early days when he'd cart a rolling rack with his designs all over Manhattan to attract clientele. "You've got to do things that everybody else does to get into people's faces," he says.

Since he launched his line, Sanford Bryant Custom, Bryant has succeeded in getting his fashions on celebs like talk show host Craig Kilborn and WNBC New York news anchor Maurice DuBois, to name a few. In late 2003, he shifted his focus to affordable, custom-made luxury for average consumers. Though the company is based in , where Bryant has a showroom, he mostly sells his custom suits (from $895 to $1,295) through one-on-one consultations with clients in Los Angeles, New York City and other cities soon to come. The strategy is working, as annual sales now surpass $1 million.

Still, Bryant waxes poetic about the dichotomy of running a so-called "glamorous business." "From one side, I'm doing design and development, and [people] think 'Oh, you get to travel the world, and you're in Italy,'" he says. "And [I think], I go to a factory in the middle of nowhere. You're in a room with five guys, and everybody's smoking, and it's 9:30 at night--and then you have to get up and drive 200 miles to the next factory. It's beautiful countryside in between--but you're not just in Paris seeing the shows."

Hot for Couture?

If you want to be the next Donna Karan or Ralph Lauren, take the advice of Jennie S. Bev, editor in chief of, an e-publisher specializing in resources for job-seekers in the fashion industry:

  • Find your niche. Fashion encompasses a huge market-women's casual, men's formal, plus size and so on-so narrow it down.
  • Study the competition. Learn about their niches, why they stand out and how they market. Can you effectively compete?
  • Find out which retailers accept new designers. Secure your manufacturing or CMT (cut, make and trim) needs now.
  • Have ample startup cash. You'll need cash flow for at least two and a half years, since the fashion cycle is from 18 to 24 months between design and .
  • Think creative but wearable. "If they are too bold or cumbersome to wear," says Bev, "nobody will want them even if they are fairly priced."
  • Get your name out there. Start with a good label that speaks to your niche. Participate in fashion trade shows. Get fashion media attention for your line. Persistence is the only way to attract buyers.
  • Put on your business hat. "Being a successful fashion entrepreneur requires 90 percent business skills and only 10 percent artistic skills," says Bev. "Many new designers fail because they have impressive artistic skills but very limited business skills."

Elite Cooking

Though they traffic in gourmet food, white tablecloths, candlelight and fresh flowers, Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff-Gray, founders of Equinox restaurant, know the not-so-glamorous side of the restaurant business well. Located just one block away from the White House, their Washington, DC, establishment has attracted some of the most powerful people in the world. Still, the biggest challenge wasn't the pressure of pleasing the VIP clientele--it was the fact that the couple was expecting a baby during the startup phase. "There was no manual out there for how to do it. We did everything by gut instinct. We made a lot of mistakes, and we [did] a lot of things right," says Ellen, laughing. "We're partners, we're best friends and we're married; so it became a 24/7 conversation, this restaurant--and then there was that baby."

Todd and Ellen, both 39, met when Ellen worked as a sales rep for a local food company and sold to the restaurant where Todd was working as an executive chef. Romance blossomed between the pair, as did a plan to open their own restaurant in 1999. Equinox became a truly family endeavor when their son, Harrison, was born. "I was hostessing and running the floor with Harrison strapped to me," says Ellen. "We incorporated him into every facet-we didn't separate the restaurant from the family. The family is the restaurant."

According to Todd and Ellen, customers really enjoyed seeing their youngster around and liked the whole family vibe they exuded-while maintaining their elegant ambience. "There was no time to be a dowdy mom. We cater to very high-end clientele here. Every lobbyist, congressman, senator, lawyer, lawmaker and [ambassador] from all over the world dines here on a regular basis," says Ellen. "You can't be like 'I've been awake all night, and my son has the croup.' No. You have to be in the power suit with the heels--the whole nine yards."

Though image is key to their success, the behind-the-scenes side is just as important. Todd's name is on the marquee, and he creates the award-winning gourmet dishes with his staff. Still, he admits it's generally not so glamorous. "Yeah, you have your moments when you're in the dining room shaking the hands of people that make the world go round," says Todd. "But within the same minute, someone's yanking on you telling you the toilet's broken, there's a leak in the kitchen, somebody quit. I mean, it has its moments, but running a business in a restaurant environment is total insanity."

Don Chapelle, founder of restaurant consulting service Culinary Matters in North Andover, Massachusetts, agrees. "It's not glamorous at all," he says. "The owner has to be an owner/operator and pick up all the pieces that fall when things go wrong."

Still, weathering the challenges can reap great rewards. Equinox has seen sales hit about $2.8 million to $3 million annually, and it's just the beginning. Todd and Ellen are expanding into the hotel restaurant business--they've joined with Sheila Johnson, formerly of African-American entertainment company BET Inc., who employed them to help create the culinary side of her Salamander Inn & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, a collaboration Todd says is a second venture. He says proudly, "I'm watching our company grow and expand, and watching us provide opportunities for our staff in the long term."

Gourmet Taste

Do you ache to be the purveyor of an A-list joint? Don Chapelle of Culinary Matters, a restaurant consulting firm in North Andover, Massachusetts, offers these tips:

  • Get energized. Prepare physically and mentally to work 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week-at least for the first year.
  • Solidify your concept. "Make sure that for whatever geographic or demographic location, that it fits--that you're able to execute," says Chapelle. Make certain there's value built into your concept.
  • Get a good location. But be realistic about what you can afford. Don't get saddled into lease payments that are too expensive. Chapelle suggests budgeting no more than 5 percent of your gross sales.
  • Train your gang. Focus heavily on staff training, as service will make or break your establishment. "I train employees for half an hour on how to answer a phone," notes Chapelle. "It's the most important thing that [aspiring restaurant owners] overlook."
  • Get ready to compete. Independent operators can compete with the big restaurant chains by offering better-quality food and service. Make that your mission.

It's a Beautiful Day

It's more than mattes and frosts for Toni Ko, 30. This cosmetics entrepreneur worked in her family's cosmetics retail business and discovered her desire to be on the creative side of the market--not just the retail side. She saw how popular budget-line cosmetics were, and, through her own experience at the store, she knew just what customers wanted in their makeup. Armed with that knowledge, Ko set about creating NYX, Los Angeles Inc. in 1999. It was a one-woman show early on, recalls Ko, who worked 10- to 12-hour days, six days per week during startup.

To save money, she lived with her parents for two years while she developed and sold her line. And while she knew the retail side of the cosmetics industry, Ko had to learn all about the manufacturing and distribution side. "I was so young [25], and people actually thought I was 19 or 20," says Ko. "When I went to manufacturers, they'd look at me like 'Are you kidding?'" She actually worked this perception to her advantage, though. Ko would approach prospective suppliers and ask all the questions she could about the cosmetics business, under the caveat that she was new and needed to learn more. The industry veterans found her candor refreshing, she says, and most were willing to work with her.

While she confesses she likes making the world more beautiful, Ko doesn't particularly subscribe to trends. She creates a line of colors, which range in price from about 99 cents to $7, that she knows her customers will wear because they feel beautiful, not simply because sparkly pink is the season's hot color. Larry Oskin, a beauty-industry specialist and president of Marketing Solutions, a beauty-industry marketing and consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia, says this is a good way to approach the ever-changing cosmetics industry. "Don't be afraid to make a new trend or fad," he says. "But it's a pitfall if that's the whole basis of what you're doing." It's good to have a three- to five-year plan of line extensions to solidify your market share and make sure you're not just a blip on the radar.

Like all the entrepreneurs we talked to, Ko knows all too well the unglamorous side of a "glamour" business. "It's not like I'm a makeup artist [who] works backstage at a fashion show," she says. "We travel a lot for trade shows and conventions. It's usually the same city at the same time of year. It's a lot of headaches and a lot of work."

The headaches, though, have paid off. Ko saw sales hit $7.5 million in 2003. Her products are sold at specialty beauty-supply stores nationwide, along with a presence in 200 Longs Drugs stores in Northern California, and online at Ko would like to expand her lines to include medical color cosmetics (to treat skin blemishes and wrinkles while covering them) and a higher-end beauty line under her recently acquired Doll Face brand. She's already got her fans: Ko recalls striking up a conversation with a saleswoman from the high-end Stila cosmetics line, who raved about the NYX eyeshadows she used in her beauty regime. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Ko's success is definitely stunning.

Glamour Is as Glamour Does

What these entrepreneurs learned is that a so-called "glamorous" business is still a business with all its ups and downs. But when done right, starting a glamour business can be a unique joy. You can be glamorous; you can be fabulous. And yes, your business can be, too.

Beauty in a Bottle

If you want your makeup line to be the next MAC or Maybelline, heed the advice of Larry Oskin, president of Marketing Solutions, a beauty-industry marketing and consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia:

  • Define your niche. Is it for teens, young professionals or men? "Try to find a niche that no one has," says Oskin.
  • Package well. "Beauty care is a highly visual and emotional business," says Oskin. "You have to please the [customer's] emotions and senses." Use your packaging to please all the senses.
  • Get press. Try to get coverage from mainstream and trade beauty press. Familiarize yourself with beauty editors-send press kits (with samples, if possible) along with seasonal press releases.
  • Don't be ruled by trends. For long-term success, create a cosmetics offering that has staying power.
  • Get good distribution channels. Decide if you want to sell via department stores, online shops, specialty cosmetics stores or drugstores. Where does your target market shop?
  • Plan to grow. "You need a long-term approach to beauty care, because it's rarely an overnight success story," Oskin says. Develop a three- to five-year plan of line extensions. Always have something new up your sleeve to delight the beauty-conscious consumer.

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