How Direct Sales Turned an Atelier Into a Design Lab

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Most emerging designers dream of landing rack space at a luxury retailer or swanky department store. But Katharine Polk, the founder of Manhattan-based Houghton, says emerging designers shouldn’t overlook the power of direct sales, which for her young fashion house is up 1,000% year-over-year.

Polk founded Houghton -- which comprises both a ready-to-wear and a unique casual bridal line -- in 2011. She debuted ready-to-wear on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week in 2012 when she was accepted into the MADE Fashion Week program, a production company that gives emerging designers a platform to showcase their work during the press and celebrity spectacle.

As fashion publications took notice, so did fashion-forward women. Those craving her easy chic designs but didn’t have a Houghton stockist in their area and began contacting Polk. She began to sell directly by appointment out of the showroom and through her company’s e-commerce site. Direct sales now comprises 30 percent of her overall revenue, while 70 percent is wholesale.

“This has been very successful for us and these sales are a such significant piece of our total sale that we hired an additional sales person just to handle them,” says Polk.  

While her plan is to continue adding stockists across the country to carry her products, selling direct has turned her atelier into a lab of sorts, helping her refine how she designs for and approaches her niche, high-end customer. 

“You have to find a formula that works for you, each brand has to figure out what that is,” says Polk. She adds that women who buy directly from her showroom tend to spend more than double the client who purchases clothing from a Houghton stockist, as her in-house sales director is able to curate full ensembles, as well as mix and match pieces from ready-to-wear, bridal separates, and other goods from past seasons. 

The direct-to-consumer route provides another benefit: feedback. “We can see how the customers react to the collection,” she says. Since she can interact directly with her target market, she can listen to their needs, tweaking designs as needed and even improving pieces for her ready-to-wear collection.

We caught up with Polk days before her Fall/Winter 2015 New York Fashion Week presentation to discuss how direct sales is helping her young business gain traction. Learn more in this short video. 

Related: Talent's Never Enough: Emerging Designers On Honing Business Savvy 

Edition: October 2016

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