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Words of Wisdom from New York Designer Charles Youssef

Charles Youssef

Not many womenswear designers can say they rose through the ranks of Ralph Lauren to hold a senior position by the age of 23. Fewer still can say they left that role because they felt they needed to go back to school. But Charles Youssef, a New York-based designer whose eponymous line now sells at Barney’s, is not like most.

After completing his Masters at Central Saint Martins in London, he bulked up his resume even more with stints at Gareth Pugh, Cerruti and Calvin Klein before striking out on his own. Speaking recently in New York at Editions, a speaker series hosted by the U.S. arm of retail technology firm Edited, Youssef shared some insight into how he hopes to avoid falling apart financially.

Celebrity endorsements can help
After his graduate collection for Central Saint Martins—which showed as part of London Fashion Week in 2010—caught the eye of Lady Gaga, her then-stylist Nicola Formichetti (who’s now the artistic director for Diesel) e-mailed Youssef and requested some pieces for the popstar.

“She wore it coming off the plane in Tokyo airport with the Birkin she drew all over. Everyone was going crazy that she defaced her Birkin and she was wearing my outfit,” Youssef recalled. “It’s still something a lot of people talk about. It put me on the map for a lot of people, especially in Tokyo and London. People still remember it. Shiseido now sponsors my shows because of that. I have a following in Japan because of that.”

Teamwork makes the dream work
“I talk to a lot of people. That’s part of what I learned at Ralph and Calvin, how to have that balance. And I think for me a 30-70 ratio has been working, where it’s 30 percent editorial and 70 percent helping support the business in terms of sales,” he said. “I tend to set it up that way initially and then look at feedback from the merchandise team and sales team to see how we can expand that… At the end of the day, I do what I feel like is consistent with the brand that I want to build but as a whole they tend to have some consistent messages that I follow.”

Share responsibilities
“For me, starting my own business, it’s been about finding the key people I can really trust to delegate responsibility to and knowing that they’ll actually follow through. I have one really amazing show producer who I know if even we don’t talk about lights for the show, they’re going to be there and they’re going to be good. Same thing with my stylist,” he said, but was quick to point out that every aspect of his business doesn’t run that smoothly. “It’s usually on the manufacturing side, like factories, trim vendors, fabric suppliers, where if I’m not really micromanaging every step of the process, the fabric just won’t ship. The trims won’t arrive on time. The clothes won’t get made properly.”

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Know your customers—and how to reach them
At first, Youssef was cocksure his customers were hip, young, 6-foot models living in the West Village but he’s since discovered that’s not the case.

“Especially at a designer price range, she tends to be in her 40s or 50s. There are a lot of Upper West Side mothers who don’t work and have children and are a size 2—the size 2 is selling out,” he shared, noting that they’re not on social media either. “What I’ve heard is that an e-mail newsletter is the best way to reach this kind of demographic, telling them about a new season that’s launching or different events. It’s something we’re continuing to test.”