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Esby Apparel

Inspiring Esby

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People thank me that these clothes exist, that they can wear them all the time, and that they can feel good about their purchases.

__Stephanie Beard

Lead Designer at Austin-based brand Esby is the dream job incarnate for Stephanie Beard. After spending her life savings to kickstart the brand in 2014, Stephanie’s style inspiration has taken on a life of its own, sprouting a flagship retail location, swimwear, a line of leather accessories, and an expanding team. Seeking to create an almost seasonless capsule collection with cues from Stephanie’s early days in design, Esby got its spark designing an ultra-wearable collection for women with a “menswear mentality.”

Their latest collection was inspired by time spent touring the home of artist Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas during a trip Stephanie took with her Production Director, Assistant Designer and first hire, Lauren Kirby in 2016. With Esby’s characteristic breezy silhouettes and a color palette of the American West, this collection delivers equally on comfort and style. Read along to hear how Esby began and the inspiration Stephanie finds in bringing her customers a confidence in the way their clothes are made, and the way they look in them.

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How did you get started with Esby?

I actually got started as a menswear designer after college. I moved to New York and worked for a few big companies like Tommy Hilfiger, starting out in childrenswear and then moved just to designing boys clothes. After that I took a job at Levi’s and followed my boss to the next job. That was my first menswear position. I really fell in love with it at first, and then all of a sudden felt completely stuck. [Menswear] is so simple and therefore so hard to differentiate yourself as a brand, so it made me become a strong designer early on. I had to figure out how to brand a crew t-shirt, and a simple pant, to make it feel distinguished.

I left Levi’s for Converse where I stayed for the next five years and designed the One Star Collection at Target. That was the first time as a designer I was introduced – outside of mood boards and sketching – to the production cycle. Target is a well-oiled machine, so before you’ve even created something they’ve already bought it for the store. I had a sliver of a budget for fabric and another sliver for sewing, so that was another skill I learned there, to design into such a small price point and make something look more valuable than what we were selling it for.

Several years into that position at Target, nine years in fact, I had still never seen a factory. I cared a lot about where my clothes are made and it started to get very uncomfortable that I didn’t know who was making the things I was designing and putting out into the world, or how it was being made. At the same time womenswear was beginning to revolve around fast fashion, and closets were filling up with things you would realistically only wear once. I wanted to bring all of my ideals from menswear into

women’s lives and come up with more of a “capsule collection,” which is what we call it now. So I decided to take my savings and start the collection. I moved to Austin following my then boyfriend now husband, and thought it would be the perfect place to start something.

Where did the name come from?

The whole time I was designing for Converse, I was still really interested in fashion and menswear in general, so I started a blog where I put all of my inspiration, called Inspiring Esby. Esby is my initials, S.B. for Stephanie Beard, just spoken phonetically.

When did you officially launch Esby the brand?

We launched online in February of 2014 with a Kickstarter campaign. I was really hesitant to do the campaign because I wasn’t sure I would like that platform, and more so, I didn’t want to ask for money. But I ran out of savings sampling that first collection, so my options were to try and put out one style at a time, which I didn’t want to do, or to take what I had left and invest into that campaign. That first collection was actually available through Kickstarter and we sold over half of it through that campaign. We met our goal in the first 24 hours and over 30 days we almost tripled our goal. I still remember getting up and being in my little Austin apartment at 6:00am tweaking final details just before it went live. Even as well as the campaign did, the money went quick putting everything into production.

Just before the campaign I had gone to work for a local menswear shop called Stag because I wanted to understand the retail model. I learned so much from the guys who run the shop, but one of the things I remember most was women who would walk into the shop, look at some of the pieces and say, “I want this style, but to fit my body.” And that was the thing about menswear. It doesn’t fit your hips or chest; it just doesn’t fit the same anywhere. Like in button-downs, I can’t button all the buttons. But I remember feeling really encouraged that there were other women out there that would want something like what I wanted to make.

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What’s been the most surprising thing about running Esby?

There have been some really happy surprises that are outside of what we set out to do originally, that just kind of happened. Where I started with Esby and where I am now is nothing like what I imagined. I pictured it being just me, having a really small collection, but it’s grown into something that can be so much bigger than what I ever expected. And with that I’ve taken turns and moved the company in different directions based on those surprises that I couldn’t have anticipated. Like with the pop-up shop, and then taking on a retail space, and being able to expand the team so much. Another surprise was when we first moved into this space my landlord told me about a man who designs leather products. We became really good friends and started working together on what are now our leather designs. I never thought that we’d be doing these things. I just thought it would be me and this small collection, shipping out orders from my tiny living room, but that model lasted for about one season. I love that we’ve been able to listen to the brand and let it become its own thing rather than what I thought it would be.

I have taken over the role of marketer and business owner way more than what I imagined like when you think, Oh I’m going to be a designer for my own collection. I thought, and maybe a lot of people think, that that’s what you’ll be spending all your days on. But you really gotta hustle and market, market, market. It’s the hardest thing. I got really lucky and was able to get this small business loan early on in our second season

which has changed the course of everything. There’s something so beautiful about organic growth, but when I became responsible for someone else’s money it became a different animal.

You use the word natural often to describe the collections. What does that mean for you and your process?

Natural fabrics are extremely important to me. Other than in our swimwear collection, we’ve never used a synthetic fiber in our clothing. Natural fibers are much less harsh to make than synthetic fibers. There is a lot less pollution involved. We only use natural fibers like cotton and silk linen and cotton linen blends. Aside from the environment, it’s also important to me to stick to natural materials because of the climate we design in. You can’t really wear a synthetic fabric unless you’re working out in Austin. If you have polyester in your clothing, you’re going to sweat if it’s hot and freeze if it’s cold. Linen is an amazingly strong natural material; cotton is also incredibly durable. We want to use the best fabrics that will wear the best for the longest time.

American Made has been so important to me, too, so I found a factory in New Orleans with a super transparent production model that I was excited about working with. At the time Esby was just me, and I knew I wanted to be able to visit the factory producing my designs, and know exactly how everything was being made. We emphasize that Esby is made in the USA because we’re in the US, and we actually go to our factories.

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How do you balance comfort and style? Do you lean towards how it fits or how it looks?

I think both are equally important. I am actually our fit model: I’m about an 8-10 on the bottom and a medium in the top, so I’m a true pair. I have hips, I have thighs, and when we start sampling we put everything on me first. I feel like I’m a pretty accurate 35 year old woman. In the rest of the world I’m a large to an extra large, but in here I’m an 8 or a medium so that we can expand to a larger range. Fit is extremely important, but so is function. We do pockets on as many things as we possibly can. We wear test a lot of our garments to make sure they’re comfortable and that they function properly.

How do you feel like menswear influences what you design for women?

Men shop so differently. They have much fewer items that they wear for much longer so that is part of our DNA. Actually our tagline for our Kickstarter was “menswear mentality,” but to us that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re making menswear for women. But we are bringing the fit and function of menswear together, and making it easy to [take that style] from day to night. We make what we think are really useful pieces. We’re the opposite of fast fashion, even though I think it’s totally fine to have those few special pieces a season or a year that are on trend and inspire you and make you feel good. But for Esby as a collection, we want what we make to flow from one season to the next, and each piece to be something that you could conceivably wear every single day.

Everything about the collections feels so wearable.

Yes! That was so important to me when I was living in New York in the West Village. My place was only 250 square feet, and my closet was only about two feet wide, so every piece had to count. Everything had to be something I could wear multiple times a week. I couldn’t keep things in my closet that I would find myself just thumbing past. I’ve always wanted Esby to be that favorite piece in your closet, the thing you would always pick out. But it is an investment. We’re making things at such a high quality that it’s going to last you a long time. You’re going to want to wear it a couple of times a week, and that was my hope from the beginning.

How has it been having the retail location for Esby in Austin?

Early on when I was doing the Kickstarter campaign and getting started online, I was hearing things all the time about stores and small businesses closing and that retail was on its way out. The store is doing really, really well and that was a shock. Before we had this store we did a pop up at Billy Reid in Austin and were able to go for two months and it really changed the course of the business. In the beginning, that pop up was my baby and I was in there all the time. Building this store has been the next baby, but I’ve recently had to walk away from running things in the front of shop and we’ve taken on a new Retail Manager and a few part time people as well. Overall we’re growing at a pretty steady rate right now, and the store has become such a great surprise and has done so much better than we anticipated. It’s just such an incredible gift.

 

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Do you have other outlets where you exercise your style?

I think Esby is where I can get my particular style out. What we make is what style is for me. It was always difficult for me to design at the places I worked designing for like a skater kid at Converse, or Tommy Hilfiger. It was a different customer; it wasn’t who I was. Levi’s I understood better, but I feel really fortunate to have a place to put my style out into the world. And Esby evolves in certain silhouettes when my ideas change. We have customers that don’t want a high-rise pant. But we have a high-rise pant because high-rise pants look great! As we widen our selection though we’re trying to broaden our options, as well.

What is still the most inspiring thing years later?

I guess it has shifted because my initial inspiration was, how do we bring these clothes to women? But Esby’s tagline can’t be menswear mentality for women anymore because we’re getting into menswear! Eventually we want to get into kids and home goods, so we’re becoming more of a

lifestyle brand. I think I’m becoming more inspired by our customers because they’ve really changed our mentality. People come in and thank me that these clothes exist, that they can wear them all the time, and that they can feel good about their purchases. That will always be inspiring.

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