How a Wall Street Background Can Help You Create Fashion – Wall Street Journal

The trainee track at Goldman Sachs
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isn’t the typical route to a career as a designer. Nevertheless, a number of new fashion brands are being launched by alumni of Goldman, J.P. Morgan
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and other financial firms.

These entrepreneurs have the savvy both to suss out consumer needs and to manage their own balance sheets. The work-around-the-clock discipline required of financial trainees is helpful preparation for life at a fashion brand.

Sarah Carson, founder of Leota.
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Merger-and-acquisition transactions, equity deals, clients’ road shows: Sarah Carson used these experiences at UBS, and the spreadsheet skills she developed there, to build her ready-to-wear label Leota, which launched in 2011. “They showered me with leadership training and networking galore,” she says of UBS. Even the concept behind her designs—wrinkle-free, easy-travel dresses—came out of her investment-banking experience. She expects $5 million in revenue this year from the brand.

Wall Street alumni tend to develop business plans around a specific consumer need they personally have encountered, often creating their own PowerPoint presentations.

After working at J.P. Morgan and Lazard,
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respectively, Benjamin Earley and Evan Fript decided they could make shoes that were better and less expensive than the $1,000 Italian designs investment bankers were wearing to work. The two abandoned their financial careers—both had studied finance at Tulane University—and launched Paul Evans shoes three years ago. A pair of its men’s made-in-Italy brogues costs $399.

Shoes and boots from Paul Evans.
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The co-founders, both 29, still speak Wall Street-ese. “We wish we could get more leverage,” says Mr. Earley, using a term for debt that is rarely heard backstage at fashion shows. “Banks don’t loan to small businesses.”

The traditional path to becoming a designer—assuming you aren’t Katy Perry or Kanye West—is to attend a fashion program, take classes on things like pattern-making and textile design, and get hired by a label. The Parsons School of Design in New York City and Central Saint Martins in London have produced the likes of Marc Jacobs and Lee Alexander McQueen. Often, designers seek out a business-minded partner to handle the quantitative side.

The more left-brained designers coming out of Wall Street aren’t just more business-minded than their design-school colleagues. They often eschew traditional approaches to the business.

When they launched Abbott earlier this year, lawyer Michael Pass, 32, and financial analyst Jose Alvarez, 34, ignored the fashion-industry mandate to build their fragrance brand around seduction or a celebrity. They instead marketed the scents themselves: A $65 scent called “Sequoia” is described on Abbott’s website as “a campfire and a glass of whiskey” created by master scent maker Antoine Lie. The scents’ “perfumers”—fragrance chemists who generally go unnamed—are part of the marketing message. Mr. Alvarez spent a decade in finance, with jobs at Morgan Stanley
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and Citigroup,
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and Mr. Pass has worked at several large New York law firms.

Jewelry designer Monique Péan.
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One of the best established among Wall Street alums is jewelry designer Monique Péan, who says her work as a fixed-income analyst at Goldman Sachs helped her manage cash flow and understand “prudent” capital structures. Coming from a nontraditional background enabled her to take an approach to design that “was not influenced by industry norms.” She understood the consumer appeal of using sustainable materials and recycled gold in pricey jewelry before most big luxury brands were touting such things.

“My Wall Street experience gave me the tools to analyze the fine jewelry business as a whole and ask myself, ‘What are the opportunities versus the challenges and what would I like to change about this industry?’ ” she says.

Many of these fashion entrepreneurs speak highly of their former employers. “I still value and respect the values that firm instills,” says Becca Brown, who left Goldman Sachs to launch Solemates with Goldman colleague Monica Ferguson. Solemates’ original concept—plastic covers that slip over the bottoms of high heels—came from all the pumps she ruined at corporate receptions that took place on grass. (For the uninitiated: Heels sink in grass and mud.)

Solemates on silver heels.
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Many noted, though, that their financial careers lacked the fulfillment they sought from their work lives. “I loved the people I worked with at J.P. Morgan,” says Mr. Earley, of Paul Evans shoes. But “after a while, you realize it’s just a merry-go-round.” He says he likes making something tangible. “I certainly made more money at J.P. Morgan, but it’s been a good transition,” he says.

Leota’s Ms. Carson says she was never a typical Wall Street type. She brought her knitting to meetings of the firm’s Global Power Group. “I had curly hair and I was a woman,” she says. “Maybe if I had felt I fit in, I would have stayed.”

Write to Christina Binkley at christina.binkley@wsj.com

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