British-born fashion designer Amanda Scarlett Smith, now in San Francisco, has always had a passion for fashion. The artist and energy behind the ultra high-fashion label Scarlett Smith says that she’s been “keen” on sewing ever since she was a child, growing up in Devon, England. At age eleven, when she first started learning about the history of fashion in school, she decided that she wanted to be a fashion designer.
Maybe it’s like this with all true artists, whether musicians, poets or fashion designers: unwavering dedication is almost always part of the package.
Never losing sight of her goal, Amanda earned a prestigious degree in fashion in 1999 from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London. Following graduation, she worked with legendary designers Alexander McQueen and Antonio Berardi—and in costume design for film, theater and opera productions, including the English National Opera, worldwide stage productions of “The Lion King” and the 2008 Keira Knightley film, The Duchess. While immersed in all this historicity and theatrical whimsy, she told us, her ambition remained unabated “to create my own unique pieces in my own voice.”
With her husband Ewen Smith, a scientist at the biotech giant Genentech, Amanda relocated to California three years ago. Working “seven days a week, with sleepless nights,” she launched her Scarlett Smith label last September. “This has been my ambition ever since I graduated from Central Saint Martins 14 years ago,” she told Yahoo.
The Internet is a big wide door with a welcome sign for myriad designers, with or without formal training, to try their hand at selling their own creations in an online store. We asked Amanda her opinion about whether that welcome might be somewhat misleading to the uninformed. “I think it would be hard to launch a line without some training,” she told us, “whether it is design or business related. As a designer launching my own brand, I’ve had so many things to learn, from manufacturing, marketing, business, branding, sales, distribution, legal, retail, etcetera! You have to do it all yourself initially unless you have the investment to hire people to do these jobs for you. It’s a very tough industry and only the most dedicated and driven will make it.”
It has to be your life, says Amanda, who has launched her SS15 line under the mentorship of San Francisco’s Fashion Incubator Program (she was one of only five designers chosen for the program last year). “Design training helps you to craft your ‘voice’, your own style, as well as teaching you the technical skills needed to construct a garment.”
How can aspiring clothing designers get that training, short of enrolling in fashion and/or business school? “Apprenticing, especially to a small company,” says Amanda, “will give you a glimpse into the work you will need to put in to make a viable company—and teach you about how a fashion company works.”
The Internet as Fairy Godmother
With its global platform, the Internet has been a fairy godmother to small companies, such as Amanda’s, for whom expensive public relations campaigns are simply out of reach. “I have had contact with people from all over the world,” she told us, “and opportunities have arisen from these that I never would have been exposed to without the Internet.”
It’s sometimes hard to remember that online shopping—something we all do and pretty much take for granted—has only been around for the past ten years. Being able to set up an online store for selling one’s products has perhaps been the biggest gift of the Internet to boutique companies such as Scarlett Smith. “Anyone can buy my garments, regardless of where they live,” Amanda told us, looking like she couldn’t quite get over the wonder of it herself. She chose Shopify for her store, attracted by the ease of use for someone without training in building and maintaining a website.
“The hardest part,” says the designer who takes her inspiration from architecture, geometry and the female form, “is getting yourself heard amidst the other thousands of brands out there doing the same thing.”
Amanda was determined to make her voice ring out loud and clear in the visual cacophony of fashion websites. Her academic experience, and years in costume design, served her well in terms of knowing how to do the necessary research. “My website came about by looking at hundreds of sites to see what other brands are doing, what works best, what doesn’t.”
Although runway shows have been, and continue to be, important to her success, Amanda says that her website is the face her company shows to the world. “I have the opportunity to tell the story of my brand more here than anywhere else.”
The Importance of the Visual
That story is, of course, visual: every detail of the website, according to this very detail-oriented designer, has to count. Because photographs are the primary medium she uses to show her collection, she didn’t stint when it came to hiring a professional photographer for the job. “It was initially more than I was expecting to pay— but it’s been worth every dime.” The brand-new entrepreneur laid out $3000 for her website’s visuals. “If the photography is bad, my garments won’t sell. I chose to keep the rest of the website pretty simple—clean and minimal, like my clothes. I wanted my website to embody that.”
The biggest challenge in keeping her site up to date, says Amanda, is the time it takes—“fitting it into my day along with a hundred other more urgent things that need to be done. My industry is constantly moving and my website needs to reflect this to keep people interested in my brand. It’s an ongoing process, always evolving and improving.”
Looking ahead to next year’s season, Scarlett Smith applied to the British Fashion Council to show in the designer showrooms at Somerset House during London Fashion Week 2016. “They have seen my Lookbook, and I have an interview with them in June. It’s a much bigger investment for me.”
Amanda makes every effort to get her collection the maximum exposure while still spending her money wisely. “Since launching my line in September, I’ve had the opportunity to showcase my collection at a show at London Fashion Week [the Catwalk Edit], a press launch at New York Fashion Week, several events at Macy’s as part of the Fashion Incubator, my SS15 collection launch fashion show at Pascaline Paris on Sacramento Street in San Francisco and various other trunk shows.”
It certainly seemed like a coup when one of her outfits was displayed in the much-desired real estate of a window at Macy’s on Union Square. “Unfortunately, there is a massive building project going on there right now—so the window faced a large building site! Not quite as glamorous,” Amanda sighs, “as I had imagined my first window would be.”
But it’s full speed ahead for this hot new designer, who maintains her independence while staying alert to opportunities to collaborate, grow her business and evolve as an artist. With some technological help from her husband, she launched her online store this month. She has benefited from the help and experience of the husband and wife design team of Jeanne Allen and Marc Grant, whose very high-end Jeanne-Marc label, active from the 1970s through the ’90s, is still highly prized by collectors.
“I love bouncing ideas off of other people,” says Amanda. “It can really get the creativity moving. But the final say is always myself, and I have to trust my instincts. It is my business after all.”