Going against industry conventions, Justine Leconte created her namesake label by focusing on ethical production, selling direct to consumers, and building a Youtube channel. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Justine shares her launch roadmap, thoughts on the fashion industry, and journey on Youtube.
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Vision for a different business model within fashion
Felix: Tell us a story about how you got the idea behind the kind of vision and mission that you had behind your business.
Justine: Initially I studied business. I have two master’s degrees in marketing and in strategy. I worked in business for a few years in cosmetics and in tech, and while I was doing that, I got more and more interested in the fashion industry and I noticed three things that really bug me. The first one was this fast fashion trend. I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with that concept. It’s those very cheap labels that produce overseas super cheap and then sell for a couple of bucks in richer countries. I was completely against that. I thought it was not a good business model. Then I noticed that young designers are super depending on fashion week, the fashion calendar, or the fashion press, and I thought, “Why do they need other people to make a name for themselves? There must be another way.” And the third thing was actually the distribution also depends on other people. They have to go to Nordstrom or to Selfridges. And if they don’t get into these stores, they’re not sending anything. And I was seeing all of this and I thought that makes no sense. So I started out thinking about starting my own label but I realized that I needed proper design skills. So I went back to school, left Europe, I went to New York and I studied fashion design there with the intention of building my label when I would be back in Europe afterward.
Felix: Do you feel like it was worth the time to go back and get kind of more formal education around the skill of fashion design?
Justine: I think it was absolutely necessary and the right step even though it took me longer. There’s no such thing as I’m a singer and now I’m a designer or things like that. I wanted to do it by myself, like really understanding about proportions, understanding what people want to wear and how they think when they’re in the dressing rooms, and that’s not something I can get through other people. I had to find it out by myself. So going back to school was definitely a good thing. I have to say I fast-tracked my studies in New York so that I could start my label faster. It’s a matter of the number of semesters you need versus the budget you have, right? The cost that you do it, the cheaper it is in the US, however, I would probably recommend to somebody else to take more time if they can afford it because it was really, really fast. And I left school still thinking, “Wow, that was a shock.”
Felix: So you mentioned a couple of reasons why you decided on the vision of the kind of clothing label that you wanted to create, and one of the things you mentioned was that you were against this concept of fast fashion. What did you see about fast fashion that you think is not the best approach in terms of just a strictly business perspective?
Justine: The way fast fashion works is that the labels bring out new collections every two weeks. It’s a very, very quick turnover for super cheap prices. If you’re a shopper in Europe and you get a tee shirt for five euros, this is not a normal price. It’s the price that actually doesn’t exist unless you have the tee-shirt produced somewhere in Southeast Asia where the workers, the garment workers are not being paid properly. If you pay people properly that price would not be possible. So it’s based on a system that’s crooked and it has very low margins. So fast-fashion labels need huge volumes. They will pre-produce so that they don’t miss sales, but they will then destroy a lot of the inventory. It’s a very, very wasteful system that’s not financially stable in the long run unless you keep pushing the cost down.
Felix: Can you describe the business that you’ve created that’s the opposite of fast fashion?
Justine: Well my business is made and sourced entirely in Europe. There is great knowhow and high quality in Europe so I thought, “Why not use that?” Due to the fact that I sell directly online without an intermediary like a wholesaler or a multi-brand store, I can keep the prices lower while having costs that are higher because I don’t need a margin for a second person in between. It’s just my burden. Then I have pattern makers that are with me here in Berlin. I do the fittings myself. It’s not like pattern-making is outsourced or receipts. The patterns are essential. This is how the garment would fit afterward. If the pattern is crooked, you can take the best fabric, it will look like crap. Patterns are essential.
Process of launching a fashion label differently
Felix: So you went to school to learn the design. Once you got out, what was the next step?
Justine: I had a pretty clear roadmap even before going to design school. So when I came back, I established myself in Berlin because I thought it was a smart city to start out in fashion. Paris is very busy, London is very tight. I thought Berlin had more space and brain capacity for new designers, so to speak. So that’s why I chose that city to settle in. Then I registered my company and I started going to fairs, looking at the prices because I studied in New York so I had to learn about the supply chain and the price levels in Europe. I went to the fabric fairs, to trade fairs, to suppliers everywhere in Europe. Then I build my price model thinking, “Okay, I want a price point that’s above my mass markets but below designer, far below design and price points because I want that to be affordable for more people.” I settled out to specialize in knitted things. Knits can be from a thick sweater to a jersey top. They’re from fine to thickness, but not woven because I thought there is enough offer on the market out there for woven stuff but there is not enough choice for knits. We only see sweatshirts and yoga pants, but there’s more to knits than this. So what I do is knitted ready to wear. You can really wear it to work not just at the gym or on your couch. I launched new collections when I want. I don’t take fashion week or the fashion calendar throughout the year into accounts when I plan a project. A new collection comes up when it’s ready and when it’s good enough. It can be fashion or jewelry by the way because I do both now. I extended my line and so fashion and jewelry, but the process is always the same, when I’m ready, I go out. And distribution is immediate so I don’t need intermediaries to talk to my audience. I can talk to them directly. And that’s also very, very precious because the message is the way I intended it to be communicated. That’s how I operate.
Felix: So let’s break this down a little bit. Where do the ideas come from that even begin you down this path of designing new items or new lines?
Justine: The very first collection was intended as a sort of resets which also matched my state of mind at this time, switching careers completely. Reset meant for me there is soft fabrics, things that wrap around your body, things that protect you, not clothes that fight against you and that makes you feel uncomfortable. So that was the original idea. Then I worked to turn that into a feeling, into a fabric, into a sort of pattern of color palettes and that’s how the first collection was born. Then to give you a different example, when I started doing jewelry, the idea was fabric is always soft, whatever you can sew around the free body that will hold and that will create the garments. In jewelry, it’s the opposites because it’s so stiff. I’d like to combine both things and make jewelry that feels like fashion in a sort of way, that is sharp and edgy on one side but also has soft surfaces on the other side just like fabric, and that’s how the first year where the collection was born. So it really depends on the mindset I mean at that time I guess, what I’m looking at, what I’m inspired by and then one day I wake up and there was a concept somewhere in my head.
Felix: How important is it to stay on top of the trends? Or do you find that as best to kind of go your own path and not really pay much attention to what other people are doing?
Justine: Paying attention to trends and to competition? I’d say yes and no. I do it because I don’t live in a closed bubble, right? So everything that happens around me that I see in stores, that I see online, that I see other people wearing it affects me somehow clearly. It’s just not a really conscious process. So when I go to fabric fairs, yeah, there I have my antennas open turning 360 degrees all the time looking for new fabrics for new textures, for new feelings. But the rest of the year, it’s more absorbing what I see and it comes out in a different way at the other end kind of where I can’t work bigger fashion labels is when you say looking at trends, what works, what doesn’t. We just don’t have the same sights. If you’re a big house like Chanel, you can afford every fabric. If you’re a big house like, I’m going to say H&M, which is a fast fashion label, you can get huge quantities. So you can get whatever you want. At my size being a small label, not everything is possible. So looking at what others do is not a good benchmark in my case, at least not always. So when I started my label, I was very careful to not look at what others are doing and it was freeing both creatively and financially. I could deal with my thing the way I really wanted and to be enabled from there. So yes and no.
Felix: That makes sense. I think what you’re getting at is that there are certain aspects of what other people are doing that you can pull in but then you have your own kind of boundaries that you exist within and you have to work within those boundaries.
Justine: Boundaries and also freedom because when big labels have to plan 20% of pants, 30% of jackets and 10% of jerseys, I can do the mix the way I want. So I have constraints, yes, but I’m also more free to build whatever I want, what fits the concept that I have.
Felix: What is your design process?
Justine: It depends on the designer. I think everybody thinks differently in that industry because the thinking process is so free, so to speak. But in my case, I would say I almost always start with proportions and with shapes because I like something that sits well and that fits properly. So I will sketch the complete silhouette first then I will add a feeling for colors, textures, et cetera and then I will go look for fabrics. I know there are people who start the opposite way. They start with fabrics and see what they can make with that fabric but for me, it’s not the case because for me, the look, the silhouettes and the proportions are more important.
Felix: How do you decide on how large of production you are going to run with for that collection?
Justine: That was the biggest challenge for the first collection that I brought out I think. Anybody who does physical products has the same issue, right? How big is my potential market? How much do I plan for the size of each color? How much can I sell in how much time? How many returns should I plan with? Its cash flow and inventory issues except that since I was starting out by myself, I had no benchmark whatsoever. So the first time was really a guess and then I went from there. For the latest clothing collection that I did, I did a pre-order system and I used these quantities for each size and each color to kind of guess in a more educated way how much I should order of each. Turned out it was wrong but it was closer to what I should have ordered than for the first collection, clearly. I’m getting smarter with every collection that, yes, I yelled my own benchmarks. For the jewelry I made it in a different manner. It’s on demand. So it’s produced when it’s ordered. So I don’t have inventory shortcuts. It’s just that people have to wait a couple of weeks for their order.
Felix: Is that more acceptable when it comes to jewelry compared to clothing?
Justine: I don’t think so. At least not in my case because people who buy my clothes probably know me or have a connection with me through previous purchases because I have many, many returning customers, very happy with this, or people who are in touch with me through YouTube or social media in general where I’m very active so they know me. I think it’s not a problem for them to wait. When I did the pre orders for the latest clothing collection, they also had to wait. They had to wait about two months and nobody-
Felix: Once you have the inventory, how did you launch your very first collection?
Justine: I tried what everybody says you should be trying, which is sending look books and samples to the press, calling people, going to ring the bell of all the buyers of the major stores in Western Europe. Nobody replied because who am I? They didn’t know me, I didn’t have big budgets, I didn’t have huge collections and I was not showing at fashion week. Fair enough. Why would they take some of the time and listen to me? So I figured I’d rather start by myself and I went full online, ecommerce only immediately because I thought I needed a proof of concept. They will listen to me if I can prove to them that I have an audience, that there are people, there’s a market for my product. If I can’t find an audience by myself, why would I expect the press or Nordstrom or Selfridges to do so. So I thought, “I’m going to try it and see what happens.” And it grew in the first year, very slowly, but in a sort of snowball because the products were good. I could tell people recommending it to their friends. I could see several orders in the same month from the same village, for instance, somewhere in the world and I knew word of mouth actually works. I just need to be patient. I didn’t have a big budget so doing performance marketing or huge press companies was not an option. I just waited, kept doing what I was doing, I kept launching new collections. I also started a YouTube channel at some point because I wanted to teach people to show them what good quality looks like, how to use proportions to build the silhouette that you want, how to curate your wardrobe, this kind of thing. And I guess a little bit of everything that I did ended up snowballing. And by now every connection that I make is twice as big as the previous one. So it is working. It’s just that at the beginning nothing goes as fast as you’d want it to, but if you focus on the right things and just keep doing it, it eventually works. I’m absolutely convinced of that.
Growing a YouTube channel organically
Felix: How are you actually promoting your label on social media?
Justine: Well, I wasn’t actually promoting it at first. For me, these were two different things. I had the label on one side and I was building that up slowly but surely, way too slowly but surely. And then on the other side, there was this YouTube channel where I decided that I would share what I learned because I thought I’m doing quality clothes, but it’s no good if people can’t tell what quality is. And fast fashion brands for years have been telling people, look at this Gucci sweater, we can make the same for 10 bucks so why spend more? You can just buy more stuff. So people don’t really know anymore. They don’t sew anymore. Fair enough. So I wanted to share what I knew from being a designer, from having studied and researched all that. That’s why I started the channel, just genuinely to help people have fun with fashion because it’s a very exclusive industry. And I think fashion should be for everyone and should not exclude anyone no matter where in the world you are, what your body type or your budget is. So that’s why I started YouTube. And eventually, I realized that people were also interested in more general tips I would say, what proportions fit me? How do colors work? How should I dress if I’m like this or like that? How can I curate my wardrobe? I have too much stuff, nothing to wear. So those are all topics that I decided to tackle as well. I expanded the scope of my channel and blew up completely. Currently, I have 750,000 subscribers and counting. It’s crazy because this was just a hobby and it still is because my focus is on fashion. YouTube it’s a hobby that works. But I try to keep those two separately. The focus is on fashion. The bulk of my time is in fashion because that’s where I have to spend my time if I want that part to grow. And YouTube is fun plus a way of exchanging with people. It’s not one way. It’s not just me putting videos out there top-down. It’s really both ways because I get a lot of feedback from my viewers, and when I’m in the process of creating a collection, I can even ask them, “Which colors would you like to see? What do you feel like wearing at the moment? What’s the general feeling?” I don’t want to say trend because it’s less conscious than this, but I will ask a question and within a few hours I’d get 10,000 responses. That’s a great focus group.
Felix: Let’s talk about YouTube success. How did you start your channel?
Justine: Listen, when people say you can’t be famous on YouTube, I disagree because I started with zero subscribers. No one knew me. My video sucked the first one, really poor in quality and in and in sound. But I really had something to say so I just kept doing it. Eventually, my skills got better, thank God. I got a new camera, proper mic, proper background, proper lighting, and then my videos looked like something serious, and I wanted to be useful and it just paid off. I’ve never, ever paid for a view on YouTube. It’s completely organic. So it’s the proof that it’s possible to go on YouTube starting from nothing and you don’t need to be famous before or anything like this. It works. It really does. Just the algorithm.
Felix: So it was almost like you were sharing kind of like industry knowledge at first?
Justine: In the beginning, it was more about documenting the process of creating a collection. Because I got questions from my friends from the business world like, “So how does it work? What do you do all day?” I’m like, “Well, my day looks like yours pretty much. I work in front of a computer a lot and not like Karl Lagerfeld.” And they were like, “Uh-huh.” They couldn’t really comprehend how the process actually works when you’re a regular little company like mine. And I thought that could be interesting for people who think everything in fashion looks like [inaudible] which is not the case so I wanted to document that process. And then I realized that people were genuinely interested in knowing how things work, how clothes are made, how clothes are built for certain markets, and then how clothes can work for them. It’s when I realized that my channel could be more than just documenting the fashion industry from my perspective, it could really be a help for people who don’t know about how to style themselves or are still looking for their style, I can help them with what I know, what I learned, my general feeling as a designer and what I researched like concrete facts. So what I do is a mix. It’s not just information because there is also my input and my view of things in there but it’s still a more professional opinion, I guess than if you watched videos by people from fashion. I make it so I have a deeper understanding of it. And I think that’s what is making my channel more unique.
Felix: How were you able to understand what your growing subscriber base wanted to see more of?
Justine: I’m constantly in touch with my viewers. I spend a lot of time reading comments on YouTube or my DMs on Instagram for that matter or emails if they send me some. I also ask questions very often. I ask them for what they want to see, if they like the video, what they like, what they don’t like. By now there are so many people watching that if I spend three hours reading comments, I would get a pretty good feeling for what was useful in the video? What they’re still wondering and maybe I can make a video about that. Or sometimes I push topics that are close to my heart like the topic of capsule wardrobe, what people don’t necessarily know, how do you get a wardrobe of only 40 pieces instead of 100, but you wear every single one, you enjoy every single one and you wouldn’t need anymore than that. It’s a topic that matters for me because it goes hand in hand with quality. If you have less pieces, you will buy more quality and you will keep each piece longer and enjoy what you’re wearing a lot more. It’s a lot more fun when you actually curate your wardrobe. So that’s also a topic that I deliberately pushed for instance, but it’s really both cases.
Felix: Do you remember the tipping point where things just took off and you’re like, wow, this is going way faster than you would have thought.
Justine: I think when I reached somewhere above 40,000 subscribers, people started to comment under my videos, talking about me but in third person and I was like, “Where do they think I am? I’m still reading everything.” And I still am today. I read as many comments everyday as I can and my channel has reached a stage or a size that people think she’s so big, she’s not going to be reading this anymore. That’s where I like, “Whoa, people think that my channel is big. That’s cool.” But I still read comments.
Felix: What should people be focused on growing their subscriber base, the first thousand subscribers?
Justine: From zero to a thousand I think it’s key to know you pick one topic first which is what you’re really passionate about. You have to be because this is going to take a while. It’s something that you’re passionate about. Consistently make videos with a regular schedule for a year. In my case I think it took me a year to reach 3000 subscribers, that’s right. Then the second year, 14,000 something, third year, 280,000.Next year 500,000 and next year, 750,000. So it really grows exponentially at some point, but the start is the hardest parts. And your first videos are probably going to get five views. Well, that’s better than zero. And when I started, I actively shared. I didn’t have a network but I had my Facebook friends. So I shared my YouTube videos on Facebook and my friends liked it and they asked for more and they asked questions that gave me ideas for future videos and that’s where it started really. There’s no secrets. I never invested a budget on YouTube. I started with the cheapest camera I could find, and I bought it second hand and just kept doing it.
Felix: When you were just getting started, how often were you producing videos?
Justine: At the beginning I wasn’t regular and I noticed that it also wasn’t taking off. So after a few months I started to upload every week so every Sunday. So I did a video on Saturday, texts, film, edits, and I uploaded it on Sunday and then my weekend was over and I was done. That was my weekend for a year.
Felix: How simplified of a workflow can you create to start and grow a YouTube channel?
Justine: There are different schools of thoughts on that matter. Personally, I think if you’re just going to turn the camera on and then start thinking about what you have to say, you probably should turn the camera off again and make bullet points because this is going to be a video twice as long as what you actually need to get the point across. So when I put their video, I text or at least I prepare the cookie structure of what I want to say. English is not my mother tongue so I might even have to look for a couple of words in the dictionary, translate what I need to know like the key words, the jargon and then I turn the camera on. There are people who will just turn the camera on and go. This is not my type. This is also not the kind of video that I like to watch because I think my time is precious. Please go straight to the point. But there is an audience for everything. There are people who love a vlog that’s an hour long and they can just have a drink or eat at the same time. My videos, you can’t do that. You have to listen because I’m going fast. I prefer a shorter video than a long one with a lot of ums and um but it’s a matter of taste and really there’s an audience for every single topic you can think of treated in any way you can think of.
Felix: What changes in your approach do you need to put into place in order to continue to support a YouTube channel that’s again growing into the hundreds of thousands?
Justine: So that was the year when I went from 14,000 to 280,000.I got scared, like what is happening? I have the algorithm, I’ve got YouTube. I think it’s a matter of serendipity. I was focused on the topic that I’m good at that I like talking about and I was consistent in my uploads. So more and more people talked about what I was doing. I started to be mentioned in lots of blogs like private people who like my content and I wanted to share it. Up to this day, I love when people write to me and ask, can I mention you in my blog? Sure. You can use my videos. You can embed them. You can use my photos, whatever you want, go ahead because I’m for sharing. That’s the point of my channel anyway in the first place. When I realized that it was blowing up, I switched from one video per week to two, and I took an editor freelancer to help me with the editing because I still had the fashion channel on the other side. It’s not like that wasn’t my full week on YouTube, right? So I needed help to keep some time for the label but still be able to keep up that momentum on YouTube. So I got external help basically.
Felix: So let’s talk about how you actually are able to use YouTube to support your business. How did you use YouTube to launch your jewelry line?
Justine: I think at that point I had about 250,000 subscribers on YouTube and I made literally a launch video explaining the concepts. I hadn’t talked about that collection before so it came as a surprise for my viewers. I explained the concept behind the collection, the process, the problems on the way. I made it quite transparent and then I presented the final results. And when the video went out that the collection was available on the website, with 250,000 subscribers the website crushed completely because there was also external traffic from people who already knew about me. So, “Oh, there’s a new collection there.” Telling everyone they knew. Again, that word of mouth thing, that happens also outside of YouTube and that happened before YouTube in my days. It started before that. All those people met in the same minutes on the website. Everything collapsed, the website was down for hours. It’s great for PR. It’s sexy to say that you crushed the website but really what’s happening is you’re losing sales and that’s not good.
Felix: This was not yet on Shopify. Is that correct?
Justine: I was not yet on Shopify and on that day I decided to write, the next time I launched a collection I need another provider. This is not doing the job. And eventually I switched to Shopify at the end of last year. It was about time. It’s a topic that I didn’t really take the time to do soon enough and I should have. It’s one of the things I postponed because, well, it’s just me basically running that business, but I eventually did it and it’s a life changer.
Justine: People are listening, and are wondering about a website to use. If you’re going to sell things, use Shopify. It’s the most advanced one, the most flexible one, the best one in reporting. I’m super pro Shopify because I’ve had other ones and I can really tell the difference.
Felix: Awesome. I definitely want to talk about the transition process for you because it sounds like you had a lot going on but you’re still able to make that transition. Just want to talk a little bit more about the giveaway. So you mentioned 14,000 people entered it in 24 hours. What was the giveaway? How do you create a giveaway that attracted that much attention?
Justine: Well people who watch my YouTube channel know that I think through what I create. They are familiar with the way I create and the way I process things. So when I told the story of that new collection, I said, “Ahead of the launch, there will be a giveaway if you’re interested in participating in that giveaway and being informed when the collection drops. Here is where you can register.” 14,000 people registered. I was blown away, and these people were also on the next day shopping on the website. It was incredible and I didn’t expect such an effect. I guess it’s because I had been transparent about my creative process already before that.
Felix: And what did you include in the giveaway?
Justine: Pieces from the collection that weren’t out yet? The first pieces.
Felix: And this was a promotion all through your own channels. You weren’t I guess using any other press or another way to drive traffic to the giveaway and your store?
Justine: On my website and in my newsletter, because I started building a mailing list very early on. In the first collection you wonder if you got the sell at all and in the last collection, you wonder if you produced enough.
Felix: Okay. So let’s talk about the transition over to Shopify. What was that like?
Justine: I took some help. I had a friend who is the project leader in ecommerce and he helped me basically ask the right questions like what are the focus plans of my websites? Which content do I want to have on there? What’s priority A, B and C? Then I built my entire infrastructure on post-its pretty much on the wall and I kept moving them around until everything was the way I wanted it. That was thanks to him. Then I took on a graphic designer, somebody to do photo retouching. I did a photo shoot. And then when I had absolutely everything, I made a switch within 24 hours because I didn’t want my website to go down because it was already up and running and selling. So it had to happen really, really quickly. And when you switch from another system to Shopify, you can import your customers, your past analytics and your inventory much quicker into Shopify. So I didn’t have to reprogram everything entirely and that was a time saver.
Felix: Are there any apps that you recommend that you use or you rely on to run the business?
Justine: What I can absolutely recommend is Shopify Academy. There’s so much material in there. It hasn’t happened yet that I don’t find the answer to my question. And then the analytics are super good in the Shopify system. And for instance, abandoned carts who play something into a cart versus who visited that product page. This is the kind of information that I want, I know for instance that’s on the homepage that I’m among the top three percent of workshops that launched the same week as I did. That’s something I want to know. So I’m deeply looking at the analytics at least once a month in detail.
Felix: What are some of the interesting things that you’ve been able to pull out of analytics?
Justine: Traffic. Time on the websites and then along the funnel. So when people reached a product page, did they place that item into a cart? Did they reach the checkout system? Why didn’t they check out in the end? Was I missing a payment method? Why didn’t they put that item in the cart? What was missing there? So each step I can try to optimize to increase that conversion rate along the funnel, and then inventory management stuff. How much do you have left? How much have you sold recently? When do you need to place a reorder? Because basically the goal is to not be out of stock if possible, to reorder before that even happens. So it helps me stay on top of things. I know how many tops I have in my boxes left because my inventory tells me that. But looking at the analytics, you can even say in how long you will reach the bottom of the box basically, and that’s super useful information.
Felix: What has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in the past year that you’re actively applying this year?
Justine: I think the thing that I should have done a lot earlier was to hire somebody. I worked for the last three years at least, a lot with freelancers for YouTube or for my label itself. And I’ve had assistance, editors, videographers, photographers, translators, lawyers, everything. I even have a production manager now helping me with the details of the execution of a new collection. I should have had somebody earlier on who is part of my team, fixed team because I have like two jobs, one is fashion and one is YouTube. That’s a lot of things to think of and to remember, and I should have had a personal assistant full time a lot early on. I learned my lesson. I’m recruiting this year.