headshot provided by Smythe
Smythe turns 10! To celebrate designers Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe created a capsule collection of ten of their best pieces to be reissued. Lenczner and Smythe are so humble about their line which in ten years has achieved so many milestones: Barney’s, Jessica Simpson fame and then of course the Princess of Wales Kate Middleton spotted in their jacket, on repeat! Just a few basics really.
I sat down with the duo at their west end Toronto studio to talk about ten years in the biz. Pitfalls, business plans and how to navigate Fashion for a decade. Meet Andrea and Christie!
Happy 10 years!
Andrea: I know! You should show a picture of us ten years ago, we look a lot younger.
Is this the paper anniversary?
Christie: I think we get diamonds! We should buy each other diamonds.
Andrea: It’s not diamonds.
C: But it’s something good. Traditionally ten years is ten, because my husband and I did the list of them.
What did you get for tin?
C: I think he just wrapped my present in tin foil.
That’s cute (laughs)!
C: That’s how you get what you want…
A: But all the clichés are true; “ten years have gone by so fast,” it’s important to reflect on it, ten years; it just doesn’t feel that long.
Reflecting back then, which goals did you met and what did you supersede, were there any u-turns, are you guys where you thought you’d be?
A: That’s a good question
C: No one ever asks that question
A: We never laid out goals.
C: We didn’t have a business plan
A: No, and I definitely would say there are things I’m super proud of that we didn’t expect but also things that we probably wish could have gone better. You hate to name them, but moving forward I think we’ve grown a lot from a design perspective. That’s where I feel like we gained a lot of skill. And we can do things faster and better now. We are just coming up with bigger and bigger collections. It’s a better process because we know more we know what’s going to work or why it won’t work, why it will. It was trial and error for so long.
I love the evolution as well from strictly blazers and outerwear to then including pants and skirts.
A: And knits for fall now. I’m mostly proud of our design evolution. In terms of business we probably could have been more aggressive, but we’re busy
C: We’re raising families.
A: It’s been a blur because we have huge priorities outside of work young children that were born during this process.
C: We may have been more aggressive but at the same time we’re proud that we were responsible. We grew our business responsibly and have been in business for ten years. That’s a great milestone for us and in this particular industry that’s hard.
The mindset is if you’ve made it ten years, it’s safe to say you’re established. (We all three knock on wood.) For any start up there’s no way of predicting the trajectory.
A: My background is such that I should have made goals (banker past life) a five-year plan a two-year plan. But I don’t know that kind of talk reminds me too much of my old banking life and my eyes just gloss over. I think we always have the feeling of how we’re doing we always know where our strengths and weaknesses are. It’s not to say we aren’t aware we just don’t set it out on paper. We know the temperature of our company on any given day. There were years we grew a lot, and some we were surprised by.
C: I think when you focus on your strengths rather than writing an involved plan or projection you’re growth is that much great because you’re developing the area that you have the most talent in. for us, what we love the most is the design and in this particular industry you’re only as good as your next collection. That’s been our love and our focus.
A: You can sit and crunch numbers till the cows come home but if your collection’s not cute it doesn’t mean anything. I think we put our energy into design.
How do you balance work and life?
C: I don’t know, how do you?
That’s why I’m asking! (Laughs) I’m really, really asking.
A: Having a partner really helps. If one of us goes on vacation it doesn’t stop, there’s someone still here answering phones, paying bills.
C: Putting out fires!
A: Getting back to the staff, and spelling each other off. It’s easier than if you’re a single proprietor and you try to step away. Things mount up and then it’s very tense to go away and get back to it. That’s the real benefit to having a partner. And then we travel together a lot so then well bring our computer.
C: Sometimes the nice thing about being away together, is that you’re not worrying about the other person who’s back at the office and you’re both really off. That’s when I feel the most relaxed.
A: that’s weird, I never worry when I’m away.
You travel a lot together?
C: When I’m away I worry that she’s dealing with a mountain of stuff.
Yeah, that guilt of being away and someone is tending to the mess.
A: I don’t have that guilt! I really don’t. we took separate summer vacations but last Christmas our families were together. Having spouses who are super supportive and so when it’s crunch time you can just say. When you need to work on a Sunday, which happens, we clear it. That’s part of work life balance. What else?
C: I don’t know we help each other. We both have kids we have the same values, our lifestyle’s are similar so if Andrea’s booking fall activities for her daughter she’ll yell across the room to me, “do you want Coco to join Chloe doing hip hop this fall?” and I’m like ‘Oh yeah,’ so she gets me the form and we do it together. If I’m going to buy ten birthday presents for the kids then I’ll ask her if she needs any. Because a. we have the same taste, b. kids who are really close and good friends. The things we have to juggle are the same. I learn a lot from this one because she has three kids, I can’t complain organizing for one. This one (Andrea) is laser organized.
A: Well… yeah, if any one of us has to go and do an errand we see, “ you need a Halloween costume?”
C: We prompt each other!
A: That’s true. It’s really good to have a partner. Especially one that you like!
How does that work in the studio?
A: We design together but we divide tasks up. Ten years in we know who does what. We don’t disucss it anymore. If the task is paying a bill it’s me, or Christie does the booking. We each have the undesirable jobs. We divide it up. There’s drudgery in every business—we split the drudgery up. Christie always tidies up the studio.
C: I’m the cleaning lady. I’m really good at it.
A: I don’t know where anything goes! She has a great system for all our raw materials. I have different systems for paperwork.
C: It’s funny to watch us do the hamstering and dance around each other.
How did you guys originally meet?
C: In high school, math class, hated that class
A: Gr. 9 for you and 10 for me.
C: Well we knew each other all the way through but when we got really close it was before we graduated.
A: Gr. 11?
C: No! Gr. 12.
A: So this whole gr. 9 math class isn’t a true story.
C: You always say gr. 9? No, that’s not true.
A: Christie fast tracked, way back when high school was five years…
Oh I know I was the last year to do the fifth!
A: Chrissie ended up in a lot of classes with me. I always thought she was really pretty and cool and dressed cool. And then we lived together in university.
C: Then we didn’t live together in university but were still friends.
How did the business partnership and design come about?
C: In math class! We would be drawing our prom dresses, or semi formal dresses.
A: I think we started talking about doing a business together in university, in a fantasy kind of way.
A: It was a store.
C: It was going to be all body suits.
A: Well, then it would have been Montreal. That was the first iteration. We talked and went our separate ways but always kept in touch. Then Christie moved back from New York, she had a big design job there. And it was like how do you do that here? So it was the right time for her to take the risk because she kind of had nothing to lose. And I said, ‘Ok.’ It was a lot of smoking back then.
C: A lot of smoking!
Did you launch with a show?
C: We launched in 2004. But we’ve never done a show. We have been part of shows with Holt Renfrew and staged shows at Holt Renfrew, but never been on the calendar. We found them very prohibitive and it wasn’t part of our business model. We were working towards getting a showroom and then we got onto the calendar of the tradeshow industry and so a show wasn’t how we mapped it out.
A: We do coterie and DNA. The show takes a huge effort out of your day to day. It’s great marketing and every Toronto fashion week I feel a pang because you see everyone else being written about and we feel left out of it. We are not putting ourselves out there, I just don’t feel left out enough to do it.
C: The way that we were presenting and booking our line works for us, so we’ve never done a show.
A: I’m sure we’ve missed some good press from not being at the tents.
But, that is the only payback to a fashion show.
It’s the notoriety and press and brand recognition, there’s no precise ROI.
A: Which it’s hard to say. Most people wont buy a brand unless they’ve heard of it.
What would have to happen for you guys to show?
A: A massive sponsor.
C: A sugar daddy!
What are some highlights from the past 10 years?
A: The obvious one, Kate Middleton wearing Smythe. Then there was the first US account, which was Barney’s. There are so many…
C: The anti-bullying initiative was big for us.
A: The suit launching suiting we were really into. The first coat collection we did for Holts.
C: Spring 2010.
A: That’s how we broke into coats. Getting our new office.
C: Moving out of the frat house into our new fancy offices. This is our third office. All the moves have been major.
A: Hiring people was a big deal. And getting our showroom in the US, which was really hard, especially when you’re new. Oh, this is dating us but remember when Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey were together?
The real life?
A: No, that was MTV, but they were breaking up and there was a picture of her wearing our blazer.
C: It was everywhere, this picture of her wearing Smythe. Not just the tabs, Harper’s picked it up too. It was all over! We felt bad because something good for us was coming out of somebody else’s misfortune.
A: And the birth’s of our kids in there too.
Thanks so much for having me!