Yes, says Jean Liu, A&S '96, you can still wear your favorite camo jacket after you turn 40. Her fashion line, Verity & Daughters, which draws inspiration from architectural details, vintage military wear, and even BBC dramas, helps women infuse unexpected details into their professional wardrobe.
Liu launched the brand after a lengthy career as a designer for The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch, Converse, and other major brands. She longed to craft her own vision, free from the demands of a large corporation. But while Liu had extensive design experience, she found that running a business brought new challenges. She's spent the past two years figuring out how to buy fabrics in Japan, partner with a Chinese clothing factory, build a website, and grow a social media presence. "These are things that you take for granted when you work in a big company. You create your own design and expect everything else to just happen," she says. "It's very exciting to do it all myself—and also very scary."
You don't meet a lot of biology majors who go into fashion.
I started out working in a lab, but I soon realized it wasn't for me. There are plenty of others who excelled in pre-med classes and found research thrilling. But I loved art, I loved fashion, and I loved shopping. So, I thought I'd give fashion design a chance. I finished my credits to graduate from Hopkins in three and a half years, and then I spent my last semester building an art portfolio at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Then I went to the Parsons School of Design for another four years and got a second bachelor's in fashion design. I'm fortunate that my family was very supportive of me. My parents wanted me to go into medicine, but they understood that I felt drawn to do something different.
What inspired you to start your own clothing line?
After nine years at Converse, I realized I wanted to try something new, but I didn't want to go into management. Converse was moving its headquarters to Boston, so I knew I could either uproot my family or strike out on my own. I wanted to craft my own look, to have a direct conversation with my customers. It was now or never.
What were your first steps?
Everyone told me that I should start by creating a business plan. But that's just not how my brain works. I'm a designer. I needed to start designing clothes and see where that led me. Once I had some designs, I took them to a sample room here in New York where they constructed some actual pieces. Friends in the industry showed me where to go for fabrics and trims. I found a company here that serves as a go-between with the makers of the most beautiful Japanese fabrics. Then a friend mentioned she had an uncle with a clothing factory in China. I sent him some samples and fabric, and his factory started making my designs. His name is Pun, so the labels say "Made in China by Uncle Pun."
Did you ever draft that business plan?
I'm still figuring it out as I go along. I had a pop-up shop and launch party in November and got really positive feedback. My husband knows a lot of photographers, and we found a friend of a friend who was willing to model. Another photographer friend let us use his studio, this wonderful raw, industrial space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I put the website together through an app called Shopify. Now I'm working on social media and email marketing. Since I'm bootstrapping, I'm doing it all myself.
What's the significance of the name Verity & Daughters?
The name is my way of reframing a patriarchal business model. So many businesses are about fathers and sons. I have two daughters and I want them to be a part of this. My older daughter, in particular, is very artsy and loves fashion. As for "verity," it means truth, but also means an underlying principle. And it's the name of a quirky and interesting character from Poldark, a British period drama that inspires some of my designs.
What have been the biggest challenges in learning how to run a business?
There's been a steep learning curve with production logistics. I imported fabrics directly from Japan into China and got hit with a 30 percent tax. I found out later that I would have saved money if I had imported the fabrics into Hong Kong. Then, once the clothes were finished, I needed to find an export company to send them to me.
Where do you hope to go from here?
My next step is to look for investors. I'm ready to grow. I'd like to start placing my designs in boutiques. Ultimately, I'd love to find a partner who would take on the business side of the operation. I don't need to have a multibillion-dollar business, but I'd like to sustain my family without returning to a corporate job. For me, the happiest moments are when I see people wearing my designs on the street. When I see strangers wearing my A&F cargo pants or my Converse sweatshirt, I do a little dance in my head. I feel like I got an adrenaline shot. That moment hasn't happened yet with Verity & Daughters, but I do find it exciting to see my designs constructed—the actual styles and fabrics and trims. That's the moment that it's all worth it.