Women running their own companies? We love to see it. In our series Small Business Spotlight, we chat with independent fashion entrepreneurs about their journey to be-your-own-boss status. Here, tips for raising funds, developing a marketing strategy, navigating social media, and more—straight from women who have done it themselves.
It's easy to feel starstruck by Allina Liu before even meeting her. After all, the fashion designer and entrepreneur's pieces have been worn by the likes of Cardi B, Awkwafina, Justine Skye, and Ji Hye Park. But, in reality, Liu is a down-to-earth New Yorker who, when prompted about her success, demurs, "I'm always floored when someone gives me their money."
Liu describes her journey as a fashion designer as both a hustle and a leap of faith. "I went to MICA [The Maryland Institute College of Art], and it wasn’t really a fashion school. I should have gone to Parsons or FIT or something, but, at the time, I went in as a painting major and then I realized that I sucked compared to the people who are naturally amazing, so I was like, ‘Okay, this isn't going to work out.’" While figuring out how to pivot, she studied everything from painting to drawing to UX before finally tapping back into her childhood enthusiasm for fashion. "I worked at a number of houses: I was at Thakoon, The Row, Rebecca Taylor, and J. Crew."
But, deep down, Liu knew that she wanted to design her own pieces and execute a singular artistic vision. "In 2015, I decided to give it a go. I saved up enough money to put out a collection, which was exciting, but given what I was being paid, I wasn’t eating." Liu put out a few more seasons after that before taking a brief hiatus from entrepreneurship―but once again, fate intervened and she was thrust back into her eponymous fashion line.
"During [my hiatus], I wasn’t really putting out anything for the line, so I lost momentum. Then, I got laid off from J. Crew because of the pandemic, so I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to give this a try again. Why not?’ So, again, I dipped into my savings, which is always a risk, and put out a capsule."
Now, two years later, she's got her own boutique in Brooklyn as well as thousands of loyal customers, including nearly 17,000 Instagram followers and a handful of famous fans. With her commitment to small-batch, eco-friendly production and ethical labor, she's right on target for the recent (and much-needed) sustainable fashion movement. Plus, she's doing something original: Taking her inspiration from a variety of fine art and photography sources in order to create pieces that stand apart from existent brands and trends.
"Being trained in fine arts comes in handy a lot," she admits, citing her primary artistic influences as Nobuyoshi Araki, Ren Hang, and 17th century Dutch portraiture. "Every time I sketch something, it's like making another piece of art for me...I take a lot of care in my sketches. I really like them, visually, and I moved into fashion from that is because I'm a really tactile person―I love 3D forms. There's something really satisfying about having something in your hands that you started on paper, even if it doesn't look at all like the sketch."
On Melding Fine Art and Fashion
"My inspiration really comes from [photographers] Nobuyoshi Araki, Ren Hang, and 17th century Dutch portraiture. The Araki and Hang stuff is very sexual; it's very aggressive in its sexuality. Coming from a really repressed family background, sensuality was always super interesting to me. I speak a little Mandarin, but I don't even know how to say sex in Mandarin, because my parents never taught me. It was just one of those things we didn't talk about.
"When I first started in fashion, my pieces were a lot more blatantly inspired by that. There were a lot of garter belt influences, and I would play with release and restraint a lot―like, I did a piece with invisible zippers so that you could really alter the shape of what you were wearing. But those pieces weren't really selling, and they were also really expensive to produce, so my pieces are a lot more subtle now. For instance, there are a lot of straps on my stuff. It all looks really sweet, I've heard from other people, but there's an underlying subversive, dark, sexualized place that it's formed from. I just dull it down a little bit, because the reality is that I do want to make sales and make pieces that people can wear on an everyday basis while still feeling beautiful."
On Gaining Recognition
"It's always been really surreal for me. I get DMs almost daily from people saying, 'I'm saving up for your piece!' Someone just sent me a DM being like, 'I just bought my first Allina Liu piece and I can't wait to get it.' It's so humbling in every aspect, like I cant believe the amount of support I've gotten. It's the biggest honor when you realize that what you've done is paying off.
"I think longevity beats out luck. If you're persistent and you can stick with it, you'll find the luck. It's so sad, because a lot of the brands that started out in 2015 alongside me aren't around anymore and don't design anymore, and they're really, really talented people. It just takes so much time to grow brand awareness, but I think if you stick around long enough, people are going to notice you."
On BIPOC Politics in Fashion
"I got so much press when all of the anti-AAPI hate was going on, and the recognition was really exciting, but it was also kind of a bummer because it was like, 'Oh, you're finally writing about this because of what's happened,' but all this time, there's been a lot of neglect toward the Asian American community.
"But I grew up in a really intense household―my parents are very much tiger parents. There was such an intense need to be a lady, and that all pushed me to do the opposite, to be honest with you. It just made me more curious about what else is out there in the kink world and in the BDSM community, and all of that has translated into the clothes I make. It's what I find inspiration in; what I find beautiful.
"Being an Asian woman unfortunately means being fetishized on a very regular basis. There are guys that are into a very submissive Asian woman, so having a business has been really empowering for me. It says that I'm not going to fit into that mold of what others think Asian women are, where they're just quiet and reserved and they're going to be waiting at home for you. Like, f--k that―I have a business, and I'm doing other shit."
On Taking Action
"Time is your most valuable currency, because you're going to run out of it. If you're young right now, and if you have the energy to work two jobs or three jobs and make it happen, then do it. Success is not necessarily about how good you are―it's about how badly you want it. And if you think people aren't going to like it or that it won't be received well, then accept, 'Okay, it might not be'―but you'll never know unless you give it a shot.
"Time is valuable and that's the only advice I can give someone who is waiting is that the longer you wait, the more you're going to psych yourself out, and you might wake up one day and be like, 'Oh, I forgot to do that, I didn't get around to doing it.' You really don't want to be on your deathbed thinking, 'I had this great idea and I genuinely thought I was pretty talented, so why didn't I try?'
"My dad's life motto is, 'What do you have to lose?' And that about sums it up."
On Funding Your Business
"You have to save―though I know that's such a hard thing to do, especially in New York City. Small business financing through loans is really difficult because of the interest you have to pay over time. It's aggressive to take out a loan, so if you have a nest egg that you've saved and if you're able to set aside money monthly―even if it's just 100 bucks every paycheck―you should just go for it. You have to see that savings and that leap as an investment in yourself and in your life, or else you're going to be stuck working bullshit jobs.
"Starring an Excel spreadsheet and tracking my finances aggressively has made a world of a difference for me, because before, I was just like 'I'll buy this 20 dollar pizza―whatever, it's 20 bucks!' But that's 20 dollars that could be going into packaging supplies, shipping supplies, and so on."
On What's Next
"I think understanding your audience demographic and what they want you know is important. There needs to be compromise there because my things have done better now than ever before, and I think that's because there's a much more wearable aspect to them. In the future, I'd like to be a bit more edgy, because I don't want to be pigeonholed into that ultra-feminine world. I want people to be like, 'Okay, she can make cooler stuff, but she also has these sweet pieces.'"
Gabrielle Ulubay is an E-Commerce Writer at Marie Claire and writes about all things fashion and beauty. She's also written about politics, gender, and sex for publications like Bustle, HuffPost Personal, and The New York Times. As a film school graduate, she loves all things media and can be found making art when she's not busy writing.
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