The fashion industry is made up of creatives that have the most ambitious ideas and then there are the business-minded people that only see numbers. It is not very often that you bump into a person that manages to have both. That is where the magic starts to happen. How often have you tried to explain to an aspiring designer that it’s not just about their talent? And how often had you tried to explain to a business man or woman that there is an unquantifiable element called passion that they need to factor into their equation.
That’s why talking to Ammara Yaqub the New York fashion designer behind the eponymous label AMMARA was so refreshing and real. She manages, perhaps with the help of her Harvard degree and Louis Vuitton work experience to merge both worlds, and bring to the table a realistic yet extremely personal formula for her fashion label. Made in New York City, there is a lot of heart that goes into the making of an AMMARA piece.
AMMARA is a women’s dress shirts company, its that specific! Which means that the company has channeled all of its resources and energy into the making of the perfect shirt. Not only that, AMMARA has cut out the middle man and his commission. The collection is not sold anywhere other than the site which means that the markup is realistic and particularly low.In their own words, the brand describes the transparency :
‘AMMARA charges a 2.5X margin instead of the typical 8X margin of a department store transaction. This allows for the highest caliber product at the best possible price. By eliminating the intermediary, we’re able to invest in luxurious, natural fabrics and work with factories that are the best in their class. The men and women who work in these factories are industry veterans just as dedicated to product excellence (and therefore, your happiness) as we are.’
See what I mean, there is a lot to say and feel about the brand. Although I love to write about talent, some conversations are perfect just as they are. This q&a with Ammara Yaqub is as authentic as it is informative and playing around with it would be a real shame.. Enjoy!
Q: Tell us about your inspiration between your label. The line is so well edited and specific, I feel that you have a very clear vision of what you hoped to achieve.
A: I believe that with so much product out there you have to make sure that you are providing something of true value to the customer. The inspiration for focusing on shirts came from my own lifestyle – I rarely wear dresses and I was always looking for fashionable high-quality shirts to wear with my favorite jeans or trousers and I could never find them. I also believe that by focusing on one category and really mastering it, I can provide the customer true value and really stand out in a very saturated market.
Q: Direct-to-Consumer is a courageous move, and although it does reduce cost to the customer substantially there is also a lot that the brand could potentially be missing out on by working with strong retailers. How do you compensate for this ?
A: I started AMMARA 5 years ago with the vision of providing great fashion and impeccable quality at the best price possible. It started as a full women’s collection and I was fortunate enough to experience great success both in terms of sales and editorial. About two years ago, I started to feel that my business model was outdated – the customer was shopping online and store sales were declining. I decided to shift the focus away from a full collection to shirts and take my business entirely online. The decision to go online, direct to consumer and eliminate the wholesale channel was driven by my desire to provide the customer with designer level product at a much lower price point. The customer today is very savvy and the market is very saturated with products. It is more important than ever to provide the customer a product so amazing that that she absolutely has to have it.AMMARA shirts are made with the highest quality fabrics (Sea Island Cotton and Four Ply Crepe) and manufactured at the same factories in New York and that produce top American designer brands.
There are pros and cons to every strategy and partnering with strong retailers can certainly be a great way to get immediate visibility. Prior to pursuing the Direct to Consumer channel, my brand was carried at Saks Fifth Avenue among many other retailers and it provided immediate legitimacy to the brand. However, the US retail business is changing rapidly, people are increasingly shopping online and seeking greater intrinsic value from their purchases. In our case, we have been blessed with getting incredible support from the press and we have been able to get the AMMARA name out there very quickly and effectively. The shirts are such high quality that customers are positively surprised when they receive them and we tend to have very few returns (far below industry standards).
Q: We love the fact that the shirts are named after influential women. Add to that your partnership this summer with Running Start and a pattern is starting to appear of your passion for women empowerment. Please tell us more.
A: From since I was little, I was a feminist. I went to Smith College which is a progressive, feminist all women’s college in Massachusetts. I’m a proponent of all businesses run by women (personally I think we do it all better)! When it came to naming the shirts, naming them after women I personally admire was a natural fit for me. Every woman that I name a shirt after has had an impact on the progression of feminism may it be via art, culture, politics or even fashion. Partnering with Running Start was an organic process. At Smith College, I was the President of the Student Government (the first international student to get elected to the highest student-held office). I had the opportunity to affect change and put in place policies that would help students for years to come. We need more women leaders around the world (after all, we would be better at it)!
Q: Do you feel that in your own little way, providing women with affordable, quality shirts also helps empower them ? I personally feel that your pricing transparency does indeed empower your customer.
A: I believe that infusing the AMMARA woman with confidence is one way to empower her. Wearing a great outfit is like getting a great blowout or leaving the gym after a tough workout – it makes you walk a little taller and be proud of how you look and feel. I want my customer to put on an AMMARA shirt and feel confident and empowered – like the very best version of herself.
Q: Please give us a few female personalities that you plan on including in your upcoming collections.
A: There are so many inspiring women that I always have too many choices (a great problem to have)! Our next two shirts will be named after Belle Abzug and Shirley Chisholm. Abzug was one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress. She became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Q: Why New York for manufacturing? Please tell us a little about your process from design to production. I feel it is quite a personal operation…
A: AMMARA is hinged on providing a quantifiable value proposition beyond just beautiful clothes. At the core of the brand is the quality of the clothes – I use the highest quality fabrics and craftsmanship and the product is truly superior to products available at comparable price points through traditional wholesale channels. I then infuse a refined, au courant design aesthetic that is modern but timeless as my goal for these pieces is that they should endure in my customers’ wardrobe for years to come. I favor Sea Island Cotton for cotton shirts. Accounting for just .0004% of the cotton supply worldwide, Sea Island Cotton is the rarest cotton in the world. The fibers in Sea Island Cotton are extra-long and considered superior to all other cotton types due to their uniformity and consistency. This allows Sea Island Cotton to be unbelievably soft — a quality that endures despite repeated washings. Rather than degrade over time, the hand feel of Sea Island Cotton improves from wash to wash and the color maintains its vibrancy. Most AMMARA silk pieces are made of Four Ply Crepe which is the most luxurious of all crepe de chines. The “four ply” in the name comes from the four individual fibers that are woven together to make a single strand of yarn, which is used to weave the fabric. This method of weaving contributes to the ridges and light sheen on this otherwise matte silk. Four Ply Crepe is luxurious and soft and drapes beautifully on the body. It is most widely used in couture garments.
As I began to work on the production of the very first collection at the beginning of last year, I spent weeks tracking down the very best shirt makers in New York – the same shirt makers who work on top American designer brands. To make sure that AMMARA gets the focus of the top factories, I plan my manufacturing in a way that it does not compete with larger brands doing fashion shows. Being see now, buy now, wear now makes this possible and smart scheduling ensures that we are able to manufacture at the very best factories in New York.
Q: How has the current political climate affected your behavior towards your business, if any?
A: It is now more important than ever to empower women. As the mother of an almost 10 year old girl, I am very cognizant that my legacy needs to include something that goes beyond creating a great brand. Empowering women today and making the women of tomorrow truly independent and powerful is what I hope my legacy will be as it is more necessary today than ever before.
Q: How does your ethnicity factor into your design or business process ?
A: Having grown up in Pakistan till I was almost 18, I was used to bespoke clothing and I was very involved in the design and sewing process of my clothes. I didn’t go to design school and my interest in design and manufacturing comes from early experiences in Pakistan. I studied Economics at Smith College and got an MBA from Harvard Business School and my education as well as my work experience in the luxury industry working at Louis Vuitton and Saks Fifth Avenue gave me the confidence and necessary skills to start my own business. I believe that I couldn’t be where I am today without all the experiences and influences that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy!