Breakfast with the Boss: Keanan Duffty, Fashion Designer, Musician and Author

On Wednesday, award-winning fashion designer, musician and author, Keanan Duffty, and his wife, Nancy Garcia, welcomed several YMA FSF scholars into their apartment for a delicious breakfast and an inspiring conversation on how to break into the fashion industry. Duffty, who attended Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, started his own small business after graduation, selling to high end stores around London. But through the process, he realized he really didn't know much about the business. “I didn't know how to get things produced - I was working with sample workers, pattern makers, so a very kind of haphazard way of working.” After a year of trying to make it on his own, he decided to get some solid industry experience, and secured an entry-level job with a company in London known as one of the forerunners of the fast fashion movement. After working with others in the industry, Duffty started his own line in 1999, and worked with David Bowie to create a collection for Target in 2007. From 2012 to 2015, he was Senior Director of Fashion Merchandising at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Nancy Garcia, Duffty’s wife and business partner, attended Pratt and studied Fine Arts, and later studied Accessories Design at FIT. She owned her own handbag design company until she met Duffty and they combined their talents into his business.

Words of Wisdom

“I’ve always been a passionate believer in doing what it is that drives you forward, and any success you have comes back from that, you actually feel fulfilled. In our business, we’ve had times where economically and financially it’s been really good, and we’ve had some times where it's been really tough… You’ll find that when you look back on those times they are character building and make you appreciate the good stuff.”

Fashion is creativity and commerce. “It's really more of a way of getting your voice out into the world, through a structure that is partially yours and partially kind of controlled by other entities - some of that is retailers, online and physical, bloggers, print media, some of it is in your control, some of it is out of your control, and that's fine.” 

If you want to work in fashion, New York is the center of it all. “New York kind of affords that opportunity in fashion, it is really the center of the industry. The fact that you're here really speaks volumes about your ambition, your self-confidence, and your first step in your career, because the fashion industry - for better or for worse - is centered in New York. There are pockets of the industry around the country, but the broadest opportunity right now - and this may totally change - is here: the media's here, some production is here, most of marketing is here, most of the large ad agencies - all of that is really centered in New York, so it's great that you're taking the jump into the fast-flowing river to be here. I worked in London for a few years, and I was actually traveling a lot, coming to the U.S. and Japan. I love coming to New York, I love Tokyo, and I was very tempted to make a move and live in another part of the world. I thought it was really interesting and important to get outside of my hometown - living in London and living in the UK I thought, I have to go somewhere else. I didn't speak Japanese, so I thought New York was kind of the safer bet. I moved here and 1993 and landed in the East Village, on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. I came from the airport with a black bag of clothes, that was it. I got out of the cab and as I look down there's a $5 bill on the ground, and I thought wow, the streets really are paved with money. It was kind of like a sign that tells you you're in the right place. I immediately went out and started to network and meet people in the industry. I had the number of a guy who worked at Nicole Miller, one of the big players in the industry, and I started doing some freelance work for him. He kind of got me situated here in New York, I felt validated in being here.”

Aim High. “I worked in the industry for a company for a couple years, and then I became frustrated again because I had had my own small business and I thought I wanted to express my ideas, not be filtered through another entity. So in 1998, I quit my job and started a small design label. I worked with a small pattern maker in the Garment District, and small factory in the Garment District, to put together a 12-piece collection. You know, Donna Karen started her entire business with 7 pieces. 12 pieces is more than you need. Nancy and I had met and were a couple at that point, and then we won our wedding in a competition and we were married on top of the Empire State on Valentine's Day - thanks to Nancy's very wonderful writing skills. The day after we got married, we went and took these samples to the Magic [trade show] in Vegas, and Nancy was very kind and forgave me for that for many years. We got orders from 10-12 stores or something like that, which I told my dad - and he said, ‘Oh, that's nothing.’ In retrospect he was right.  What we were very happy about was the fact that those initial stores were very good stores, the best independent retailers the country. There are stores that wanted to buy from us that we said ‘no’ to initially.  We didn't want the best store in in town to have to compete with the B store. We wanted the best store to have our merchandise only, so the consumer would have to go to that store and we would actually build a relationship with the best of the best. You can filter down into the industry, and we filtered down eventually, but always start at the highest point for what you are doing. So we built quite a big business over 8 years, we were selling to stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Barney's, Harvey Nichols, many stores in Japan, quite a few in the UK.  Then in 2006, we decided to do this really major filter down, so we actually struck this deal with Target and we took our line to Target for 3 years. And that was kind of the payoff for all our hard work of building a small design business, and as part of that I had a joint venture with Target. I started in 200 stores with my brand at Target, it was a men's collection. In the second season, it went to about 500 stores. The third season, it went to 600 stores. At that point, I'm looking for a way to take it to critical mass - to really get into Target in a big way, and I realized I'm not big enough to do that, but I figured I'd need a big name that people would go into the store and recognize. So we went to David Bowie and said, ‘Would you be interested a collaborative collection for Target?’  Being a huge Bowie fan, that was my dream to work with him, and he didn't have any clue what Target was. He had never been to Target in his life - he asked, ‘Is it like Sears?’- that was the last time he had probably been into a large American chain like that, which was what, 1974? So we made this collection, he made a CD that went along with it. That was kind of the high point of my career, because personally, I really wanted to work with Bowie, and in doing that we got the best that we could have done. The line went to 1200 stores.”

Whatever you do, you're delivering a product.  “Whether it’s based on the hard work of developing products, writing, visual merchandising- whatever element of fashion it is that you're involved in, you're actually creating a product. I used to tell this to my students, I'm actually delivering a product to you guys, which is education. So I want to deliver the best product I can. If I'm shipping product to a store, and it isn't working for them, I want to know because that's something that you need to resolve, you need to listen, to hear and just really think and react on it.”

“You have to have your own voice, you have to be opinionated, but you also have to have an element of compromise. Because it is creativity and commerce together, and it's also a big element of collaboration actually - we work with design teams, we work for product development teams, we work with merchandising teams. You might not always get along with everyone, you might have a point of view as a designer and you want to do something that's much more forward-looking, and a merchandiser or buyer might be looking in the in their rearview mirror and saying, ‘Well this sold well last year, we kind of want more of that.’ So it's your job as a designer to be forward-looking, it’s their job to make sure that the business is bundled up - in the middle of that, you're going to get this magical element of compromise, and that's where the magic really happens.  Always be very cognizant of that and fight for your point of view, but also be willing to find the consensus.”

Negotiate the best deal you can at the get go, because later you may not have the chance.

Always say yes. “Even if you don't know how to do it, you'll figure it out later, and you may not figure it out - you may fall flat on your face, but then you just pick yourself up and you go to the next place. We're supposed to because if you start with no, you are creating your own obstacles.”

Besides imparting so much of his great advice and life experience on the YMA Scholars, Duffty also discussed his involvement with the David Bowie tribute held at the CFDA awards held on June 6th. Duffty curated the tribute to David Bowie, which included original stage costumes and replicas. Michael C. Hall performed the late rock star's song "Changes" and Tilda Swinton accepted the Board of Governors tribute award on Bowie’s behalf.

A huge thank you to Keanan for taking the time to talk to our scholars and providing so much valuable advice and insight!

By Katherine Manson, 2016 YMA FSF Scholar