Beyond the Boardroom

Conversations with leaders who transcend traditional business

Trina Turk: The no-drama fashionista

February 25, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Designer Trina Turk talks to Fortune about the pros and cons of launching a clothing line without a business plan and how to keep cool in a cutthroat industry.

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FORTUNE -- Fashion designer Trina Turk held her first show at New York Fashion Week on February 10. Given that she launched her own clothing line in 1995, that's a relatively long time without having a show at the event, she says. But that's just as well for Turk. She didn't feel the need to jump into that pool so quickly.

Turk brings a California-cool attitude to fashion. All her designs are inspired by the Golden State, she claims. After 17 years, she has boutiques all over the country and also sells her clothing to numerous wholesalers. Turk is also expanding her brand to encompass everything from bedding to iPhone cases. But that doesn't mean that she's going to pull an all-nighter at Fashion Week or create a bummer of a work environment.

Turk talks to Fortune about the pros and cons of launching a line without a business plan and how to stay low-drama in a cutthroat industry.

Q: Your name is the backbone of the whole brand. What is your fashion philosophy?

A: I'm not really here to be the next avant-garde fashion designer. I'm thinking about women and their practical concerns in their lives, because that's who I am. I think that something can be beautiful and flattering without being $5,000.

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How do you get creative designer-types on board with that?

It's been this evolution. Up until eight years ago, I sketched and designed every single thing myself. And I slowly built a design team that understands that I don't really like fussy; I don't like little ruffles and bows. Over time, they learned the aesthetic.

When you first start off with any designer, there's a learning curve. I've yet to have anybody start and immediately understand what we're trying to do here. Maybe that person is out there, but I haven't found them yet.

And you've been there. How did you switch from working for other designers to starting your own line?

You know, honestly, I never wrote a business plan. I just started. And I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had a small amount of money from my own savings. I worked really long days, and it was just me. I was driving around with rolls of fabric in my car and dropping them off. I could never do it again, it was incredibly insane.

It's almost as if, thank goodness you didn't know any better.

It's true, I've thought about that many times. I think if I had done a business plan, I would have been so intimidated by what I was going to try and do that I maybe wouldn't have done it. I just sort of dove in. I guess part of my mission was to not have to work for somebody else. When you start off, literally by yourself and you're doing so many things, you get used to doing everything.

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What is it like to switch from that mode to being a manager?

I think one of my biggest challenges as this company has grown is figuring out how to let go of some of these things and let other people do their jobs.

How do you balance letting things go and maintaining your own aesthetic?

I think one of the reasons why we're still in business 17 years later is because there has been a consistent look to what we've been doing. At the end of the day, it has to look like something; you can't just jump on any trend bandwagon that comes along. There has to be some sort of identity, which is, I suppose, what my taste is.

After 17 years, you showed at New York Fashion Week last week. Why now?

We have a successful business and you can do business without participating in that particular event, but we just thought it was time to make sure that people knew that we were here and doing fashion in a more elevated, visible way.

What was the inspiration for the line that you showed?

Our theme was California modern. I'm a bit of an architectural hobbyist, and in southern California, there's a lot of modernist architecture that I find inspiring -- It's really about the materials speaking for themselves as opposed to complicated styling or embellishment.

Everyone says it's much harder to make a plain white room look good than it is to make a very decorated room look good because you notice the imperfections. In the same way, we try to pick the best textiles that we can and then do a style that's relatively simple and just let the material show.

How was your first Fashion Week? Was it crazy?

The most interesting thing was that we hired a production company, a stylist, and a casting director, all of whom work on these fashion shows all the time, and they all said, "Wow, you guys are so organized."

I think there's a lot of drama in our industry, and I think there's a lot of all-nighters right before the show, and we didn't really do that at all. We all got eight hours of sleep.

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In my mind, designers preparing for Fashion Week are throwing fabric around, making unreasonable demands.

Yeah, I mean, I guess it could be that way. I think that some people perhaps thrive on that kind of drama, but I don't.

How do you keep calm in such a cutthroat industry?

I have worked for some, how shall we say it, strong personalities in some atmospheres that I didn't really think were very productive. I just wanted to have a workplace where everybody treated everybody with respect, whether they were the guy who was packing the box in the warehouse or the CEO.

That's one thing that I feel like we've accomplished here. I don't think I'm deluding myself to say that most of the people who work here enjoy working here. In the scheme of our industry, I think it's about as pleasant as it could possibly be.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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