Just two years ago, Andrea Racey set out to take one of the staples in every woman’s wardrobe to the next level. Cue Helena Quinn. Her line of effortless coats and jackets aims to celebrate and enhance a woman’s innate femininity and strength. We had the pleasure of meeting Andrea at her trunk show at Edith Hart last week and caught up with her about her start in the industry, growing a brand, and what’s next in store for the celebrity coveted brand.
YOU LAUNCHED HELENA QUINN IN 2011. HOW DID YOU CHOOSE TO FOCUS ON JUST COATS?
When I started the collection, it was very important to me to take one thing, do it well, create brand awareness and loyalty, and expand slowly from there. Coats were something I did in design school, so when I thought about what I wanted for the brand on a larger level, which was to provide women with garments that have a distinct aesthetic, are fairly priced, and make them feel like they can take over the world, coats were a great single item to portray that. You can feel like absolute shit, throw on a great coat on, and instantly feel more confident. At the end of the day, that’s the most important reason to make a piece of clothing. I also think it’s very tough in today’s fashion climate to launch a full-fledged collection right out of the gate. Being realistic about where I was in terms of resources, and creative about choosing a category that I felt was somewhat overlooked, was a big factor.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE INDUSTRY?
I went to Columbia in Chicago and got a BFA in Fashion Design. I honestly had very little confidence in my design skills in school, however, and felt like I would go more into the editorial side because I was also interested in Journalism. During my senior thesis I was super bummed because I felt like I was just doing the worst designing of my life and not cut out for the field, and then my advisor called me into her office. I thought “Oh god, I’m getting kicked out for making such ugly clothes!” [Laughs] But she said, “I just wanted to let you know that I recommended you out of our department for a scholarship and internship with one of our alumni designers for your last semester. I’m really impressed with how much you’ve been in the studio working and adjusting things and pushing yourself. You’ve grown a lot”.
That experience taught me a lot. The first was to chill out and not be so hard on myself. And the more important thing was that working hard overrides almost everything. There were certainly more innately talented students in the class, but the “nose to the ground” work ethic is what ultimately wins out at the end of the day. That stuck with me.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB OUT OF SCHOOL?
After school I got a job in LA with Debra McGuire who was the Costume Designer on “Friends”, and who was then designing the new “90210” which was symbolic to me because I used to sneak watch the old 90210 when I was 8 years old. Creepy young, I know. My Mom thinks Kelly Taylor ruined me. [Laughs] She sort of took me under her wing and guided me career-wise, and after 90210 gave me another opportunity working on “Heroes”. Heroes was a big show design-wise and they were very long days. By the end of it, I knew that I loved costume design, but wanted to learn more about manufacturing and the business side of fashion. Debra had a friend who was launching a new collection (Love Zooey), I got an interview with her and started the next week. I stayed at the start-up [which is now a fabulous line designed by Grace Chon] for about a year and half before I felt ready to start HQ.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME WHEN STARTING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
For me, the biggest challenge has been being adaptable to change. You have this plan in your head about how things will unfold and most of the time it doesn’t wind up looking anything like that. If I couldn’t get a certain fabric I wanted, or if a pattern was completely ruined, or if I got rejected by a store or a sales rep, learning not to look at it as the end of the world and actually as an opportunity to do something better, and find an even more creative solution around it has been the most valuable lesson for me. It’s important to have a plan and an outline, but if you’re too rigid and your vision is too tunneled, you don’t allow for the sometimes abstract little opportunities that arise, that can change things for the better in ways you couldn’t have envisioned.
YOUR HOME STATE IS MICHIGAN. WHEN AND WHY DID YOU MAKE THE MOVE TO LOS ANGELES?
I decided after college. In all honesty I had my heart set on New York. But I interviewed for a bunch of different jobs in NY that I would have killed for and didn’t get any of them. My friend from high school who was living in LA called me and said “I have a room, I might have a job for you, just come”. I’m a big believer in being mindful and aware of what’s being presented to you, and following that. New York was just slamming every door in my face and LA was welcoming me on a cushy mat.
YOUR COATS HAVE BEEN SEEN ON THE LIKES OF MANY CELEBRITIES INCLUDING AMY ADAMS, JEN GARNER, SELMA BLAIR, MEAGAN GOOD AND MORE. HOW DID YOU GROW THE BRAND?
It’s been a process for sure, and a growth experience for me as well. It was amazing to have those women wear the coats, and great exposure for the brand. But, the best part to me was that they are all women who I respect in terms of what they seem to embody. The fact that the brand translated to those types of women was a bigger satisfaction to me than the exposure, because it solidified the type of person that the brand is resonating with. I began by just going to all of the sales shows myself. Meeting with buyers, sending out about 100 emails a day, and just being diligent and persistent about continual interaction with other industry people.
YOU’VE DESCRIBED THE COLLECTION AS “VINCE MEETS CHLOE AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE POINT.” HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH THE DESIGNS EACH SEASON?
Each season is a little different. I think being present and in tune with what’s going on in the social climate is key for me. And not in the sense of knowing what’s on TMZ or having read the books on the best seller lists, but being in tune with the sort of the greater collective consciousness. That to me just comes from being present as an individual, which can be challenging especially because I like wine. [Laughs] I continually go back to my gut and trust that if I’m present, the designs that are coming will resonate with others.
Ultimately the style of the label and what I always try and go back to in my head is a balance between strength and femininity. Coats and jackets specifically are like an armor for a woman. It’s the last thing you put on before you go out into the world and one of the first things people see on you. So, it’s crucial that the coat or jacket embody what a woman is, which to me is that balance and duality of strength and femininity.
EDITH HART IS ONE OF THE FEW BOUTIQUES THAT CARRY YOUR PIECES. HOW DID THAT PARTNERSHIP FORM?
Morgan was opening Edith Hart around the same time that I was launching HQ. A mutual friend introduced us, and Morgan was the first store to pick up the line and has been the greatest encourager of our growth since.
YOU PARTNERED WITH EDITH HART OWNER MORGAN GUTTERMAN ON 3 JACKETS SOLD EXCLUSIVELY AT EDITH HART. WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE COLLECTION?
The collaboration with Edith Hart was born for a number of reasons. I personally love collaborations because I think it almost always contributes more to a project and yields a stronger result, if you can combine creative minds and push ego aside, rather than working in isolation. Morgan at Edith Hart was the biggest supporter of HQ from day one. She was the first boutique to pick it up, she pushes the line like none other, and Chicago is the best selling market that I have right now by far. I thought doing something tailored toward them would also be a good way to sort of say thank you. I also trust Morgan’s aesthetic, and she has a more direct line to the consumer and their wants and needs than I do.
On a larger scale, collaborations are also a way to let the consumer know that there is a brand that is listening to them, understanding them, and creating a product tailored toward them. It creates more transparency which I think is hugely important in an age where people feel manipulated by big business. Hopefully that lends itself to creating a stronger sense of brand loyalty. As we grow as a brand, we have deepened a relationship with them to the point where they feel excited to grow with us.
WHAT IS SOMETHING PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO FIND OUT ABOUT YOU?
I put olives in my white wine. I can’t explain it.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT NEXT FROM YOU?
Right now I’m still focusing on coats and jackets. Spring production is hitting stores now, and I just completed the Fall ‘13 sample line which we’re in the midst of sales season for. And now I’ m starting to gather and design for Spring ’14! In terms of the pipeline, I would love to start experimenting with other categories at some point. But it’s also important to me to do it in a way that’s not haphazard. I don’t want to just throw junk out there for the sake of expansion. I want to try and take anything that is added on with the same specific attention that the coats and jackets have, so everything added is a strong representation of the brand.