Sam Nieves Velez, Creative Director and Co-founder
Sharon Lavi, Art Director and Co-Founder
We met the designer duo behind Nieves Lavi last week at their Spring 2013 Preview (recap here) in Chicago hosted by SARCA and Sun-Times Splash. We had the opportunity to sit down with Sharon and Sam to discuss the inspiration behind the collection, their start in the industry, and a typical day at their New York headquarters. Known for its effortless jersey dresses and creating deceptively simple silhouettes, Nieves Lavi demonstrates a knack for just-so draping and contoured lines that contribute to flattering fits for every body type.
PRIOR TO LAUNCHING NIEVES LAVI, YOU BOTH WORKED FOR WELL-ESTABLISHED DESIGNERS – SAM YOU SERVED AS HEAD DESIGNER FOR DKNY AND SHARON AS A DESIGNER FOR RALPH LAUREN AND VERA WANG. HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO VENTURE OUT?
SAM: I’ve always wanted to have my own business. It was always something I strived for. When I worked for my particular company, I learned every aspect of that business. It was a small enough business where I was able to work in different departments and really learn it. When we started, I was really gearing up to that.
SHARON: It was the right time for both of us to leave our companies and do our own thing. The truth is that when every designer starts, they want to have their own company. Not everybody is lucky enough to do that. Nobody wants to work for someone else and interpret their vision. It’s the dream.
YOU BOTH RECEIVED YOUR FORMAL TRAINING AT THE FASHION INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY IN NEW YORK CITY. DID YOU MEET DURING YOUR STUDIES? HOW DID YOU FORM YOUR PARTNERSHIP?
SAM: We met working together. We got along really well. It was good to have someone to bounce ideas off of and talk about fashion. We worked together for five years prior.
SHARON: We were both at some point supposed to be developing prints for the silk so we worked together closely. We realized we loved the same things. We both got tired of our old jobs and wanted to do something fresh and without anybody. It’s a good connection.
WE’VE SEEN A BIG CELEBRITY FAN BASE FOR YOUR BRAND. WHO ARE SOME OF THE CELEBRITIES YOU WORK WITH REGULARLY?
SHARON: We used to work with Rachael Ray a lot. Kourtney Kardashian.
SAM: Kelly Ripa. Sarah Jessica Parker. Eva Mendes. Tori Spelling.
YOUR DRESSES AND TUNICS EVOKE A RELAXED AESTHETIC OF PARADISE MEETS CASUAL CARRIBEAN! DOES THIS CORRELATE WITH YOUR BACKGROUNDS?
SAM: I think this collection really exemplifies who we are – bright bold prints. We poured our heart and souls into each print and just want to make it fun. We want people to enjoy wearing it. We want them to look at our prints and smile.
SHARON: Caribbean. I’m the middle East so we are always together. It’s very wearable. Even with a white t-shirt.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE SPRING 2013 COLLECTION?
SHARON: This collection is New York. New York is always a background inspiration. We usually venture – Africa, this and that. We travel around the world. This time we really stayed in New York. New York by itself is very exciting already. You don’t really have to go anywhere. There are all ethnicities.
SAM: It’s why they call it the melting pot. We nicknamed the collection “hot-nicity” – we have a lot of hot prints. We look at what sells well, which print does well and build on that for the next season.
SHARON: Also New York physically in the Spring is very beautiful. There are a lot of gardens, Central Park, flowers everywhere. It’s really floral and beautiful in fact. The magnolias blossoming. We take the colors and mix with ethnic prints. We develop our prints so we own them. We have all of our artwork so sometimes we just color it in the color of the new season and give it new life. We are also not these designers that think about what is cool, what is avant-garde, what’s different. We have two feet on the ground. We really are very aware of what people are actually wearing and we don’t want to do something that is bizarre. We want you to be pretty – we don’t want you to be bizarre. [Laughs] We want the customer to look pretty in it – we think about what would be flattering. Proportion is very important. We try to answer women’s needs.
WHO ARE SOME DESIGNERS YOU ADMIRE?
SAM: That’s a hard one – because all of the ones I like are gone now! McQueen was one of our favorites, always inspiring. Dries Van Noten – wearable clothing. That is what we appreciate the most. When you can see a runway show and you can see women walking down the streets wearing it. Most runway shows are like “Where would anyone wear this?” outside of a PR stunt. [Laughs]
SHARON: We know what people wear today. We don’t want to design to people we don’t know. We want to design to the people we know – our sister, our mother, our family, our friends – not to the people who spend $10,000 on a dress they wear once. We don’t know these people. We want to design for you – something to wear to work, going out. We believe clothes can be art but first they have to be practical. You have to live in them.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT YOUR JOB?
SAM: The day to day accounting! [Laughs] All the office work. We have a small group that works with us in our office in New York. The team that we have is small but it’s a fun team. We have a pattern maker that we work with closely. All of the creativity is done in house. We really work on the product closely.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU IN THE OFFICE?
SAM: In the beginning, it is answering a lot of e-mails. We have everything produced overseas so it is a lot of correspondence back and forth. We have some PR requests here and there. Depends on the season and time of year.
SHARON: We have a season when we start thinking of ideas, we choose a theme, we get images for this theme and then we start developing print. Print development is a big part of our design job. We have to do it very far in advance – 6 months before the season.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IT TAKES TO SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCH A BRAND? WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU IN THE BEGINNING?
SAM: Because the niche was very small, I would say it was easier, for lack of a better word, because there was not a lot of what we were doing around. Now, there is so much of it. It is a little bit harder but in a way, if you just stick to your identity and who you are as a brand, people follow you. They appreciate that. They understand where you are. We are not a brand where one season we are edgy, avant-garde with sharp edges and the next we are soft and pale. We are a continuous thought process.
SHARON: We try not to follow trends too much. But usually we are on trend because usually what is happening to everybody is happening to us. If we are on trend, we are on trend. But we don’t chase them. We try to be consistent. Starting with original prints, not crazy but a little bit different.
SAM: And now to sustain our business, we constantly remind ourselves who our customer is. That’s the key to keeping the success.
WHAT CAN WE FIND YOU DOING ON YOUR DOWN TIME?
SAM: Whatever down time I have it’s to get on a plan and go home to Puerto Rico.
SHARON: I have two kids so I spend my time doing kid things! Our favorite is watching movies – that’s what we do best in our family. We both also love cooking.
SAM: We talk about cooking while we’re eating! [Laughs]
SHARON: We’re very normal really! If you come to New York, come see us!
And that we did! We visited Sharon and Sam in their New York showroom and got a sneak peek of their Fall 2013 collection, as well as a peek into a typical day at the office!
Below is their inspiration board and new designs to look forward to for Fall! The DUMBO Arts Festival, a celebration of art, music and performance, was at the heart of their creative process for Fall; mixing Brooklyn’s free spirit vibe with 50’s and 60’s aesthetics as seen in films such as Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” The prints and silhouettes have a quirky, vintage and artistic feel, yet are very clean and modern. Here are some of our favorite looks from the upcoming collection!
Photos by Rumala at Boarding House and Nieves Lavi New York showroom