Ten years ago, long-time besties Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe saw a dearth in the women's clothing line. Guys had sports coats and gals had – not much. They created Smythe, a line of super-chic coats and jackets that quickly became must-have outerwear for fashion folk. A decade on, the designers have entered the American market, outfitted royalty and figured out the key to enduring partnership. (Hint: It helps if you met in high school.) They recently presented a 10 x 10 anniversary collection (10 favourite items from over the years). Here, Lenczner (on the right) shares some of the secrets to Smythe's success
The perfect partner is different, but not disjointed
When we started out we went to get advice from someone major in the Canadian fashion industry and he asked us if one of us was business and one of us was design. We said no, we're both doing both and he said, well that won't last. It has, though. We attribute the success of our partnership to a lot of things: chemistry, respect, trust. We have a long history and when you have that much context you can just feel confident about the various ups and downs. You might meet someone and they're great, but how do you know what it's going to be like when push comes to shove, when you have to share bank account info. We? make most decisions together, but it's nice that when one of us goes on vacation, she can just be totally away and not worry because you know that the other person can speak for both of you. From a design perspective, I think having two eyes on every piece expands the range.
Fashion is a business. Know it.
The advice that we always offer to designers starting out is to know the business. Know your fashion accounting. People think of fashion as being such a creative business and it is, but there have been so many talented designers out there who had a short lifespan. You have to understand things like cash flow, financing periods – in retail these are very long. From the time you create a sample to the time you make money off it is nine months. If your business is growing that can mean a lot in terms of cash flow. We were reasonably well informed going in. I have a business background and Christie had a merchandising background. We understood the timeline and how long you wait to make money. That can be shocking to people. If you don't have the capacity for that kind of thing, that's okay, but you really have to find somebody who does.
No flip-flops at the theatre, please
We are not so big on fashion rules. I used to have a rule about black and yellow because I thought it looked like a bumblebee, but I recently broke that. Every time you say a rule, you figure out a way to break it. In general, we don't prescribe how other people should dress. We get so excited to see a girl wearing one of our pieces in a way we never would have expected. We'll imitate them! I guess one rule that we do sort of believe in is a sense of occasion in fashion. You don't have to follow the rules – it's more about making that effort. We love that old idea that when you're going to the theatre, you dress for it. I was reading an article the other day where the writer was going to the Princess of Wales Theatre [in Toronto] and there was popcorn all over the floor and people were in flip-flops. We definitely prefer the old way. Even the on-a-plane outfit. You don't have to be in a suit, but I don't know – you never know who you're going to see in an airport.
A strong brand isn't forced
I think the thing that we're most proud of is that you can spot a Smythe jacket. That was organic. The label has always been a pretty personal endeavour – a reflection of us and our lives and preferences. We don't work with a junior design team, which a lot of labels do. I think that has helped with the strength of the brand. We have stayed small and focused, so much so that we did exclusively coats and jackets for the first several years. That wasn't a strategy so much as a reflection of how long it takes to master the jacket. Next to a bra, there is no harder garment to construct – so many pieces and a lot of structure. It was years before we got the itch to move into a few other items (pants, a few shirts). The coats and jackets are still the core and the DNA of our brand.
It's the second wear that counts
When we found out that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, wanted to make an effort to wearing Canadian during her royal visit back in 2011, we were excited. We had this feeling that she would like our designs, many of which fit her traditional-with-a-twist fashion sense. The palace had requested look books, so we sent ours. We also sent a package with a few of our items from our spring collection that we thought she would like. That got turned away because the palace can't accept packages, but what was so funny is that they later requested some things from our look book and it was all the same stuff that we had sent. The first time she wore our blazer was of course exciting, but that was largely a diplomatic gesture. Really amazing for us has been all of the subsequent times she has worn it because that just means that she really likes our product. Having that endorsement has created a lot of interest. More than we ever could have predicted.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.