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Report On Business Designer Justina McCaffrey discusses how she built her brand one dress at a time

Justina McCaffrey is one of the biggest names in Canadian fashion. Her wedding gown designs draw mention in the same breath as notable U.S. designers like Vera Wang.

But it wasn't always the glamour life for Canada's hottest designer. As she details in Portrait of an Artist in the winter edition of Report on [Small]Business Magazine, Ms. McCaffrey started her fashion empire one dress at a time. Her first wedding dress was her own, and her business grew from there as word of mouth spread.

Today, the business is thriving. Together with her husband, David, Ms. McCaffrey is the founder of Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture, a 48-employee company that's poised for takeoff in the $70-billion (U.S.) wedding market. JMHC makes roughly 6,000 gowns a year, and 75 per cent of these are snapped up by U.S. retailers like Marshall Field's and Kleinfeld; the rest are sold through Ms. McCaffrey's signature boutiques in Ottawa and Toronto.

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Ms. McCaffrey answered your questions on building a thriving business from the ground up.

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Sasha Nagy, Business Features Editor, globeandmail.com writes: I am also pleased to welcome Justina and David McCaffrey to the discussion. David and Justina form an impressive husand and wife team, with David serving as CEO for Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture. There are many different possible topics that we could end up discussing today, several readers have already left comments and questions, that range from pure admiration of Justina's creations to more specific wedding gown questions. I suspect that this is nothing new to you Justina.

From reading your story in Report on [Small]Business magazine today, I was impressed with how you managed to build your brand from scratch with your talent and through word of mouth. Was there a crucial decision that you both made that, in retrospect, made a big difference in the building of JMHC?

Justina McCaffrey: I think the turning for me was when Dave decided to become my business manager full time. Everything changed from me alone in the attic stitching by hand, and sometimes having a hard time dealing with brides, mothers, suppliers and money. At that point I became "the designer" and was able to rely on Dave's exceptional business savvy. Dave has always given me the confidence to think of "the next level".

David McCaffrey: I would concur with Justina's comment however I would also add that in our case the decision to truly move ahead with building the Justina McCaffrey brand and company was one that takes a tremendous amount of trust between the two of us which most business relationships are not based on. In other words both Justina and I had to be 110% behind this decision to work together with the same goals and asperations and not deciding to stop 3 or 4 years into the project. It was a decision made for life and neither one of us has swayed from that decision since we began working together fiull time in 1996.

Lorri MacKay, of Ottawa writes: I can't take part in the live discussion, but wanted to let Justina know that while driving down Sussex one afternoon a couple of years ago, I almost had an accident so entranced was I with a beautiful burgundy gown in her store window. It was gorgeous!

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Sasha Nagy writes: Okay, this may not really be a question. But, it does lead into a more broad question about your business. What importance do you place on your storefront boutiques? How many do you have right now, and are you planning on expansion. What is more valuable to your business, boutique stores, or distribution deals with big U.S. department stores?

David McCaffrey writes: Excellent questions.

In regards to the importance on storefront boutiques versus distribution deals with U.S. department stores, they are both equally important however there are two specific markets that need to be addresed.

Canada Market # 1: The Canadian market place is ideal for Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture storefront boutiques. Not until Justina McCaffrey opened a flagship store in Ottawa Canada, did the Canadian public have the opportunity to purchase these quality and styles of bridal gowns.

This kind of boutique simply did not exist in Canada prior to this. Since then Justina McCaffrey has opened another boutique in Toronto and will continue to open more boutiques across Canada only. Store front boutiques make sense in terms of building a significant brand and reputation. Storefront boutiques allow for a consistent delivery of product and service in the Canadian marketplace. Initially, in the beginning Justina McCaffrey wedding dresses wetre sold at various stores throughout Canada however this did not go over very well as the brides were not well serviced and did not receive the high level of product and service that Justina McCaffrey offers to each and every customer.

USA Market # 2: The American market place is a very large market and the options and selection for designer wedding gowns is much more extensive than in Canada. The relationships that have been established with over 50 bridal boutiques and department stores over the past 10 years that distribute Justina McCaffrey wedding dresses is extremely crucial in obtaining growth in future sales for the company. This being said, Justina McCaffrey would not open stand alone Justina McCaffrey owned store front boutiques in the U.S. as it would dissolve all existing relationships with the current account presently selling. The existing accounts in the U.S. would be very cautious of purchasing Justina McCaffrey new collections if they thought that at some point soon there would be a Justina McCaffrey boutique opening soon in their trading area. Exclusivity for distribution of the product is crucial to the overall success of the collection.

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Both are equally important within their own markets.

PH from British Columbia writes: PH from Britsh Columbia writes: My partner and I are getting married next summer and we have chosen to both wear dresses. Without buying identical dresses - since we want to follow the tradition of not seeing each other's dress before the ceremony - what are the characteristics that should match?

Justina McCaffrey: My suggestion to both of you is to find one dressmaker who can make both of your dresses. This one person will be able to guide each other separately to create a consistent look for your celebration. It may be interesting to share the same fabric.

Vanessa Ahmed, of Waterloo writes: Having made a name in haute couture, sometimes designers expand their brand to related markets. Are there any plans at JMHC to launch, for example, a bridesmaids' collection or even a non-bridal women's ready-to-wear line, accessories, etc.. ? It seems JMHC probably has the brand loyalty at this point to go in this direction.

David McCaffrey: Hello Vanessa,

Excellent question! Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture has already branched out and offered these other products in the past however in most cases it just does not work and here's why.

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Justina McCaffrey offered bridesmaid dresses for a period within our own boutiques however after 2 years of offering this product it clearly did not offer any profitability to the company and in fact lost money. Also in the case of lingerie, the efforts and capital investment were large in this area yet again the profitability was not there for the company. Even though it seems that it would make so much sense to offer these products from a consumer point of view it makes no sense from a manufacturing point of view.

Every new product line (related or not) requires a tremendous amount of capital investment in order to have a successful product.

Most businesses fail in the long run because they sway too far from their core product in hopes that they will increase their sales although the key to success is strong cash flow and profitability.

However that being said bridal accessories such as veils, headpeices and shoes are sold at Justina McCaffrey boutiques. These items work well. Justina McCaffrey also has evening wear gowns available for clients wishing to attend balls etc. These dresses are available for $8,000 - $20,000 and Justina will work directly with the client.

Stephanie Piccolio from Windsor, Ont. writes: Hi Justina! I love your designs! Who were some of your favourite clients that you have worked with?

Sasha Nagy adds: Justina or David, how important are "celebrity" clients when building exposure for your creations?

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Justina McCaffrey: You're right, celebrity is unavoidable. It is unfortunate because it shadows the love and authenticity of the brides that I work with every day. Celebrity is important because it obviously sells. It validates the art of the dress. It validates the potential of the brand. It is rare that magazines feature models on covers anymore.

As far as favourite clients, I must admit to having fun with some of Canada's celebrities. Catherine Clark and Maureen McTeer were wonderful to work with. We all ventured into a creative pilgrimage in making that dress. I loved Anne and Jan Cellucci. They were fun and delightful. I became good friends with Amanda Forsyth through our collaboration.

I was very fortunate to have Robert Altman discover my dresses in Brides Magazine and then to use my dresses in one of his movies. I was able to dress Kate Hudson's character through this connection. It was a great experience, however I prefer to dress real people rather than a character in a movie.

I have a personal strong love for ballet, and I admire the dedication that is required of the dancers. I use dancers for my models and I through this try to create celebrity around the world of ballet. I am also entertained by politics and I love classical music. I prefer that to our current pop culture version of celebrity.

Stephanie Piccolio of Windsor writes: I was curious if you could comment on the wedding industry in general. Is it booming? Where are the big markets? Where do you see your business in 5-10 years?

David McCaffrey: Hello Stephanie,

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The wedding industry in general is consistent for our company however has not been as successful for other design and manufacturing wedding dress companies over the past several years. In fact the first half of 2006 was very slow for many designers receiving sales throughout the USA and Canada. Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture during the same period has continued to grow regardless. This is definately not a time that potential designers should be trying to get into the wedding dress industry because the market is soft and there are far too many designers in the industry who come and go after one or two seasons. The stores that we sell to in the U.S. will not purchase new product lines from newer companies because of the fear that these companies will go bankrupt in the near future. Nine times out of 10 they were correct.

In five years, Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture will have wedding dress boutiques throughout all of Canada in every major city.

The distribution network in the U.S. will be ever stronger with more market share being obtained by Justina McCaffrey every year.

Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture will also be available in Europe, Australia and South America.

In 10 years, Justina McCaffrey Haute Couture will be available throughout most of the world and at that point other items such as fragrances, home furnishings, linens, bedding etc will also be a part of the collection under this brand.

Patricia Shapiro, of Ottawa writes: My question: Your bridal dresses are beautiful in part because they are so simple. Why do so many bridal dresses load on the junky trimmings? Don't the designers know that less is more? Or maybe it is the brides who want all the silly fluff and furbelows. Comments?

Justina McCaffrey: Thank you Patricia!!! I agree. I think that these people put on all of these junky trimmings because the quality of the polyesters,and blended fabrics is so poor that they need something to cover up the bad fabric.

Yes, less is more, but the construction of the gown must be exceptional. A simple gown that is badly made can look like a nightgown. A strapless gown will not stay up unless it has boning and interfacing. Boning cannot be plastic because plastic permanently bends. Interfacing needs to be sewen in rather than ironed on. Iron on interfacing creates little bubbles in the fabric. (This is why a low end manufacturer would sew/glue beads on, to hide this kind of bubbling in the fabric.)

We create and sew corsets into our dresses to give a beautiful shape to the bride. We are the only manufacturer who does this. Most brides purchase a corset to wear under their gown. If the dress is simple and happens to be of an inferior quality, the dress may be see through. At least beads and "goop" cover any potential underwires and interior elastics associated with corsets.

Sasha Nagy: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to Justina and David for their time and interesting answers. Make sure to read more about Justina and David in Portrait of an Artist in Report on [Small]Business Magazine or at globeandmail.com/smallbusiness.

Justina McCaffrey: Wow! What fun this is. Dave and I had a great time answering all of your questions. Thank you for giving us this great opportunity.

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