Brooklyn-based designer Titania Inglis creates stunning, minimalist clothing that has been featured in Elle and The New York Times. Her edgy clothing has been worn by several musical artists and she’s been the recipient of several industry awards. Each luxurious garment is sewn in a small, family owned factory using high-quality, low-impact fabrics to create beautiful sustainable designs that you will want to wear forever.
She was also a Danish exchange student who stayed with the same family I did in Denmark. When my former host-mother Anette put me in touch with her, I visited her gorgeous website and immediately fell in love with her clothing. This coat, this jacket, and this super-sexy slip dress (that can also go to the office!) were immediate favourites. Looking for a wedding dress? This one would be absolutely stunning.
I was so excited when she agreed to an interview. Her beautiful aesthetic is matched by her business prowess, and it’s clear that this combination is what makes her business work in such a difficult industry. Read on for how she does it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi out there! I’m a designer of thoughtfully produced, minimalist women’s clothing and leather goods, and I live in Brooklyn in a big, black-and-white Victorian apartment with my fiancé and two black cats. When I’m not working, I’m generally found escaping the city for travels near and far — biking up the Hudson River, climbing trees and mountains, or browsing museums and antique shops.
We were both Danish exchange students for a year when we were in our teens. I remember at an orientation someone told me that I may not realize the impact that experience will have on my life until perhaps ten years from now. It took me a long time to understand that. How do you feel it made an impact on you?
What struck me the most in Denmark was the outside perspective it offered onto my American life. That schools might not need to have lockers or hall passes, that teachers could choose to teach history from an anti-capitalist point of view, that lamps and thermoses and wastebaskets could be beautiful as well as functional, were all small revelations that helped open my mind to other ways of living in the world.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I was aware of fashion design from childhood. My mother subscribed to Vogue, and I remember faithfully leafing through the colorful pages and sniffing each perfume ad and thinking that I would never go into fashion because it was shallow. But once I chose to leave writing for design, and started wending my way through design school, I discovered quickly that I loved working hands-on, in three dimensions and in tactile materials, and dressing people — both giving people a way to express themselves, and creating something that only truly comes to life when someone wears it.
Becoming a fashion designer seems daunting. What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
So many. One was to let the business grow organically, and only spend within reason. Which I sort of followed, but I do have an ongoing love affair with beautiful, pricey fabrics, which I try to balance with the more affordable ones.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
It all comes down to logistics and relationships. Creativity is lovely, but can you get all the right pieces into place at the right time so that you can fill orders on time, and can you build strong relationships with your suppliers and employees and buyers so that they’ll want to keep working with you season after season? Without that, it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are — nobody will ever see them.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
I don’t see it as a failure, but there was certainly a moment of reckoning after my last New York Fashion Week presentation where I realized that I’d been putting too much energy into promoting my work at the expense of the work itself. Bigger was turning out not to be better. So I recalibrated and targeted my ambitions toward making just a few pieces of beautiful clothing I could be proud of, and that turned out to be the change that really helped my business grow and mature to where it is today.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Personal time and space. I’ve put so much of my heart and soul and energy into this for the past six years, and it’s just now that I’m working on stepping back a bit and letting the business be a business and my life be a life.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experience.
Honestly, surviving this long and turning a profit. So many small fashion businesses get amazing press and fantastic stockists and still go under within a few years; the simple fact that I’ve toughed it out to the point where the line is really coming into its own and starting to establish a name for itself is truly an accomplishment.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1) Do you have the funding to continue for a year or longer while you establish your reputation? Everyone told me that it takes 5–10 years to turn a fashion business around, and sure enough, around the 5-year mark, things suddenly started happening on their own without my having to push for them.
2) Are you willing to have ultimate responsibility for every aspect of the business — and to take on even the most menial roles in a pinch? Over the years, I’ve been my own quality assurance, bike courier, photo retoucher, set builder, cleanup crew…
3) Will your partner support you through late nights of work, tight budgets, and tough decisions? I could never, ever have brought the business to this level without my boyfriend’s endless patience and level-headed advice.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Instagram! I love that it’s purely visual; it’s an easy and pleasurable way to catch up with my friends and meet a similar-minded design community from around the world.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
HR is my biggest learning curve at the moment. Earlier this year, I was torn over firing an employee who was a wonderful person but not a match for the job skills-wise, and when I finally bit the bullet, it turned out to be such a positive move for us both to be able to move on.
Why did you decide to start your own business vs working for a designer?
I learned a great deal from working for other designers, but ultimately I had my own vision of clothing for a better world that I felt deserved to see the light of day.
What inspires you?
Everything. The wilderness, the places I travel, people on the subway, architecture, materials, movies, rock musicians….
What do you enjoy the most about being a fashion designer?
When a client first looks at herself in the mirror in a new made-to-order piece, it’s a transformative moment — she’s suddenly more beautiful, more confident, more put-together than the everyday self she was used to. It’s an honor and a delight to be a part of that.
What do you think is the biggest challenge behind being an independent designer?
Making a smaller budget work for you when you’re competing with so many bigger companies out there. The trick is to find ways to take advantage of your small size rather than letting it be a liability.
What do you daydream of?
A little cabin in the woods. One of our friends has the perfect one up in the Catskills, a cozy single-room hideaway with a whole wall of windows overlooking a rushing creek below, and acres and acres of trees on the other bank.
I’ve never been to Brooklyn. What are 5 shops/restaurants/places that I shouldn’t miss?
1) Marlow and Sons. The original Williamsburg farm-to-table restaurant, it’s charming, always delicious, and my go-to for business lunches, date nights, or really any meal whatsoever.
2–4) The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park, all within a couple of blocks’ walk of one another. All little oases within the city; the botanical garden has a wonderful cherry orchard, lily pond, tropical greenhouses, and one of my favorite plant shops in New York, while they say Central Park was just a rough draft for Prospect Park, which is more rambling and bucolic, and has a great slate of free concerts in the summer — I’ve seen David Byrne, Feist, and Janelle Monae there. Afterward, a meal at Applewood in Park Slope or Flatbush Farm in Prospect Heights caps the day nicely.
5) The East River Ferry. Connects Dumbo, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint by their lovely waterfront districts, and the ride itself is a delightful way to experience New York, with the skyscrapers rushing by on the Manhattan side, the bridges arcing overhead, and Brooklyn’s hidden industrial areas revealed in passing.
Thank you Titania for answering all my questions!
(Photo Credits: All photos by Titania except the portrait which is by Eric Morales)