There are many routes to developing and launching a clothing line, but many entrepreneurs start with a background in fashion design or merchandising. For Stephanie Ray, the path was less traditional.
The Toronto-based founder of Grayes had graduated from law school and struggled to find professional clothing that was appropriate for corporate interviews but also reflected her personality.
“My wardrobe was divided into two categories: workwear and everything else. I thought, ‘why couldn’t I find pieces I could dress up for a cocktail event and mix and match with jeans on the weekend?’”
Addressing this gap in the women’s wear market led Ray to forgo a planned career in matrimonial law and instead launch a fashion ecommerce venture, featuring a collection of versatile, office-friendly pieces that also suit off-duty life.
With no fashion or merchandising experience under her belt, Ray knew she needed to learn from experts who could help her gain insight into the nitty-gritty of the industry. She set about meeting anyone who could who could help advise her about aspects of the business she didn’t know.
“I was very fortunate to find an experienced designer at the beginning and she and our entire development and design team have been integral in teaching me.”
With a solid team in place, the first Grayes collection launched in 2016 and consisted of 12 core pieces, including dresses, blazers, pants, and skirts made from all-black wool fabric. They set up a bare-bones website and went about connecting with target buyers: women with a professional mindset in all ages and fields.
The Power of the Pop-Up
For new retailers, pop-ups can help build brand awareness by allowing buyers to touch and feel the products. They’re also a great way to learn directly what those target buyers actually want and need while also building their confidence in the product.
To get feedback on its debut collection, Grayes held a pop-up shop and invited professional women to try out the clothes. To bring in buyers, the team used a variety of tactics, including reaching out to personal networks, contacting press, buying Facebook ads, and setting up signage to encourage foot traffic.
“[Our goal was] to speak to customers as they were browsing and trying on. How did the clothes fit, did they wear dresses or pants, what was their office dress code, and how could we cater to their needs?” said Ray.
This first event confirmed that there was a demand for edited basics that women felt good about wearing to work. “They were so excited and interested in what Grayes was all about!” said Ray. “[We learned] they liked dresses that cover your shoulders, and don’t want anything too form-fitting or hemlines that are too high.”
They brought all these insights back to the design team. The designers streamlined the collection to include nine-to-five staples like pencil pants, blazers, straight dresses, and structured tops that could be mixed and matched with each other or worn with jeans for a more casual look. They eliminated skirts “because [our] buyers prefer dresses and pants,” updated silhouettes and introduced more technical fabrics, not just wools and other natural fibers.
“Our customers are very focused on comfortable, long-lasting, wrinkle-resistant pieces,” said Ray. “They are busy women on the go who want their clothing to look as good first thing in the morning as [it does] at 7 p.m.”
Since its first successful pop-up, in-person events have become a crucial part of Grayes’ multi-channel sales model and accounts for 30% of sales.
“Conversations in person are very valuable [to us]. This is our core customer [and our collection] is designed with their needs in mind,” said Ray.
Today, Grayes clothing is also sold through its online store. While there are no plans to open a brick-and-mortar location, over the next year the team hopes to unroll more in-person shopping events across Canada and into the U.S. market.
Building Brand Awareness, One Blazer at a Time
One of the biggest challenges many new ecommerce retailers face is a lack of brand awareness. And Grayes was no exception to this common problem.
“As with any business, [it’s important to convey] your unique point of view, what are you all about?” said Ray.
Among the very targeted tactics Grayes uses to build that vital awareness is a blog styled as an online magazine that features advice and profiles of professional women.
“We create quality content that speaks to our customers and creates more of a story around the brand so they understand what we’re all about and the problem we’re solving for them.”
In addition to its editorial strategy, the Grayes team also uses the interactive polling function on Instagram Stories asking followers to weigh in on new fabrics, and recently launched a Facebook video series “so they can see more of the clothes on a person moving around, rather than just a still photo.”
Another important tool and one that has led to a boost in ecommerce sales is the store’s Insta Shop page. While the new Instagram Shoppable Feed app allows followers to shop directly from a retailer’s feed is still in beta mode, Grayes currently uses the tool to “shop this look” from a photo gallery on its site of real people wearing the clothes.
Another hurdle many new retailers like Grayes face is building confidence through good customer service. According to a Zendesk Benchmark report, buyers feel most satisfied with their online customer service experience when there’s a live chat feature, compared to other options like forms, phone, and email.
When Grayes launched its ecommerce store in late 2016, it added Tidio Live Chat, an intuitive function allowing it to talk to visitors in real time. Buyers often use the function to ask questions about fit.
“As a new brand, this tool has been very helpful for customers finding the right size,” said Ray. “They ask: I’m such-a-such size in this other brand, so what am I in yours?”
Being able to connect with buyers live while they shop has helped the retailer build brand confidence, address potential pain points, and curb the number of returns.
Keeping Manufacturing Local
It’s #BTS Tuesday and we’re showing you the final step in production - quality control. We measure and inspect a sampling of production to make sure everything matches our specifications. • • •⠀⠀⠀ •⠀⠀⠀ #grayes #grayeseveryday #grayesgirl #girlboss #fashion #ootd #torontofashion #torontostyle #whatiwore #stylegram #wiw #wiwt #madeincanada #toronto #yyz #womenswear #businesswomen #corporatchic #officestyle #professional #fashiondesign #workingwomen #dressforwork #locallymade #fashionweek #TFW #resetfsn #torontofashionweek #canadianmade
In the fast-paced world of fashion retail, getting products to market quickly is an important strategy for boosting sales. Keeping manufacturing close can help ensure the production process is streamlined and efficient.
Each piece in the Grayes collection is cut and sewn in factories in and around Toronto, resulting in faster turnaround times.
“We can respond to customer demands and quickly incorporate them into our production,” said Ray. “This is great from a customer service angle as well.”
Grayes releases new pieces regularly, and since launching its core collection of black and greys, it has begun incorporating more fashion-forward pieces including a Japanese stretch jacquard dress with camouflage print and a two-toned version of its popular blazer dress described as the “not-a-suit suit.”
We’re proud to be Canadian-made. People like that we’re made local and associate us with higher-quality products.
Keeping manufacturing local has also given the entrepreneur first-hand knowledge of each component of her business. “I’ve been able to be very hands-on, doing fittings, speaking to the factory and understanding all the challenges of the manufacturing side. Also, working with the pattern and sample makers has helped me understand the technical side of [things],” said Ray.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
While Ray’s path to launching a clothing line has been untraditional, surrounding herself with an experienced team, listening to her target buyer, and keeping manufacturing close have all contributed to the success of the Grayes brand.
She may not have a background in design and development but Ray’s law degree has given her the ability “to think through problems in a different way and respond quickly to find a solution.”
To other entrepreneurs looking to launch a fashion line, Ray says: “find something you love and you’ll still be passionate about on the days when everything is going wrong. This will be important to your success.”
Ray’s goal was to create workwear that women love as much as their weekend pieces. “What I find most exciting is seeing real people walking around in Grayes clothes and how [that] vision has been brought to life.”