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Ruling the Roost

A former exec at Tommy Hilfiger and Gap, Stacey Fraser, the founder and designer of Pink Chicken, is using her fashion bona fides to turn …

A former exec at Tommy Hilfiger and Gap, Stacey Fraser, the founder and designer of Pink Chicken, is using her fashion bona fides to turn her bohO-chic dresses into a lifestyle brand for family and home.

By Audrey Goodson Kingo

Looking at Pink Chicken’s easy, breezy designs, you would be forgiven for guessing the company’s owner is a bit of a beach bunny. Stacey Fraser, the founder and designer behind the 7-year-old brand, is the first to admit the beach is her favorite place. It’s where her family spends most weekends, at their Hamptons home in Amagansett. It’s where the brand’s bright, fun photo shoots take place. And it’s where Fraser opened her first Pink Chicken retail store five summers ago.
In fact, Fraser herself embodies her brand’s relaxed aesthetic. Often found wearing her loose, colorful dresses, she prides herself on Pink Chicken’s “warm and fuzzy” relationship with its loyal customers. But just because the laidback founder lives for weekends biking down the Long Island shore with her family doesn’t mean she’s not a hard-working designer and brand visionary, with some serious fashion credentials as an executive at labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and Old Navy.

So how did a girl who grew up in Alexandria, VA—whose parents worked in the less-than-fashionable confines of Capitol Hill and the Pentagon—go on to lead entire divisions at some of the biggest clothing brands in the U.S.? For Fraser, it’s all in the DNA. “Both of my grandmothers worked in fashion,” she explains. “My mom’s mom owned a women’s clothing store in Ohio. We’d go there every summer, and I would work in her showroom and help her put buys together,” she recalls. “And my dad’s mother was a fashion designer in New York City when she was younger. Later, she lived in North Carolina, and she had a whole sewing room set up, with quilts and clothes and teddy bears and all kinds of amazing things. I think seeing that at a young age made me realize that’s what I wanted to do.”

Her determination only became stronger with time, much to her parents’ amusement. “My mom laughs that I used to cut up all my clothes in high school,” Fraser says. A trip to New York City with her high school fashion merchandising class sealed the deal: “I fell in love with the city. I knew the second I graduated I would be back,” she admits.

And that’s exactly what happened. At first she took typing classes, figuring she could get her foot in the door at a fashion house as a receptionist. But before she ever needed to put her new skills to the test, she landed a plum gig: as an assistant designer for sweaters at Ralph Lauren Collection. “I was in awe,” she remembers of her first days on the job. “There would be some days where I would be winding balls of yarn, and that was all I did, but I was happy to be doing it. It was such a great first place to work just to see how a really incredible multifaceted brand works.” And working at Ralph Lauren during the heyday of the 90s supermodel certainly came with its perks—including dressing Cindy Crawford for fashion shows.

UPCLOSE

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
We built go-carts and raced them down our hill. My dad had a shop, and we’d build them out of wood and put little wheels on them. It’s funny going back as adults and looking at that hill—it’s not really quite a hill. But at the time we thought we were such daredevils.

What’s your favorite way to spend a free afternoon?
My favorite thing to do is to be with family at the beach—bike riding, playing softball, going to the farmers’ market and cooking nice meals with friends.

What are you reading right now?
The Good House by Ann Leary. During spring break I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I was sobbing the whole time, but the characters are so well written, and you really escape into their world. I was so moved by that book.

What’s the last movie you watched?
The Heat. It was hilarious! I saw it with my sisters who were visiting, and it just made it even funnier. We were laughing out loud.

What superpower would you like to have?
Avoiding traffic. Is that a super power?

What three things could you never live without?
Iced coffee, solitaire on my iPad and a good book.

Soon enough, opportunity came knocking again for the talented designer, when a recruiter offered Fraser the chance to help create the boys’ collection at the newly-launched Baby Gap. The job would begin a pattern for Fraser of launching new divisions for large brands—experience that would prove invaluable when she later launched Pink Chicken. “I learned a lot about how to build a brand down to the smallest thing—from how to make your labels and set up worksheets to creating a whole division and building a team,” Fraser says.

Next came a job at Tommy Hilfiger, as a director of their new infant/toddler division, and later their new girls’ collection, followed by a stint as the vice president of design for Tommy Jeans. “That was great, too, to learn the juniors’ market and how that’s a completely different animal with how fast that market changes,” Fraser says. It’s a lesson she put to good use when tackling Pink Chicken’s tween line, which launched two years ago.

Fraser was working at Old Navy in her biggest role to date, as the senior vice president of women’s design, when the company announced its plans to move to San Francisco. Pregnant with her second daughter, the now-dedicated New Yorker decided it was a good time to take a break from the corporate world. “Someone gave me the good advice to take six months to just don’t do anything or think about anything,” Fraser remembers. She took the opportunity to take drawing and painting classes at nearby Parsons. “I just got re-inspired again,” she confesses. “When you work at a big corporate culture like Gap and even Tommy, so much of it when you get to the level of an executive is less about the actual designing and more about overseeing everything.”

She began buying fabric and making dresses for her daughters, and it wasn’t long before her friends were encouraging her to sell them. In fact, Fraser’s friend Stefani Greenfield, co-founder of the New York City boutique, Scoop, was her first customer. Fraser credits the brand’s early success to Pink Chicken’s bold, original patterns. “I’ve always had a love for vintage textiles, and when we first started out there weren’t really many people doing oversized, colorful fun prints,” she explains. “I felt that at that time we were really filling a niche.”

Later she began traveling the trade show circuit and building her wholesale business—a path she describes as absolutely critical to the brand’s success. Soon enough, stars like Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner were dressing their daughters in the brand’s bright patterned dresses. Then came two retail stores, the first in Amagansett and another on Madison Avenue in New York City. But that’s only the beginning for Pink Chicken, which Fraser envisions as a lifestyle brand that might even branch into the realm of home décor.

In fact, the brand is well on its way to lifestyle status, already encompassing the world of baby, girls’, tweens and women’s, with plans to launch into fleece and denim. (Listen up, licensing companies!) Thankfully, the busy mom has the help of her husband, John, who spends every Father’s Day dutifully “carting stuff around” for the brand’s spring/summer photo shoot. “He’s always on the sideline offering support,” Fraser says. She also has the help of her daughters, Belle, 11, and Sadie, 7, who proudly wear Pink Chicken but aren’t afraid to offer design advice to mom.
For now, Fraser would love for the brand—already on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram—to be more strategic in its use of social media, an outlet that’s been fantastic for connecting with customers, she notes. “We’re a small, warm and fuzzy company, and we want people to know who we are, and to feel inspired by our brand.”

First, I have to ask: Pink Chicken. Where did the name come from?
We were just trying to think of names that meant something to our family and were memorable. When Belle was little, her favorite color was pink, and she wouldn’t eat anything. So we would say, ‘Look, chicken is pink before you cook it!’ So every night, we’d ask, ‘Do you want pink chicken tonight, Belle?’ And it’s a really identifiable logo. People always remember the name. When I’m at the bank people say, ‘What’s Pink Chicken?’

With all your experience at companies like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, were there any challenges in the beginning?
So many challenges! Someone once said to me, ‘You’re going to have really high highs and really low lows,’ and it’s so true. There were challenges in everything that we did, from finding the right production people in the city and ordering the right fabrics to meeting minimums and having the money to hire employees. I put all the savings I personally had into the company. But getting your first order and seeing your clothes in a store is so inspiring and exciting it just keeps you going.

Pink Chicken launched a couple years before the recession. How did you make it through?
It wasn’t easy. You can definitely tell when things change. We’d have 10 to 15 stores each season cancel their orders or close their doors. But our focus stayed on offering value to our customer—something that was different, beautiful and something people felt good about. Pink Chicken is a lifestyle brand that’s about a beachy escape, and people were still attracted to that, thank goodness.

What’s been the biggest change in the industry post-recession?
I think buyers in our boutiques are ordering differently. They’re more cautious about their buys, and they’re sticking to brands that do well. I’m the first to say to someone if I feel like they are overbuying, ‘Why don’t you start with a smaller buy? We’re happy to do reorders.’ You want your retailers to be successful, because when they’re successful, you’re successful. People say to me, ‘You’re not a very good salesperson.’ But I want them to do well.

Has opening your own retail stores helped your wholesale business?
Having your own store helps you realize the importance of delivering goods on time and paying on time. If you’re a week late, it makes a difference. We can really understand some of the requests from our wholesale customers having been in that position. And as it relates to our design process it’s been amazing because we now have a direct link to our customer. We get great feedback, both good and bad. We actually have the stores do a monthly recap of feedback and we spend some time listening to that information and incorporating it where necessary. That’s one of the biggest benefits of having a store—being able to really hear customers and respond to them.

Is that wholesale boutique business important to the brand?
Absolutely. That’s the foundation of Pink Chicken. We started with small mom-and-pop boutiques, and they are still the most important to us today. In fact, we are now putting together marketing materials for our top stores in each region—think catalogues, Pink Chicken logo window decals, postcards and balloons. We are focused on giving our stores more tools to sell more. It’s a grassroots way of getting the brand out there.

It also can’t hurt that celebrity moms like Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner love dressing their daughters in Pink Chicken.
We have a good wholesale business in Los Angeles, and I think they shop in the boutiques there. We love it. We love to see any kid wearing Pink Chicken. It’s the most exciting thing to see people wearing your clothes—little girls running around wearing these colorful dresses. It still gives me goose bumps.

Did you always envision Pink Chicken as a lifestyle brand for moms and girls?
No, I don’t think I set out in the beginning to create the brand as it is today. The process was kind of organic. I started getting inspired again when I really got back to the creative piece of true design—picking fabrics, designing fabrics and creating my own silhouettes. I realized, ‘Wow, this is really about a lifestyle and a brand, and I think people might like this.’ That was exciting when it really clicked.

What inspired you to expand into tweens?
We started with girls’ 12 months to 6 years. As my kids got older, we began adding sizes to the brand. When Belle grew out of the 6, we added an 8. We had customers who were growing up with us also. They would say, ‘I need a 10. My daughter is getting bigger, and I love the brand.’ And now that Belle’s a tween, we started a tween line two years ago.

Tween can be a difficult market, right?
I think at first figuring it out was a challenge. At that age, tweens are starting to be more body conscious and trend aware, and they are less interested in dresses, which is really the core of our kids’ business. There’s so much tween out there that is very slick and short and tight, and we wanted to do something that’s tween appropriate, but that’s on-brand. We took our classic beachy, boho styling and tweened it up a bit—and it took a few seasons to get the right mix and fit. I think we finally hit it with tween, and our business in the segment is really growing.

Tween tastes change so quickly. How do you keep up?
Belle and her friends are a great resource for us. She and her friends do our photo shoots and they’ll say, ‘We like this, but we wish it was more like this.’ Or, ‘We think these things are trending now, mom. Can you do something like that?’ They know more than I do, especially about that age group. We try to listen to them all the time.

And after tween, you branched into women’s.
We’ve always done a little bit of women’s here and there, but we’ve really found that women who buy our kids’ clothes really love what we call a reimagined mommy and me look. It’s not necessarily the same print for mom and daughter, but a similar aesthetic.

A lot of children’s brands seem to be branching into women’s and maternity.

You have a built-in customer base already, and hopefully if they already like the brand, it translates.

Your beautiful beach sombrillas quickly sold out this summer. Any plans to dive into swimwear?
We tried swim for a little bit, but I think that small boutiques tend to go to a swim manufacturer to buy swim. I think our plan for growth will really be dressing kids from head to toe. We’re looking at expanding into shoes, tights, socks, hats and mittens and all kinds of things. Now that the brand is more established, doing more lifestyle pieces like that would be well received.

Like your Luna Leggings collaboration that launched last month!
We loved collaborating with Luna Leggings. We feel the brand’s tights and leggings have the same free spirit as Pink Chicken so it was a great match. The designs are colored perfectly and work back to our fall collection, and it’s really great to offer our customers something really fun and new.

I’m also excited to announce we’re doing a T-shirt collaboration with Lucky Fish in Spring/Summer ’14. We have always admired the brand’s tees, and no one can do them better. We sell them in our store right now, and they sell out like crazy. The logo is a little fish with a chicken surfing on top. It’s really cute.

Can customers look forward to more collaborations in the future?
I love the idea of collaborating with people. There are some people who just do things the best. If we could find someone to do a collaboration with denim, we’d love that—we’re looking for that for next fall. If you can find someone who can do it better than you can, that has a different competence than your company does in that particular area, I think that’s always great. And it adds flavor to your assortment, too.

Are there any risks with these types of partnerships?
Yes, there’s sourcing new factories to do different things, and when you start a new classification, you’re not going to have the same quantities as you do with your core business. But if it’s a collection that we feel strongly about we can suffer with a lower margin to build the business until we can get it where we need it to be.

Speaking of sourcing, where do you find your fabulous prints?
We have really strong partners in China and India who we’ve been doing our production with for years. The quality in China is superb, but a lot of our brand has an artisanal flavor to it, so we really love the balance of doing some in China and some in India, where you can really get some of the hand-sewn, artisanal feel of embroidery and Indian block printing. We’re actually starting to look at expanding our knitwear assortment and adding some domestic production. We’re in the sourcing phase right now. I would love to be able to produce more in the U.S, but when you’re a small company, it’s expensive to produce in small quantities, so to do it overseas makes it more bearable. But hopefully we can find a way to do some things domestically as well.

So first, knits, leggings and denim. What’s next?
Our focus going forward is to really continue to build our wholesale business. The core of our business is printed dresses, and we really want to build some depth in what we do by offering more fashion basics, all the way down to the shoes and up to the hat. In addition, we’re looking at more direct-to-consumer sales—opening more retail stores, as well as having a bigger focus on our online business. And then eventually adding more lifestyle products, like bedding and napkins. We have fun great prints, and it would be nice to use them more, to amortize them over a whole lifestyle collection.

Did you have to make any big changes to reflect the brand’s new lifestyle focus?
We recently revamped our website in March. It was mostly a kids’ website that had a little bit of tween and women’s, but as our tween and women’s business have been growing, we wanted to give it a facelift to really look like a lifestyle brand with equal part babies, tweens, kids and women.

What advice would you give to other moms looking to launch a children’s brand?

I think the number one thing for people running their own business is to really have a passion for it. That will get you through the highs and lows. Also, when we started in kids’, it wasn’t as big of a space—but now there are a lot of designers doing really amazing things. So be specific about what you want to do. Have a point of difference that separates you from everyone else in the market. Then roll up your sleeves and work hard.

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