Interview with Dee Ocleppo
Dee Ocleppo took home the Rising Star Award in Accessories from the Fashion Group International in January 2016, and Plan de Ville’s founder Catherine Smith caught up with the designer at her showroom to hear about the launch of her eponymous handbag label, her inspirations, and her plans for the future. From selling her very first handbag at Harrod’s to winning one of fashion’s most prestigious honors, Dee Ocleppo is ready to take on the future – one beautifully crafted handbag at a time.
Tell me about your time as a model. How did your early experiences in the fashion world influence your eventual move to fashion design?
“I never thought that I would get into design, and after I stopped modeling, I never thought that I was going to be back in the fashion business. When I quit modeling I actually went into finance, and I worked for a short time on Wall Street as an assistant commodities broker. It was a nice break from modeling and being in the fashion business – the world of finance was so completely different. Then I became a mother, and while I admired and loved fashion, I never actually thought that I would be back in the fashion business. Mindy Grossman (CEO of HSN) was the first person to give me an opportunity to design, and I’m always very grateful to her for that chance. My husband really encouraged me – I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to attempt my own line had it not been for him behind me saying, ‘You can do it.”
Tell me about launching the first collection – how was the first sales season?
“My first season was at Harrods, and I did one silhouette that was called the Mystique, with a horn chain and fur covers that came off and reversed. They did very well at Harrods, and I think they were so different than anything else that was on the floor. I always think that the newness of a product catches attention, so that was a great first foray into the launch of the brand.”
Do you have a favorite memory from that season?
“I think it was just the excitement of even being in Harrods. I remember going on the floor and seeing a sign with my name on it, and I had to process that a couple times. That was the most exciting part of that debut season.”
That brings us to today – what is the inspiration for this collection?
“You know, I’m always listening to women’s feedback – as well as feedback from retailers and buyers. I find that there are so many things that go into engineering a perfect handbag. In the beginning it was all about weight. While you can have the most beautiful design, the feel is important, and I had a lot of hardware, and the covers also added weight. I didn’t foresee all the engineering issues. That said, I think what really inspires me is other women - how to deliver them something that they love, that’s practical and well-built. That’s always my focus and something that can transition season-to-season. I really want them to have a bag that they can use all the time - not something so specific that they can barely use it.”
Who are your style icons?
“I have a lot of style icons. I love Lauren Hutton, she’s one of my favorites. I love that she’s casual and cool, but always elegant. I’m friends with Iris Apfel, and Iris is definitely inspirational to me on many different levels. I just love how she puts herself together. It’s interesting - I mean we focus on women’s style, and what they’re all about on the outside, but I find that these women have a lot more going on inside. For example, with Iris, she’s inspiring not only on the outside, but very much so for who she is on the inside as well.”
I’d love to hear about your early experiences with the press. Do you remember your first piece of press?
“I think the first piece of press was from WWD. I have to say I’ve been really lucky with support from editors. Sometimes people in the fashion industry are seen as being aloof and superficial or mean, but in my experience I think some of the nicest, most hardworking, and most supportive people that I’ve ever met are in the fashion industry.”
I find that that is how people feel. The industry gets a bad rap!
“I agree! The industry definitely does get a bad rap, and I can say from the inside it’s so not the case.”
Completely. Going back to your first wholesale season - what was challenging and perhaps rewarding about the experience?
“The first sales season was with Harrods, and we had a few bags in one store. For me, I wasn’t focused on sales. I wasn’t distributed all over the world. My focus was more on the design, but we had a good sell-through, and that was the first time I even knew what a sell-through was!”
You’re not alone! I’ve learned so much throughout this experience too. I’m curious about your production process.
“The production process was also a huge learning curve. And because I manufacture in Italy, I quickly learned a lot about deadlines, minimums, and deliveries. First you get the sample production, and then I’d call the factory and push, push, push to stay on time. There was always a rather convenient excuse for delays -- and I say that with love, of course, because my first husband was Italian! But it’s either that they haven’t received some fabric or a piece of hardware, and they say it in the most charming way, ‘Non é possibile! We’re waiting! It’s not our fault!’ So while there was an early element of frustration there, that taught me patience. But I think with the learning curve, eventually you figure it out. After my first season I hired a production manager so that I wasn’t on the phone every day to Italy. That was one very important lesson.”
Speaking of learning, who do feel that you’ve learned from in this process of having your own line, and who are your mentors?
“My husband first and foremost,” referring to Tommy Hilfiger. “I’ve always taken the lead from him. Tommy has been my mentor and I’ve learned so much from him. We talk about it over dinner, we talk about it before we go to bed, and when we wake up in the morning.”
He’s clearly so supportive of you. He was just beaming and so proud at the FGI Rising Star Awards.
“I think the reason he was beaming was because he knows how important it is to me. Like I said, I’m up first thing in the morning working on the line, and he knows how I really take pride in whatever it is I do. Everything I do, I put forth the most effort I can.”
Would you say that’s the most rewarding part of your business - the fact that it’s so inspiring to you and so motivating, and now it’s really growing? Or is there something else really rewarding for you on a daily basis?
“I love to be able to be creative. I love to be able to sit in the showroom and look at some of the bags and say, ‘We created this. We created something out of nothing.’ I do have a huge sense of pride about that. There’s nothing that thrills me more than when I see a woman carrying one of my bags. Beyoncé has carried and been photographed with a couple of my bags and I’m such a big fan of hers – that kind of support is a very big deal for me.”
Have you ever stopped women on the street when you see them carrying a Dee Ocleppo bag?
“Yes actually, I do. It’s really funny - I’ve found that the past couple of times that I’ve seen somebody carrying my bag, literally my eye just focuses on the bag. And then I look up and I see…”
…Her whole identity, integrating your style.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to fashion students, or aspiring designers? Do you agree that young designers coming out of school should go work for a bigger house before launching their own label?
“I do agree that it is a good idea to go work for someone else first. My stepdaughter just recently graduated from RISD, and she is doing just that. I think it’s a great idea for many reasons - there’s a lot to learn in the business that you might not have learned in your four years at college. Really, there’s a whole other education going on in a brand’s studio that you have not learned in college. I think it’s very, very difficult today to launch any brand without a huge amount of money. But I think the smart thing, the most strategic thing, would be to go work for somebody else first and then really figure out and strategize what you stand for and what void you fill in the market. You have to get all your financial strategies in place, and then you have to find an amazing business partner, which I have to say is probably one of the most difficult parts. I find that the whole design process is actually the most easy, fun part. The business part of it is tricky.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m not quite sure, but I am very, very motivated and very inspired, especially after winning the FGI Rising Star award. So I really have to work harder to sort of prove that I was worthy of that kind of recognition. So while I don’t know exactly what’s next, my focus is to continue to be creating and designing a great product.”