Interview with Sara Hankin of TOSIA
Sara Hankin may have sharpened her shears at Ralph Lauren and J.Crew, but she founded TOSIA in 2014 with her own unique vision of contemporary design. Now in its fourth season, the streamlined collection of elevated essentials continues to rise. We caught up with Sara to talk about her inspiration, commitment to local production, and what’s next for TOSIA. - Allison Taylor
Tell me about why you started TOSIA. What does it mean to you?
A few years ago, I came to the realization that I was only wearing about 20% of my closet 90% of the time. That was the moment where I really started to examine what it was about those pieces that drew me to them daily. For me, there was always a modern sensibility mixed with a relaxed sensuality that I felt was lacking in the market. I wanted clothing that felt clean, progressive, and versatile enough to take me the range of places I needed to go. I started sketching madly after work, during any free hour I had. Finally, the temptation to create a brand of my own became too great to resist.
I named TOSIA after my incredibly stylish grandmother, who dresses in a way that feels modern and ageless to me at the same time. In an era where fast fashion is ubiquitous, I wanted to build a collection of elevated essentials that would stand the test of time.
What were some of your early experiences as a designer working in-house for other brands?
Before launching TOSIA, I worked for several brands, starting at J.Crew Collection & Wedding, and eventually designing the Women’s Runway Collection for Ralph Lauren. My experiences there taught me so much, from the importance of creating a cohesive vision each season, to the ability to work seamlessly within a team. Observing firsthand the infrastructure of these established companies was invaluable to streamlining my own work process.
Tell me about your experience as a student.
Studying fashion design allowed me to enter the field with a base knowledge of technical construction and the ability to communicate my ideas: skills I can’t imagine being without while developing a collection. However, much of my most valued knowledge came from working in the industry. I started interning at age 16, which allowed me to experience many different kinds of fashion companies. It was not glamorous work, (nights that stretched into mornings gluing Swarovski crystals, hours spent sorting button libraries) but it taught me that no job is too small, and how much hard work goes into making something look effortless.
What was the inspiration for your Spring/Summer 2016 collection?
Spring 16 was inspired by a journey I took to Morocco and the French influence that pervades the region. Roaming through riads in Marrakech evoked visions of languid expats, which translated into fringed edge wide legged silhouettes (Marlton Jumpsuit) and ethereal dresses that fall off the shoulders (Riad Dress, Sylvan Dress). The soft palette of cloud blue, blush, indigo and ivory was taken from the desert landscape of Ouarzazate. The collection as a whole is a statement of modern, easy luxury.
Who are the women who inspire you each season?
My friends and family are a constant source of inspiration in my life. I am very lucky to have such beautiful, intelligent, strong women in my life. Of course, seeing how my customers wear the clothes is always inspiring. It’s so gratifying to see something you’ve created worn in a totally different way than you imagined.
You are committed to keeping your production in New York City. What are the unique challenges (and benefits!) to producing in the garment district?
As a young designer, the benefits of local production are vast. The partnerships I’ve formed with local factories, patternmakers and fabric suppliers are integral to growing our business. Having our studio nearby allows for better communication and more expedient solutions when problems inevitably arise.
The main downside to producing in New York is the cost of labor. My hope is that stores and customers will not only continue to see the quality of our work, but will also want to help sustain our vibrant local industry.
I’d love to hear about your early experiences with the fashion press.
Gaining attention from the press is validating for a young designer. Early on, TOSIA was named by WWD as a designer to watch, which was a very exciting moment for us. Since then, most of our press coverage has come through organic, genuine interest in the brand. For example, Kate Young, a stylist I’ve admired for years, reached out to me through social media. The next day, Margot Robbie was wearing our Marlton Jumpsuit on Colbert! We are so grateful to have had such support for the brand.
Tell me about your first sales season for TOSIA. What did you find challenging? Rewarding?
It is challenging to convince stores to take a chance on a new designer. Many stores told us they wanted to watch us for a few seasons to see what other retailers picked us up, which presented a bit of a catch-22. We started out with just a few accounts and a handful of personal orders from trunk shows. That direct contact with customers and being able to hear their feedback was and continues to be extremely valuable. Having people support us and buy from that first season was incredibly rewarding.
Who have you learned the most from in your career thus far? Do you have mentors?
I have a small group of trusted individuals I know I can go to as a sounding board. They each possess different backgrounds and perspectives, and I count on them to give me their unfiltered, honest opinions. Several of these individuals are talented entrepreneurs, and I have been blown away by how generous so many have been with their time, resources, and advice. Starting a business can be isolating, so finding people you trust with whom to keep a dialogue is essential. It sounds cliché, but I also feel very lucky to have a close relationship with my family, who never fail to offer their counsel and support. I don’t take that for granted.
What’s the most rewarding part of your business?
Nothing is more rewarding than having someone spend their hard-earned money on a piece we created, simply because they love the way they feel when they wear it. When the collection resonates with others and fits seamlessly into their lives and wardrobes, there’s really nothing better.
What are some challenges that you face in your business? How have these challenges evolved in the last year? Two years?
Allocating resources, both financial and time related, was and remains the biggest day to day challenge. Often running a business feels like playing an endless game of whack-a-mole. There are only so many hours to accomplish what needs to get done, so it’s important to keep things in perspective by conquering one task at a time.
What motivates you as a designer?
The women I design for, of course, play a big role. The urge to create something new and beautiful and see it through execution is almost instinctive for me. I never fail to be motivated by the challenge to push myself further.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring fashion designers and fashion students, what would it be?
Position yourself near people you look up to, listen and learn from them. If someone gives you advice you disagree with, absorb it first and evaluate it later. Don’t get caught up in what others are doing, just focus on what you want to say and put all your energy towards turning that vision into reality. Okay, that’s more like three pieces of advice.
What’s next for TOSIA?
Continuing to spread our brand’s message and perfecting our product. We are focused on growing points of sale nationally and internationally. We are also constantly searching for other like-minded artists and designers with which to collaborate. There is a lot I would like to see TOSIA accomplish in the future, but I try not to look too far ahead as there is so much to take on in the present!