Jenny Siede was just 3 years old when she became a fashionista -- dressing her dolls with a stylist's eye and dreaming of the day she would design her own clothing line. But the Hong Kong native, who was raised in Boston, chose to study computer science before beginning a lengthy career in software development. It wasn't until she married and moved to Texas that she would finally embark on her fashion fantasy, using her technological background to help launch her own business.
"The fashion industry is almost exactly like software development," Siede said. "We just use different mediums. In fashion, you use fabric and have a real person wearing the garment. It's the same thing with software. The bust, the waist, the length; it's like determining the width of a computer screen when designing an Internet-based application. You have a concept and you identify your technical specifications."
Armed with fashion sense and technical know-how, Siede launched InStyle Exchange in 2006. It's a fashion consulting and services firm that covers everything from sketch analysis and fabric selection to pattern-making and garment production. The 43-year-old describes her Arlington-based business as a one-stop shop for fledgling designers.
"I started meeting a lot of designers who wanted to launch their line but couldn't afford the high quantities when ordering from factories overseas. They wanted small quantities, but high quality, and wanted to be a part of the process," Siede said. "We do fashion from A to Z. From the sketch and concept, or just an idea, we can work with clients to help them all the way through order fulfillment."
In her Arlington design studio, bins overflowing with vibrant fabrics are stacked high on metal shelves, and magazine clippings of model cutouts adorn the walls. A team of factory workers intently sews colorful garments, keeping their heads down in deep focus. It's a designer's dreamland -- a room filled with textile samples, half-naked mannequins and lengthy tables for pattern-making and textile-cutting. In addition to the glossy fashion magazine tear-outs hanging for inspiration, Siede's detailed business model flowchart is prominently displayed in her personal design room.
"I did so many business applications in my 15 years of software development, I knew how things should flow and transition in the fashion business," Siede said.
InStyle Exchange receives as many as 10 to 15 inquiries a week from folks as far as Australia, Morocco and London, but most clients are from the region and are close enough to work with Siede in person. It's this one-on-one individualized service, and literal hand-holding, that makes Siede's company so unique.
"When we receive inquiries, we try to make sure the people trying to launch their line are very ready, because it's a financial commitment. This is a business they're starting -- it's not just a hobby. You can sketch all you want, but to make a real garment that someone can actually wear, you need a team that knows exactly where the pocket should go and how the trim needs to be binded and which type of machine to use," Siede said.
Her honest comments are requested by fashion school instructors who often bring their students to her studio for tours. Siede frequently speaks about the fashion industry's biggest misconceptions, which she says are fueled by shows like Project Runway.
"Some people think if they have the perfect item, they will be recognized tomorrow. But it's going to take time a long time," Siede said. "You have to give yourself two or three years to see if the market is receptive to your clothing line. It's not like you make it and everyone will love it. You have to have the stomach to be criticized and be rejected."
Though the industry can be cutthroat, competitive and demanding, Siede presents a softer side of the business to new designers through her compassion. Earlier this year, Siede proudly helped client Tanyika Gordon launch a baby accessories line called OhBabyChic, which offers nursing cover-ups in bold prints and colors. Gordon learned her own infertility was the result of a brain tumor and wanted to create the line to give proceeds to Every Mother Counts, a charity founded by model Christy Turlington Burns that supports maternal mortality reduction globally.
"I came to Jenny with no experience in the manufacturing industry, but with a ton of ideas," Gordon said. "Her expertise really helped me narrow design and source the perfect materials. Her patience and attention to detail was amazing. She's been a great asset."
Her own launch
With the minimal time Siede and her team have between client projects, they love designing, too. Now Siede is launching Tessuti Technici, a textile-driven line of couture for fall. Siede and lead designer Michael Vice use old-fashioned Parisian couture techniques not typically seen in ready-to-wear because of the time and expense involved. Siede says the fabrics in the line speak to her, meaning based on their look and feel, they determine which type of garment they should become.
"Tessuti Technici means 'technical tailoring' in Italian. We want to showcase the technical creativity we have," Siede said. "People may think of Paris as the home for haute couture, but we can do it here in Arlington, Texas. We have the same level of talent and I have a wonderful studio here. I wanted to give my staff a chance to do what they love, which is design."
No incoming idea is too wild for Siede, she says, and she is proud to take the risk with any novice designer, as long as she can sense her determination and willingness to work hard.
"If we think the person has the drive and the financial capability, their ideas should be tested out," Siede said. "This is like a dream factory. We want to make designers' dreams happen."