"I like the idea of bringing in an unknown designer like, 'What you're doing is really special. Let's blow this up!'" says founder, Lisa Bühler. Part showroom, part inspiration, Lisa Says Gah, is known for launching young designers careers, with a focus in sustainability and female-founded brands. This Generation sits down with Lisa to figure out how she got here, the importance of simplifying your business, and the future for LSG.
This interview took place between Ella Jayes and Lisa Bühler at the Lisa Says Gah showroom in San Francisco
Editor: Taylor Knox
EJ: How did you get to where you are today?
LB: Looking back on everything, it totally makes sense. I started with an interest in fashion, then right after college, I got my first job at a multi-brand showroom. I didn't even know that showrooms, buying and selling through this third party, existed. I just found out about that job through a friend. From there I started to do lookbooks for the designers in the showroom because for some reason I felt like their lookbook could be better. So I would just do it for free, for fun, and then I started a little side business producing lookbooks. From there I wanted to get into buying, so I worked for Nasty Gal when they were starting in 2011 so that was after they moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. For Lisa Says Gah, I’m doing sales, producing lookbooks, and buying; so every past job has kind of surfaced with this one.
What did you study in college?
Advertising and Italian.
Were you able to apply your degree in advertising to your job at the showroom?
Advertising was the most creative major at my school, it was as close as I could get to fashion. I learned how to pitch ideas and create a story.
But still, at my first job I was so green. I had no idea how anything worked. That job opened my eyes to, "Okay, there are designers that make the product, they have seasons, they have the showroom where they sell the product to all of these different buyers who buy for their customers.” While being a showroom assistant, I shadowed and watched everything that was going on. I was pretty much steaming all day, so I just listened in to get an idea of how it all worked.
Did you learn any skills as a sales rep or a buyer that helped you with Lisa Says Gah?
For sure. As a sales rep, you're the voice of the brand, and responsible for its success in all of these different stores. As a buyer, you're doing the same thing but for a business. You're responsible for making the right choices, making sure that your customers are going to like what they see, and that it sells. Having that instinct of knowing what's going to work takes time, you can adjust as you see, but you also have to have an eye for it, too.
As a sales rep, were you involved in that process?
I had worked within the showroom for about four years and over time I became more confident in knowing what the buyers wanted to see, so I became more involved. We would look at a collection and edit down things that we didn't think would sell or that there were too many of. For instance, “You have six jumpsuits, let's narrow it down to two so that there’s a better chance of selling through,” because sometimes more options confuse buyers. Then we would explain that to a designer because they have a different vision. It’s about combing through things to help both parties meet.
How did you come up with the idea for LSG?
After I had left Nasty Gal, I moved to San Francisco and didn't know what I was going to do. I had done fast fashion, and I had worked for different designers, so I felt like I had a really good experience with both.
My idea was to start a shop that was focusing on sustainability, slow fashion, and highlighting female designers who were doing something cool within the contemporary market. So the initial idea was to say, "no" to fast fashion say "gah" to these designers.
What made you want to support independent female designers? Was there a gap or a need that you were trying to fill?
There was, yeah. I was really into Maryam Nassir Zadeh five or six years ago, right when her line came out and I thought, "Yes, this is what needs to be happening." At Nasty Gal I was doing research and traveling for new brands and I was inspired by that, as well. Going to Australian Fashion Week and meeting with these new designers, I felt like there was a lot of exciting things happening, but they were getting lost. Or that a lot of the independent brands felt like they fit an older market and I thought that it could still be young and on the pulse of what's new, at an affordable price point. People are really into that market right now and it's great to see more stores opening up, but at the time it felt fresh and new. It needed a platform, and I wanted to build that.
What were the first steps that you took when starting LSG?
I had actually been consulting for Nasty Gal after I moved because they weren't fully prepared to fulfill my role. So I was in this perfect place where, for the first time, I had stopped working full time and I just had the time to do it.
I just DIY-ed a lot of it, I used Squarespace which is really intuitive, easy to use, beautiful, and inexpensive. I figured out all the business licenses and shot everything myself.
Four months after the business launched, it was self-sustaining, but I had no overhead. I was working from an apartment, and my only expenses were inventory, so I knew what I needed to survive and I just did what I could.
How did you go about building a team? Who were the first people that you brought on?
I actually hired people pretty early on as contractors. I realized that I needed one: an accountant, and two: a copywriter. So the skills that I didn't have were the first things I looked for. Someone to help with the interviews, the product copy, and then accounting, which at the time was once a month. There was a lot of interest locally so I hired an intern, Gabriela, who became my first employee. Everyone started out as freelance, I said, “I can only give you a certain amount of hours and we’ll see how this goes.”
How many people are on your team now?
Six. Gabriela is our assistant buyer; she also works on the blog and on partnerships. Kara is our in-house designer for our collection. She's also a graphic designer, so she does all of the emails and any marketing that we have going on. Then we also have two people that do order fulfillment / shipping, a copywriter who's freelance, and an accountant who comes in once a week now. We’re still a small team.
What's the copywriter’s role?
Product description, email marketing copy, and editing, any blog interviews and designer bios.
What kind of culture do you strive for in your business? What are the most important values for you?
That’s so funny because I was just making a list of core values. Our mission is to really focus on the woman behind the brand and make that feel really special.
Also, enjoying your job but working really hard at it. I want everyone to feel successful and proud of what they're doing.
You said in an interview with OKREAL that one of the most important things about being a leader is to do “what's right, beyond self-interest.” When have you been confronted with having to make that decision?
I have a hard time letting go of designers that I love and believe in, even if we're not seeing the sell-through. So that can be a struggle, especially if you've developed a relationship with everyone; saying "I'm sorry, I really wanted it to work, but it's just not working." I'll try as much as I possibly can to keep it alive and to keep it going, but there is a time where you just have to cut it off because it's a bad business move. So a lot of times, it's just remembering that you are running a business and you have to make tough decisions. I have to make sure that my employees and my vendors are paid. My number one is my employees, our brands come next, then maybe I'd come in after that.
Once you decide to sell an item from a designer, what is that process like?
So the whole process, when you think about it, is so much work for one item. We typically go to market week in New York, which is usually six months before shipments arrive. We go through the collections, take photos of everything we're interested in, and then we come back and put everything together. After that, we place our buys, prep the website for the product pages, and make sure we have copy. By the time it gets here, we unpack it, take measurements, and shoot it. If it's a new brand, we’ll do an interview to introduce the brand to the customers. And then orders get placed, it gets shipped, and hopefully doesn't come back!
What are some of the ways that you've taken LSG from the site to real life? Obviously, you have a showroom here in SF, but how do you keep it as an experience and not only online?
We did an event in New York in July 2018, it was so much fun. It was a panel and party at The Standard Hotel in the East Village. We got together some of our New York based designers, a couple of writers, and a YouTube blogger. It was a panel of about six women that were not all necessarily in fashion, but had been interested in it. It was packed and just such a beautiful conversation around sustainability in fashion. Then we had a pop-up for the weekend and I loved being IRL with everyone. We had an Australian come in and she was like, “It's so gah, I can't believe it." So the brand comes out in person as well, which is really special. I hope we can do more of it.
LSG, it's part inspiration, part shopping, part blog. How do those mediums work together?
I think that they compliment each other well. It’s about giving the brands more of a voice and a story so it's more than just a shopping site. We feel like we're driving inspiration and people come to us for discovery. So we want to make sure there's constantly something new and interesting they can engage with either on the blog or new arrivals. We don't have a ton of product so we want to make sure that the conversations keep going.
How has the community in San Francisco impacted your business?
I really counted on San Francisco, especially in the beginning. I always tell people, “start locally, even if you're online.” You can tap into your community to support you, I don't think we would have been as successful if we didn't initially engage with our community here first. It’s important to be connected with where you are.
We did a pop-up a month or two after we launched, in March 2015, at an art gallery in SF. We put a ton of time and energy into making it work and it was actually one of our best pop-ups to date. I reached out to local press first, emailing everyone in SF that I thought could be involved with the brand and it got a lot of press in the beginning, which was great. Then we did a pop-up every quarter for the first couple of years. So I think we did build that community.
How does starting a fashion business in SF differ from one that's focused in LA or New York?
It feels a bit more removed out here because you're not surrounded by it, and I think that can create this new energy for testing things out. It’s such an incubator for new ideas out here, too. There's not as much talent in the bay for fashion, people don't flock here for that, so you just have to be more creative. Our models were just people we found, I had to be the photographer, and it just worked out that people liked that unedited, raw kind of imagery.
What advice would you give to up and coming designers looking to sell their clothing to LSG?
Always reach out. I respond to direct messages and emails, so even if it's a no I'll respond. If the product really stands out to me, then I'm interested. You don't have to have a fancy lookbook or the right model, the product really should stand on its own. If it's a good fit for our brand then we're probably going to buy it.
When it comes to finding designers, is it important for you to have local designers versus non-local, or designers from other countries?
Product is number one. Is it something that we're excited about? Is the price right? How is it made? The product is most important to me because that’s what people are buying. Of course, the brand itself can be strong, but I like the idea of bringing in an unknown designer like, “What you're doing is really special. Let's blow this up!” Seeing people succeed and getting more accounts from coming on board with us is super inspiring.
What would you say is one of the biggest lessons that you've come across as a business owner?
Keep it simple. There's so much going on, I could be freaking out right now if I wanted to. It's never going to feel 100 percent, and your weeks are going to fluctuate so you cannot ride your emotions off of how your business is moving. You've got to keep calm, and check in with yourself.
When you do get overwhelmed or stressed, what steps do you take to feel a bit better?
When I'm stressed out, I try to remind myself that next week will probably be totally different and better. But I have started working out, which I think is helpful. I think taking care of yourself is important. And that's something that I always thought was like, “Oh, all of these people are always talking about meditating and working out and eating healthy.” Who has was time for that? But you really do have to make sure that you're okay, and that just passes on to your employees. So take vacations, take a day off from your phone, take little breaks. You can't totally leave it all but just take little moments.
What key traits do you look for in a potential employee or intern?
Confidence. Someone that's really comfortable with themselves is going to take more initiative and be okay talking with me if there's an issue. And enthusiasm; they love the brand, they’re passionate about it and they're eager to learn more. The rest of you can just learn.
Are you hopeful about the generation of people coming up in fashion?
This is such a great time to be in fashion. Everyone's really focused on sustainability. If you can have a sustainable brand and it can be affordable then you don't need to have like a million products for a shop. We don't have a lot of inventory, because we just want to present things that we feel good about.
How would you like to see the industry evolve?
The industry could be more regulated, as far as defining “what is sustainable?” Everyone has their own definition of what that means. I think the consumer needs to control what they want to see, and ask questions. That’s what's going to change the industry, and I think that is happening.
As someone who values, and inspires others to look into sustainable fashion, how do you see the industry as a whole kind of shifting more towards these ideals in real ways?
Fabrication is key: where it's made, and transportation are huge. Something we're thinking about doing is demanding no plastics with our vendors. Now that we have a bit more control we can say that we won't accept orders in plastic, you need to use biodegradable poly bags or ship it to us folded. So I think those are ways where we can help change.
Sustainability means different things for different people. Not everyone is at 100 percent on every level, right? Just do your best, you can tell who's making the effort. You do have to get really creative if you want to keep your costs down. Maybe you have to go find deadstock fabric, which takes a little longer to find than just ordering something new. It's interesting because when you're smaller you actually are more likely to make things closer to you: working with factories and buying product in your hometown. I think it’s the bigger brands that you have to keep in check, because they have means to develop overseas, with unknown regulations.
Today, people are more open to the idea of paying more for something if they know that it was created more sustainably. From a business sense, how do you price product while keeping your audience in mind?
It has to be reasonable. Like $600 tee shirts I just can't wrap my head around; it's insulting. There's a way to be sustainable, but also understand that our customers are not just into fashion. They’re into a lot of things, they're traveling, and maybe they have student loans too. We get that these people have lives and they have funds allocated for other things, but we want them to have a piece of fashion and fun.
What do you see for the future at LSG?
So much. We just launched wholesale, which is exciting. I love working with other shops and brands, and it's opened up this whole new relationship with brands or stores that I've admired. It's great to kind of break down the wall of competition like, of course, we should work together! We both are into the same things, but we have different customers. And getting LSG, our in-house brand, to brick-and-mortar is really exciting and the first step is to do that is through wholesale. Also, doing more in-person events and just growing our team.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Just do what you love, and do what you want to do, it's really simple. If you put in the time, you can do it. It’s really not that hard. You just got to put your all into it, stick to your vision, and space will open up for you.
In terms of running a company, do what you need to do right now. You can get really caught up with worrying about all these things that need to happen in order to have a business. Like a business plan and investment money. Which you might need for certain businesses, but for mine, I knew “These are the things I need right now: a site, product, and your basic business licenses to get going.” Everything else just kind of happened as it needed to. You can just get started without having to worry about the things that will hold you back. I gave myself a year to live off of a certain amount of money, and you know when it's time. It’s either going to work, or it’s not.
I’ve also gained a lot of knowledge from talking to peers and listening to interviews, like, “Oh, this person did this and that either makes sense for me, or it doesn't.” Understanding that everyone's business is so different and that you can take advice from people, but only you know what's best for your business. There's no one path to success and that's what I've learned over the years.