Helena and I were recently interviewed by Robin Wilding who is putting together a website which she anticipates will be “THE authority for aspiring fashion designers.” Her Web site is here. We thought you might enjoy reading the interview!
Handsome in Pink Creators Jo Hadley and Helena Simon Share How They Took Matters Into Their Own Hands
Written by Robin Wilding • December 28, 2011
The amount of accidental designers that we have encountered during our Interview Series is incredible. Equally as incredible is the amount of people called to the fashion industry by an innate desire to improve on what is currently being designed.
Jo Hadley and Helena Simon both felt that calling, to design fashion that they felt the industry was missing. Friends since kindergarten the two are now mothers and feel that children’s fashion is too limiting. Their venture, Handsome in Pink (HiP), blends the gender lines by believing that “pink can be masculine, blue can be feminine, and exciting rough and tumble imagery belongs to boys and girls alike!”
This gender image blending philosophy isn’t willy nilly though, its solid science as Helena holds a Masters degree in Child Development and Jo has a Masters in Social Work. These are two smart cookies. And their children’s clothing line is now almost 5 years old—and going strong.
We recently got a chance to sit down with the Masters graduates-turned moms-turned fashion designers, and we got to know what their experiences in the industry have been like, including their successes and failures:
What inspired you to get into the fashion industry?
Jo: I did it for my son! Four years ago, when he was 2½ years old, he fell in love with the colors pink and purple and wanted to wear nothing but those colors. Adorned in his pinks and purples, he was assumed to be a girl wherever he went. After a short while, he started getting confused, and I started getting tired of the clothes options out there. I searched high and low for pink and purple clothes with a masculine feel, but found nothing!
So I decided to take matters into my own hands and create clothes for him (and pink boys we knew like him) in pinks and purples with his favorite activities and images at the time: electric guitars, rocket ships, and motorcycles! I thought up the perfect name for the clothes line: “Handsome in Pink” and quickly recruited my artistic/fashion oriented best friend, Helena Marsala, to join me in this business venture.
What is your focus within the industry?
Jo: Our focus in the past 4 years has been on spreading our Handsome in Pink “gospel” which is “wear what you like — like who you are.” We want kids and adults to feel empowered by our clothes! We have also been focused on making more designs and messages on our shirts.
What type of education did it take to get you where you are today?
Jo: I would have to start with growing up in the 70’s era of Marlo Thomas’ record album “Free to Be You and Me.” I listened to that record over and over again as a kid. I adored the message that boys and girls are free to be exactly who they are!
I have a Masters degree in Social Work. Helena has a Masters degree in Early Child Education. So we definitely have the degrees to back up our ideas around advocating for children and meeting them where they are at. But more important than our formal education is the passion we feel for the cause; I think that is what keeps our business going! I lay awake in bed at night thinking up new ideas and messages for our clothing. Helena probably lays awake at night thinking of what brooch she should pin on her coat or what color she should paint her room. She has always been extremely artistic and I think that runs in her genes– and thank goodness for that or we wouldn’t have the cute, fashionable clothes we have.
How has your career path progressed over the years?
Jo: When I conceived of the idea of Handsome in Pink, I very much had in mind this niche group of people I wanted to reach: boys (and men) who like pink. But very quickly I realized there was someone I was forgetting: girls and women! My daughter, who is a year and a half older than my son, absolutely loved the Handsome in Pink apparel. She, too, wanted to wear it every day! I quickly realized girls in our society have been pushed into pink frills and flowers on their clothes and a lot of them wanted more interesting and active imagery. In the past year, we have really moved into the “Girl Power” movement and have created
more shirts with messages such as “Forget Princess, call me President.”
But another way my career path has progressed is I’ve realized that in our two person business where one of us is the fashionista queen, the other one of us (that’s me) needs to be on top of marketing, accounting, filling orders, tracking supplies, research, maintaining the website, etc. It has been a huge education for me learning how to run a business. I’ve made too many mistakes to count on one hand… okay, or even two hands.
What is your favorite part of working in the fashion/design business?
Jo: I have a couple favorite parts. First, I love when inspiration hits. I remember last year thinking about the expression “Girly Girl” and how that described an ultra-feminine weak character. I wanted to reinvent the expression. I wanted to have a tough blue shirt that had Girly Girl written on there with a different story about Girly Girls. This Girly Girl was going to love being outside climbing trees and fishing. She was going to be strong, artistic, musical, intellectual, and athletic! And that’s exactly what Helena and I created!
My other favorite part of the business is receiving emails from happy customers telling their story and why the particular clothes items they bought from us fit the bill so well for them or their children. And I adore when they include a photo of our shirts or onesies or dresses in action!
What advice would you give to aspiring fashionistas?
Jo: Get out there, listen to your instincts, and don’t be afraid to put your heart and soul into the clothes you make. Also, know you’ll make lots of mistakes and that’s okay!
What school(s) does your company generally recruit new hires from?
Jo: We are still a small business. We are hoping to attract a high school intern from our high school alma mater to help us out with marketing this spring.
Do you think there is an overall increasing or decreasing need for people in the fashion industry?
Jo: In my experience, the economy dictates the increasing or decreasing need for people in the fashion industry. Helena and I started our business at the end of 2007, right as the “Great Recession” really took hold. It’s hard for folks to justify spending money on a non-Target t-shirt when they are financially stressed. I remember going to trade shows where we spent $200 to have a table there and then made 3 sales the whole day! Talk about discouraging! But when you hit a nerve and are able to have your clothes reflect the fashion wave of the times (or the political wave or the wave of what people are talking about), then sales go up even despite hard times.
Which roles in the fashion industry do you think will offer the best career opportunities moving forward? eg. designer, PR, entrepreneur, etc.?
Jo: You know, recently, I was listening to an interview with Walter Isaacson, who is the author of Steve Jobs’ recent biography. He is also the author of biographies on Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Franklin. Isaacson was asked what these four men had in common. He replied that they were all very bright. But being intelligent isn’t enough in this world. They were all also deeply creative thinkers. They were all able to get out of the mainstream ways of thinking about things and solving problems. I think Isaacson’s answer applies to all arenas, including fashion. The best career opportunities are for the people who see a space for themselves and create an opportunity. It sure helps if you have a good head for business!
What designer(s) or brand(s) influenced you the most as a creative professional?
Jo: I’m always a fan of clothes that are new and different. I was recently at the Ashland farmer’s market with my husband and we couldn’t get over all of the gorgeous clothes booths. There was a woman turning blue jeans into blue jean skirts with magnificent nature patterns. But hey, I’m no fashionista. Better ask Helena…
Helena: Personally, I am inspired by clothes and costumes designed for period movies, the theater and the ballet. I also have a great appreciation for a wide range of designers such as Gabrielle Chanel, Paul Poiret, Cristobal Balenciaga and Sarah Burton. Each has influenced me in a different way – I could talk to you for days about it, but I’ll hold my tongue since there are three more questions I still have to answer!
Do you think today’s jobs in the fashion industry require more of an artist’s touch or business-like ruthlessness?
Jo: I want to say artist’s touch just because I’m an optimist. I don’t know how ruthless one has to be, but like I said, having a strong business sense is extremely important as well.
Helena: I think one needs to be both creative and business-savvy in order to succeed in the fashion industry. The old adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” comes to my mind. You can create the most original, well-made, fabulous garment ever, but it you don’t pluck up the courage to step outside and knock on every door until you get a buyer, that dress will remain in the studio on its hanger forever.
Which skills do you consider to be most critical for a career in fashion?
Jo: Having confidence and being bold enough to get out there and create clothes and start selling them. You really have to just put yourself out there and be mentally prepared to not take off flying right away. It’s okay to sell at farmer’s markets or trade shows in the beginning— maybe always. You might be discovered which would be very exciting, but you might not.
Helena: I feel strongly that you need to believe in your product. It’s important to surround yourself by designers and wares that inspire and energize you, but you should always follow your own instincts when it comes to forging your own career in fashion. Make what YOU love and success will come.
What do you think the future of fashion and design holds?
Jo: I imagine flying dresses and pants. Just put them on, press the fly button, and off you go, into the sky! I’m just kidding. I have no idea. Who knows? Maybe body art will take off and people will just go Burning Man style and paint their nude bodies with interesting designs. Then we’d all be out of work!
Helena: I anticipate the use of new fabrics and natural dyes that are earth-friendly with minimal harm to the environment. I’d also love to see the return of the chapeau. I live to see which hat Margaret Schroeder is wearing each week on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The craftsmanship alone!
Check out more interviews at The Fashion-Schools.org Interview Series.