Lyndsey Butler of VEDA
03.23.17 | KATE PALISAY
As far as articles of clothing go, few pieces carry as much history, symbolism, and pop culture iconography as the leather jacket.
It's been the chosen uniform of badasses (and people trying to be more badass) since Marlon Brando first sported a Schott leather bomber in his 1953 film, The Wild One. In the decades that followed, the leather jacket found a home in Rock 'n' Roll, in motorcycle clubs, in alternative culture, and ultimately, in fashion.
When Texas native Lyndsey Butler founded VEDA in 2008, she didn't just want to make another leather jacket; she wanted to make the best leather jacket. She wanted to make leather jackets that anyone could wear and feel cool in, that could be incorporated seamlessly into any style or wardrobe. From superstar moms like Canal Street Market Creative Director Dasha Faires to cool-girl millennials like model Allie Berman, we've seen passersby of all ilks rocking some killer leather from VEDA. We visited Lyndsey and the rest of the VEDA team in their light-filled Canal Street studio to learn more about what it's like to run a growing brand in the fashion industry.
Tell me a little bit about how you got your start in the fashion industry.
LYNDSEY: I graduated from NYU mid-year, in December, so I had this unexpected period of extra time in NYC where I didn’t have any school left but I hadn't figured out what I was going to do next. I was studying for the LSATs, so I figured I should get an internship or a job. I ended up getting an internship at a fashion showroom through a friend of a friend. I didn’t know anything about wholesale, sales, or how any of that worked, but I liked fashion and thought it would be a fun opportunity. That was for a company called Ya-Ya, and I ended up staying for a few years and worked really closely with Yael [Aflalo], who later founded Reformation. I ended up moving to Los Angeles to work for them in their corporate office where I got to be involved in everything—production, design, and marketing.. I learned a lot at that job over a short amount of time, and I started VEDA while I was still working there. Yael was super supportive and we moved back to New York at the same time, and she started Reformation while I was working on VEDA.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to start your own brand? I know that you said your started VEDA while still working at Ya-Ya.
After being in the industry for about two years, working in sales and then also getting to understand manufacturing, I noticed a need in the market. A lot of what was going on at that time was a little bit more masculine. I just wanted a cool, soft, really nicely fitting leather jacket, with thinner leather and a bit more feminine in the fit. I felt like that didn’t exist in the market, or if it did, it was like, $2,000. So there was this room for something.
It sounds like you learned a lot of what you needed to know from that first job, but in a practical sense, how did you figure out all the aspects of going into business for yourself?
I got really lucky in that position because I saw a lot and got to be really hands-on with what it takes to run a business, and I got to work really closely with a woman who was running her own business. My parents were also small business owners.
When I think back now, even though I didn’t know the specifics of what I wanted, like that I wanted to work in fashion, I knew a bigger thing I wanted was to work for myself. I just didn’t know what that looked like.
So how about the design aspect then? Because again, you didn’t study fashion, and you were maybe learning a little bit more about areas like sales and marketing. How did you figure out how to design a jacket?
That was really interesting too, and I think that was part of why starting something really niche, like making the best leather jacket, is actually a blessing in disguise. It wasn’t like I tried to do a whole range of things with no background in it. I was able to say, "okay what makes a great fitting leather jacket? These are the things that I want in it," and I could focus on getting really good at making one thing. I think that taught me a lot about the process.
What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in starting your own business, and how have those challenges changed and progressed as VEDA has grown?
In the beginning, the learning curve is so intense and everything is so hard. You realize things like, "I don’t know how to make labels." Like, how do you design a label, how do you get it made, how do you get it into the garment? But then it’s so rewarding when you actually accomplish something like that, that it becomes addicting to do these things. So I guess the biggest challenge is showing up for that everyday. It’s really tough to always be like, “okay, I’m gonna jump into that thing I don’t know how to do again!” It’s like jumping into a pool and not knowing how to swim. Even if these things don’t go perfectly, or they’re a failure, you learn a lot from just doing them.
I’ve been doing this for about eight years, and now the challenges have become things like, ‘How do I want to grow my business? How do I manage employees?” These are kind of bigger challenges—they take longer to figure out, and they’re not questions that you can necessarily solve by making some phone calls and asking around.
In the beginning, before you had much brand recognition, how did you get the word out about VEDA and attract customers or press attention?
When I first started out, wholesale was the king. Direct-to-consumer wasn’t really a thing in the way it is now, there was no social media to speak of and online sales weren’t a thing in a major way. Also, I didn’t want [the line] to be about me, I thought, ‘This is my first thing, I don’t know what I’m doing, I just want to make these things and I think there’s a place for them.’ I didn’t want to have something like "Lyndsey’s Line" or whatever it would be. And that worked well at that time. It wasn’t as important to have a personality around your brand or a brand identity in the same way it is now.
It was more about the clothes, because you’re not engaging with your customers as much, you’re engaging with the buyers.
Exactly, so that’s something that is a challenge now because I think people don’t know as much about our brand story. It just wasn’t a part of how we started or a part of the brand identity to begin with. That’s something that if I could do it again, I would change. Not necessarily saying I would be calling it "Lyndsey’s Line," but I would come out stronger with a brand identity. I started VEDA when I was about 24, so I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do [with the line] in the same way. Now I have a much stronger vision for it, and I can put that out there.
Have you figured out a way to create that brand identity a little bit later in the game?
Yes, I think we’ve gotten better, but we do still run into that challenge. We launched a full ready-to-wear collection alongside our leather jackets, and people still say, "oh yeah, you do leather jackets." And that’s great because it’s great to be known for something. Actually, I think that was kind of the stroke of genius in a certain unexpected way. It was in part because of my limitations that we started with that one thing. But in retrospect, it’s great to have a niche in the market and for people to come to you and be like, "I need leather jackets, I’m coming to you for that."
I think that with social media now we’re able to [create that brand identity], but I also feel like personally I’m shy, and I’m not great at self-promoting in that way.
I think that’s a challenge for a lot of people.
I think so too. I’m also really hard-lined about authenticity, and for me it would feel really forced to be putting myself all over our Instagram or doing things like that. But through those channels, we’ve been able to really engage with our customer and also tell that story a little bit more.
Another thing for us is having a retail space, which is kind of a destination because it’s a bit hidden: you have to buzz in two doors to get in the space. And then it’s really tiny once you’re inside. But each time we get a new customer in there, they really get to learn about us and see who we are in a bigger way. And even buyers, or people who’ve been buying the brand or have been seeing it at other retailers for a long time, they go in the store and they’re like "oh, okay I get who you are a little bit more."
Do you have any advice for people who maybe want to start their own line or go out on their own, particularly in the fashion industry?
I think a lot of times people jump out on their own when they’re a little bit younger. I feel like I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and as I get older I think, “Woah, would I have done the same thing that I did then?” Not always knowing [the end goal]...I think that energy and that sort of naïveté about the whole thing is actually really helpful. But the other side of that is that you don’t always know how to ask for help, or who to ask. When people ask me for help I’m like, “Yes, please! Come let me tell you everything I know about this,” and I think most people feel the same way. I don’t think I realized that when I was younger—I thought I had to do everything myself.
Where do you find inspiration for the collections and pieces that you design?
Travel is always a big one. If I’m lucky enough to get out of here for a little while, that always seems to make it back into the collection. Art is also a huge one for us—that’s kind of the main thing every season. So what shows we’ve seen, what new artist we’ve discovered. And it’s funny because the translation’s so not literal or obvious. We’re also always looking at classic motorcycle jackets, classic motorcycle culture, and getting back into that each season too.
Do you have any upcoming plans or goals for VEDA that you’re focusing on right now and are excited about?
I’m really excited about our e-commerce business. We’re planning to do a full site relaunch or at least some key updates. We also launched a core, direct-to-consumer only collection. We currently have these pieces on our site and in our store. That retail for under $500, and we make them all here in our New York studio. I’m particularly excited about this because I think it opens us up to a new customer. $1,000 is still a lot of amount of money for someone to come into the store and just casually spend. People usually come in two, three times to try something on. They think about it, maybe they’re waiting for their birthday or some other special occasion before they finally pull the trigger. We completely understand this and that is why leather jackets that are under $500 are really exciting. It is still a huge investment, but it is something that will last a long time, and I really believe in the quality and the craftsmanship of the pieces we are making here in our studio.
What’s the reasoning behind producing some of VEDA’s pieces in-house in your New York studio, versus sending them out to the different tanneries you work with?
Being able to make things here is really amazing, because you get to be so hands-on with that process and see what’s happening. You also can affect change more quickly and really react to what a customer wants and what you want, and what’s going on. We’ve been doing a series of hand-painted jackets for the last couple of years, but they’ve always been in reaction to something. We did a “Vote” jacket in October before the election, we launched the Venus Jayne Jacket with Shopbop for International Women’s Day, we did these Best Friends jackets, and those have all been kind of reactions to other things that are going on. For bigger fashion houses, especially American contemporary brands, a lot of that stuff is outsourced so you don’t get to react as quickly. And I think in this world that we’re in, where stuff is changing constantly and we’re all so inundated with cool new things, you want to be able to react quickly. We have different levels of our supply chain, and so for some of our bigger, core business, I have overseas factories that I work with, and I think that makes it scalable in that way.
How would you describe the woman who wears VEDA?
That’s a great question. It’s really cool, what we have learned about our customer is that she really ranges in age and the collection offers something for a lot of different types of women. So we have a 65 year old woman who is cool, and she wears a leather jacket with her jeans, and she may have a bit more disposable income so the $1,000 price point is more feasible for her. We have cool, professional 30-something year olds, who maybe work more in a corporate job but can get away with a leather jacket to the office. We have moms, we have college girls, I feel like we have really a great range of people. And I think that’s really back to our core business, where we have something for everyone.
Do you think that it gets back to your original goal of just making really good—or great—leather jackets? Because that’s really something that can fit into anyone’s wardrobe.
Yes! 100% I think anyone can wear a leather jacket. I think VEDA is very inclusive. It’s not about being too cool for anybody, or making pieces that feel unattainable or unapproachable. I love the idea of the leather jacket as a symbol of power and confidence. When you put on a leather jacket you feel cool, you feel sexy and you feel tough, and that is so empowering. I really genuinely think this subtle transformation happens when you put wear one of our jackets. And it is awesome.