Shortcut to Success

Who needs a fashion runway when there’s Instagram?

Lisa Hackwith and models
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Lisa Hackwith (third from left) with models at her recent fashion show at Aria. And at work, below, in her south Minneapolis home studio.

When models hit the runway at Aria in the boxy tops and breezy, bleach-dyed maxi dresses of Hackwith Design House, a row of spectators raised their iPhones high. Those fans—boutique owners, photographers, fashion bloggers—immediately started blasting images to their substantial social networks, where they collected dozens of “likes” before it was even time for designer Lisa Hackwith to take her bow.

The 27-year-old self-taught designer was the oddball at The Shows, the premiere event of Minneapolis-St. Paul Fashion Week. Unlike the majority of featured designers that have a local following and a desire to grow, Hackwith is scaling back. She wasn’t looking for orders from boutiques.

Hackwith’s done with that—for now. She started on Etsy just three years ago and got picked up by boutiques around the world, but she couldn’t keep up with orders. An enviable problem, most fledgling designers would say. It’s also the make-or-break point for many fashion careers. The ceiling for growth is low when you’re independent and hand-sewing everything yourself. But getting bigger is expensive, and making the leap to a manufacturer can be risky.

On the advice of several local product- development veterans, Hackwith did the unthinkable and paused just as her star was beginning to rise. She pulled out of the boutiques that were selling her apparel. She spent two months re-branding, designing, and developing a new website, She joined Instagram and started posting carefully art-directed pictures of her “process”—everything from an uncoiled tape measure on fabric to a dramatically shaded stack of shirts.

Her new business model is one that couldn’t have existed just a few years ago: release one limited-edition item of clothing online every week. It means smaller quantity but bigger profit margin, since she’s selling directly. Each piece in the batch is marked with a number, creating the intimacy consumers seem willing to pay extra for today. Hackwith always keeps No. 1. She gives No. 2 to a fashion blogger thoughtfully selected based on style and audience. In exchange, the blogger posts pictures of herself in her new Hackwith piece along with an article that goes live the day the new item launches. Basically, enthusiastic fashion fans are doing most of the marketing for Hackwith Design House—for just the price of a shirt.

Hackwith is also collaborating with a few boutiques on limited-edition capsule collections. The first was Parc Boutique in Northeast Minneapolis, where owner Thao Bui Nguyen consulted on designs and picked the fabric with her clients in mind. “Customers love saying they’re wearing a limited-edition Parc piece, and I have to admit, I love that too!” Nguyen was one of those photo-snapping fans at that recent fashion show, which was Hackwith’s first.

Hackwith received three orders from Minnesota shoppers the day after The Shows. In comparison, her website got 6,000 views the first day it went live—thanks entirely to online buzz and referrals from her first blog partner, Minneapolis resident Kate Arends of Wit & Delight, who has a massive online following, with 2.6 million Pinterest followers and 15,000 fans on Instagram.

The piece Hackwith released the week I was writing this column sold out in a day.

It’s enough to make producing a fashion show seem entirely superfluous.