“Most people in the fashion industry don’t fully understand how hard it is to take a custom design concept and move it into a ready-to-wear line.” – Nikki Lund Call it “California dreaming”, “Life in the fast lane” or any of a hundred other titles that embody music, fashion and high ambitions – they are all apropos in describing Los Angeles based fashion designer Nikki Lund’s journey. From grass roots beginnings, she and collaborator, renowned rocker Richie Sambora, have taken their fashion label Nikki Rich worldwide. This is only the beginning.
Born in Palm Springs and raised in Los Angeles, Lund is the archetypal California girl – blonde, sun-loving and forever entrepreneurial. The left coast has been the birthplace of some of the world’s most impactful companies, and LA’s nascent fashion industry is raising the city’s profile among elite style capitals.
Lund’s journey into fashion design was different than the usual. Fronting an LA rock band, Lund filled the need for cutting-edge stage outfits by designing and producing them herself. Soon, through savvy networking and good fortune, her creations landed on the red carpet adorning celebrities such as Carrie Underwood and Miley Cyrus. She soon launched a label borne from these same designs.
Riding this momentum, Lund hit the pavement and built her brand the old-fashioned way, literally knocking on the doors of retail locations. It wasn’t long before she had a network of retailers nationwide. Through serendipity Richie Sambora became a fan, client and eventual partner in launching Nikki Rich. Lund and Sambora have since forged collaborations that have encompassed design, business, music and more.
Lund recently took time out of her busy schedule to share her insights on building a label from the ground-up, the design process, and lessons learned as Nikki Rich’s 2014 Spring line has made its way into stores.
You started with bespoke designs. How do you grow your brand into a ready-to-wear line and reach department stores globally?
We launched Nikki Rich off the great success we were having with custom made pieces we were doing through our brand, White Trash Beautiful. We noticed we had built significant goodwill in the industry – with clients such as Carrie Underwood, Kate Beckinsale, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus – along with all their respective fans who were now clamoring for our designs -so it was time for us to take that exposure as a custom brand and come out with a sister label that’s both wearable and accessible. That was the vision in building Nikki Rich. Most people in the fashion industry don’t fully understand how hard it is to take a custom design concept and move it into a ready-to-wear line. When you come from doing custom clothes you’re getting to do whatever you want as a designer and working virtually without limits. With a ready-to-wear line you are taking high-concept designs and bringing them to every day life being mindful of quality, price points and which styles translate best. Thankfully we were able to make the transition smoothly. Having 10 years experience in the fashion industry and a background in manufacturing certainly made a huge difference to our success.
What were some of your bigger challenges and what did you learn in this process. Is there anything you would do differently today?
Surprisingly, the stigma of a “celebrity line” has not lingered where we wanted to make fashion the focus from the outset. Richie never wanted to it to be like a “celebrity” line… like “Richie Sambora’s clothing line”. He was really smart in distancing himself and being in the background for the first part of the label’s launch. If he had to show up and do a meet-and-greet he would gladly participate, but it was from the perspective of a business owner. It would have been much easier to come out and use his status in that way [to promote the brand] but we took the long road, which in the end is the smart way. [Nikki Rich] has legitimate fans of the brand and the clothes. When Von Maur picked us up they came into the showroom they simply liked the clothes. They weren’t immediately aware of Richie’s involvement.
What level of involvement does Richie have and how do you interact?
We interact daily. He’s involved on a day-to-day basis. It’s his baby! Nikki Rich is a grassroots labor of love for him. He’ll call me up, like when he called me last night to tell me, “I’m thinking ‘this’ or ‘that’ and I’ll forward you an email!” He’s a thinker and he’s very hands-on. He’s the kind of guy that wakes up in the middle of the night with a notepad next to his bed so he can write down ideas and go over them in the morning. And that works for me. We have a good communication between us and we have a good understanding of where the business is going and what our plan is.
You got noticed among celebrities in Hollywood and Nashville. How do you get your clothes on the red carpet?
It’s kind of word-of-mouth. I know Larry Rudolph who is Britney Spear’s manager. He managed me for a little while and I’ve known him for 10 years. He initially got me the gig with Britney. Now he’s Miley’s manager. I also know Miley’s stylist, Simone Harouche. I grew up with her. It’s knowing people, keeping good relationships and word-of-mouth. Also, having a showroom is key. A place where people can come and pull is very important. It’s all about making the brand available.
Where is your showroom?
We have a showroom in Downtown LA in New Mart and I have my studio in South Pasadena. I have a showroom in Dallas, New York City and Japan as well.
How do showrooms play into your strategy?
It works on many different levels. You get exposure you wouldn’t get, even if it’s someone just walking by and looking through the window and saying, “What’s that?” Also, it gives the stylists a place to go pull clothing for their clients, and then it gives buyers in the marketplace a place to go look at the collections.
Is it safe to say showrooms are crucial to brand strategy?
Absolutely. Yes! It’s all about connecting with the public and the industry. Surprisingly, another one of our biggest challenges was when we looked into opening a retail store. As with a showroom it’s a great way to expand our reach. However, it became a situation where it was one thing after the next going wrong with the building. There’s a lot of added hurdles when you have brick-and-mortar locations. It’s something we still plan to do, but with our label growing as fast as it has, we’ve put it on the backburner for now.
What makes you want to go back despite the challenges with the retail store?
We are always going to have challenges. Its just timing is everything. Making Nikki Rich more accessible is our biggest goal. I really think we could take to the high streets and create the kind of retail experience that would really help strengthen our brand globally. Hopefully we will be able to explore retail locations in the next couple of years. We’ve built a great deal of international connections and experience that we hope to eventually bring into the fold.
With all of your experiences in bespoke designs do you have any favorite celebrity stories?
Here’s a funny story. I was trying to get hoodies dyed for this Britney Spears music video. She wanted a black hoodie and I was trying to get the right black. This is professional-level dye. I was so tired, my team was tired, it was 4 in the morning and we needed another dye and I realized we had run out of salt. You need salt to get the dye to work so it’s black [rather than purple or purple tinted]. We didn’t have salt so we had to go to McDonald’s and go through the drive-thru. My hair was cupcake pink at the time. A guy on my team who had blue hair rode up with me asking, “Hey, can we get a bag of salt?”
[On another assignment] we had to do a pomegranate looking color for Miley [Cyrus] and I ran out of dye. I didn’t have any dye. When things get really busy you sometimes run out of supplies. In this case, we went into the fridge and we found beets. There I was, in the middle of night boiling beets so I could dye this piece of clothing with beet juice. It ended up being one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever made. Little things like that are always the most unexpected stories!
What does it take to go from bespoke designs in 2010 to a ready-to-wear collection in department stores?
It’s awesome! I’ve done other stuff with department stores with previous lines. I’ll tell you the fashion industry is brutal. It’s brutal in the sense I don’t think people understand the challenges of just making a t-shirt in production – how difficult it really can be to run productions altogether. That’s one of the hardest parts of the business. I’ve been so grateful to get the accounts we have like Nordstrom’s, Von Maur and Shop Japan. These are really solid great accounts and good stores that make the line accessible. It’s been a challenge. I remember when I was first starting out I managed to land some of my designs at M Fredric. It wasn’t long before I started to realize we were really getting somewhere. Though we had our presence in M Fredric to raise our credibility we still needed more accounts. We didn’t have a showroom, we didn’t have sales reps and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We got into M Fredric by “accident” and we thought, “Wow! This really could be a business”. That’s when I got in my car and drove around LA, calling on boutiques I really wanted to get into.
You literally hit the road calling on store owners “cold” introducing yourself?
Exactly! There was one time when I really wanted to get into this store 818 Freight that had locations in Sherman Oaks and Calabasas. I walked in and introduced myself to the owner, whose name is Spring. I remember going in there and saying I really want to be in your stores, and she said, “No, I can’t do the line. I really don’t have the time…”, and I remember saying to her, “Look, I am going to show you this line will sell in your stores. Give me a chance!” I showed her by taking the clothes to the back of the store and walking up to her clients and asking them to try my designs on. I ended up selling the whole trunk of clothes I had with me- I sold close to $900 in an hour. That’s when I said to Spring, “See? I just got purchases from your customers. These clothes could all be yours!” and she picked me up in all her stores. It’s crazy how hard we worked for each and every account.
You’re a born entrepreneur indeed. Are you looking for more department store relationships? And where does your bespoke line fit in to your current business model?
Nikki Rich will continue to expand into department stores, and hopefully, our own stores one day. The White Trash Beautiful designs were the basis of the line. We recently had one design featured on Cosmopolitan Spain’s cover, and a dress landed on the cover of Esquire which has helped raise interest in our custom creations. That said, the custom line really feeds into the ready-to-wear line. The custom work is quite intricate, whether it’s braided designs or various fabrics, foundations or edges. The key was to transfer as much of these details as possible into the ready-to-wear line. They say, “God is in the details”? Well, it’s true! Being able to do custom pieces and understanding the construction of the custom garment from top-to-bottom really helps us find a sense of direction that we eventually put into pieces for Nikki Rich. Our focus is ensuring the ready-to-wear measures up to the same high-standards we have in the bespoke line. That’s where it really helps to have experience and intimate knowledge of the business side of fashion, managing vital details like the cost of goods and finding price points that make sense.
Who are the designers and icons that you consider influences?
Alexander McQueen was a big one. His influence in fashion is obviously always going to be relevant. He was very romantic with his designs and the way he brought nature into his pieces. The way his designs hit me were always very impactful. Betsey Johnson and her ties to music. Think back to her work with Lou Reed during the Velvet Underground days, when she designed an extra large crotch to make them look like they had big “packages”. [laughs] It all goes back to music – she brought a lot of that out in that she was able to collaborate and give artists what they wanted. She also did a lot of punk. Vivienne Westwood and her use of plaids and unfinished hemlines! She used raw edges while still making it something a woman could wear to a business meeting or throw on with a pair of jeans and a jacket and wear it to wherever she was going like… a baby shower. Her pieces were bold and in a lot of ways androgynous which I loved and still do! I also love her son, Joseph Corré’s lingerie line, Agent Provocateur, that I think is really cool. I also love Marc Jacobs for a lot of reasons. I think his grunge aspects really made a mark. Once again, it all comes back to not only these designers and their influence on fashion but also on music and what they were able to bring out whether it was punk, grunge or 60s underground. McQueen loved opera so a lot of that came into his line as well. Then you have Yoji Yamamoto who has always been a favorite and Helmut Lange… his suits for women are really classic! As you can tell, from my perspective music inspires fashion and fashion inspires music.
What are your favorite trends for Fall-Winter this year?
Tribal is hot and has been hot. There is a lot of print on print. I like the mixture and how its going back to the 90s where people wore plaids or flower prints. I like that grunge-y trend that’s making a comeback or playing with different prints is really fun. That school girl or rocker chic look is hot. Bomber jackets, updated with embroidered chiffon sleeves and different fabrics is really exciting.
Will some of these trends make it into the next Nikki Rich line?
As far as Fall it has had some influence. There was definitely a “West Coast” attitude in our Spring line. Spring was more about the “Valley girl” or “Venice Beach” inspirations – a little bit more laid back, prettier, cuter. Fall is my favorite. You can do “heavier” collections that work with the cooler weather. When you think of the “LA Woman” you immediately bring to mind that Los Angeles is not as seasonal as New York. While I do put in the layered pieces for the heavier season, as an LA-based designer, it’s easier to think of fashion in terms of “all the time wear”, where its not as seasonal. LA doesn’t have the season for the raincoats and snowcaps. Thus the whole concept is a more laid back interpretation
Take us through some of your favorites in the current collection out now.
I definitely have a few favorites in this collection. The Emily lace blazer is one. It’s soft and stylish, and the geometric lace is really visually interesting. The dark navy works as a neutral which makes this blazer very versatile. Raquel dress is a wonderful black basic dress, ideal for layering with a sweater over it, or dressing down with a pair of sandals and a great hat.
I also love the Amanda skinny pant, which is a twist on the classic trouser. Again, geometric lace and a rose gold button add signature style, so it’s a great transitional piece – wear to the office with a more sedate top and shoes, and then kick it up with an awesome jacket for a night out. In terms of skirts, the Mindy skirt has such a unique print, the side slits make this maxi a bit more modern, and the rose gold button keeps this piece fashion forward. Easy to wear and beautiful! They’re fun and they’re cute – and most of all they are truly wearable.
With all this news what can we expect on the horizon?
Nikki Rich is launching a bikini line. It’s fun and sexy. Our bikini line has been designed for different body shapes. I love them! I think women love bikinis. You can never have enough bikinis. We are expanding into accessories, handbags and perfume. We will also be doing some fashion shows coming up. There are also some exciting new collaborative partnerships that we can’t reveal right now, but they will be announced soon.