This month, we sat down with American Fashion Network’s founder and president, Jackie Wilson. Jackie filled us in on why she picked Syracuse as home base for her company, what it’s like to be a leading entrepreneur in the industry and the future of her business.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SWM: What path led you to the fashion industry?
JW: I definitely have a bit of wanderlust, so I wanted to travel and see the world. And immediately, once I started in the fashion industry, I saw the avenues that would take me to many lands abroad. So it wasn’t really for a love of fashion that I got into this. It was for the business aspect of it, and the ability to travel.
SWM: You moved up the ranks in the fashion industry, until founding your company, American Fashion Network, in 2005. How has the company evolved?
JW: We really have become the “Uber” of the fashion industry. I would venture to say we’re the fastest in the world at turning product. We are constantly bringing innovative products to the retailers at a very fast pace.
SWM: Briefly explain American Fashion Network’s business model.
JW: What we do is we shop. We shop online. We shop the world retail stores to spot trend, to really understand what people are wearing. We are experts at spotting trend, and translating trend for our retail partners.
SWM: Did working in the industry help you acquire those skills?
JW: You learn the skill just from sitting in the seat. It’s like becoming a better pilot over time. You land better. It’s just practice and practice and practice, and asking a lot of questions. We really get into the head of our customer and try to understand what their challenges are and what the opportunities are.
SWM: How do you sample and sell?
JW: We sit down with our customers and we work through fabrics. And at the same time, we’re showing original samples that show what is happening in the marketplace, and our translation of that for [the customer].
And then they work with their whole team and their trend forecasting people. They have probably about 22 meetings with that one sample before it becomes adopted in. Then, once it becomes adopted, it becomes an order, and we make the decision of where in the world we’re going to make it.
[The process is] called CTC, which is concept-to-customer — so, from the time you concept that item to the time it lands on the floor. Typically in our industry, it was 26 weeks. So when I started this business in 2005, it was 26 weeks for concept-to-customer. We do it in eight now.
SWM: How do you expedite that process?
JW: We’ve been very disruptive in what we’ve done. It used to be about speed in manufacturing; but just like anything, once it gets out into the marketplace, people figure out how to do it, and it gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. The market has become faster and faster and faster. So we always fight to stay ahead of the curve, and our whole thing right now is speed-to-development.
We established a sample room a year ago in Los Angeles. We now sample everything in Los Angeles. It used to take us two to three weeks to get a sample made, and we can do it now in a day.
SWM: A lot of your competition is based in large, metropolitan cities. Why did you pick Syracuse?
JW: This is where we decided to raise our family.
It’s a challenge, I would say. I live on a plane, and so does most of my staff. We travel a lot. But while it’s challenging, it’s also really great, because we’re a company of just regular, real people. We are just the true American consumer. And we get the customer.
SWM: What does a typical day look like for you?
JW: I do not have a typical day. And I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I think sometimes people don’t understand this, but there is truly not a spare second in my day lately. [It’s] not a complaint. It’s a reality.
However, with that said, I do possess the ability to shut it down, and go hang out at my friend’s house. I’m blessed with not being stressed or overly consumed with my work. I do it because I love it.
SWM: Being able to unplug like that can be difficult for women entrepreneurs. What’s your secret?
JW: I have a great team, and they’ve been with me for a long time. We have really great retention.
SWM: How do you choose your hires?
JW: Really, [they’re] people who I have interacted with, who I know that somebody has referred. Very rarely do we just hire cold. And we spend a lot of time with them. They go through the process.
It’s only happened twice in the last five years [that we’ve had to let someone go]. We can tell within three months that it’s not a good fit, and we just respectfully say, “Sorry, it’s not going to work out.” Because culture is the biggest thing.
SWM: You’ve been a single mother for the last decade. How did you balance that with being an entrepreneur?
JW: It was a very big challenge. I feel like the business suffered more. When I would get a call from the school, I’d be like out of here in a second.
It all worked out. You suffer from terrible mother guilt, that, “Oh my god, I’m not home.” At the end of the day, they really do come out respecting you. If you’re there for them, they respect you.
And that’s the advice I give a lot of struggling young mothers who want to work: just feel the guilt, because it comes with the DNA, but they will respect you in the end.
SWM: Your father was also a business owner. Do you think he influenced you?
JW: I think growing up and watching a parent’s work ethic is huge for any child. Watching my dad grow these businesses has been instrumental.
He’s just filled with wisdom. And it cracks me up, because I can be filled with wisdom in 3,022 words. He can do it in five. And it just comes with such impact, you know?
SWM: What does the future hold for American Fashion Network?
JW: We want to stay in front of the speed thing that’s happening. And we are looking to double our volume, and we’ve been pretty much doubling our volume year-over-year.
My goal is to sell the company to my employees — spin off one of the divisions for my kids, but sell my company to my employees. They all came with no experience, and we grew this powerful company together. SWM