A fashion label doesn’t require a degree in fashion or prior experience. Now, bachelor degrees are not a guarantee of success. Self-taught talents can get just as far as a master’s degree. Take Virgil Abloh, the late menswear designer at Louis Vuitton and Creative Director at his own label Off-White. It’s easier to reach such high levels of success if you are friends with a well-known rapper and also own a fashion label. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that outsiders can only enter the fashion industry and be successful.
We talked to Isabel Rott, an interior designer and fashion designer. Isaro is a Brazilian fashion label founded by Rott two years ago. Its minimalistic style and celebration of diversity are making headlines. In its campaigns, the e-commerce company always includes minorities like refugees, albinos and transgender people. Rott says, “We preach respect for all.”
Rott is about to launch Isaro’s third collection and a collaboration capsule with Brazilian TV actor Bruno Fagundes. Rott discusses the difficulties she faced in starting her company, how they dealt with negative comments on social media, and why she decided that Isaro would change its digital strategy for 2019. Rott is the perfect example of how fashion entrepreneurs can succeed without any previous experience.
Please tell us about yourself and the history of Isaro.
I am half Brazilian, half German. Although my parents are from Cologne, I was born in Brazil and raised there all my life. Eight years ago, I made the decision to move to Cologne. There I lived for four-and-a-half years, then I moved back to Brazil three and a quarter years later. A friend of mine suggested that I start a streetwear company with him while I was living in Germany. He believed I had an eye for aesthetics and sufficient knowledge of fashion, even though I did not have a degree in fashion and had never worked as a fashion designer before. Two years of working together on this brand was the time I decided to return to Sao Paulo.
This emptiness felt inside me after I returned. Fashion was something I loved so much that I fell in love with it. Interior designers are my inspiration. Although I have always been passionate about fashion, I never thought of making it a career. I felt that I could create a fashion label in Brazil and I did so because I was passionate about it. I wanted a brand that reflected my values.
What are the challenges you have faced in fashion work without a fashion degree?
Your perception by others is the biggest problem. You are often asked questions by people. “Oh, but you’re not really fashion designer?” It is difficult to build a brand that you can say, “no, I am not”, but I am learning every day. I will continue to increase my knowledge as the brand expands. Without a doubt, the biggest challenge is to be loved by those who work in this industry.
What did these questions make you feel?
At first, I was shy. Fashion is a very difficult industry. It is important to be noticed and not fall behind. At first this would have affected my self-esteem, but I now feel that I can pull it off. Yes, I do work as a fashion designer. Yes, I am a fashion design. My work speaks for itself, and I no longer have to justify my actions.
Let’s discuss Isaro’s business model. What is the brand’s DNA?
Empowerment is the brand’s core value. Brazil is currently going through a difficult phase. I believe it’s important for brands, regardless of their sector, to stand firm. A brand must be more than an advocate. They also need to be able to sell products and make money. People get bored of brands that talk about causes they believe in. It is an important part of what we do. We simply preach love and respect for all people, regardless of their origins. We also encourage people to be open and accepting towards minorities. These people are real. They are not featured in fashion ads. “Why don’t we see them on TV?” We don’t want to be teasing, but it’s a way to make society feel better.
What are these values and how do they translate into clothing? What does that mean for Isaro?
As I love Scandinavian fashion, our clothes are minimalist. Fashion today is too outlandish and excessive. It’s too many colors, messages, logos and silhouettes. It’s not something that everyone likes or makes them feel better about themselves. Many women dress up in the morning and then spend the rest of their day pulling down their skirts, checking that everything is still in place. They don’t feel comfortable in their skin.
Isaro has elegant clothing that will make you feel beautiful and comfortable. It doesn’t matter if your belly is visible or if the buttons aren’t closed. These timeless pieces will be worn again in two to three years. So that the items can last longer, we only use high-quality materials, such as 100 percent cotton, leather, or linen. We don’t believe in fast fashion and our pieces are made in limited quantities. Although it may not be the most financially viable way to start a company, I want Isaro to be known for the quality and uniqueness of its products. Not because they are trendy, which means people will throw away our clothes after only two months.
Brazilian media often refer to Isaro’s brand as a “genderless” brand. The label does sell both men’s and women’s clothing.
Although we do offer pieces that have a feminine or masculine silhouette, you will see the same items in both men and women’s campaigns. Isaro is all about freedom. If a woman wants to wear one our dresses, I’m open to it. As long as you feel good about your self, anything is possible.
What other ways does Isaro’s value appear in its branding?
We are not the type of brand that sells Tshirts with large slogans. The people we work with have a greater impact on our positioning. Our last capsule collection campaign featured a human color palette. It included everything from an albino woman to a Senegalese refugee. Two transgender individuals were also featured. None of them were professional models.
The transgender flag inspired our third collection. We will only be working with transgender models for the release of our third collection. Some shirts will be embroidered with numbers. Although we won’t reveal the meaning of those numbers, each number is related to 2018 statistics regarding the LGBTQ community. One example is the number LGBTQ people killed in Brazil. We chose not to disclose what these numbers mean initially, but we will tell the customer if they ask. These embroideries will have been made in collaboration to Trans Sol, a non profit organization that teaches sewing and embroidery to homeless transgender individuals in order for them find work in the garment industry.
You mentioned Brazil is in a difficult time. Jair Bolsonaro is the far-right president of Brazil. He was criticized for making homophobic remarks and being sexist in public. Is this a conservative wave that has influenced Isaro?
We received a lot of negative comments on Instagram and Facebook during the election because we posted a photo with the hashtag #elenao [#nothim], the hashtag that women used to protest Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy]. This image was widely shared on Facebook and forums in support of Bolsonaro. It spread like wildfire. We received threatening messages from thousands to thousands of people over the course of three or four days. Although they may have been just words, no one would do anything to us. However, it is hard not to get nervous. I was able to feel a lot of hope and love after those four days.
How is the sales situation?
Isaro is almost three times more popular offline than online, despite being a digital brand. It was an idea I had earlier in the year. People tell me that this is a high-quality brand. I have seen it in person and I am convinced to open a physical store. People are still hesitant about us because we are a new brand, and each item costs over 100 reals (roughly 25 US dollars or 19 Pounds). However, I decided to not open a store and instead focus on improving our digital strategy. We need to improve the conversion rate. Our website is getting a lot of pageviews. To better understand why visitors leave and how to improve our website, I hired a marketing agency. What about the payment options? Do we need to include more photos of the products?
Is there a workforce at Isaro?
Part-time? Only me. There are a few freelancers I work with, such as a photographer, designer, PR agency, and marketing agency. Depending on the collection, I choose who to work alongside for production. The first collection was produced by a small factory located in Sao Paulo’s Casa Verde neighbourhood. The second was focused more on tailoring, so I worked with another company in Perdizes. There are twenty people working there, five of whom are tailors. The factory that made the first collection will also make the third collection.
We are committed to transparency in how our products were made. On Instagram, we show the factory and want to show some of the workers. I want to be more visible on social media and speak directly with our customers. Despite being shy, I believe this will increase trust in the brand.
What are Isaro’s long-term plans?
Although I know I want to bring the brand to Europe within three to four years, I don’t know where. Although I am German, I don’t believe Germany is the best place to begin. They aren’t very fashion-forward. Therefore, we would need to conduct market research. Brazil is still viewed positively abroad, despite all the problems. I would love to represent Brazil with a brand that doesn’t reflect the Brazilian stereotypes of sun, beaches, and carnival. However, this is a long-term plan. Brazil must be our first priority.