Taylor Simmons Of Coco Shop On Why They Are Embracing Slow Fashion and Renewable Consumption
An Interview With Monica Sanders
Patience — You watch other brands seemingly experience exponential growth around you, but more often than not, they raised money, hired beyond their budget and overproduced inventory. Running a slow fashion brand takes diligence and patience. It’s much more personal, unit by unit, conversation by conversation.
As ‘slow fashion’ grows in popularity, more fashion companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Renewable consumption has been gaining popularity for a while, as people recognize its importance, and many fashion companies want to be a part of this change. In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders in the fashion industry to discuss why they are embracing slow fashion and renewable consumption. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Taylor Simmons.
Taylor Simmons runs Coco Shop. After studying history at Harvard, training in the Bloomingdale’s Executive Buying Program and graduating from business school at NYU’s Stern School of Business, she took over the Antiguan company she’d grown up with in order to fill a gap in the resortwear market, preserve the company’s history and champion the work of Antiguan artists.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up between New York and Massachusetts and attended both boarding school and college in Massachusetts. I loved sports, particularly tennis, but was also an independent, artsy-craftsy kid. My father’s parents found their way to Antigua in the late 1940s and fell in love with the island, building their home there in 1952. My father fell in love with it and he and my mother bought their home, down the road from my grandparents, in the early 1990s. We spent every school vacation there. Between introducing me to some of my closest friends, introducing me to my husband and introducing me to Coco Shop, my grandparents could have never imagined how much their decision would impact one of their granddaughters.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I studied history in college, American Women’s history, but I’ve only worked in fashion. My mother has always had a wonderful sense of style and, while I was not interested in the industry for a long time, became fascinated in college. I did a series of internships that helped me rule out facets of the industry and I landed, after graduation, at Bloomingdale’s as an assistant buyer in a department of women’s clothing. It was a wonderful place to learn the language of fashion and retail, but, after three years, I applied to business schools in order to strengthen my financial confidence. NYU allowed me to take classes and meet professors tailored to the retail industry, while interning at Rosie Assoulin at the same time. Rosie was the opposite of Bloomingdale’s — a small team all in one room. I would go from a meeting with their Director of Sales into a fitting, sometimes trying on samples to see how they fit someone with a certain bust. It was heaven. Coco Shop announced it was closing its last island outpost the month I graduated and my imagination ran away with it. It seemed like the perfect combination of so many of my loves — fashion, Antigua and history, so I reached out to the family that owned it and began to ask questions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I set up a few roadblocks for myself before deciding to take over Coco Shop. One was that I wouldn’t do if I couldn’t trademark the name. I thought having to change the name would indicate too big of a break between the original company and my takeover. A trademark lawyer told me it would be difficult if not impossible — Chanel is the world’s most litigious company and would have an issue. I reached out to as many people as I could to figure out who led Chanel’s legal team. After getting nowhere, my mother figured it out and I wrote him a letter about Coco Shop and mailed it to the corporate address on Chanel’s site — a long shot to be sure. Two weeks later, I received an email back. I couldn’t believe it and he couldn’t have been more kind. With Chanel’s blessing, I trademarked Coco Shop and they signed off on our logo, brand colors and more. I’m still grateful.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- I am creative. The story above is a good example of that. Running Coco Shop has pushed me creatively in terms of design and also in terms of problem solving.
- I am methodical — always taking one more step and one more step. I am constantly asked for kids’, for men’s and for home, but I know I need to focus on women’s and get it to a certain threshold before branching out.
- I am curious. This might be the most important. I run into things I don’t know about or don’t know how to do every day. I quickly learned to say, “I don’t know, but let me figure it out and get back to you.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Coco Shop’s Caribbean roots make it stand out. The company was founded in Antigua in 1949 by friends of my grandparents and they sewed and sold printed, cotton clothing in their island stores for seventy years. One of the founders, Amos, hand-drew each print based on what he saw — frangipani and bougainvillea flowers, tropical fish, the island’s towns. From there, he used screens to print on cotton, repeating the same prints in colorway after colorway. His sister ran the business and built a beloved company that locals were proud to call their own and travelers sought out every visit. Prints were easily recognizable and, if you saw one, you knew that that person had also been to Antigua. There is nothing like it.
Who is your fashion hero or heroine? Why?
My mother! She has always balanced some combination of a daily uniform with special pieces for special occasions. She treasures hand-me-downs from her mother the same way she treasures something new from Valentino the same way she treasures a vintage dress she found online the same way she treasures the perfect white t-shirt. I am really interested in personal style, not having what everyone else has, and I think my mother does this well — She’s interested in trends, but knows what is most her and gets creative.
Why did you decide to create and use a sustainable business model for your fashion brand?
First, I was inspired by Coco Shop’s founders and the Antiguan mindset. They were very thoughtful in their creation of clothing and did not let a piece of fabric go to waste. Following their roadmap led to creating something sustainable.
Second, we cannot afford to operate any other way! While it is more expensive to make clothing in small batches upfront, our low inventory model allows us to sell out of every garment we make, which is far less expensive on the back end.
What are three things we should all know about “slow fashion”?
Slow fashion is about the art of clothing. It’s not about trends. It’s not about buying more to have more or buying more to have what your neighbor has. It’s about every stitch and why that stitch was made and who made it. It is about diving deeper into every step of the fashion process and it’s about holding on to what you have for a long time. Buying things that are really you instead of buying what you think you should buy.
Can you please explain how it can be fashionable to buy less, wait a little longer, or even repair clothing?
To me, being fashionable means the opposite of wearing what everyone else is wearing. I think someone is fashionable when they have their own set of fashion rules — going back to my mother and her sense of personal style. I am an entrepreneur with a tight budget, so when I buy something, it has to be either something I’ll wear a million times or something I’ll have forever. Since I like things that I’ve never seen on anyone else, I’m beginning to get really into vintage and repairing what I already have and love ties into this too. My favorite flats are these Nicholas Kirkwood, pointed-toe flats. He no longer makes them. I just took mine to get repaired in the hope that I’ll wear them for years to come. Maybe, eventually, I’ll be the only person wearing Nicholas Kirkwood flats — how fashionable would that be.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Lead a Successful Slow Fashion Brand”. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Patience — You watch other brands seemingly experience exponential growth around you, but more often than not, they raised money, hired beyond their budget and overproduced inventory. Running a slow fashion brand takes diligence and patience. It’s much more personal, unit by unit, conversation by conversation.
2. A Mission — Most slow fashion brands have a reason for being outside of the founder simply seeing a hole in the market. In Coco Shop’s case, it is to champion Antigua — to honor the island, to work with its artists following fair trade specifications and to further give where possible. During COVID, one of the towns in which we sew was coordinating a food drive for those out of work and hungry. A portion of our sales and proceeds from an event we hosted were donated to this food drive.
3. Small Batch Production — To run a slow fashion brand, I do not want to produce one more dress than I am able to sell, so finding or creating a flexible production partner, who will sew small unit quantities is everything.
4. A Repurposing Strategy — Despite best efforts, you are never going to be able to perfectly match materials to production and inventory to demand. Even if you did, production still creates unused fabric after dress shapes are cut, so you need a strategy in place to repurpose all excess. With scrap fabric, we’ve sewn patchwork dresses and bucket hats and then, using scrap fabric from the scrap fabric, we’re creating shag rugs like Coco Shop used to make. The goal is zero waste.
5. Local Solutions — I am amazed at how far and how often company’s ship their materials and goods in order to make their finished products. It is not only hugely expensive, but also wasteful to ship this way. We sew everything in either New York’s Garment District or in Pigotts, Antigua. Nothing goes between the two, so once a piece is started in one location, it is finished there as well and, once completed, I personally pick up everything by hand in each place. I have minimized shipping as much as possible.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Such an interesting question — My gut reaction is to spread the demand for sewing around the world. It is concentrated now where prices are lowest, but communities around the world are capable of executing what is needed and this change could have such an impact! Most women in Antigua, for example, are talented seamstresses and sew clothing for their families. Giving communities, like the ones here, the opportunity to be paid for a skill they already have and use often could have positive reverberations for generations.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit Coco Shop’s site at cocoshopwi.com or follow Coco Shop on Instagram (@cocoshopwi). I share behind the scenes on my personal Instagram (@tesimmons).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities using good tech and the power of the Internet. She holds faculty roles at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders also serves on several UN agency working groups. As an attorney, Monica has held senior roles in all three branches of government, private industry, and nonprofits. In her previous life, she was a journalist for seven years and the recipient of several awards, including an Emmy. Now the New Orleans native spends her time in solidarity with and championing change for those on the frontlines of climate change and digital divestment. Learn more about how to join her at: www.theundivideproject.org.