2012 winner of Parson’s BFA Childrenswear award and founder of up and coming knitwear line Giu Giu candidly discusses the trials and tribulations of life after Parsons and starting your own business
By: Kyera Giannini
Edited by: Stephanie Farrell
We met for coffee at Culture, a little café on 38th street with a close, comfortable atmosphere and a line out the door. It is also a place that holds fond memories for Brooklyn-based designer and Parsons alum Giuliana Raggiani. She was in town for the afternoon and graciously spent an hour with me discussing the ins and outs of life post Parsons.
Originally from Maine and Boston, Giuliana moved to the New York City to attend Parsons in 2010 and delved into a variety of design areas. It was there that she discovered her knack for knits and decided to attend the world-renowned Central Saint Martins’ knitwear program for her second year. In her words this only made things worse, because she fell in love with knitwear. “I was just obsessed with the textile part of design, because you’re literally growing something from scratch.” Giuliana laughingly relates spending countless hours in front of an old 1980’s knitting machine, staying up until 2 in the morning learning 2 years worth of classes in one. “But I ended up making my first sweater there,” she says, “which was the greatest accomplishment of all time.”
All photos here were shot by good friend and giu giu photographer, Kara Kochalko.
With the help of her business partner and close friend Christopher Newsome, that one sweater soon grew into an exciting new business and in late 2012, they launched Giu Giu, a high-end unisex knitwear label. The line caters to “people who aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves; it has a certain androgyny, but in a lighthearted way.” The brilliance of Giu Giu is in the versatility of the clothing. “I don’t want someone specific,” Giuliana says. “I can see an old lady wearing my sweaters and then a guy in his 20’s wearing them too. I like the idea of passing it on, changing hands. I think the world right now is so versatile, and everything is becoming blurred lines between categories; I think fashion should follow that aspect too.”
Giuliana manufactures all of her garments at a factory in LA, and “all of spring will be made in the USA,” she says proudly. She found the factory with the help of her yarn supplier in Uruguay. Potential plans are in the works to purchase lighter cottons and summery textures from local manufacturer Keff here in NYC. Giuliana prefers sustainable fabrics and believes that, “fast fashion is dying down. I think of my sweaters as being high quality and long lasting so that potentially they could become vintage. Durability, especially in knitwear, is so important to me. Fast fashion just doesn’t have that nostalgia to it. It’s very temporary and very disposable, which is a little sad to me.”
The process behind creating a Giu Giu sweater varies. Often Giuliana knits the original swatch on her personal knitting machine, which she has ingeniously redesigned to suit her needs. “I found a way to hack into the computer and twist the wires so you can connect it to Photoshop, and take an image in Photoshop and put it into the machine,” she says brightly, as though it was as simple as writing your name. “I don’t really have a set process,” she continues. “It happens organically. Sometimes I’ll get inspired just from knitting. I’ll sit at my machine for hours just knitting swatches and combining different textures.” Sometimes, if she has enough time, she makes the samples as well. When we begin getting into the technical side of design, it becomes clear very quickly that this part of the business takes up the most time.
“Explaining to another person how to make the item, spec measurements, layout, and then contacting the factory, figuring out which yarns to use, figuring out the pricing of the yarns, having a budget for everything….” Giuliana trails off with a smile. “Communication [with factories] has to be a daily thing. Sometimes you can run into the wrong people and you feel really desperate, because no one is responding to you, and you’re depending on this person to create something for you; you’re not just depending on yourself anymore.”
Luckily Giuliana had a little help with preparation for her own line. While at Parson’s she worked as a freelancer for the cofounder of Anthropologie, Linda Trau, eventually creating the “Giuliana Leila” line for Trau’s in-house brand Sparrow. After graduation Giuliana for worked at Sparrow, and it was with Trau’s encouragement that Giuliana struck out on her own. She entered the race late in the fall 2012 season, too late to line up buyers, merchandizers, or money.
“So I took my suitcases full of sweaters, and started knocking on doors,” says Giuliana. “I did price research to see which stores I could sell in, my price point and customer, and did it on a whim. I’d say, “Hey, can I talk to your buyer?” A lot of people said no, a few said yes, and I ended up getting into five stores for fall.”
That can-do attitude and resilient nature led to Giu Giu showing at the Capsule Paris tradeshow this past September. She hopped on a plane with the third and newest member of the Giu Giu team, social-media-master Brady Smith, with no clothes except for the sweaters. At Capsule, “you get a booth to showcase your collection, a clothing rack and table. Buyers, merchandisers, sourcers, showrooms, yarn people…everyone comes together.” She explains that most buyers show up already knowing which companies they want to see, which made it especially flattering when one Japanese showroom representative did a double take as he walked by Giu Giu’s booth.
Giuliana found that one of the upsides to showing at Capsule was the ability to discover what your potential international consumer prefers compared to local NYC consumers. “The favorite piece from fall in NY was the black and white plaid one,” she says, “and then in Paris it was more of the colorful, eclectic pieces, which was really refreshing.” She hopes to expand internationally thanks to the great response they received at Capsule.
Giuliana also cites social media as one of the most important outlets for free advertising. “It gets the word out and everyone’s online. There are so many applications for social media, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Posting a sweater every day is extremely important because I also need to market the stores that I’m in. Personally I love Instagram because it has more of an artistic feel to it.”
Giuliana also shared with me what she wishes she had known before starting her business. When talking about the design side of things she advises, “Learn how to edit. Even though your creativity might be screaming for it, and you really just want to spit out as much as you can at once, you have to be a little hesitant towards exploding everything into one collection.”
The business side is a little trickier, “take what people say in the business world with a grain of salt. A lot of people can seem like great people at first, but you have to do your research because you might find yourself in a situation that you didn’t expect to be in, based off of one person’s opinion.” She also speaks volumes of praise for her partner Christopher. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without him. His knowledge is so necessary – cost to import and export, duties, taxes…and without that you can’t move forward. Every day he teaches me something new, which is very important – don’t just get caught up in the design process. You can’t go into a buying or sales meeting and not know what you’re talking about it, especially if the company is your baby. You have to learn how everything works.”
So everything really IS all about the money?
“Definitely. A lot of people can mean well and really believe in you, but at the end of the day even the biggest dreamers have to make a dollar.”
Despite the incredible accomplishments of Giu Giu, enduring the pressures of running a business and exciting plans to expand into a lifestyle brand, this Parsons alum remains down to earth, warm and friendly. Because she is constantly on the go, she rarely has time to sit down and reflect. “You keep wanting more and more,” she says with a smile, ”but you have to remind yourself that you started at the bottom.”
**Love knitwear? Want to see how a business works from the ground up? Giu Giu is looking for interns! Contact Giuliana at firstname.lastname@example.org with your resume and cover letter to apply!**