I met Stephanie years ago when she was design director at Tory Burch and have followed her career as her glamorous resort-minded collection, Figue, has blossomed into a successful brand. Stephanie is the ultimate global nomad, travel is in her blood, and the artisans she engages with and the products she culls from her adventures for Figue are tantalizing to say the least. Plus she’s a do-gooder; animals are her passion as well as making an impact, however large or small, by highlighting and employing artists across the world. There is a Figue boutique in East Hampton, but if you happen to be in Miami this week for Art Basel (or just because), Figue is participating in the first Faena Bazaar/pop-up shop through Sunday. Here Stephanie tells us the how and why of Figue.
Please introduce yourself to TFI: I am a designer for a globally-minded, eclectic, very resort-spirited collection. But it’s not just a collection, it’s also a curation of beautiful things that I find on my journeys and I like to share with like-minded women. Yes it’s a brand, and yes it’s a company but it’s a little bit more than that. I would like to think that this teeny company can make an impact in a small way. Because we can all make a small impact. So it’s creating, it’s curating, it’s bringing my travels, sharing, being careful and thoughtful, and creating good energy.
What drew you to fashion and design? I was talking with my mom the other day and she said ‘you know sweetie you were designing clothes and making patterns when you were four years old’. I always had these little books with me. And I think that the fact my grandfather was part of the Ballet Russes, my mother was a ballerina, and all these people in my family were connected to the theater—it’s always been part of who I am. I was always around costumes and color. It kind of seeped into my fabric of being. I know at one point I wanted to be a vet, but I wasn’t motivated in the right way in science and math. I really had a passion for animals and I still do.
You were the design director at Tory Burch for seven years, what did you take away from that to create Figue? I actually started Figue the year before I started Tory Burch and had already sold a collection to Scoop and to a few specialty boutiques. I met with Tory and there was a connection. She could see what I was creating and I could understand where she was coming from–the whole idea of the tunics and the bohemian spirit which she mixed with an American spirit.
Did you continue Figue while you were working with her? I did into the first year and then I had to stop; I had to decide where I was going to focus. I made a commitment to her that I would help her build a team and her company for a number of years, but I would eventually go back to Figue and continue that journey because it’s a passion of mine.
What was the easiest part about starting Figue? Conceptualizing it. It was very clear for me. I could see it my head. I could see imagery, fabrics and colors and what the essence and spirit of Figue would be. I had been thinking about it for so long, it just kept crystallizing.
What was the hardest thing about starting Figue? It was probably related to the financial needs and understanding what that meant. It’s so financially draining to start your own company, I don’t think a lot of people realize that. You can’t do it alone, that’s first and foremost. You need someone who is really in sync with you. I’m the creative and I knew I needed someone to help me on the business side and thankfully I have a really good friend who could help. And I knew I had to surround myself with really great people to shape it and move it forward. It was capital intensive, and I didn’t realize how capital intensive it would be. And things change. We were building a business plan, but in order for it to evolve you have to except there will be changes. The vision, however, has not changed since the inception. I created these vision boards which were amazing for me as a process. I was very clear about what Figue was, the essence, the ethos, the categories, what a store would like, what the natural environment would be. It’s stayed on that path.
Tell me a little bit about your production. Do you work with different artisans around the globe? We do. Sometimes we work with artisans around the globe in a small way, which can be very impactful. But at the same time, it’s difficult because sometimes they don’t know how to put an invoice together, or the timing factor. I’ve had to nurture and help some people, through phone calls or I go and meet with them. I love helping and nurturing because they do such beautiful products, whether it’s embroideries or stitching or beading or metalwork or feather work. It just depends upon who I cross paths with. Sometimes it’s bonne chance, I meet somebody and they say ‘I make these shawls and we’re based in Bolivia and work with a community of women’. I love the idea of empowering women and a self-sustaining community. You have to have a lot of patience and vision of where it can go, but often more than not they can help get it there.
What countries do you work with? India, Italy, Africa, Morocco, Philippines, Peru, Bolivia. Sometimes we buy something in a limited run, but I love that because it makes the artisan’s year. And then they feel empowered and want to create something new for the following one. I gravitate towards things that are really beautiful, it doesn’t matter what country it’s from. If it’s beautiful and it works in the world of Figue I’m happy to share it. Sometimes we design something and artisans make it for us, sometimes it’s just an artsian who makes beautiful eyeglasses, or tote bags or Uzbekistani jewelry or shawls from Bolivia. It’s been super kismet with the people I’ve met.
How often do you travel? I would say a lot. The past couple of years we’ve been focused on celebrating Figue across the country and sometimes abroad with trunk shows, because it’s a great way of connecting to people and reaching audiences you might not have before. So I was traveling in the US every couple of weeks, but that’s tapering down a bit. I’m leaving for Africa at Christmas for holiday but inevitably I’ll meet with some artisans we work with, because that gives me joy. I definitely have this gene, called the nomadic gene [laughs], I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, where you just can’t sit still in one place for too long. I’m always hunting and searching and wanting to share and see. I travel as much as I can. At least every couple of months.
Does Figue have a signature items? What inspired them and how have they evolved? The military jackets are always evolving and I’m always finding new sources and dealers who just handle vintage military, and that’s fun for me because I’m connected to all these wild characters. I’m always hunting for global goodies. And the patches, we’re always designing more. Franky I think we hit a core, because the women who buy the military jackets see how beautiful the beading is and the hand-embroidery and they come back and generally get another one. They’re classic in a weird way.
We always have the Tuk Tuk bags. They’re handmade by this artisan based New Dehli and it generally takes five to six days to make one. He’s the cutest sweetest guy and he’s so proud of his work. He can only make so many, but they’re made with love and pride. They’re limited edition in a way. The idea of ‘Tuk Tuk’ came from when I was in India years ago, all over Southeast Asia you see these little crazy buggies, called Tuk Tuks–sometimes men are carrying them, sometimes it’s horses or little vespas. The tuk tuks have these bells, twinkles, little pom poms and color, and the reason they are decorated is to bring the people joy and luck and to ward off evil spirits. I thought this is kind of something great, to have a little humor and a beautifully made artisanal bag. It’s not another black bag or a navy bag, it has it’s own little personality.
The Scaramouche sandals are all hand-made. They are the classic Indian sandal I used to wear when I was a kid. My grandparents lived in Delhi and they would always bring me these traditional Indian sandals. For me, it’s a classic summer shoe. The shoes are all made in India by the people who make them the proper way. They’re beautiful and classic, or my interpretation of the classic.
What has been your biggest success so far? That’s kind of a loaded question, because success can be looked at in different of ways. Building this company and getting a group people that work with me—that’s success to me. And making a difference in all these artisan’s lives—that’s success to me. That’s the mission.
Have you had a failure of some sort and what did you learn from it? Working with vendors or factories, people who are just not true and honest to the core—that’s a problem for me. I’m very straightforward and super transparent. You have to learn to manage disappointment and pull your boot straps tighter and look at the positive ‘what did we learn from this?’. It’s really about being thoughtful and optimistic rather than beating a dead horse.
Three words that describe Figue: Geniune, gypsy spirit, global
Three words that describe you: Genuine, creative, nomadic
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Positive thinking, always looking on the bright side.
What motivates you? Giving back.
How hard would you say you work? How do you stay focused? I work extremely hard with love. I stay focused by giving myself creative time or down time, through massage, meditation, a dinner or breakfast with a great friend–really connecting with people that mean a lot to me. And being involved in organizations like Animal Haven that give back. Animal Haven is a no-kill shelter in New York. And the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which is a rescue shelter for baby elephants.
When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business and when is it not? I think it’s always an advantage to be a woman, you have to look at it that way. How can you use your feminine intuition and make it work for you? How can you use your feminine thoughtfulness and make it work for you and for others? There’s a way and there’s a way. I highly respect women and I think they need to be empowered more to make the world more balanced.
Role models: Jane Goodall is beyond, she’s so driven and so committed and is such as incredible source of love and selflessness. What she’s created for the gorillas is just unbelievable. Michelle Obama is a total inspiration for me.
Best career advice you received and what you tell people: I always tell people to work really hard and listen. And to take the best and leave the rest, because it’s not all applicable to you. And break the rules. I just spoke at Parsons School of Design and that’s what I started with. It’s ok to break the rules and think differently, not do things exactly the way you’re supposed to; in an elegant way, you can challenge it.
What’s next for Figue? Immediate is a pop up shop in Miami for 10 days with the Faena Group. And eventually we’re going to go into home and a hotel. That’s my dream. Probably somewhere in Spain, or maybe Costa Rica.
Life Goals: To make a difference. Not necessarily to help any specific country or place, but through connection, through speech, through words, through love, just make the world a little better.
Daily Goals: To inspire and to be grateful every day for what I have.
Daily rituals: Meditation, peppermint tea, spending time with my husband, but quality time–having a conversation and not being on my Instagram or on emails. Disconnecting a little bit from the noise.
How do you unplug: I turn off my phone at 8 o’clock at night, I’ve been doing it for the past six months. I’ll answer emails on weekends here and there, but I try to shut it off at 8 pm. It helps. Giving myself slotted times and a framework to connect is important, because you can get lost.
Motivational read/favorite book: One of my favorites is Freedom: The Story of My Second Life by Malika Oufkir. She was imprisoned in Morocco for a better part of her 20s with her family. It’s her instinct to survive, to fight, to be strong and help her family with all odds against her. Super inspiring. I also loved A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout, about her being kidnapped in Somalia a couple of years ago and how she survived. I have utmost respect for her and I actually ended up chatting with her on the phone once, she’s an incredible powerful woman.
Favorite sites/people you follow: I really love Maryam Montague. She’s an activist, a writer, she’s a beautiful human being and highly intelligent. Her Peacock Pavillons was featured in Michelle Obama’s initiative Let Girl’s Learn We Will Rise film. She has a hotel in Marrakesh with her husband and two kids and she just rocks. I love her! She’s kind of extraordinary.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I’m very good at impersonating people. Some people say I’m a dog whisperer—I’m super connected to animals and how they think and feel.
Favorite charity: I don’t have a favorite but the ones at top of mind are Project Soar that helps educate girls in Marrakesh that Maryamm runs, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Animal Haven, the Ethiopian Children’s Fund which a friend of mine runs, based out of Addis Ababa. It’s about education, I’m really big on education.
Do you collect anything? Everything!! Vintage fabrics, vintage jewelry, vintage hats, vintage sunglasses, photography, books. I just love beautiful things.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: I really don’t regret any of them, they’re all here for a reason. My latest? A carpet from Maryam, which I haven’t told my husband about yet! It’s the most beautiful Bedoin carpet that’s ivory with multi-colors.
Coffee/tea: Coffee in the morning then mint tea all day.
Cats/Dogs: Dogs. I have two, Dash a Jack Russell mix who was a wedding present and Lilou a wire-haired dachshund.
Stephanie’s portrait by Christine Johnson
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