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Business Rx: A designer who stresses social value creations

Monday, February 14, 2011; 30

The entrepreneur

Kevin Streete, a new fashion designer specializing in custom-made dresses, had the experience of a lifetime when Grammy nominee Carolyn Malachi agreed to wear a custom gown he designed . Streete, who says he has always been creative, conceived the idea for his own fashion line during an executive MBA class project in 2009. Now, a little more than a year later, Streete has designed several dresses for the Grammy nominee and is working on launching his first line, called Kevin Streete Luxury by Design.

The pitch

Streete

"I look at myself as a custom designer who creates one-of-a kind pieces. I was fortunate enough to meet Carolyn Malachi, an up-and-coming artist, in the barbershop I go to. She needed a dress for an event celebrating Sierra Leone's 50 years of independence, so I designed one for her. When she was nominated for the 'Best Urban/Alternative Performance' Grammy for her song 'Orion,' she came to me again and asked me to design her gown.

"My line is built around social value creation. I went to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 to offer medical relief. The Haitian people want jobs, not just handouts. I found a group of certified couture seamstresses, so I offered competitive pay and I am helping them become entrepreneurs on their own. My goal is to make sure that anyone who has a part in making one of my dresses is treated fairly, eventually even knowing the fabric I source can be traced back to a farm where the people are treated fairly, not just the workers in the factory or the seamstresses in Haiti.

"Because my goal is not to mass produce dresses and gowns, but rather to design custom dresses that are designed for each client's body, I found that my challenge is understanding branding and how to establish myself in a world with so many giants already."

The advice

Oliver Schlake, Tyser Teaching Fellow at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"I think it is great what you are doing in Haiti. It is real social entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship is the most social thing you can do -- giving people jobs and the possibility to create their own social ventures. Just make sure if you try other feel-good ventures, such as sustainable fabrics, that your product looks good. Even if something is environmentally friendly, if it doesn't look and feel good, no one is going want it. It is still a business and that is the primary concern.

"I wouldn't worry too much about all of the giants in the fashion industry because many markets have a lot of players. You design custom dresses, which is a lost art form. Most designers create a dress and then ask a celebrity to wear it at an event. Then they sell the pattern to the dress. You do the opposite -- you find the celebrity and then design a dress specifically for her body and for the story she is trying to tell. That is what is important. People don't buy a dress -- they buy an experience and they buy a story.

"There are still people out there who enjoy the custom fit and the custom story. The real question is can it scale? And if it can scale, can you still do what you do best -- be creative? A challenge I see for you is if you hit it big after the Grammys, how do you transfer that momentum? You need to figure out how to make it really count for you.

"An ever greater challenge I see you facing is learning that managing every part of your business should not be your job alone. Entrepreneurs are so used to doing it all themselves, but when you become a business owner and your idea takes off, you have to let others help. Otherwise you will get bogged down with tasks that take you away from your core capabilities. You cannot effectively design your dresses if you have to manage your public relations and scheduling. Don't major in the minor things; let someone else do it for you."

The reaction

Streete

"It's been hard for me, but I have slowly been realizing that I really can't do everything by myself -- and what you said reinforces that. I do need to delegate some of my work to others and focus on the creative part of the business. Right now, I'm working with a public relations person who I met at the same barbershop where I met Carolyn, and he is going to be really helpful. I'm also trying to leverage my resources. For example, my wife is an attorney and a CPA and I have other friends who have been and could potentially be really helpful in launching my line successfully."

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