Breaking Out on Your Own: How I Started a Clothing Business
New Year, New You
If you haven’t heard of AYR, you haven’t been paying attention.
The womenswear brand has appeared on the virtual pages of The New York Times, AdWeek, Harper’s Bazaar, and Forbes. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba have been spotted wearing their effortless basics. And it’s not just the media and Hollywood who’ve fallen under the label’s spell; AYR saw triple-digit-growth its second year of business, proving shoppers are captivated.
A sleek office buzzing with dozens of chic employees would be fitting. That will come. For the moment, AYR’s headquarters are in an elegant, if compact, NoHo studio lined with ivory trench coats and black cigarette pants. Behind the scenes in the next room, clothing samples and paperwork obscure a cluster of desks.
Max Bonbrest extends a glass of rosé and a dish of cocoa-dusted almonds before pulling a denim jumpsuit from a nearby rack. She’s so approachable, so enthusiastic about the brand that by the time you leave the studio, you never want to wear anything else. Bonbrest, it turns out, is a master publicist. She also happens to be the label’s co-founder.
Bringing a Brand to Life
Andy Dunn, founder of menswear brand Bonobos, began toying with the idea of a women’s line in 2013. At the time, Maggie Winter, Bonbrest’s good friend, was working in merchandising at J. Crew. Winter imagined launching her own label, daydreaming out loud over fresh juice with Madewell designer Jac Cameron. At Dunn’s urging (and with Bonobos prepared to act as an incubator), Winter and Cameron left their posts to start AYR.
“Maggie called me about six months later to have lunch and discuss how to bring a brand to life,” Bonbrest recalls. “About halfway through our pizza, we realized it was going to take more than lunch to figure out how to do that.” Bonbrest was brought on as Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing, and the startup’s third official co-founder.
Diving into the Startup Life
Becoming an entrepreneur was never part of Bonbrest’s plan. She cut her teeth as a publicist for household fashion and beauty names, spending her late-twenties working in-house at H&M. “Startups were something that, at the time, seemed reserved for tech-savvy or business-school folk,” Bonbrest says, characterizing herself as neither.
Startup life was appealing because my peers were taking on roles that fell far outside their traditional responsibilities. I was eager to be challenged, and to learn.”
But, as direct-to-consumer fashion startups like Warby Parker, Everlane, Reformation, and Outdoor Voices cropped up online, she reconsidered. “I had an inkling that there was also an arena for smart people with good ideas.” Old-school PR seemed burdened with a creative ceiling, particularly at iconic brands happy with the status quo.
She says, “Startup life was appealing because my peers were taking on roles that fell far outside their traditional responsibilities. I was eager to be challenged, and to learn.” She now credits the startup environment with providing the best possible education in business.
Bonbrest is a quick study. She devoted the first six months to solidifying AYR’s ethos, creating a visual and market identity, and developing a strategy to convert the co-founders’ vision into an engaging story. “We had to figure out how to communicate something that didn’t previously exist to the media and then to our customer,” she explains.
Since then, the brand has not only joined the ranks of fashion’s new guard, but it has moved to the forefront with a business model that prioritizes an authentic relationship with the consumer. Accessible marketing images, tongue-in-cheek copy, and ambitious initiatives—like their $1 home try-on service for jeans—have set AYR apart from its predecessors.
“There’s so much change every day in our industry—retail, technology, and media alike,” says Bonbrest of her ongoing crash-course in startups. “I try to talk to other people in our space daily. I ask for help. I self-educate and read, a lot. I stay in touch with the people who are evolving with us.” She continues, “At AYR, we’re forward-thinking, constantly trying to anticipate what’s next and how we can better service our customer, capture the attention of the media, and align ourselves with constant industry changes to further the brand.” There is, she says, no limit to the opportunities ahead.
Looking Towards the Future
Bonbrest never regrets her decision to leave a stable job and start a brand from scratch, though she does caution anyone used to certain professional comforts. With neither a boss nor an assistant, there’s no responsibility above or beneath her. Her successes and failures are her own, and they’re often the result of being permanently on-call and saddled with make-or-break decisions. One gets the sense that, despite the fans and potential fortune, the experience has been humbling.
Five years from now, Bonbrest plans to look back fondly at a time when a team of nine worked so closely together. “I see myself sitting across from my co-founders, talking day in and day out about how to make AYR bigger, smarter, and stronger,” she concludes. “Perhaps, by then, it will be across a slightly larger desk.”