Harvard Couture

Rachel M. Douglas

Mr. Livingston was conceived in March in Lowell Dining Hall. The parents were three men—Justin R. Gerrard ’10, Justin W. White ’10, and Ben P. Arabia ’10—all fashionistas who combined their interests in design and pooled their capital to birth a new collection of luxury streetwear ideal for the collegiate crowd.

Six months later, the trio has its hands full getting their idea off the ground. After a successful spring trial run, the students parted ways at the end of last year. As they sit down for the interview—the first time they’ve met in person since May—the designers are ready to build on the groundwork they laid over the summer and expand beyond the Ivory Tower with the launch of their Web site and upcoming collection.

“This business would be nowhere if it were not for Skype,” Gerrard says of the frequent late night conference calls that the group had over the summer. Because all three had internships, daytime communication was covert.

“I was always sneaking in e-mails on the job,” Arabia says. “All of them ended with, ‘I gotta go. My boss is coming.’”

While many Harvard students are interested in business, there’s a small contingent that is bringing their entrepreneurial skills to the runway. Mr. Livingston is only one of a group of student designers who are looking for success in the fashion industry while juggling the normal commitments of Harvard student life.

Baruch Y. Shemtov ’09 is perhaps the most notable of current student designers. His line of ties has sold for four years in boutiques in New York, Houston, and Tokyo and has been featured of the pages of The New York Times Magazine, Nylon, and GQ Spain. Also of note are Noor Iqbal ’10 and Vicky D. Sung ’10 who, like Mr. Livingston, are newcomers to the Harvard fashion scene. Their t-shirt line, Port & Kit, launched in the spring of last year.

With little support from the administration and a full course load to manage, the current crop of Harvard designers face a problem that most students either abandoned in high school or are not lucky enough to have—how to balance the academic with the creative and eschew the expectation that those attending a premier educational institution should simply join a premier professional one.



Arabia, Gerrard, and White decided to work together because of their similar tastes in fashion. Dressed in high-top Nikes and premium denim, the three founders keep current with trends in streetwear, but at the same time are slow to place Mr. Livingston in any one category. “We wanted to take what was good about designer clothing and about casual streetwear and create a luxury streetwear brand,” Arabia says. They target college students, whose casual wardrobes they believe are starting to include more refined clothing.

Agreeing on the artistic direction for the fledgling brand was no challenge for the trio, but choosing a name was surprisingly difficult. “Mr. Livingston” was the final choice among alternatives that included Purple Stuff, Localle, GentriFly, and Brain Break. While the line’s name takes its inspiration from Dr. David Livingstone, the 19th-century British missionary and explorer who influenced the abolitionist movement, his image has been freshened up for the brand.

“When you think of Mr. Livingston, you think of a guy with high-water pants and smoking pipe,” Gerrard says. “It’s about reclaiming that name for streetwear. Things you wouldn’t perceive to be cool or hip can turn into a cool design, a cool concept.”

The group moved quickly from concept to action, but encountered a steep learning curve when they began to take the first steps towards marketing their brand. They started by trying to get the word out with a Facebook group that now has close to 700 members. Finding wholesalers, dealing with printers, and turning Facebook friends into customers, however, were not easy tasks for three full-time students with no prior experience in the business.

“The first printer we used was a guy who seemed very receptive at first. But then we show up and we’re these two African-Americans and a Latino,” says Gerrard, who noted how different the trio was from the printer’s expectations. The tension intensified when the shirts came back with several mistakes. “When we first got the shirts in, every problem that could happen happened,” remembers Arabia. Not least among the problems was the tardiness of the delivery, leaving the three founders with just an hour to sell the shirts on campus before Arabia had to catch a flight back to California for the summer.

The spring premiere of Port & Kit, a line of t-shirts by Vicky Sung, Noor Iqbal, and Sung’s older sister Jennifer, (who works in New York), was similarly hectic. Because the shirts were not screen printed, Sung and Iqbal had the added challenge of hand stitching to manage. “We had a little sweatshop in our room,” says Sung, who is also a Crimson arts writer.

The Port & Kit line takes inspiration from classic icons and vintage styles. The tees, which sell between $40 and $60, aim for simplicity and comfort, featuring American Apparel silhouettes emblazoned with black and white images of Twiggy and Andy Warhol. “They kind of embody a downtown New York style with a collegiate twist,” Sung says.

MIXING BUSINESS WITH...CLASSES?

While Mr. Livingston and Port & Kit are both backed by novices just breaking into the business, Baruch Shemtov’s line shows a level of professionalism that can only come with experience.

As he sat down for a phone interview, Shemtov was in the midst of New York Fashion Week, fielding calls from buyers and media outlets. Shemtov’s chaotic schedule serves as an example of the growth that other student designers might achieve in the near future. With better organization and stronger business relationships, success can make parts of running a business smoother. But it doesn’t necessarily make everything easier to manage.

“Right now I’m packing for school, choosing classes, launching a Web site, meeting Japanese buyers, managing the Japanese press, and attending fashion week events all while trying to make it back to Cambridge for registration,” Shemtov says of his chaotic schedule in the week before returning to campus. “So far all the balls have stayed in the air.” Though he makes it clear that school comes first, his many commitments—as a student, designer, and entrepreneur—are all critically important.

Unlike most of Harvard’s other student designers, Shemtov’s challenge wasn’t in developing a business from his dorm room but transporting an existing one from New York to Cambridge. He makes a point to remain based in New York, the epicenter of the fashion industry, and also where his ties are handmade. “Once I was in Cambridge it really forced me to change my business plan a little bit as I was required to manage many aspects of the business remotely,” he says.

On the other hand, Shemtov does admit that being on Harvard’s campus is not a complete disadvantage. “Working with people who are my age who are such driven entrepreneurial people really is inspiring and really keeps me going,” he says.

The Harvard fashion network can also be beneficial. In fact, Mr. Livingston not only used Harvard’s resources to their advantage, but also received some advice from Shemtov while getting off the ground. “It was all very organic. We networked with Baruch actually, who found us a place to get wholesalers,” Gerrard says. The designers also made use of connections with Harvard Law School to get a serious discount on legal fees.

For the group of Harvard designers who see fashion as a hobby but not necessarily a business, being in Cambridge is even more vital since most of their artistic expression happens on campus. The winner of FM’s 2007 “Fast Fashion Challenge,” Lucy W. Baird ’10, for example, is an undeniably talented designer, but instead of marketing beyond the Harvard scene, she produces almost exclusively for events like The Harvard Vestis Council’s “Haute” and “Cocktails and Couture.” She’s not even sure that she wants to go into fashion after graduation.

“When I was a freshman it’s what I definitely wanted to do,” she says, “but I’m rethinking it since the fashion industry is kind of mean.” So instead she focuses on the nicer, amateur fashion outlets available to her right here on campus.

THE INSTITUTION

The Vestis Council, whose annual Haute fashion show is one of the biggest events of the year, focuses on “endorsing high art and high fashion.” But “it’s not just pretty people in pretty clothes,” says Margaret M. Wang ’09, the council’s president. Along with its annual fashion shows, The Vestis Council also sponsors events to promote fashion in general at Harvard.

“We’re not a college like Parsons or Rhode Island School of Design or Fashion Institute of Technology, so it’s nice to have high fashion on campus,” Wang says.

To help build support for designers on campus, The Vestis Council also tries to help members who are looking to use fashion as a career. And while The Office for Career Services has limited assistance for students not considering investment banking or consulting, Wang says, members of the fashion industry, such as Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie, do make a few appearences on campus.

Beyond the Vestis Council, student designers at Harvard receive little institutional support. Harvard has no classes in either fashion design or merchandising, and most student designers are concentrating in social sciences. But there are some notable outliers to this trend. Jonah N. Miller ’10, who works as a designer for True East Skate Shop in Boston and who is about to begin a stint as a brand-design intern at Reebok, is a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator who does manage to apply his studies to fashion. But he differs from many of the other designers in that his interest is in apparel graphics rather than in cut and sew garments. Miller has worked at True East since February creating graphics to be printed onto t-shirts—a technique that Harvard does offer classes on, including screen printing and silkscreening.

But according to Ari L. Bloom, president of the Business School’s Retail and Apparel Club, a traditional concentration may be just what emerging designers should have. “The hard part of the fashion industry is connecting the business minded people with the creative side,” Bloom says. “How to merge what I like to call the art and the science of fashion is a very hot commodity.”

On a professional level, designers have few places to turn at Harvard for business networking or career advice. While individuals have been able to find internships in the fashion industry through the Vestis Council e-mail list, there are few resources at the Office for Career Services dedicated to fashion and only a small number of retail or apparel companies recruit on campus. The lack of support makes planning a future in fashion beyond Harvard difficult. Other than Shemtov, none of these designers are going to pursue their clothing lines as full-time jobs right after graduation. At least in the short term, Mr. Livingston and Port & Kit will remain fierce side-projects for their creators focusing on their “real” careers.

FASHION FORWARD

Despite their many differences, all these Harvard designers have one thing in common: a focus on their next big step in fashion. Sung and Iqbal are launching their Web site in the next month, trying to get their merchandise into boutiques, and exploring their options for large-scale production. The next few months for Mr. Livingston will be about ensuring the brand can stand on its own. Plus, they all know that the real measure of their success will be to outgrow exactly this sort of article and be noticed not because they’re three Harvard students, but primarily for the quality of their products.

“This year we want to let our designs shine instead of just the ‘Oh wow they started a business,’” White says.

For Shemtov, the next step is global expansion. “I’m in four Japanese newspapers now, and I’ll be in GQ Japan,” he says. “Right after graduation I would like to pursue aggressive growth in distribution domestically and internationally.” And after that, he plans to conquer the airwaves to create “a lifestyle brand that incorporates fashion products and media.”

Shemtov may be focusing on becoming a household name in Tokyo, but the three founders of Mr. Livingston are just glad to be working together in the same room. “When we’re all sitting at one computer, it’s magical. We get so much done,” White says.

“Finally, no more Skype.”

See more of Mr. Livingston

See more of Baruch Shemtov's ties
See more Port & Kit