Design talks: Petite studio

by Seiyeon Park '21

In June 2017, online fashion and shopping platform Who What Wear took a survey of 40 top models, ranging from Victoria Secret Angels to the iconic Naomi Campbell, to find the average height of supermodels in the fashion industry. The result? Five feet and nine and a half inches- a drastic difference from the average height of American women, which is roughly 5’4”, according to the US National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Despite this disparity, major fashion brands still ignore the needs of consumers who don’t fit the industry’s standards- which is why Petite Studio, an apparel brand specifically catered to the petite client, was created. 

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Based in New York, Petite Studio was founded by Jenny Wang in 2016. Jenny came from a family of entrepreneurs, with both of her parents having worked in the business industry for decades. Ever since she was young, they encouraged her to become an businesswoman and launch her own business, which led her to study finance at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law and earn her master’s degree in real estate at New York University. Jenny states that her experience in business has helped her build Petite Studio as a fuse between her passion for design and economics background.

“Having experience in finance and investment has really helped me to understand business more and I really saw an opportunity in the petite clothing market. So having that passion as well as experience in finance and business just helped build the foundation of the brand. There are so many new and young designers out there every week, but it's really important for a designer to know how healthy your business is and eventually grow your business into an actual company and brand.”

Despite this unconventional venture into the fashion industry, Jenny’s parents were supportive of her efforts and continue to help her with the management of the brand.

“My parents are in China, and our factory is actually in my hometown, which is a huge help. We’re able to manage the factory really well. Since my parents are there, we go to check on the factory frequently, and we’re able to work with a factory that we trust, which is important to us too.”

Jenny’s incentive to launch Petite Studio came from the her own personal experiences. Even though brands such as Ann Taylor, Loft, ASOS, and Ralph Lauren were starting their own petite clothing lines, Jenny saw little opportunity for petite girls to truly express their style and explore new trends, for these lines would mostly carry the basics and very plain pieces. 

"When I first moved to the U.S five years ago, I really struggled to find clothes that fit me well. A lot of my friends had the same complaints and concerns, and were always telling me about how they had to shop in the Zara kids section to find clothes that actually fit them. I think when you’re 5”8 or 5”9, you can wear any piece off the runway. Designers like Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, or Alexander Wang, all of the amazing designers- their clothes are huge on me. The few petite brands or petite lines that we know of are not the typical trendy and fashion forward designs that younger women like. So we wanted to create something that’s super in and trendy, but also has great fit.”

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Despite the tremendous interest already shown in the Petite Studio line, Jenny is more focused on giving the petite market the care and attention that it has lacked in the past, as opposed to mass-production. 

“People have that stereotype about the industry, that it's just about making new clothes and wanting everything fast fast fast, but we wanted to slow down a little bit and make pieces that are more durable. We care about quality and want to make sure that people can wear a piece over and over again, style it in different ways, and keep it in their wardrobe for five years, not just one season. We don’t want to be another brand just throwing together a petite brand like an afterthought. We’re not trying to be everything for everybody- we’re just trying to get a really great small curated collection that petites can take and truly enjoy.”

But working smaller doesn’t mean that the business is free of struggles. Amongst the many pre-existing difficulties of running a business, searching for great quality fabric and spending extra time adjusting for the perfect fit means extra costs for the company. Compared to larger brands that run huge inventories and negotiations with factories, Petite Studio has less leverage. 

“It’s a struggle to get people to trust you because we don’t have a bunch of big storefronts,” said Matt Howell, Jenny’s husband and associate. “We have our headquarters and showroom here, that we have people come up to, but we’re not one of those big brands with a bunch of storefronts that people can just walk in, see, and feel. Since we’re mostly e-commerce, the consumer really has to take a step of faith to try our stuff. I think it’s a process with any brand- building trust, letting people know its a quality product, and encouraging then to try it. That’s why we’re trying to do things like offering free returns and free domestic shipping, to build that trust and get people to give us a try.”

Despite the fashion industry’s reputation as a frivolous and superficial field, trust and understanding between the customer and the brand are the key focuses of Petite Studio. Especially with the rise of social media, more and more brands have been getting in touch with their audiences, whether it be through polls or special events. Inspired by new advances in the business and the responses of their customers, Petite Studio aspires to truly get to know their customers and help them along their way in finding the perfect fit. Jenny noted,

“For the customer just looking for something quick that they can just throw on, it’s tough for us to compete because of our slightly higher price point. But we’re really for the customer who wants to be thoughtful and invest in a great piece. We really listen to our customers- we want to know who they are, what they do, what they like, beyond their shopping habits so that we can understand, serve, and offer them better. We often send surveys to our customers asking for their opinion. When we design a collection we ask what customers like and want, and I think at the end of the day if your customer really responds to your brand then your brand can really last longer.”

Matt added, 

“If you look historically, the fashion industry was just all about selling clothes, and didn’t hold itself accountable in terms of transparency, looking at the factories, and the treatment of employees. But what we’re encouraged by is that the modern shopper really wants to enter into the brand and be able to identify with it. Consumers don’t come here just to grab clothes off the rack, they come to interact with us, peek behind the scenes, meet the people, and see what’s going on. In addition to buying clothes and great products they just want something else there. I think that type of thing the consumer really likes to see brands do today- contributing to public thought or just contributing to society a little more than just selling clothes. That’s something we’ve been seeing with brands today and what we’re trying to work on as well.”

One of the ways that Petite Studio try to make the line more accessible for their customers is by styling their pieces on real petite models, to show customers how the pieces would actually look on themselves.

“It’s kind of an industry secret,” said Jenny. “Because most brands don’t have many samples, all of the samples come in one size which is regular size. Even when they have a petite line, they don’t necessarily carry the petite sample, so they can only have the regular model who is like 5’8”, 5’7” to wear the regular sample and just say it’s petite. It’s just the most economical for them. If they just shoot the regular sized model, they can just say, ‘Oh by the way we also carry this in petite’. It’s frustrating because you see the models, buy the piece, and it looks nothing like it does on the model.”

They received over thousands of applications, with hundreds of applicants who came to their public casting. 

“We were just amazed at how many people came. So many applicants came to the casting, saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, I always wanted to be a model but felt that I never really had the chance, I’m so grateful that you’re bringing this into the public conversation, talking about bringing in girls of different sizes.’ We were just really flattered at how big of a success it was, at how many people came to try out. We narrowed it down to 8 finalists and let the public vote on them and we just announced the winner, Claire, a couple of days ago. She’ll be the campaign model for the summer collection and we’re so excited!”

 

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By doing so, Jenny and Matt want to provide their customers with a realistic image of the clothing’s fit, and the idea that there’s no need to pretend to be something other than petite.

"I don’t blame girls who they want that special angle when they take picture. I myself always ask Matt to take pictures of me from “good angles”. But I think as long as you’re confident inside it doesn’t really matter. I guess the whole point of us wanting to shoot petite models is that we want to show what these clothes are going to actually look like on you. When you see images of these 5’9” models, they’re telling you ‘You’re supposed to look like this’. And of course, when we get the pieces, it doesn’t look like that on us. So what we’re trying to do with our photography and our models is show people, “This is what it’s going to look like on you, and this looks great.’ When you’re petite, you shouldn’t have to pretend to be something else. We want to highlight the things petites can do, wardrobe-wise and style-wise that no one else can do.”

And while Jenny and Matt both agreed that the industry was an interesting place to work in, they reminded us that it’s not always as glamorous as popular media may suggest. 

“Fashion is definitely an interesting place to work. You get to meet interesting people and go to fun events once in a while. It’s exciting, people are talking about it on social media and on the web- it’s a very happening place to be. But at the same time, whenever I speak to someone about going into fashion, I always like to bring their expectations down a little bit because the day-to-day of working in fashion is not going to parties, sipping champagne, and going to high profile events. It’s in the office- if you’re a designer, you’re working on the design and on the tech details, you’re communicating with the pattern maker and with the factory. It’s hard work. Most weeks, most months are not glamorous. If you’re working in fashion, you might be working for a difficult boss and have a ton of work on your plate, none of which is fun or sexy. So I always try to bring people’s expectations down to earth a bit and say, ‘Look, I love working in fashion. Jenny and I (Matt) started this company because we love it but at the same time, get ready to come in and it’s going to feel like work just like any other industry whether it be marketing or finance.’”

“I (Jenny) agree, I think it’s more like having good expectations for the fashion industry; it’s cool and fun and creative. It’s not like working in a law firm where everyone just talks about numbers. It’s more attractive to millennials, but it’s also still a professional industry, like any other job. You have to know that you won’t be able to do or see all the glamor, but also that working in this industry requires hard work and a practical attitude.” 

To see Petite Studio’s new summer collection, check their site https://www.petitestudionyc.com/ or visit their showroom in New York!