When Meghan Markle made her first public appearance with Prince Harry at the Invictus Games last September, fashionistas–who study outfits the way fortune tellers study tea leaves–predicted that this relationship would end in marriage. Why? An expert glance revealed that Markle was wearing a $185 white button-down made by her friend and designer Misha Nonoo called The Husband Shirt.
It wasn’t such a surprise that Markle was casually wearing one of Nonoo’s designs. Nonoo’s outfits have been widely embraced by the celebrity set ever since she launched her first runway collection in 2011. Her looks have been seen on everyone from Lena Dunham and Bella Hadid to Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Watson, which has helped propel her brand into the spotlight. But while Nonoo understands it is important for designers to have their clothes spotted on red carpets and royal photo-ops, she wants her brand to stand for much more than this kind of glamour.
Over the last year, Nonoo has been busy taking apart her company piece by piece and rethinking what a modern fashion label should look like. She has totally upended her supply chain to make it as sustainable as possible, manufacturing each piece on demand when a customer places an order. Rather than doing seasonal collections, Nonoo now focuses on creating eight simple black-and-white pieces that can be worn in nearly two dozen ways, to simplify women’s dressing. By ending her partnerships with retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and selling directly to the consumer, she’s been able to shift away from the luxury price point: Her pieces now range from $140 to $750. She’s also put the traditional runway show behind her.
It’s a lot to communicate to longtime fans of the brand, so Nonoo doesn’t bother trying. “I believe in hyper-targeting,” says Nonoo. “Customers are already so over-messaged, so I don’t want to contribute to the noise. If someone is celebrity-obsessed, I’ll deliver her an ad with a famous person wearing an outfit, but if she’s more interested in sustainability, I’ll be sure she understands how I make my clothes.”
At Home With Nonoo
I spent an afternoon with Nonoo in New York in her West Village home, a space that reflects the minimalism she is trying to create through her designs. The two-story apartment is airy, spacious, and uncluttered. We sit in the living room, where the mid-afternoon light comes through French windows, falling on a marble coffee table with a large vase of flowers on it. A scented candle fills the room with a delicate floral fragrance.
When we met, Nonoo had recently separated from her husband, Alexander Gilkes, the founder of online art marketplace Paddle8. The couple had met in the U.K. when she was 17, married at 24, and parted ways just as she turned 30. Together, Nonoo and Gilkes were known for their active social life, frequently appearing on the New York Post‘s Page 6 and in the British tabloids along with a star-studded cast of friends. Some have even credited Nonoo with introducing Markle to Prince Harry, although she is too respectful of her friends’ privacy to speak about such matters.
Post-divorce, Nonoo continues to be a social butterfly. The night before we met, she had hosted a dinner party in support of the nonprofit Girl Effect, with guests like Warby Parker founder Dave Galboa in attendance. The following night, she would be hosting drinks at her house before an event at the Met. “I kind of collect people,” she says, with a smile.
But her life has also changed considerably since she’s set out on her own. She’s been focused on simplifying her life–and that includes her business and the collections she designs. “When everything falls apart and you have nothing, anything is possible,” says Nonoo. “That’s the beauty of restructuring everything in your life. This business is my life, and it is very critical that it works well.”
Simplicity, Nonoo believes, is also what her target customer is after. And she has an eerily specific sense of who this customer is. After relaunching her business along the direct-to-consumer model, she now has a clear insight into her customer, thanks to all the data she now can access. For instance, she’s discovered that 48% of them are between the ages of 25 and 34, and 71% are married. She knows that their favorite authors are David Sedaris and Brené Brown, and that these women spend their disposable income on travel and home decor.
It is knowledge she never had access to when she sold through department stores. “The buyers would say one thing about who our customer was, and the people on the shop floor would say something else. I’d come back so confused,” she says.
Her collection of eight key garments–which she dubs The Easy 8–is specifically designed for this young, married, Sedaris-loving woman. Among other garments on her website, she’s crafted these eight pieces to be combined to form 22 different looks that will take a woman from work to parties to PTA meetings. For instance, one dress comes with a playful cut-out in the front but can be worn with a button-down shirt or turtleneck for a more professional look. All the pieces are in black and white, so they don’t stand out or make your colleagues wonder whether you wore that same outfit two weeks ago.
This new collection bears little resemblance to the kind of clothing Nonoo designed when she first started out. Eight years ago, Nonoo had just graduated from a business school in Paris and was apprenticing at a small atelier. (She spent her first decade in Bahrain, then moved to the U.K. until university.) Nonoo then worked her way through the established itinerary of American designers. She was a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist and received a rising star award from Fashion Group International. She carried out her first New York Fashion Week show with much fanfare, with models walking the runway in Grecian-inspired gowns, fur-lined capes, and patterned silk blouses.
But all these experiences only served to convince her that it might be more lucrative to experiment with non-traditional ways of running her business. “I’m always called a fashion designer in the press,” Nonoo says. “But I see myself as an entrepreneur, because I look at opportunity, and I just happen to have channeled into fashion. It’s really critical to me that I don’t do anything just because other people have done it that way.”
This is what motivated her to throw out the old approach to manufacturing. In the past, like most designers, Nonoo would simply place orders with factories after her fashion show, when she got a sense of which pieces in the collection buyers and editors were most interested in. Ordering a few hundred of each garment would easily run a quarter of a million dollars. And if some of these garments didn’t sell or were somehow faulty, she simply took the loss. And a dirty little secret of the fashion industry is that many garments from seasonal collections are never sold, so they end up in landfills or bargain bins.
Innovative On-Demand Strategy
None of this made much sense to Nonoo, so she tried to rewrite the script. Now she works with a woman-owned factory in Hong Kong that makes each garment on demand, whenever a customer puts in an order. At this facility, sewers can cut and sew the pattern in two days, then send it directly to the customer within a week. They can even monogram particular pieces, like the popular Florence blazer, adding a layer of customization that is much harder to achieve when designers place large scale orders with factories.
This entire system only works because of the Easy 8 collection, which is available all year around and only updated once a year. Her factory has all the fabric and patterns ready to go and doesn’t need to relearn an entirely new set of garments every four months. Through this process, not a single garment or bolt of fabric is wasted, which Nonoo sees as both a financial and environmental win. “It’s all about cash flow, and it allows you to pivot very quickly,” she says. “If a jumpsuit is not really working, we just take it off the website.”
This innovative on-demand approach is rare in the fashion industry. The only other companies with a similar model that I am aware of are companies that create customized garments, like Ellie Kai and Anomalie. Nonoo recently went out to raise her first round of capital to help scale her company and her manufacturing strategy served to differentiate her business from others in the crowded fashion industry. She says a senior partner at Castanea (which has invested in brands like Proenza Schouler and Drybar) decided to invest privately in Nonoo’s brand because he wanted to see how well her inventory-less approach would work operationally.
Ultimately, Nonoo believes that for a fashion company to be successful, it needs a foundation that is more solid that just beautiful, thoughtfully-designed clothes with a unique point of view. To survive in the modern retail climate, it also needs to be built on an innovative business model. Most designers focus exclusively on the creative side of their business, but Nonoo believes that the supply chain, pricing, and marketing strategies should be connected to how the clothes are designed. “It is easy to say you are a creative and use that label to not focus on parts of your business that you don’t particularly enjoy, like the number crunching,” she says. “Ultimately even if I don’t enjoy actually studying the numbers, I enjoy understanding about that part of the business because it helps me make decisions.”
So, what’s next for Nonoo? She’s now thinking about how to develop a brick and mortar strategy for her brand. But in keeping with her desire to do things her own way, she’s trying to experiment with the “pop-up shop” concept. She’s still tinkering with the idea. “How do you make it experiential and mobile? And not necessarily confined to a single location?” Nonoo ponders out loud. “That’s where retail is going, I think.”
We’ll have to wait and see exactly how Nonoo’s retail plan pans out. But one thing’s for sure: She’ll put her own spin on it. “My business is everything to me: I have attached my name–and my identity–to it,” she says. “So what is the point, actually, of turning up every day if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, or if you just follow what everybody else is doing? You’ll fall asleep at the wheel.”