Melding American sportswear and French flair, Sylvie Millstein’s journey to founding the fashion brand Hellessy is anything but expected.
She launched Hellessy when she was forty years old, after a successful career at Chanel and while juggling a family with four children. Becoming a designer wasn’t always the plan for Millstein, but working in fashion was—she made it her goal to work at Chanel after reading her first Vogue magazine at age thirteen.
“I became obsessed with fashion, but more precisely with the new Chanel designed by Karl Lagerfeld. I never thought I could be talented enough as a designer to join the creative team, but getting a Master [degree] from one of the top French Business Schools—known as the Grandes Écoles de Commerce in France—represents a golden ticket to enter any luxury group,” the designer says. “So I made it my academic goal, graduated from HEC, and landed a marketing position in the LVMH group.”
Soon after, Millstein moved to Japan where she took a position with the luxury house, Givenchy, and it was in the East Asian nation where her Chanel goals manifested. She was offered a job as a buyer with her dream company, eventually moving into a key role as the GMM for Chanel, Japan. For the company at the time, and given the size of the market, this was a career highlight.
She eventually left Chanel to relocate to New York to start a family, where Millstein found herself disillusioned with the state of the job market in fashion. “I could not find any position in the corporate fashion world that would be as exciting as what I already accomplished,” she says. That was when the idea to launch Hellessy came to be. It felt like the next logical step in her career.
As it is for many designers who launch brands, they see a gap in the market and aim to fill that void. It was hardly different for Millstein, who was looking for interesting clothes that would suit her cosmopolitan, fast-paced-meets-family lifestyle. She applied her decade-long experience in luxury fashion, the rich understanding of fabrications and fit that came along with that experience, and her keen eye for style to create a brand that melds together high design and quality with an ultra modern sense of practicality.
“I started from scratch and learned at age forty the basics of sketching, sourcing and garment making,” Millstein recalls. “Building a brand and making clothes without notable partners or major connections sounded impossible at the beginning. But I found that my merchant background allowed me to build collections and develop products that made sense and resonate with customers from the beginning, which, in the end, should be the ultimate goal for a designer willing to build a business.”
Hellessy is a self-funded venture with only Millstein at the helm. It’s not to say she hasn’t considered having a business partner, but she hasn’t met someone as yet with whom she’s prepared to share equity.
“I think having a partner who can bring the right skill set and connections would be a tremendous asset for my company at this stage of development,” Millstein says. “We are not actively looking, and it is all about finding the right partner in the end, so it might not be in the cards for Hellessy, eventually.”
In the meantime, she’s comfortable leading the charge on her own. She acts as Hellessy’s Creative Director, sourcing, developing, and designing the collections. She also applies her experience in management and running fashion businesses to the growth and operations of her company.
In the designer’s words, Hellessy is “seductive sportswear with an architectural point of view.” It’s a collection that is made in New York with premium fabrics sourced from Italy. Staying true to these brand values and to also stay competitive and keep margins has been a challenge for the designer. For all the roadblocks these ideals may present, they also inspire Millstein to push the boundaries of her designs and rethink the way she communicates her brand in a market rife with retail instability and over saturation.
“I do see many peer designers relocating their manufacturing abroad. Today new contemporary brands are gaining a lot of traction and push into the designer space, offering a lot of look at a lower price,” she says. When she observes this happening in the market, her “merchant instincts” kick in and she adjusts her creative process.
“I see every collection as a new battle and a new beginning, a challenge to get our customers attention but also as an opportunity to grow further,” she says. “Nobody needs another dress or pants in their wardrobe unless it is absolutely unique and serves a clear purpose.”
With all the challenges, ups and downs of running a successful startup fashion business, it’s easy to forget Millstein is a mother of four. “Whilst I cannot say I have found the perfect balance between family and work, somehow within the chaos and the frustration of not having enough time in the day for both, I make it work,” she says when asked about the career-family juggle.
She’s taken certain measures to ensure maximum quality time is spent with her family, such as locating her office across the street from her home. She’s a firm believer that being a better mother means being a fulfilled woman first, and she feels blessed to have a career that gives her that fulfillment.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t have much time for myself besides the basic maintenance and socializing, but I get so much joy from my four children and my company—which is a bit like raising a fifth child—it is hard to let go and take time to relax on my own,” says the designer. “So far, I do not feel close to a burnout.”
Launched in 2012, with six retailers under Hellessy’s belt almost immediately, she knew she was in business right out of the gate. “But the takeoff is not what I find important in this journey, it is the evolution and the growth of the brand,” she clarifies. It’s the slow and steady growth of Hellessy that has mattered the most to her, and it was only two years ago, she feels, that her company’s growth path saw real acceleration. “Each season bringing in new exciting milestones for the brand, from Rihanna wearing a piece to getting into new key accounts, or expanding internationally to Asia and the Middle East,” she adds.
So far, the puzzle of family and business is one that Millstein has seemed to figure out, at least for herself. Although it’s evident it’s her strong sense of identity and faith in her skills and experience that keeps her business and life growing.
“You have to really know yourself and know your limits and needs,” the designer concludes. “And I am certainly built for this kind of hectic lifestyle.”