On March 10, the South by Southwest conference is hosting a panel titled “The Architects are Invading” to explore what happens when architectural design processes cross over into the fashion and beauty industries. Among the speakers on the panel are Jenny Wu, partner at the Los Angeles-based firm Oyler Wu Collaborative and founder and design director of LACE by Jenny Wu, a 3-D printed jewelry brand, and René Graham, principal of the LaurelHouse Studio firm, president of real estate development company BCS Modern, and founder and CEO of Renzoe Box, a modular makeup-organization company. Ahead of the panel, Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, spoke with Graham and Wu about starting their companies and how their architectural training helps to solve business problems.
Michael Friebele: At what point in your careers did you start to consider the impact of architecture upon the fashion industry and the beauty industry?
Jenny Wu: For me, it was kind of an accident. I did not set out to disrupt the fashion industry. I was looking around for things that I wanted to wear myself, and realized they weren’t out there. As a designer, we all have this problem of “Oh, I can design a better version of this.” So I started designing some pieces for myself to wear, especially as I was starting to go to a lot of events. This was about four or five years ago. I knew nothing about jewelry; the only production I knew of was 3-D printing. I thought at first, we’ll model it and create some prototypes. At that time, I went to Art Basel in Miami and I wore some of my signature necklaces there. And it was such an eye-opening experience because people kept stopping me every five minutes, and even when I was at lunch someone came over and wanted to know more about my pieces. It just kept happening, and at the end I thought maybe I have something here. So I spent the next year exploring how I could use 3-D printing as a production method and not just a prototype method. It was quite a learning curve, and figuring out how you use a technology that isn’t typically for this purpose. The kind of steel-printing technology we used was mainly for making engine parts, not fine jewelry pieces. It took about a year of prototyping, and then we finally launched the line. I think for me at this point it’s how to open up the brand to the larger market and not just designers.
René Graham: I think it’s funny how Jenny said she didn’t intend to disrupt the fashion industry. I’m definitely the same way. There’s a parallel there where I stumbled into the beauty and architecture connection. What I’ve created is modular makeup. The idea I had in graduate school is about solving a problem that I personally was having to deal with on a daily basis, which was having to look professional and carrying around some cosmetics with me, and to constantly dig through a messy makeup bag. I was looking at what I was carrying around versus what I needed, and I realized there’s a lack of efficiency in packaging. Prior to wanting to explore the idea of modular makeup, I was not at all interested in the beauty industry. To me, the beauty industry has been traditionally more about the modification of a surface, the art of applying temporary pigment to achieve a certain look. In architecture, the most direct correlation would be applied finishes, like paint or textiles or something. There wasn’t a direct correlation between what I was doing in architecture; it was more like a problem-solving exploration for me.
MF: At what point did you decide to actually turn these ideas into a full-fledged business?
JW: In some ways I think of myself as just starting, because in the last four years we’ve learned so much about how to do business better, and it’s still a work in progress. I started making it, and you think, “Oh I’ll launch a website,” and you put some pieces up, and people buy them, and you become a full-fledged company. I think it was good for me to learn, especially the process of using technology that is evolving so quickly and trying to figure out the right vendors. I can keep evolving my pieces, and as a small business, I don’t have a minimum order. I don’t have to make 1,000 of my pieces. I can print to order; I can keep my overhead low, and this allows me to grow my business the way I want to.
RG: To test a product like Renzoe Box and bring it to market requires a certain amount of scale. It’s certainly an all-or-nothing scale, which made it more challenging to take the plunge. In August of 2017, I realized that I was onto something. I took a couple of interns to L.A., and we went to Beautycon. We had no product; all we had was renderings and drawings, and we did this guerilla-marketing thing. Beautycon is like the Comic-Con of the beauty industry, and for two days, we walked around and we talked to women and we sold the product. Our product was a rendering, a realistic-looking rendering, and that was the point where I was like, “This works; I can make something from this; I can sell nothing but a rendering.” And it’s gone from there. And then it became about how to figure out the logistics, how to get brands involved, how to figure out manufacturing and mass manufacturing. Those are big business problems to take on.
MF: What parallels are you finding between product design and architecture?
JW: Each person I have hired for jewelry has been an architect. Just looking at architectural education, it teaches you so many aspects of how to run a business and the skill set you need, from having an eye for photography and having a sense of design and composition for graphics. Maybe the thing that we are less trained for is the jewelry industry. We still don’t know how you break through. But the fact that we can 3-D model; we can do 2-D; we can do the hands-on things; we can fix things; we solve problems — all of these things that we train for in architecture school translate directly to working in so many industries.
RG: I think the skill sets are definitely there. On top of that, I think a design education and design background gives us so much leverage to innovate on top of what other people are doing. I think that’s where the real value is. I’ll just give you an example: I’m about to start a series of boutique, high-end, multifamily projects, and I can already draw some parallels, one being the idea of adjacencies. This is something we talk about in architecture all the time, but it’s something that I’ve had to be cognizant of and be respectful of within Renzoe Box. I provide Renzoe Pods with different makeup, based on what the customer uses, and those brands may not necessarily align at all. One may be a super-high-end luxury brand that you’re going to find at Neiman Marcus, and one may be a Target brand. They don’t necessarily match in terms of the price point and the clientele they are after, and these pods have to live next to each other in a Renzoe Box. That may or may not make those brands and the people behind the brands uncomfortable, and I have to make sure all those user groups are well represented. It becomes not only a design problem but a business problem, and it makes me think creatively about how I can solve this business problem. This is also something that we deal with in architecture all the time, the adjacency of this building to something else, or the different user groups that have to be involved with it, and we try to think about how to resolve this spatially.
MF: Jenny, you’ve been on this side of the business for six years, and René, you, for about a year and a half. If you could go back and start again, what would you do differently?
JW: I always joke in my lectures, if I knew how much work it was, would I start it again? I think the answer is still yes. I don’t know if I would change anything. This year, we’re fully launching our wedding ring collection. I didn’t start out to design a wedding ring collection. We had our designs, and then a customer said, “Oh, I would love to have diamonds on it.” And then they said, “Oh, I want a matching band with it.” So we designed another piece, and it became such a huge bestseller. Later on, when that came out as a wedding ring, people loved it. But then some people are like, “Oh, I have this big solitaire lump from my grandmother, and I want to incorporate it. Do you have any designs that can incorporate a solitaire?” So it just kind of grew organically.
RG: For a long time, I had it set in my mind that I needed to have X number of brand partners before I could really push this out the door, and I think that was something that held me back. I got some really great advice from some very smart Silicon Valley people who actually steered me in different directions, and had I not met with them, I don’t think I would have ever gotten there. Another thing is not being intimidated by going overseas for manufacturing. I initially tried to do everything in Texas. I thought I needed to be close to everything that was happening. It was my own sense of pride. I put my blinders on to other options, which in business is not what you do. When I took the first trip to China and talked with manufacturers, I realized a lot of other people are doing this. Once I got over that, a lot of doors opened for me.
Really enjoyed reading this.
It’s great to see Jenny say she’d still do it all again despite how much blood sweat and tears it has been.
It will be interesting to see how the reliance on Chinese manufacturing changes (if at all) now we all know how exposed we are because of the pandemic.