Prologue Profiles Episode 003: Working For Yourself And Being Good At It

“You really don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So why not spend your time doing something that you believe in and do something that’s worthwhile while you have the opportunity to do it?” – Eric Poon

While in college, Eric decided he wanted to work for himself.

He is now the founder and chief designer of Vane New York.

Vane is a lifestyle brand with its own line of shoes, clothes and jewelry which can be found at its shop in the Lower East Side of NYC.

He’s 28 years old.


Dan Feld: Episode 3 of ‘Prologue Profiles’, my name is Dan Feld. My guest today is Eric Poon.

While in college Eric decided he wanted to work for himself.

He is now the founder and chief designer of Vane, a lifestyle brand with its own line of shoes, clothes and jewelry which can be found at his shop in downtown New York City. He’s 28 years old.

Eric Poon: Hi, this is Eric Poon. I’m a brand and product designer. And you’re listening to ‘Prologue Profiles’.

[Intro Music]

Eric: In 5th grade I came to Queens and stayed with my aunt. During that trip I was with my cousins and my brother and we played this [card game] and I was really bad at it and the loser had to drink a soda. And I lost so many times that I basically got sick and threw up from drinking soda. [Laugher] That was pretty bad.

We went to Atlanta City, room service, pizza at one in the morning so I got fat. [Laughter] I got so fat and when you’re a short little kid they don’t make clothes in certain dimensions so I had to go to the mall and get specially tailored pants for me. Uh, they were husky pants. That was so embarrassing to like have special pants bought for me because I was so fat. [Laughter] It was like, ‘I needed to change my life’ and I was so little so you’re always embarrassed.

Dan: So Eric, you work in fashion and with brands…

Eric: Yes that’s correct. I have a platform called Vane which is a lifestyle brand, primarily accessories and then it’s also a platform really for creative collaboration between other brands, other creators and just a platform to do projects that I want to do. It’s been kind of more just local and through word of mouth kind of stuff but we are going to be launching the brand in July.

Dan: When did you start Vane?

Eric: That was actually when I was a senior in school right before I graduated. But it wasn’t anything; it wasn’t really what it is today. It was something to do because I wanted to do something creative. It was something that I did l for myself as a passion project and I sold it to my friends and stuff.

Dan: What were you selling?

Eric: Just t-shirts. It was straight up t-shirts and we’d throw parties.

Dan: What was your path that led you to starting Vane?

Eric: The path to Vane was a couple of pivotal points and the first of which was an internship at Details magazine. I was an editorial intern. I was miserable. And then the art director came in one day and I just remembered in the studio and he was the man. First of all his name was Harwood Rockwell [Laughter] I mean he came in and he was just like arm sleeves, neck tattoos, the whole nine, and I was like “Who is that?” and they’re like “Oh that’s Harwood” I was like “First of all: Harwood?” they’re like, “Yea, Harwood Rockwell he’s the art director”.

Dan: …second of all Rockwell? [Laughter]

Eric: Yea I was like “Really though?” that’s the most amazing name ever for that to be your legal name. It clicked, like when you work in the creative field it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be to kind of express your own personal style. I’ve always loved tattoos and I always thought I would have to hide it somehow. And I was like “that’s cool” I would want that kind of life, to have that kind of freedom.

And then the second was I started interning at this clothing company called Triple Five Soul. At the time Triple Five had just gotten sold but it was still like a really cool New York brand. But the more I hang around the less I want to do the PR work and the marketing stuff. I spent every free second in the design room, peeking over the shoulders like “Oh what program is that?”. “Oh that’s Satellite”. “Oh you guys do it like this?” and basically just trying to extract as much information as possible.

I remember there was this one point at Triple Five…they had this beautiful office and they had these like floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the East River. And it was like a summer day, it was beautiful. And I think it was like right during Market and so most of the office was gone at the trade show. And I was sitting at the desk like doing PR, like basically doing pulls which is like basically which is the equivalent of sending samples out to magazines.

And I was just sitting there after lunch and I was looking out at my desk and I was looking out these windows. And it was a really cloudy day…it wasn’t cloudy, it was really like a nice day but the clouds were really low-hanging. So the wind was kind of just slowly blowing them past the window. I had this like realization I like “My life is literally passing me by me”.

It was like a Wes Anderson moment [Laughter]. Not to be like so melodramatic but I just felt like the whole world is happening around me and I’m stuck at a desk and I thought that was silly. And so I thought like “What else could I be doing with my time? I’m on someone else’s clock right now. I would at least prefer to be on my own schedule”.

image – Atif Ateeq

Dan: And you had already started Vane at this point…

Eric: I didn’t go to school for design so I knew I would never just get a designer job off the bat like that so it was a way for me to consciously just build a portfolio in design and have it be a showcase of what I could do through Vane basically.

Dan: Already you’ve done collaborations with the shoe company Sebago, how did that come about?

Eric: We basically pitched them this project to bring the boat shoe back. We sent an e-mail through their customer service line. It was like a cold call and somehow it ended up in the VP of sales’ inbox and he read it and he was like “I have no idea who these guys are but this sounds interesting”. They were in town for Market and they said “Would you guys want to come by the show room?”

Dan: Wait so you sent that a cold email to like the

Eric: It was the most balling-est letter ever basically. [Laughter]

Dan: From that relationship you have made a line the shoes…

Eric: We helped him sale the shoes into Bloomingdales and Nordstroms and Saks Fifth Avenue. That was really cool to see some of the shoes be in the window at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Dan: So what did you do for you, having that relationship with Sebago?

Eric: It was kind of a two-way relationship where we helped bring them back to prominence and it definitely helped legitimize us a little bit, that this was something that we could do, that I could do full-time. And I guess like that, what I had to say my ideas and thoughts were valid. I think because I was never classically trained in design I guess, I feel like you’re always trying extra hard to prove yourself.

David LaChappelle I think said the same thing. He was never really a trained photographer and it was something he just loved to do. And so in a way you feel like you’re always a step behind even if you necessarily aren’t. Becoming conscious of that and knowing that it wasn’t necessarily true all the time has helped me kind of progress in my own development as a designer.

Dan: Is there an example of a piece you’ve made that kind of represents your process?

Eric: Some of it is like really obvious [Laughs] and sometimes it’s not. I think one of the most popular things we’ve done to date has been that Brass Knuckle Ring that we made. The broader concept was like New York street culture. I looked at it from almost an outsider’s perspective and it’s always about kind of this toughness a little bit. And so make a ring that’s shaped like a brass knuckle and we still get people on the internet like blogging and asking us what for it , and so that’s gonna come out shortly.

This one shoe it’s kind of like our most popular shoe to date it’s like the Exo-Boot. We call it ‘Future Heritage’ so we take futuristic elements and then boil them down and mix them with this really old -chool way of making shoes. So the idea was to have like multifunctionality in the shoe. So we had this idea to do a shoe that could be converted from a high-top to a mid-top. It was this idea of like transforming things. The inside of the shoe is patent, it’s shiny, because patent again, to me, it’s a way of futurizing the shoe. And then it has this really traditionally mock toe moccasin way of making the shoe at the toe box. So it’s like this really strange juxtaposition of like really old and kind of like super new which I thought was interesting.

Dan: So what do you dislike about working at Vane?

Eric: The very things that make it awesome like being on my own schedule…I am my own boss so I’m never not working it’s like if something is messed up or something needs to get fixed or taken care of then it’s just me. When you’re a smaller operation you kind of have to do everything and so it’s shipping stuff out and going to midtown and grabbing samples and getting references and coming back. And also there’s a safety and security and when you’re working for somebody else it’s like you show up and every two weeks you get a paycheck. So that’s something that’s kind of a luxury for people who do have 9-5 jobs which is nice. You know where you’re money is coming in every month. And so when you own your business you have to make sure that you’re paying the bills every month and you’re hustling to get the next contract or the next client, following up and making sure your invoices are paid…that’s something that’s definitely not fun, but it’s something I’ve had to deal with and I think it’s definitely for the positive to mature in that aspect and to kind of deal with that stuff, too.

Dan: What advice can you give to those out there who want to start there own label?

Eric: Make sure you’re funded because this is not a cheap game to get into. Let’s say you are staring out the gates so you have to sample a collection, paying for your sample costs. Then you have to go sell it and invest your money selling it. And then let’s say you do well so you get all these shop orders so you have to go to produce everything you sold.

As you’re shipping everything then it’s time to start sampling for the next season. You basically haven’t gotten paid on any of your first season’s work in terms of sampling are selling or are any of the production but now you have to already start paying for samples for your next season. So it puts you in a really crazy cash flow bind. The cash flow timings of fashion are really harsh. So anyone who wants to start out make sure that you have some money put away for this or if you have something that’s gonna invest in you. When I got into this I was like “I want a label” not knowing any of this other stuff and it’s definitely been an eye-opener. You’re like “Oh” [Laughter] ”I didn’t know we needed all that stuff”.

Dan: Did you ever feel like you wanted to quit?

Eric: Absolutely. One of my partners left and he was like the one who was super good at forecasting stuff and then our loan came up from our new person who loaned as our seed money and so it was like $20K in debt to this dude, we had like no cohesive plan moving forward and it was just like “What am I doing?”. It was definitely a gut-check period like “What do you want to do?”. Ultimately it came down just to what I want out of this. I think the end goal was not just to have a job. I think that’s like the easy way out, in a way.

For me I’ve always felt like that I could accomplish more with the time that we have given. I feel like you never know what’s gonna to happen tomorrow. That’s kind of like our tagline actually for Vane is there’s “Nothing Promised” and I think that’s kind of how I tried to live my life. You really don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so it’s like why not spend your time doing something that you believe in and do something that’s worthwhile while you have the opportunity to do it?

I think you don’t come to New York just to like ‘be’. Everyone comes here with a goal to do something and I like that. I do have these goals to launch this brand I think it would be kind of a childhood fantasy fulfilled. I was talking about this with my partner, like that show ‘How to Make it in America’. It did resonate with people especially in New York. To own your own business I think is like a new version of people’s fantasies. Yes I know everyone dreams about being like a rock star or movie star but that’s like so far removed. To start your own business is something that is within your reach and I think that to be successful and to accomplish that goal is something that’s worthwhile–to build something.

Dan: When you thought about quitting how did you get through that?

Eric: Especially as a creative you have to have belief in yourself and I think that’s where it starts and where it ends–is with you. And so you can’t lose faith on yourself and I kind of just slept on it. And I think like with most things you just kind of get get your head out of your [removed] after a while. [Laughter] You stop feeling sorry for yourself…

Dan: …speak for yourself man. [Laughter]

Eric: You kind of stop feeling sorry for yourself, at the beginning you’re just like loathing in self-pity and then you’re like “Damn I can’t live like this”. At the end of the day you can’t lose sight of the larger goal of what you want to do. If the short term goal is to make a bunch of cash then I should probably get out the game. But that was never the goal because it’s not financially motivated but really to just have that freedom like the freedom to kind of create my life as I see fit and I think that’s an extension of design itself. Design is really about creating the most ideal environment, whether it’s products or interior design or whatever it is that you design–it’s about this ideal that you’re trying to reach. And I think by extension it’s like trying to design a life that’s ideal and I think it’s what I’m really striving towards.

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This post originally appeared at PROLOGUE PROFILES.

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