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In or out? Fashion designer Sean Kelly launches his brand

I meet Kelly in the lobby of the Sofitel hotel in Auckland’s Viaduct Corner, the afternoon after his show. He’s tired, but happy. “I’ve just this morning been filtering through the responses,” he says, telling me that his inbox has been filling up with emails as the New York fashion world – stylists, buyers, influencers – wake up to see the show through their Instagram feed.

“As it’s happening, 200 people in the front row are getting these images out into the world faster than style.com can type,” he says.

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Gallery: Selections from Kelly’s New Zealand Fashion Week show

Kelly, who won a $125,000 prize package, including a car and a spread in Marie Claire magazine, has been self-funding his brand with help from New Zealand Fashion Week, NZTE and various sponsors. Next week, he’ll return to his adopted home of New York, where he will not only present his collection (designed for the Northern Hemisphere’s Spring/Summer), but will seek the investment necessary to begin to build his brand.

After winning Project Runway, Kelly had interest from a number of unnamed “corporation-y” brands, but says, “I’m too young to sell my soul. Maybe when I’m 50 and things are going south I’ll take some of those but 25, I can figure it out for myself for a while.”

“The best advice I was given was just not to rush into it,” he says. “Straight after the show I stopped and let it die down a little bit, to focus and get some clarity. Because it’s a big decision. I was never intending to do my own brand at this age. My intention was to do a stint in the industry and get a really good foundation of knowledge from another brand and then do my own thing. But this is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity. The leverage I have right now from the publicity is a gift and has to be used, because it will die away.”

Image: Kelly’s winning Project Runway collection

Unlike some designers, who are as involved in the numbers and deals as they are in the sketching and pattern-making, Kelly wants to focus on working in the design room, while someone else takes the meetings.

“I like money,” he says with a laugh, “but I don’t have much business knowledge or passion. I’m super passionate about design and making things, whereas some people have that passion for business. I would like to be involved, but I’m not willing to drop the design side to be more involved.”

So what’s he looking for in a business partner?

“There’s an element of connection you need,” he says. “You need to be able to feel like you don’t have to hold stuff back and can be brutally honest. In design, you can creatively get around a problem, but in business you have to be like ‘This is the reality of the situation – you need to sell X, Y and Z to be able to afford to make next season’. So I need to find someone I can talk with in that way. But, I need to find someone who understand what I’m trying to do and my brand and identity as well.”

His dream business partner is Shirley Cooke, the co-founder and former-CEO of Proenza Schouler, the brand of designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez.

“It’s a fine balance of being a strong business mind, but understanding what the brand is trying to do. She’s very cool, but she’s also this very hard businesswoman who sealed the deals and made the brand grow from being these two boys out of Parsons [School of Design], whose first collection sold to Barney’s straight off the runway of their graduate show.”

“I need to find my Shirley Cook out there in the world.”

But he’s not naive about the odds he’s up against and the amount of work it’s going to take for his brand to be a success. “Fashion’s just such a hard business to be in,” he says. “It’s so opinionated and fast-paced, a lot of money flowing in and out. It’s not easy.

“It’s one percent glamour for a hot second, then it’s back to stress and hard labour. There’s that hot second when you walk out on the runway and you’re like ‘Yeah cool. Thank you. Everyone loves me.’ Then you get backstage and it’s like, ‘How am I going to get back to the studio? I hope nobody broke anything’.”

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