When Thomas Edison was asked about his approach to innovation, he said, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”
It was that same kind of problem-solving mentality that inspired Carrie Hammer, the country’s most exciting designer of customizable professional women’s wear, to ditch her job in digital marketing and sales and explore her passion for design.
Hammer launched her line in 2012 and has since developed a diverse collection of pieces she calls “CEO chic.” Unlike other retailers who specialize in business attire, Hammer incorporates a variety of color and pattern variations, offers sizing from 0 to 36, and tries to avoid going above a $400 price point.
Aside from the stylistic elements that separate Hammer from her competitors, the San Diego native has earned accolades from both fashionistas and feminists for her use of real women in her runway shows. Her mantra? “Role models, not runway models.” Hammer first debuted the controversial — yet inspiring — casting at 2014’s New York Fashion Week, when she featured successful females like “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, Miss USA Nana Meriwether and psychologist Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, who just so happened to strut the catwalk in a wheelchair.
For her latest collection, which debuted at NYFW last month, Hammer continued to make bold casting choices by including even more role models with physical disabilities. She also invited actress Jamie Brewer (“American Horror Story”) to participate, making her the first woman with Down syndrome to walk at New York Fashion Week.
In an exclusive interview with Not Impossible Now for our Women Innovators Series, Hammer discusses the reason why she exited the tech sphere in favor of the fashion industry, and why real women are way more inspiring than runway models.
NIN: Which came first: Your love of innovation and technology or your love of fashion?
Hammer: I think I developed both at the same time. My love of fashion is in my blood. I was born with it. Plus, my love of innovation is part of my genes, too. But it’s funny because my parents are not into fashion at all. My dad shops at Costco and he’s always telling about the 3-for-$10 jean sale. (Laughs.)
In third grade, I was all about needlepoint and then in fourth grade, I asked for a sewing machine for Christmas. When I was in eighth grade, I would invite all my friends over and produce a fashion show with them: I’d dress them up in my clothes and style them. In retrospect, I realize that wasn’t normal, so I can connect the dots backwards, but I never connected the dots when I was that age, which I think is pretty common.
It’s interesting that you pursued an entirely different career before landing upon being a fashion designer. How did you choose that initial path — and what made you switch lanes?
Hammer: When I first graduated from school, I chose the smart, safe, good job that was really relevant at the time I graduated: Internet marketing and sales. I did love it. I was good at it and it taught me all sorts of important things. Looking back now, I can see that I was in the “success lane”: You go to high school; you get good grades and good SAT scores; you go to college and have the good major, etc. You get funneled into being told what “success” is, which is having a good job that pays well. I was so swept up in that wave, but once things kinda calmed down, I thought, “You know what? This isn’t it. This isn’t what I’m meant to be doing.” It became clearer and I once I thought more about it, I was able to make that switch.
How did you land on the vision for the company?
Hammer: It was something that kind of chose me. It was always there from the beginning and also revealed itself to me while I was still in advertising. When I was working, I was really disappointed by the lack of options available for professional women. There are pretty much three stores and they’re all the same. Now, all my male colleagues were getting things tailored, so I went to one of their tailors and said I wanted to get a couple dresses made. I asked if they could do that and they said they didn’t do women’s clothing. I said, “Oh, no problem. Can you refer me to someone who does?” That’s when she said there really isn’t anyone who does what I’m looking for with professional women’s wear.
I didn’t think about it too much, but I had some designs in my head that I wanted and found some independent tailors who could make some things for me. People would then stop me on the street and ask me where I got my dress. The clothing wasn’t even designed all that crazy, it was just really all about the fit. That’s when you’re most comfortable and feel most beautiful, when something is properly tailored. That’s when I realized advertising just wasn’t my calling, so I left my job and went to fashion school at Parsons in Paris for the summer. Then, when I got back, I started my company.
Some would consider that a pretty big risk — to turn down the stable career trajectory in favor of unknown territory. Were you worried about making such a drastic professional change?
Hammer: When I left for Paris, a lot of people thought I was doing some kind of “Eat, Pray, Love” thing. (Laughs.) A lot of people really rolled their eyes when I left my job.
You really showed them! So, once you returned from Paris, how did you hone in on those first signature designs?
Hammer: When I first came back, all my friends were excited to see me, so I put together a Paperless Post invitation that was for a welcome-back party called “New Venture Ideation Gathering.” I had 25 or 40 of my friends over. There were no empty seats in my apartment. I had a white board up on my wall and told them about my idea, and said I need all of their feedback. I showed them my designs and then I asked, “What do you want in a dress?” That’s where I got my original inspiration.
Was there anything that surprised you about the initial feedback?
Hammer: The things that most surprised me were [my friends wanting] fleece because it gets so cold out in the winter and offices can be chilly. And pockets. They said they’d buy anything with pockets!
What did you find to be most challenging when first starting your business?
Hammer: At the beginning, I actually think the most difficult thing was convincing customers that this is much better than what you get. It was convincing them custom is better than off the rack, and Carrie Hammer custom is the best! With men, they’ve been getting custom-designed clothing forever, so they understand custom is great. But when I was able to convince women, I got customers for life because they feel so much better so why would they go back? They’ll always beautiful and empowered and amazing.
Seeing that you have such a strong background in the digital space, what do you consider the biggest “disruption” to the fashion industry, in terms of technology?
Hammer: I think 3-D printing is going to be really huge. I mean, it’s already huge right now. The cost is going to go down so much, so quickly, that we’re all going to have 3-D printers in our homes. I envision that we’re all going to become fashion designers. I think that’s pretty cool. Designs are going to be put into the hands of the consumer, which makes things more top-down than bottom-up. This sort of mass customization is something technology has been able to do and it’s incredibly important. Fashion is all about personality and expression. Talk about inspiring.
Looking back on all the things that you’ve accomplished — so far — what are you most proud of?
Hammer: Probably my show during New York Fashion Week. First of all, to even show at NYFW has been a dream my entire life. It was a huge honor and a huge, huge thrill. We did a thing called “Role Models, Not Runway Models,” which featured these amazing, badass, incredible women on the runway instead of the usual runway models. Why would I use anyone else when my clients are such great role models? That was an amazing accomplishment. One of the models, [Dr. Danielle Sheypuk], also happened to be in a wheelchair and we were the first-ever collection to show at NYFW to feature a woman in a wheelchair. We didn’t even realize it at the time, but a reporter did their research and told us about it.
Congratulations are in in order because Mic awarded that as one of the 39 most iconic feminist moments of 2014. Did you have any idea the casting would get so much attention?
Hammer: I thought maybe my friends and colleagues would recognize the show, but I had no freakin’ clue that it would get any kind of recognition. I’m beyond honored and thrilled that it did. What an unintended and beautiful side effect. To have this incredible platform where we can continue to do this and honor more women as role models is awesome.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give budding female innovators that has helped serve you best in your professional/personal journey?
Hammer: The best things in my life have always come from situations that made me the most uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to just put a line in the sand, say you can do it and then figure it out later. Plus, keep trying until you make it happen because you don’t always get it on the first try.
Learn more about Carrie Hammer at her website. Not Impossible Now’s Women Innovators series is a monthly piece profiling the best in the business. Previous subjects include Jessica Lawrence, Marnie Webb and Sophie de Oliveira Barata.
They are our heroes. They inspire possibility. They make all of us … better.
Top photo credit: Matthew Castanos