n an unseasonably warm November day in New York City, Sarah Staudinger is wearing a $250 short-sleeved black knit wool-rayon-blend jumpsuit from the first collection of her three-year-old label, Staud. “I love it because it zips all the way up and turns into a turtleneck,” she says. “It’s super comfortable and it doesn’t wrinkle.”
The jumpsuit is exactly the kind of piece—timeless, chic and affordable—she hoped to create when she launched her direct-to-consumer Los Angeles-based womenswear brand in 2015 with money from friends and family. At the time, she saw a niche waiting to be filled between fast fashion and luxury. “People making less than $100,000 a year shouldn’t have to shop at Zara or Forever 21 or TopShop,” she says. The jumpsuit was one of her first big sellers, along with the Moreau, a $375 leather bucket bag encased in macramé.
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But before Staud could truly take off, Staudinger had to correct an early judgment call. Certain that her customers would want to customize each piece, she sank thousands into tech that gave them the option to choose sleeve and pants lengths. The concept was a flop. “People wanted a simpler, cleaner process,” she admits. Within a month she had abandoned the strategy. Sales accelerated from there. Today, she says, the brand is profitable. Forbes estimates 2018 revenue will reach $20 million, five times its 2017 numbers, driven by sales online and at stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Last year Burch Creative Capital, the fund run by J. Christopher Burch (ex-husband of fashion mogul Tory) invested $1.6 million, valuing Staud at $10 million, according to PitchBook. “Sarah has a unique point of view amidst a sea of sameness,” Burch says. Staud’s success landed Staudinger on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30 list in the Art Style category.
Staudinger, 29, grew up surrounded by fashion. Her mother, Joanna, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, designed her own shoe line and rhinestone-studded T-shirts she sold at the trendy L.A. retailer Fred Segal. As a child in Pacific Palisades, California, Sarah rounded up friends and staged pretend runway shows wearing her mother’s shoes. Her German-immigrant father, who worked in real estate, was a stylish dresser, preferring monochrome outfits in white and black.
Staudinger knew she wanted to start her own company but waffled about whether to study business or to pursue a more creative route. She wound up at the New School in New York, where she took fashion courses at Parsons School of Design. She flirted with editorial fashion work, interning at Men’s Vogue while she was in school until the magazine went under in late 2008. After graduation she worked as fashion director for Reformation, an online clothing retailer in L.A. that focused on sustainable fashion, such as garments made from leftover fabric.
From there, she zeroed in on the niche she wanted to fill, and with a partner, George Augusto, she launched Staud. The brand has attracted celebrities like Dakota Johnson, who turned to Staud for her off-camera outfits while she was filming 50 Shades of Grey. And Staudinger was floored when Oprah’s stylist walked into Staud’s New York City showroom and requested a custom-fit dress in white cotton poplin, plus a selection of bags. Zoe Saldana and Claire Danes have also been photographed carrying Staud bags.
In 2016, the fashion director for the British online retailer Net-a-Porter appeared in Staud’s L.A. office and asked her to design a capsule collection for the site. Staudinger wasn’t eager to enter the lower-margin wholesale market but has since struck deals with select brick and mortar partners including Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Selfridge’s in London, Le Bon Marché in Paris, and Lane Crawford, which has a big presence in Hong Kong and China. Wholesale accounts for 60% of revenue, but she would like to flip that number to 40%, since the direct-to-consumer business is more profitable.
As Staud’s marketing has expanded, Staudinger has focused on creating what she calls “retorial,” a mashup of retailing and editorial images. Instead of displaying her garments against a blank background, like most e-tailers do, she designs Instagram-ready sets with themes, like Gilligan’s Island for the spring 2018 collection, with sand, canoes, and the castaways’ suitcases in the background.
After New York, Staudinger is flying to Paris, where she will meet with the Lithuanian technical shoe designer who handles production in Portugal of Staud’s new line of nine shoe styles, available in Spring 2019. Staudinger is 5 feet 11 and has a tough time tracking down size 11 for her own closet. “We’ll definitely carry that size,” she says.
Reach Susan Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover image by Jamel Toppin for Forbes.