Living in a tiny New York apartment in her twenties changed how Stephanie Beard thought about clothes. Her closet was just a few feet wide, so every sartorial possession had to count. After working for fashion houses such as Tommy Hilfiger and Converse, Beard moved to Austin. In 2014 she launched her own line, Esby, banking on her minimalist motto of having a few key items, including easy jumpers and flowy tops, made of quality fabrics that could withstand many wearings. Her South Austin store opened a year later. “I want people to feel comfortable in my apparel,” she says. “Comfort encourages confidence.” Read on for a Q&A with Beard about how she started her own collection, her staple pieces, and how she fell in love with Austin.
Texas Monthly: Where were you raised?
Stephanie Beard: I grew up in a little town called Pleasant Garden outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. I always had an interest in art and style and studied clothing and textiles at Appalachian State. My family didn’t travel much, so I didn’t get the big-city bug until I studied fashion abroad in London the summer before graduating from college. After that trip, my heart was set on moving to New York City.
TM: What was your first job in fashion?
SB: I flew to NYC to interview with Tommy Hilfiger right out of school and got the job on the spot! That was wild to me, but of course I accepted and moved there three weeks later. After several years at Tommy designing kidswear and boys, I accepted a designer position at Levi’s designing men’s tops.
TM: How did you like designing clothes for men?
SB: That was my first entry into the menswear business, and I was honestly lost. Luckily, I had a great boss and quickly picked up some skills on how to brand apparel for guys. Men tend to wear the same thing, so it’s hard to think about how to differentiate that. It was especially hard for me because I couldn’t wear the apparel because it didn’t fit my body. After a short stint at Levi’s, I landed at Converse for the majority of my corporate career. At Converse, I was introduced to all aspects of the business, from designing and marketing to cost and production. It later clicked that I had the skill set to start my own brand.
TM: Why did you decide to move to Austin?
SB: At Converse, each season was inspired by a different city. Austin first hit my radar when we designed a summer collection inspired by it. A coworker was sent to Austin to take photos and bring back inspiration for us. Said coworker had a bit too much fun and came back empty-handed! I then scoured the web for inspiration and fell for the warm weather, beautiful restaurants and hotels, succulents, limestone, and laid-back vibe.
TM: When did you decide to start Esby?
SB: Inspired by my time in menswear, I wanted to design high-quality apparel that would last. Fast fashion was starting to really gain traction in the industry, and women’s apparel seemed cheap and trendy. I felt like I didn’t have anything to buy that would really stand the test of time.
TM: How long did it take to get it off the ground?
SB: I started working with small factories in the U.S. to make samples of my designs in 2012 and was ready to launch by early 2014 but didn’t have the money to produce the collection. That’s when I decided to create a Kickstarter campaign and pre-sale for the first collection. The thirty-day campaign launched February 4, and I met my goal in 24 hours.
TM: We love all of the rich, earth-tone colors you use. How do you determine which colors to use each time?
SB: Each season is usually inspired by a certain city and its landscape as well as classic vintage pieces. We’ve had collections inspired by Marfa; Paris; Todos Santos, Mexico; and our current fall collection is inspired by Austin.
TM: Which pieces did you launch that first collection with?
SB: The first collection was small, but I launched with several easy tops in lightweight fabrics that are good for the heat of summer. I also launched with a button-down shirt, inspired by men’s button-downs but fitting a woman’s body. I also designed a few essential dresses. There are definitely iterations of that first collection still living in our current collections.
TM: You opened a brick-and-mortar flagship store in the fall of 2015. How did you decide to open that?
SB: We did a summer-long pop-up shop at Billy Reid here in Austin shortly after our launch. That’s when we realized a retail space would be the right decision for us. I was tipped off about this old garage space that was going to be for rent, and I knew it would be the perfect spot for our space. The space was really raw, so we got to have a lot of say in the buildout.
TM: What have been some of the best moments for Esby so far?
SB: We had our first international print piece this summer when Elle Decor Italia came to photograph our shop as a part of their piece on Austin. We’ve also had a few celebrity shoppers. One of my favorites was Zoë Kravitz wearing head-to-toe Esby while she performed a few years ago in New Orleans. We also had our first Esbyfest this year, which is a three-day festival of fashion, food, Q&A panels, and buying appointments that we hosted here in our hometown. It was a celebration of our tenth collection, and we had our very first fashion show. It was a success, and we plan to have Esbyfest as an annual event during SXSW.
TM: It seems like Esby has grown far beyond just Austin now.
SB: Yes. We are in approximately thirty stores nationally and a few internationally.
TM: What do you think of as the staple pieces of the line that you will always have?
SB: Jumpsuits, for sure. Our designs are so wearable, and such an easy, throw-on piece can get you out the door in minutes looking so pulled together. They started as a trend several years back, but I’m sure they are here to stay.
TM: What about all your great, easy-breezy fabrics?
SB: We always use all-natural fabrics, so our linen collection also isn’t going anywhere, and neither is our denim. For men, we’ve created elevated crew necks that can replace a basic tee as well as a relaxed-fit chino that we continue to run.
TM: How many new designs do you release with each collection?
SB: We produce two collections a year for both women and men. Our women’s collection sits around 38 pieces in various colors and prints, and we just finished designing our men’s collection for spring/summer 2019, which is 22 pieces. Each piece comes in a few different colors.
TM: What’s next for Esby?
SB: We are excited to be launching our first men’s swimwear for next spring, and we are planning to get into children’s wear in the next few years.