By Karen Smith
Krystal and Christina Phillips launched the clothing line Marie + Annette
and learned that entrepreneurial grit is the most fabulous look of all.
Marie + Annette dresses are not for everybody. If you are reticent to show your arms, or looking for a dress to camouflage a few extra inches on your waistline, then you will not find it here. Marie + Annette, the clothing line founded by sisters and business partners, Christina and Krystal Phillips, makes dresses expressly for the social butterfly who likes to hit the town in an impeccable party dress and isn’t afraid to show a little skin. Nope, not for everybody. But for a growing throng of fashion enthusiasts in New York and around the country via the internet, there is nothing like the sumptuous quality and alluring fit of a Marie + Annette design. The Phillips sisters know their client base well, because essentially, their first clients were themselves.
Five years ago, when Christina and Krystal were twenty-something college grads with million-dollar physiques and hundred-dollar budgets, they grew frustrated searching for the perfect party dress. Stylish frocks from chain stores would crumble after a few wears, and quality garments from designer boutiques carried price tags in the thousands. They couldn’t seem to find the right combination of style, quality, and fit, and they began to wonder if there were other women like them in the same untapped niche market.
“We had been talking about starting a clothing line since we were kids. It was always a dream of ours,” recalls Krystal. In fact, her admissions essay for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York detailed her desire to become a fashion designer, but when she attended the school, she majored in product management and merchandising because she felt that the technical skills would make her more viable to potential employers. Meanwhile, her sister, Christina, studied business and marketing at Clark University in Atlanta. After graduation, Christina and Krystal’s ambitions began to shift: their childhood fantasy of starting a fashion line had morphed into a compelling raison d’etre. “We realized that if we didn’t make a plan and work toward it then it would never really happen. So we took the plunge.” says Christina.
They decided to name the label Marie + Annette (their middle names), and set to work creating a business plan, compiling start-up funds (from their own savings plus small contributions from friends and family), and designing their first collection. Starting a new business entails a certain degree of risk, but the young sisters were not without resources for their fledgling fashion label. Christina was working in sales for a housewares manufacturer and had gained a first-hand knowledge of how retail markets work to complement the theoretical understanding of business operations that she had acquired in business school. Krystal was working as a product manager at Macy’s, which was essentially a master’s class in manufacturing, sourcing, quality control, and pricing. After one year of designing, planning, and scrambling, Marie + Annette’s inaugural collection was launched in September of 2015.
Over the past three years, Marie + Annette has built a client base of several thousand women, through e-commerce sales on their website and small presentations during New York Fashion Week. But their most successful sales tactic is still word-of-mouth. It generally consists of a woman in a Marie + Annette dress being asked “who are you wearing,” by a stranger at a party. The number of dresses they have manufactured and sold has increased each season, and Krystal’s mentor, Betty Paul, a pattern-making professor at FIT who is also the assistant vice president of production at Nicole Miller, has helped the duo navigate the labyrinth of New York’s apparel factories as they ramp up production to meet their clients’ demands.
On the other hand, for two girls who once dreamed of starting a clothing line, and now sit atop a successful fashion start-up, nothing on the horizon is outside the realm of possibility.
A few large clothing manufacturers have expressed interest in acquiring Marie + Annette, but for now, Krystal and Christina are focused on expanding their client base and defining their aesthetic. Their designs are available at several small boutiques in New York, and they are cautiously examining the costs and benefits of selling their dresses at national department stores, but they adamantly refuse to sacrifice the quality of their clothes to meet standard retail price points. “Fast fashion is the enemy,” says Christina. “We are more interested in creating luxury garments of excellent quality, and we would prefer to grow slowly and organically than to compromise our values.” In the future, they hope to expand into a comprehensive luxury lifestyle brand, with a portfolio of handbags, perfume, sunglasses, and shoes, but they recognize that this is a goal that sits far out on the horizon. On the other hand, for two girls who once dreamed of starting a clothing line, and now sit atop a successful fashion start-up, nothing on the horizon is outside the realm of possibility.