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Financiers turned fashionistas get creative in New York

Updated: 2017-02-25 07:10

Financiers turned fashionistas get creative in New York

Eric Steffen's small workshop in a friend's house in industrial Brooklyn is a far cry from the glass skyscraper on Madison Avenue where he worked as an investment banker. [Photo/Agencies]

NEW YORK - His small workshop in a friend's house in industrial Brooklyn is a far cry from the glass skyscraper on Madison Avenue where he worked as an investment banker. But Eric Steffen is happy.

Aged 39, he's ditched his career in finance to reinvent himself as a menswear designer. At a table in the low-hanging, windowless basement, he unrolls denim and velvet. In a room on the ground floor stand a dozen sewing machines bought from a factory that went bankrupt.

It may have been a difficult leap and the success of his nascent company, Fitted Underground, far from assured. But in a city like New York, where fashion is a major industry and looking smart is a must, Steffen is not the only well-paid professional dreaming of a more creative job.

"I really enjoyed it. It was very fast-paced and I enjoyed the skill-set," the former investment banker says of his previous job.

"But I was not happy with a business where the model is maximizing shareholders' values. Productivity was my greatest asset: that's great for a machine, but not so great for a human being!"

But why tailoring? Steffen had always struggled to find the perfect pair of jeans for his former footballer legs. After getting a suit made to measure, he no longer wanted to buy ready-to-wear.

But with no design experience, he had to get some training: initially through private lessons and at New York's famous Fashion Institute of Technology, which offers relatively affordable night classes.

In April 2014, Steffen resigned from J.P. Morgan with the support of his wife, who was prepared to help financially. Nearly three years later, he has around 100 clients, "all word of mouth," and hopes sales of his $400 made-to-measure jeans will enable him to take on a staff.

'Word of mouth'

In contrast to his former employer, Steffen says he wants a company with a "more holistic business model" that maximizes "all the stakeholders' values, not just shareholders."

Not all fashion converts share Steffen's idealism, but many of them past the age of 30, are looking for personal fulfillment after slaving away round the clock for years at high-pressured New York companies.

That's the case for Gauri Sikka, 38, who is preparing to ditch her 10-year career in banking in April to launch a line of luxury dog clothes.

"Ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted to get into fashion," she says. "But back then, it was not considered as a respectable profession." Her father insisted she earn an MBA, so she did.

"My husband and I, we don't have any kids, we have dogs," she says. "They're like our kids, so we don't compromise: if I like something, even if it's a $100 sweater, I'll buy it."

After night classes at FIT and thanks to savings and her husband's support, she can now devote herself to her passion and has founded her own company, The Doggie Days.

She sees New York as a perfect niche market with so many well-paid professionals willing and able to spend lavishly on their pets.

One of her first creations is a cashmere bandanna, which her Maltese Dior has already modeled. She hopes to sell them for around $50.

Close to burning out

Former lawyer Nisha Jain specialized in mergers and acquisitions at one of Manhattan's most reputable firms.

Close to burning out in 2012, she abandoned her lavish salary to work, first as an intern then for pay at a ready-to-wear brand.

A year ago, she launched her own website "Niche Mrkt," which sells clothes for petite women such as herself.

Now a young mother, she still does legal work on the side to supplement her income, but says she is happy to have found an industry "that allows me to be more creative."

"I dictate what I do instead of being at the mercy of a law firm," she says.

All three entrepreneurs say they use the skills they acquired in their previous jobs daily: communication, negotiation and simply understanding how finance and businesses work.

And if their plans don't work out?

"In the worst case, if I fail," Sikka says, "I can always go back."

Agence France-Presse


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