On fashion, life and design: Marion Zaniello

On fashion, life and design: Marion Zaniello

I was introduced to Marion through a friend, back when I was a Photographic Art Director pinning to be a designer. We had lunch, she was Design Director for Halogen at Nordstrom and I thought nothing sounded better. She was serious and lighthearted, talking to her put a spark in my step and made me excited for everything.

I would later write down my dream designer job – where I worked on her team, earned this much, did these things every day, and felt this way about my life. Then I forgot about it because it was clear I needed design school before I could have such a job. 
 
Fast forward five years, post school, I’m working with her on a design team at Nordstrom, and when cleaning my studio I found that vision and was like,
holy shit, this is exactly my life right now. How did this happen? I think that’s how setting intention works. We are constantly supported by the universe in our true intentions, and experiences like this are proof. If it’s meant to be, you trust the process and leave the rest to the universe.

As I’ve been working to build my brand, I’m lucky to call Marion a design mentor and sounding board. We got together recently over coffee/tele, here’s some highlights from our conversation and her stylings of the nightdresses.

 


Describe your life right now.

MZ-------We live in Park City Utah in the mountains, a half hour east of Salt Lake City. We moved here for my husband Ben’s job a year and a half ago, we [all 5 of us] were hesitant to leave Seattle because we loved it so much. But we’ve found we really appreciate the outdoors - the mountains, hiking, mountain biking, Nordic skiing - there’s so many lifelong sports here to continue learning.

 How is social distancing going for you?

MZ-------It has brought our family closer together. It has meant that my husband doesn’t travel anymore – and it’s actually been really nice. You know, you get used to routines, especially to a significant other being gone so much, and if that changes you worry it won’t work out, but in fact it’s been really nice. 
 
Having kids around all the time has its struggles because they’ve lost their structure. But it allows us to interact as a family as we haven’t before. We’ve had to be more accepting of one another, I think that’s a good exercise as a family. We get to watch more movies together and not feel too guilty. Not getting kids up at 6:30 for 7:30 out the door has been really nice.

 


How was it for you leaving your design job? 

MZ-------It was really tough. I had a nice flexible job situation with Nordstrom. I knew I’d never have that type of setup again, it’s rare in our industry. I loved the people I worked with. That’s the area missing for me in my life here – the job, that environment. But on the flip side, I have reminded myself how much I love the mountains – I grew up hiking, backpacking, camping and skiing every winter since I was six. After living in the city for decades, I feel very at home here. 

How did you come to be a designer?

MZ-------As the youngest of four children, I got all the hand me downs. Before my mom went back to law school she taught my sisters and I how to taper our Levi’s. I thought, this is so cool, I can use my sewing machine to alter my clothes and they become something new. I’ve never been a great sewer, but I loved the feeling of making something and wearing it to school the next day, I always got such positive feedback. It became my defining trait. 

I lost it a bit in college, studying art history and French; and only after graduating did I realize how much I missed making clothes. After four years of academic studies, I wanted to get back to that tactile experience, and so I pursued a fashion design program. I was worried my family would think my college years were a waste - fashion is not an intellectual field - but in fact they were very supportive, and when I got back into sewing and learning patternmaking it just felt right.  

Tell me about your time working at Nanette Lepore – what was your job, how did you work together, what  was your favorite part?

MZ-------Before I worked for her, I worked for a Liz Claiborne company, it was very corporate. Nanette was a new up and coming designer and I really wanted to work for a small company. She owned the business with her husband, her dad re-mortgaged his house to give her seed money in the 90s. When I joined in 2001 it was very small, the design team was Nanette and two woven designers. We did everything - fabric sourcing, print design, embroidery design, working with the sample room to create our designs. And we’d do what you would consider the production teams job - consulting with the Cutter, especially when prints were being cut; we did all the costing and pricing, and yardage yields. It was really a wonderful learning experience on what it takes to run a small business. I had dreams of doing my own line, but after spending a couple years there I felt maybe I don’t want to run my own company – I loved being a part of realizing others visions and making that happen. 

 


How is that experience different from working as a Design Director on a corporate private label?

MZ-------It was a big transition for me not having a sample room, I was very used to going from idea to garment. Nanette would have us drape ideas before we’d sketch and give it to the patternmaker. While that was not always the cheapest way to work, it was certainly artful, and made us all realize 2d doesn’t always come through in 3d. This whole process was not available to us at Nordstrom, but you have a technical designer – and they are amazingly talented – but ultimately its best-guess work. You hope you articulated your idea well enough in your sketch and tech pack for the factory to get it right. Six weeks later you get your sample back and that’s your sample, there’s no time for changes.
 
We never had meetings at Nanette Lepore, they just didn’t exist. She said, why would we waste our time with meetings? There were pros and cons. Nanette’s company grew organically along every part of the process, at Nordstrom you are much more siloed. You are not as involved in the development of the styles, it’s a much less tactile experience and you go to a lot of meetings, there are processes to follow – but also a more realistic business environment. And those efficiencies at Nordstrom have paid off for the business.

Do you think it’s possible today for a designer to work as you did with Nanette?
What would they need to make that feasible?

MZ-------Yes. I think it’s about the timing of your deliveries and having a sample room. Small designers would like to change the course of how fashion operates on a season, and because you are small, you have the advantage of working the way you want, with your deliveries. It depends on who you work with. Some buyers will want things shipped in real time – buy now wear now – which is more realistic and where the industry is headed. You don’t need to operate on the scale of the big guys.
 
Having a sample room is where the development of a style happens as you move through the idea, iterating and making big and little changes until it looks right. I think there’s some devaluing of the creative process that goes into actually making something – how the idea changes and improves as you work with it. That’s an important part of the process.

What do you want people outside of the fashion industry to know about our industry?

MZ-------I think there’s a real stigma attached to our industry as a bunch of dumb, frivolous partiers. People see the media side – the magazines, the models, the fashion shows, the movies, and they think it’s all about the party lifestyle. They have no clue how hard we all work. I’m always struck by how much talent I’ve been lucky enough to work with throughout my career, and how smart and driven these people are. My own family has made comments on how people in my industry aren’t particularly smart, but they have a very narrow definition of what “smart" means. Fashion design is a business, just like any other, that has a bottom line to meet. To be a good designer you need to be savvy about what it is you are trying to accomplish. 💛