The Importance of Feedback with Melina of Keaton
As an undergrad, I have been so lucky as to hear about the newest ideas and innovations. One of those ideas came from a pitch I heard from Melina Flabiano about the Perfect Pant. She was clear about her mission: make women’s workwear for real working women. To do this, she talked to women and got feedback, crafted designs, and got feedback all over again. I got to talk with her about how she used her resources to build Keaton and the journey that brought her there.
What prompted you to start with the work pant?
I've always struggled to find work clothes that make me feel confident and powerful. My lightbulb moment to start Keaton was when I realized that 80% of women feel the same way! Through my research, I heard from over 300 women who vary in age, professional background, and income level. The majority really struggled to find outfit options they felt comfortable in. One woman said: "my work clothes are my armor in the corporate world. When I don't feel confident in how I'm dressed, it's so much harder to feel confident in other areas at work." Keaton was created to make clothes that are not only functionally superior, but that help you feel empowered to kick ass at work. We started with pants because this was the hardest item for women to shop for. We are currently in the process of designing additional styles—and we’d love to hear from you about what’s missing from your wardrobe!
“I felt prepared to take on these challenges because I constantly asked for help and guidance from those with more experience.”
What was the process of creating the Perfect Pant, from surveying working women to where it is today?
For most designers, the design process starts with inspiration. For me, I got this inspiration directly from my potential customers. I asked over 300 women about what was missing in their work wardrobes, and how pants could be improved. Women mentioned machine-washable and non-wrinkle fabric as being very important, in additional to functional details like pockets. From there, I worked with an experienced designer to sketch options and then created product samples. In the apparel design process, garments are fit using a “fit model” who represents the average body type of someone wearing the garment. Many brands use a professional model, who is often not exactly “average.” Our customers told me that fit through the thighs and booty were often too tight in other work pants. To remedy this, we used a fit model with regular-girl proportions to better mimic our actual customer. I make Keaton’s product in New York City so I can be close to the manufacturing process and make sure every garment is made exactly right. We placed a small order with our factory in April and we’re now selling online at www.wearkeaton.com!
Why did you chose to continue your education before starting your business?
I felt that getting at MBA from Wharton was a no-regrets career move. Coming from the corporate world, I saw how much my colleagues were gaining from an MBA, in terms of both knowledge and network. Wharton is becoming known for retail/consumer expertise and has birthed startups that I really admire, including LOLA (where I interned), Warby Parker, and Allbirds. I wanted to learn from the best! Additionally, I was able to test Keaton in an environment where I could receive near-constant feedback and support. I was granted resources and financing to support the business in the early days, which allowed me to take on the expensive task of designing and product and purchasing initial inventory without having to fundraise.
Being in your first year of launching the Perfect Pant, what challenges were unexpected and what challenges did you feel prepared for?
It was difficult to make the jump from having the idea for Keaton to actually creating our first product. Coming from the corporate world, I had little familiarity with the process of how to design and create a garment from scratch. I interviewed over 300 young professional women to develop the pant and worked with a designer to incorporate these features. I had to track down vendors including a designer, manufacturer, and material suppliers. As a small brand, I had to negotiate at every step to convince them to work with me and provide me attractive pricing. I forced myself to go out of my comfort zone and created something that I'm really proud of. I felt prepared to take on these challenges because I constantly asked for help and guidance from those with more experience. I’m lucky to have a team of advisers from across the retail and startup world who have gone through this process and can help me navigate it.
How did you go about finding those people who can provide feedback, especially early on?
An MBA program is a great environment to solicit feedback on business ideas. I had hundreds of women in my classes who were willing to provide their experiences shopping for workwear. I also wanted a diverse set of responses, so I had friends from various professional backgrounds share my survey with their friends and colleagues. This ensured that I wasn’t overrepresenting groups like consultants and bankers, who are very common in business school. To find my advisors, I turned to people who I’d worked with before whose opinions I trusted. I also tapped the network of alumni from my undergraduate and graduate schools to connect with professionals I admired. Most were extremely generous with their time and were willing to “pay it forward” and help a new entrepreneur like me.
Where do you seeing Keaton becoming in the next few years? How do you know what is the next step?
The Perfect Pant is just the beginning for Keaton. We are in the process of designing 3-4 additional styles in collaboration with our customers. I don’t want to spill the beans on what these items are just yet, but stay tuned! In a few years, I see Keaton as the leading brand dressing and speaking to early-career women. The process of shopping for work clothes is rife with anxiety for many women and there are so many considerations to navigate. For example, women want to know how to dress appropriately for various work occasions while being comfortable and expressing their personal style. How people “work” is shifting very quickly and it’s hard to answer these questions. Keaton is the brand that women turn to for a wardrobe that helps them feel confident in any work environment.
Melina Flabiano started her career at McKinsey & Company in Dallas serving traditional retail brands. A lifelong fashion lover (her mom and grandmother were in the sewing industry), she loved working with apparel and consumer brands and focused on combining qualitative customer insights with data to solve retailers’ challenges. After speaking with colleagues and friends, she noted a lack of options for young professional women’s office wear. She decided to start Keaton to address this need. Keaton's Perfect Pant is machine washable, non-wrinkle, and has large front pockets--design details informed by conversations with over 300 women. Keaton’s pant is the first product in a series of women’s workwear essentials that we’re developing in collaboration with our customers.