Normally, I’d start this post talking about the dreamy dress I’m wearing [and I’ll certainly get there]. However, I’m going to take a slightly different tack while discussing MAE – also known as MAE’d In NYC. Why? Well, the founder has a fascinating story of personal drive and personal style. Sarah Mae risked a lot to launch her eponymous brand. She self-funded her first collection. Now, that leap is paying off! Not only are her unabashedly feminine looks finding favor with shoppers, but also her focus on slow fashion and sustainable production.
In this post, the former Kate Spade designer shares her experiences bouncing back from pandemic job loss and what it’s like to launch a business/brand in the midst of a pandemic. Sarah has insightful advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and a few teachable moments regarding the impact of fast fashion. Ready to dive in?
Before I share our interview, I want to briefly explain how I connected with Sarah Mae. An “overdresser” myself, I first spotted her designs on social media. Let’s just say it was love at first sight. I was practially salivating! There is something so happy and joyfully feminine about MAE styles. Her pieces, like the Eliza dress (which I am wearing), are highly unique. They make a statement, but are also the type of styles you know will stand the test of time. I had to learn more…
Can you imagine Audrey Hepurn wearing this dress? I can! Women who love vintage fashion and classic cuts will be expecially drawn to MAE, as Sarah is a lover of fashion history and nostalgia. Consequently, I reached out to Sarah for this post – not the other way around. I knew her voice would be of interest to you guys. Her perspective on style, elegance, and ethical fashion is enlightening.
A lot of little girls dream of designing beautiful, feminine dresses, but you made that dream a reality. How did you know fashion was the career for you?
I’ve been extremely lucky that I’ve had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to do since I was about 13. My high school hosted a charity fashion show every year, called PUNCH, that was extremely instrumental in helping me realize my dream. My mom taught me to sew, and I created collections each year of high school. The program made me realize how much I loved not only sewing, but the entire process of creating collections. From there, I went on to study fashion at Washington University in St. Louis before entering the industry.
Can you tell us a bit about your early start in the fashion industry and what your role with Kate Spade entailed?
My early years in the industry included a few resume-building internships, including time at Marchesa, Michael Kors and ultimately Kate Spade. After graduating from college, I landed my first full time job as a coordinator at Kate. I was there for almost six years in total and loved every single minute of it. I worked my way up from coordinator to assistant, associate and then designer – I covered nearly 20 categories from womenswear and childrenswear to flip flops and umbrellas. There were even a few years of going back and forth to Tokyo while working on the international childrenswear collection. Everything I learned at Kate – whether technical skill or general industry know-how – I use in my day-to-day at MAE.
MAE feels so whimsical and romantic. Can you talk to us about your aesthetic and design inspiration?
The brand is reflection of my own style – unabashedly feminine, always colorful, often sparkly and sometimes quirky. I personally shop almost exclusively vintage and second-hand clothing, which is my main source of inspiration. Decades-wise, I lean toward the 50s and 60s – my closet is full of fit and flare skirts and mod shift dresses! I am not a trendy person, and the brand isn’t either – there is something incredible about a timeless piece of clothing that will be as chic in 50 years as it is now. My goal is to create pieces that are so well-crafted and designed that people will wear them for years to come and may be even hand them down one day.
You started this brand during the pandemic and after losing a job you loved. That sounds a bit daunting (some might say terrifying). What convinced you to take the leap?
Terrifying is definitely the word I would use! I was so nervous to tell people about MAE because I thought they would think I was crazy to launch a luxury fashion brand in the middle of a pandemic! When I lost my job at Kate Spade, I started interviewing with other companies for a few months, but ultimately realized that what wanted wasn’t in my LinkedIn search. I spent some time going back through my sketch books and I realized that I had been drawing the MAE logo for years without even realizing it! From there I just started sketching and asking myself what it was I really wanted to make – and with that MAE was born.
How did you prepare (financially, logistically, mentally) to launch MAE? There’s a lot of architecture that goes into building a brand… What were your key steps?
I wish I could say that I was immensely strategic in my launch of MAE. However, it really was an enormous leap of faith. I self-funded the first collection from my savings (which was terrifying!). But this forced me to be smart and scrappy with my ideas and choices. I had a few contacts from Kate Spade that I called for advice, but since Kate’s production is all overseas, there weren’t many resources I had in New York to pull on. Ultimately, I did a lot of research and found a few incredible women to help me produce the first pieces. Once I figured out the actual apparel production side, I moved onto designing all the logos, graphics, packaging, website layouts, etc – which I did myself because I didn’t have any budget. As for preparing mentally – I’m still getting there!
What advice would you offer other aspiring female entrepreneurs?
First, take an enormous deep breath and remember that you know more than you think you do, and whatever you don’t know you’ll figure out along the way. Second, trust your gut – if you’re doing this on your own, then it’s your best friend. And third, be kind. Every person you meet along the way is a potential friend, helper, investor, guide, guru – you never know. Industries are small (especially fashion!) and the more people you can have on your side the better.
People outside the small business world occasionally look at entrepreneurs and assume the success of those entrepreneurs is the result of a smooth, easy ride. What has been the most challenging – and most rewarding aspect of launching your own brand?
The hardest part, which I’m sure every small business owner could attest to, is being the head of everything. I’m the CEO, CFO, Creative Director, Intern, Packager, Mailer, Customer Service – you name it! It’s mentally and physically exhausting, especially when I also have to design and be creative each day. But that’s also the best part – for the first time in my career I have total design autonomy. When you work in corporate fashion, your ideas and designs go through so many people before they reach stores (if they even do), so being able to see my concept from sketch all the way through to a purchase is the most rewarding feeling.
MAE is slow, luxury fashion. How would you explain the key differences between slowand fast fashion to women who’ve come of age more accustomed to the latter?
Absolutely – it’s my favorite topic! First a few definitions: Fast fashion is the practice of creating, buying, wearing and discarding clothes in a fast and often unethical manner. The over production and over consumption of cheaply made clothing causes an enormous strain on our environment, including textile waste, water pollution, landfill build up and unequal labor and working conditions. On the other hand, slow fashion champions thoughtfully made, quality pieces meant to last. Slow fashion garments are made from fair-trade and/or sustainable fabrics by workers paid fair labor wages. They often are from smaller brands that produce locally or support artisanal trades – like MAE!
Why slow fashion? You’ve talked about wanting to inspire women to buy less but wear more. Can you expand on that?
Working in corporate fashion opened my eyes to the industry’s enormous issues with overproduction and overconsumption. When I first started learning about slow fashion, there was one statistic that jumped out at me: “out of the 150B garments produced per year, 50% of them are disposed in under one year.” That’s INSANE. I want to inspire women to purchase pieces that are timeless and are meant to last a lifetime.
There are lots of easy ways to shop “slower” – here are a few:
(This is a great article to learn more about slow fashion and more information like the statistic above: https://sharecloth.com/blog/reports/apparel-overproduction)
Your pieces are exquisite, and their price tag reflects that artistry. What do you want people to know about the quality, construction, process, etc. of what you do?
Thank you! A large part of being a slow fashion brand is being committed to quality. First, MAE pieces are handmade to order in NYC. Our production team is very small, and I work one on one with the extremely talented seamstresses and patternmakers who create each piece. I also touch every single garment myself, whether it is hand stitching final details or draping our enormous signature bows! Second, our pieces are constructed with the highest quality materials from fair trade countries like Italy, France and South Korea. We also work with a variety of deadstock fabrics sourced in the NYC garment district – these are fabrics that have been leftover or discarded by large companies or fabric mills and are destined for landfills. The most important thing I want people to know is genuinely how much effort, time and care goes into making our pieces. They are coming from a designer that genuinely cares about quality and process.
Finally, what’s the BEST fashion advice you’ve ever heard/recieved?
There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that I absolutely love – “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” And in my opinion, we should always try to be both!
A few quick notes about the Eliza dress, Sarah so kindly sent to me. What a work of ART – fully lined, beautifully constructed and 100 percent silk. It also comes in red, black, and white – How perfect for a bridal shower dress, right? I felt like a princess wearing it. Sarah makes all MAE pieces to order, so they take 2-6 weeks to ship.
Shop the collection: CLICK HERE