There are dreamers and there are doers. We all know them: that one friend with all the big ideas but never does anything about them, and the other one absolutely nailing life thanks, in part, to just getting stuff done. It might sound simple but when you really think of it, some of the most successful people we know aren’t necessarily more talented or able than we are. The only thing that separates them is the fact that they’ve consciously made a habit of making decisions each day that keeps things moving. They seize new opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to them; and venture into new territories while learning on the job without being struck down with imposter syndrome. Enter Cynthia Sakai.
Despite being born into a family with close ties to the fashion industry, her impressive professional trajectory is down to her and her alone. She traded in college to start her first fashion business right out of a high school – an accessories line including handmade tampon cases sold at the likes of Ulta and Sephora – before opening a multi-brand showroom in her early twenties and her current jewellery line, Vita Fede that counts the likes of Jessica Alba and Emma Stone as fans. After founding the business in L.A., she recently relocated her team of 30 people to a new headquarters in New York with 60 more employees spread throughout offices across the world. She did not take business classes, nor did she have a blueprint to follow. She’s worked through her businesses and learned from her mistakes – and with the goal of turning the label into a full-fledged luxury accessories brand – shoes, bags, the works – this is only the beginning.
Here she talks about the challenges of starting a business in your teens and wanting to be taken seriously, where the idea for Vita Fede came from and why all entrepreneurs need to learn how to deal with criticism.
ON WHAT SPARKED HER INTEREST IN FASHION: I’ve always loved to create ever since I was young. I came from a creative family. It was all about attention to detail and only using the finest quality materials that could be sourced. Their approach was blending cultures. My grandmother would source Parisian fabrics and mix them with Japanese silhouettes. My father was an architect and my mother worked for the Fendi family opening stores for them and eventually opened her own retail store. The process of imagining something and having it become reality has always been thrilling for me – being creative is what I know how to do. I am a dreamer and have always known deep down that I would spend a lifetime chasing those dreams until they came true.
HOW SHE STARTED HER LINE AT 18: I was on my own from the age of 15 and never could sit still long enough to stay in school so chose the ‘school of life’ route instead. I went into business and travelled around the world with the money I earned. It’s a balance of street smarts and book smarts as there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom that you should physically and mentally experience yourself. If I had the luxury to do it over, I would have chosen to attend college and focus on my business shortly thereafter. I truly enjoy learning so I make up for lost time with lots of books, documentaries, and podcasts. My parents helped instill an entrepreneurial sense in me from a young age, which gave me the courage and confidence to pursue my dreams regardless of the risk. I think it’s natural for everyone, no matter your upbringing, to be a bit afraid of embracing new things and seizing opportunities. I still get a slight feeling of nervousness every time a new situation presents itself but I always end up at the same conclusion: If my heart says yes but I don’t try, I will never know what could have been. That is something I’m not prepared to live with.
THE UPS & DOWNS OF BEING A TEEN IN BUSINESS (#THESTRUGGLEISREAL): I had a little financial cushion from doing commercials as a kid, so I used that to jumpstart my business but age was an initial barrier because no one took me seriously. You have to prove yourself and work twice as hard. On the flip side, the great thing about being 18 is that you are blissfully unaware of how many things could go wrong. Looking back, I remember the experience as fun, exciting and just feeling truly unafraid of trying it all. In my 20’s and 30’s it has been more challenging as the business grew up with me.
LEARNING ON THE JOB: Trial and error is the only way you grow, especially if you don’t have the luxury of having an experienced business consultant right next to you every step of the way. However, it’s important to learn from those mistakes and to not repeat them to make progress. Being ‘OK’ with the mistakes is a big part of determining what you’re good at and knowing what you’re not so good at it. Embrace it.
ON SECURING STOCKISTS IN THE DAYS BEFORE GOOGLE: I cold called, secured an appointment and thankfully made great connections with the buyers. At the time, there was no magic Google search and I was determined to make a sale the old-school way. I would find the phone number, write letters, or visit their secretaries and leave them samples. Sometimes I even waited until the buyers or managers would walk out for a few minutes to pitch them on the floor.
WHY SHE WENT FROM DESIGN TO RUNNING A MULTI-BRAND SHOWROOM: At the time, having a showroom was just on the cusp of being the “it” thing. I was one of the first ones in the Cooper Design Space in Los Angeles to have a coveted multi-brand showroom. I also enjoyed selling and getting to know the buyers on a personal level. It was a time where the buyers were really involved. It wasn’t about email and social media. You would pick up the phone, they would answer and you would really grow and nurture relationships.
THE EUREKA MOMENT FOR STARTING VITA FEDE: I had a friend that was a showroom owner across from my own space and she brought me back some bracelets from a trip to Italy that she thought that I would like. They were traditional bracelets from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. I flew to Italy myself, tracked down the supplier, and made major updates to the color and design. I sold out of the piece so fast that people kept asking for more. At the time, I only wore Fine, and there was nothing out there to layer with it. I wanted something that felt simple, be wearable for every day and yet be a unique piece and not look out of place being worn with fine.
HER THOUGHTS ON BOOSTRAPPING OVER SEEKING OUTSIDE INVESTMENT: The less involvement from outside parties, the more control you have of your business, but it’s all about finding the right partners that believe in your vision that really creates a thriving environment. I think every deal in raising investment is different and each experience is unique. I have had both great experiences and challenging ones, but I have always walked into or walked out of a deal learning something. No matter what, it’s important to invest the money you make back into the business. Our recent move to NYC was a huge step for the company because it really makes a statement that we were ready to take the business to the next level.
TIPS ON BUILDING A TEAM: As a business owner, you’ll organically start to know when it’s time to expand to make additional hires. Bring on people that are experienced in their specialized areas but only hire what you can afford. The most challenging part is about finding the right fit. You can find the most experienced person but if your end vision and goal do not align with your top team members, then it is not going to work. I consider employees like family so I guess I have never considered our VF team as ‘staff’ in the traditional sense. I enjoy being hands on and working side-by-side with them.
DEALING WITH CRITICISM: Not everyone will like your product (or even you for that matter) all the time, so might as well go for it if you believe in it. It may end up achieving commercial success, or becoming iconic to the brand or maybe you and your family members will be the only people who love it and that’s okay! It is all about making what you love. The entire collection can’t necessarily all be that way but I like to add in a few styles that I personally love even with no commercial appeal.