To Launch Her Fashion Line, a Designer Embraced Her Risk-Taking Side

Kara Mendelsohn's 'entrepreneurial soul' spurred her to jump headfirst into her own fashion label.

(Photo: Courtesy cooper & ella; illustration: Jessica De Jesus)

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Aug 31, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Bekah Wright is a Los Angeles–based journalist who specializes in travel, entertainment, and lifestyle.

When it comes to business, are you risk averse? For entrepreneur Kara Mendelsohn, taking risks was a given when launching her contemporary women’s fashion label, cooper & ella. And not just her own risks. Mendelsohn credits everyone who manufactures, ships, and sells the line with taking a chance on her company’s success.

Fashion is in Mendelsohn’s blood. For two decades, the New York–based designer worked in sales and merchandising at such fashion houses as Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Thakoon. While surrounded by high-end fashion, Mendelsohn noticed a void in the market: easy-to-wear desk-to-dinner blouses that made a statement. “I knew there was an opportunity for a product that elevated design sensibility—something chic and modern but accessible in price,” she says.

In 2013, the self-described “entrepreneurial soul” jumped headfirst into establishing her own label, naming it after her children. Three years in, Mendelsohn says the challenges are perpetual. “I feel pressure on a lot of levels: time management, responsibility, and decision making,” she says. “The bigger the company gets, the bigger decisions I’m making, and with them, bigger mistakes.”

Mendelsohn attributes cooper & ella’s pared-down infrastructure and streamlined team with helping to keep mistakes at a minimum. To maintain low overhead, the brand shares a workspace with several other companies. There are five full-time staff members, and they’re chosen for their versatility and willingness to take a chance on the brand.

Fall Collection Flats. (Photo: Courtesy cooper & ella)

Mendelsohn’s role as cooper & ella’s founder and designer is a multifaceted one. “Not only am I designing and merchandising the product; I’m also in charge of selling it,” she says. While it is an incredible amount of responsibility for the creative and business success of the company, it’s also an important advantage: “Operating this way has been amazingly beneficial by making me receptive and in tune with what my retail partners want and need from my designs.”

The hands-on approach has been met with success. During its first season, cooper & ella sold blouses through a few key specialty stores. By the line’s second season, Neiman Marcus was on board. “That’s pretty unheard of,” says Mendelsohn. “It usually takes a year or two with everybody watching to see if you can deliver products that sell and resonate. They want everyone else to take the risk.”

Kara "at work." (Photo: Courtesy cooper & ella)

As the line expanded, so too did the number of retailers. In the second year, major commitments came from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, and soon cooper & ella pieces were rolled out to more than 250 department and specialty stores worldwide. The brand has room to grow. The 2015 spring collection brought dresses to the mix, and sweaters will be added in the fall. Recently the company caught the interest of Nordstrom. After success on, cooper & ella is slated for six Nordstrom stores in October.

SAKS Fifth Avenue Flagship Window Display, NYC.

(Photo: Courtesy Trends on Your Hands)

To stay competitive in the market, cooper & ella offers free shipping and delivery for online purchases. It’s found that customers appreciate order confirmations, tracking numbers, and speedy delivery through UPS. Beyond these, cooper & ella works with various department stores’ drop-ship programs to deliver its garments. “We have a turnaround time of 48 hours from the time the order comes in,” says Mendelsohn. “It’s crucial to deliver products on time.”

One would expect growing pains, considering cooper & ella’s rapid growth. But this hasn’t been the case for the brand, which always delivers on time. “UPS was willing to work with me as the entrepreneur of a small company,” says Mendelsohn. “Their approach was ‘How do we figure out what you need even though you’re this small company, because we know you can be a big one?’ ” With almost three years of department store sales success under its belt, cooper & ella is better able to project units, sales, and growth—and its partners are growing right along with it.

Fall Collection Flats. (Photo: Courtesy cooper & ella)

What advice does Mendelsohn have for those who want to put their stamp on the fashion world? “The hours are long, the pay is small, and it requires a lot of energy and risk,” she says. “You not only have to be OK with that—you have to be passionate about it.”