From Finance to Fashion: Aysha Saeed
She walked away from Wall Street to chase her creative dream
“My dream is my passion,” says Aysha Saeed as we settle in to her New York garment-district atelier and chat among mannequins swathed in sexy, black leather, laser-cut dresses, colorful body-hugging shifts, and block-cut blazers; the coffee table is piled high with chunky gold jewelry that might have suited a Raja and that fashion editors would call “statement pieces.” “When I’m 80 or 90 I want no regrets. If I fail, at least I tried.”
Aysha Saeed was born in Pakistan but moved to Secaucus, New Jersey when she was 12. Of her three siblings (two brothers and a sister), she is the sole entrepreneur. “Emigrant families go into secure jobs – in finance,” she says, which is exactly why she grabbed her MBA and started her career on Wall Street working 18-hour days doing deals for Deutsche Telekom and hopping private jets to roadshows with her CEO. “I was so unhappy,” she says, “My heart was not in it so my work was not as good as it could have been.” She changed jobs five times in seven years, and finally found herself unmarried and exhausted.
She wanted out and her female boss (now a customer) was supportive, urging Saeed to give her fashion dream a try and return to banking if it didn’t work out.
But the truth was, Saeed knew nothing about fashion — except her observation that everyone in banking wore the same boring clothes.
Not one for half measures, Saeed dispatched to Milan and opened a design consulting company, sourcing high-end fabrics and embroideries from small purveyors in India and Pakistan. “These ateliers did gorgeous stuff,” she says, “but they needed to make it modern and westernized.” Though she didn’t speak a word of Italian, Saeed cold-called her way into the design studios of top European designers. On the day she brought her samples to Giorgio Armani, she paused to ponder her good luck. “Oh my god,” she said to herself, “I used to save up money to buy those clothes and here I am.”
Other designers invited her to collaborate on “couture-type” pieces while helping her hone her craft. “I didn’t have the patience to go back to design school. I was not making any money but I was getting an education because they were teaching me.” Saeed eventually ventured to Paris, creating pieces for Dior during the John Galliano regime. She says: “I thought, I should be paying you!”
Aysha Saeed, who is a “good observer and learner,” watched the Dior seamstresses top-stitch to change the lay of fabric and began to understand how a bias cut created “liquid dresses that float on your body.”
Five years later she landed her U.S. citizenship and returned to New York to launch her eponymous brand, Aysha. Though she knew how to coax a fabric mill into producing an exceptionally small 20-yard run, she had no idea how to run a fashion business. “I was raised not to take someone’s money if I couldn’t give 100 percent of myself,” she says. “So I assumed everyone was the same. I trusted people; that was my thing.”
Saeed’s mistake, she says, was hiring top-level people for high prices who promised her the moon but failed to deliver. Not feeling secure enough in her own style, she also hired a designer. But the collection didn’t deliver her vision. “I don’t want to go into the money I wasted,” she says with a grimace.
Two years ago she reinvented her collection, moving it out of retail stores (which gave her no visibility into her customers wants and needs) and made her fans the center of her inspiration. Today, the collection of 29 seasonless looks, priced from $199 to $899, is produced in New York and available by appointment only (write email@example.com).
“Getting to see women and understand their needs made me a better designer,” she says. “I have my customers — real women — in my mind now when I design. This one is more pear shaped so the skirt needs to fit another way. Another works in a courthouse but is fashionable so I ask myself what she should wear so she doesn’t have to change in between work and dinner.”
Saeed keeps her design aesthetic down to earth. “I’m not doing runway or [showing clothes to magazine] editors. I want to make it real and genuine. These are commercial items that I can make edgy. I have a studio here with a pattern maker and a seamstress working together. We do feminine but fresh.”
Saeed also understands that her customer, who is between the ages of 30 and 60, professional, well-educated and well-traveled, is not a “stick.” “She is a size eight to 14, but well-proportioned with shoulders and boobs. These are happy women who want to celebrate their curves.” A large portion of them also happen to be lawyers.
“The relationship with my customer is my biggest strength,” she says, noting that she has a high repeat rate. “It’s a very personalized service. People say, ‘I feel like you made this for me.’” Aysha deliberately provides what retail — and especially online retail — lacks: high touch. “She’s not a fashionista but she loves and appreciates fashion,” Saeed says. “When I bring this to her she is grateful. She may not have bought these price points before but sees the benefits of clothes that are tailored, fit well and look great on the body.”
Saeed wanted to self-finance her business (with a bit of help from friends) so she could make her mistakes on “her own dime” but is now ready to ask for big money. “I have such clarity and confidence now,” she says. “Today when I get ten dollars from an investor, I know how to spend it as if it was one hundred.”