Sustainability, Scaling, and Wholesale: Lisa Hsieh Discusses the Journey of Mien Studios
Mien Studios started as your traditional, trend based clothing line, then made the amazing transition to sustainable, ethically, and locally sourced clothing for women that can work at all points in their life. Founder and designer Lisa Hsieh, pivoted her business to sustainability after the birth of her first child.
Her focus became clothing that women would want to wear now and later. Her size-inclusive lines run from XS to 3X, and her signature fabric is knitted from GOTS-certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) organic cotton, which feels good and is good for the planet.
Lisa branched out to selling wholesale after local sellers became interested in carrying her products. The progression happened very naturally and her dedication to cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship with her retailers has meant they continue to come back to see what is new season after season.
Conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
Handshake: Tell me a little about Mien Studios.
Lisa: I started the line in 2015, when I was pregnant with my son, my firstborn. When I launched the brand, it was a menswear and womenswear line and it wasn’t very sustainability-focused. It was just more drawing from my fashion background as an apparel designer in LA, and was more trend-oriented. So when I designed the line, it was a completely different concept than what I have now.
After I gave birth to my son, that’s when I realized that a lot of the clothes that I was designing or even the clothes I had in my wardrobe, I couldn’t really wear anymore. Not just because it no longer fit, but also because it didn’t fit my lifestyle. I wanted materials that were healthier, that were more well-made for my body. That’s when I decided to pivot and really looked into sustainability and ethical production, and then changed the line to what it is now. So it was a really hard pivot in a way, but it worked out really well and I’m really happy with everything we’ve done.
Handshake: What made you decide to start the business?
Lisa: I really just drew from personal experience and saw there really is a need for clothing that can be worn throughout a woman’s life. If she chooses to go through the journey of motherhood, I want something that she can wear before, during, and after. If she chooses to nurse, it would work well for that, too.
It just seemed really wasteful that when I was shopping for maternity wear, every three months I would have to do a whole wardrobe refresh because the clothes were so restricting that you could only wear it for the first trimester, second trimester, and then the third trimester. I was just throwing away or donating all these clothes that are still perfectly good. It was also really hard to find good materials in maternity wear, for me at least. It was so hard to find anything in organic cotton. A lot of it was polyester.
I just thought, “There has to be something better.” We’re talking about giving babies organic food, starting their life right. What about the mothers who are actually incubating a newborn? They deserve some love too. So I decided to sort of follow my instinct and really try to help, rather than really coming at it from a business standpoint. I was looking at it as, “What can I do as a designer to create something that will really help someone?” That was my starting point. Since this is my own business, I have the freedom to create what I want to.
Handshake: Where do you find that you draw a lot of your inspiration for your clothing?
Lisa: I try to look at different things, so I’ll watch documentaries a lot, I love period films.
Handshake: Oh, me too. [Laughing]
Lisa: [Laughing] I love those Kensington Palace tours on PBS. I think the colors, the architecture, the fashion, costumes, those all inspire me. But at the same time, I need to condense it all and then mix that in with real life wearing experiences. How can I draw inspiration from all this stuff that’s very aspirational but make it very realistic for the everyday woman or the everyday person?
Handshake: What would you say makes your clothing better than others?
Lisa: Well, first of all, our best selling fabric that’s custom knit in Los Angeles with a 100% GOTS certified organic cotton and I’m really proud of that because I know who made the fabric, and we dye it here with the local dye-house that uses safe dyes. Who cuts it, who sews it, I have my hand in every step of the way. So then I think that also means the product is superior because I really believe in it and I’m wearing head-to-toe Mien pretty much every day. I really wear the clothes myself, and if something doesn’t work as a designer, I know it and I know exactly what’s wrong with it and we fix it. I think if a customer shops with me there’s just a sense of, “I know it’s gonna be good. I’m not worried about it. Once I get it, if I get the right size, it’s gonna fit me well, I can wear it for a long time, it’s machine wash and dry, super easy to care for for a busy person.” That’s kind of what I want. I want to be that brand that the customer reaches for.
Handshake: So when did you think, “Yeah, wholesale is the next step for us”?
Lisa: Wholesale was never really a focus when I started the business. I really wanted to be direct-to-consumer. So that was really the goal, but the line started gaining a following organically. Then other small shops would notice, and then they reached out to me and asked to carry the line.
So it happened very naturally, I didn’t seek out wholesale. These shops would reach out to me, they’d always send a very personal email saying that they really like what the brand is doing and that that’s the sort of product that their shop is carrying. I think there really has to be a match in that sense for me to want to work with a boutique. All the shop owners that have reached out to us have the same sort of ethos, and it’s a very collaborative and a very mutually beneficial relationship. So when that started happening on its own, and we were getting more and more inquiries about wholesale, that’s when I knew that wholesale was something we should probably start working on.
Handshake: And how did you start putting [that you offer wholesale] out there after those first initial reach-outs?
Lisa: Honestly, it’s just me doing the wholesale side. It’s me doing a lot of things because my business is still kind of small. I just try to keep everyone on a list, update them when I can with new items, or they know to reach out to me on their buying cycles to see if there’s anything new.
It’s like I almost also depend on them to come back to me and say, “Hey, what do you have?” With a wholesale platform like Handshake available, that’s just been a game changer because now I have a separate platform, in addition to Shopify, to manage the wholesale side, which has so much potential. Sometimes it’s not possible to also be a sales rep and that’s not my forte, so a platform is very helpful.
Handshake: Do you have any plans to expand to help with your wholesale or to help with the retail side of your business?
Lisa: Yes, I’d like to really explore the full potential of wholesale for us. I don’t know what the next step is, but I’m going to be on a wholesale platform and then we’ll see what that wholesale platform can offer us in terms of capabilities. Do I just try to focus on this platform and get more retailers through there? Or do I also have to maybe hire a sales rep and then do the leg work and have them visit people and then show them the line? I don’t really know what that’s gonna look like yet.
Handshake: Did you have any other challenges when offering wholesale?
Lisa: So far I would say we’re pretty lucky that everything’s been running really smoothly. I think maybe the challenge is just inventory, honestly. To keep things in stock and have enough for everybody. One of the hurdles is that I could increase our production numbers, but what does that mean? That means I need a bigger warehouse, that might mean I need to hire fulfilment services. Am I ready to take that next step for the brand? Because I don’t know. Being in California, and LA especially, how much is a warehouse per month? Does that mean I need a truck delivery service? It just is tied to so many other things that, that’s one of the challenges with wholesale. It’s like, “When do I pull the trigger to step into the next realm?” It’s a tricky thing, wholesale.
Handshake: Do you have any tips for other businesses who might be considering or just starting with wholesale?
Lisa: I think a lot of people, when they start with wholesale, they want to go for the biggest guy. I think you really need to do a little homework and figure out if that’s right for you. I didn’t know this until I talked to some friends that were also working in the industry, but if you want to be in certain department stores, you pay for placement. There’s so much money tied to partnering up with a major department store that you really have to think if that’s the kind of risk that you’re willing to take.
So as a small brand, I would say start small. Start with local shops or small boutiques that really appreciate what you do, you appreciate what they’re trying to do, and then just start from there. It could be a really tiny order, but then that would enhance your brand if you’re in the right place. I think it’s always safer to do it small, take it step by step rather than going for the biggest thing, and then at the end have it all come crashing down and you fail from the start.
Handshake: Do you have any advice you’d like to offer to other business owners?
Lisa: I think if it’s specific to this time right now, really any time for my business, I did a hard pivot. With what’s going on, you just gotta stay nimble and then just keep your eye on what’s going on, what customers are looking at and what they really need. Even yourself, just look at your life and see, “What am I gravitating towards? Is this product really useful right now? And do I really see value in keeping something like this?” I think there’s gonna be a shift. Everyone’s home more, a lot of people are working from home, and for some of the people, it’s permanent.
So for me, as a clothing brand, the clothes I design really have comfort. We started off with clothes that are comfortable, so now it’s even more of an emphasis. Something you can just throw on because you’re home, but also look great for a Zoom call. So it’s like you have to constantly think about how you’re gonna evolve while staying true to your brand. But survival right now, I think is just most important, first of all. Just also try not to dilute the brand too much during this time.
Handshake: How would you say your life before this business has helped inform any decisions that you’re making about your business now?
Lisa: Well, I was a designer, designing for other brands for about a decade, and I actually also dabbled in interior remodeling. I worked for a high-end remodeling firm, designing kitchens and bathrooms. So that was a total branch off for a little while. Then I came back to clothing again. So experience definitely helps a lot.
Handshake: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your business?
Lisa: My business is very small. I see that there’s quite a few brands, especially big brands that are trying to become more sustainable, which is great. But then at the same time, to be honest, I am fearful. I can’t really compete at the same level that they are. I’m super small, where I’m just trying to capture the customers who come our way, try our clothes, and love it. Those are the customers that we’re just gonna try to focus, and take care of. So as a small brand, word-of-mouth is really important. I hope that if people love our product, that they continue to share. Because that’s true for so many small businesses right now; we really need that support.
Mien Studios products are available on Handshake for purchase from $250. Find the whole range available on their profile page.