When Cassandra Hobbins—the New York-based VP of product development at NSTO, the retail conglomerate formed in 2018 between Need Supply Co. and Totokaelo—called me from her Paris hotel room, I couldn’t believe that she had just returned from a full day at Première Vision, an international fabric show, sourcing textiles for the seven brands she oversees. While I was still trying to wake up in Seattle, she was talking a mile a minute, candidly explaining how moving to Los Angeles on a whim kick-started her fashion career. Throughout our interview, I kept wondering about the source of her relentless energy. By the time we hung up, it was clear: her ingrained passion for fashion.
For the past fifteen years, Hobbins’ fiery personality and customer-focused design vision has propelled her rapidly up the fashion food chain. Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Hobbins moved stateside after receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta. Starting as an intern at the LA-based menswear brand Orthodox (where she met her mentor Jon Levine, the former CEO of James Perse and Ella Moss), she worked her way up to senior designer in less than two years. Over the next decade, Hobbins ran her own womenswear label called PROSE IV, competed on the second season of NBC’s reality television series Fashion Star, designed Curve’s private label AOTC, and consulted for Alice and Olivia and Off Hours. Today, in addition to her full-time role at NSTO, she spends months in China building relationships with factories and immersing herself in NSTO’s production process. She’s also the creative director for the Hong Kong-based knitwear line INEXCLUSIV and runs a private consultancy firm, working with up-and-coming brands like LDH. Keep reading to find out the secret behind Hobbins’ endless enthusiasm, how she “winged” her way to second place on Fashion Star, and why the stigma of “Made in China” should go away.
How’s Première Vision going? Have you found anything good yet?
I’ve been coming [to Première Vision] for 16 years. I’m not really inspired [anymore], I’m just thinking what to get for all of the brands I work with. We’re sourcing for fall 2020. I find being in Paris more inspiring than the actual fashion shows.
What initially sparked your interest in fashion?
It was the only thing I was interested in when I was a kid. I had a fashionable aunt and my mom was artsy. She was also an amazing seamstress. I was always [pretending to be in] fashion shows and sketching. I would go to the fabric store with my mom and make her sew [my designs]. Now that’s what I do for a career. My mom was basically my first employee.
When did you leave Canada?
I graduated [from college] and moved to LA. [I got my first] internship [at the menswear brand Orthodox] because I didn’t have my visa yet. That was the launchpad for everything.
Coming from Canada to LA was so eye-opening. I made no money, but this was my opportunity to go to fashion school. I did everything [I could at my internship] and before I knew it, I was basically running the company. I would get textbooks and study at night to learn pattern-making. At the time, everything was made in downtown LA, so you could learn from the pattern-makers there. No one knew what they were doing, so we just went with it. Then more serious people got involved, and Jon Levine [the former CEO of James Perse and Ella Moss] became my mentor. That’s when I started going to China.
When did you move to New York?
LA is great, but it was so chill. At that time, one of the owners of the Chinese factories I would stay with [when I visited Shanghai] called and said his daughter graduated from Parsons, and he wanted me to oversee the design and production of her line. Because I knew design and production in China, [he asked me to be a part of the brand]. It was a junior’s contemporary line, but we did nine private labels for Arden B. It was a crazy learning opportunity, but it went bust in the recession.
Can you tell me more about your experience filming Fashion Star?
NBC contacted me when I was working [as head designer for Catherine Malandrino’s label at Tahari ASL]. [They said], “We learned about you through your line PROSE IV” and I thought,“Is this a joke? I didn’t have social media and I’d just gotten a cell phone. I didn’t have a public persona, so I thought this would be good for me. [The whole competition] was a joke, but I ended up coming in second place. I would wing every episode.
Since Fashion Star was a show about quick decision-making and multitasking, I’m curious to know how those skills have translated to your day-to-day at NSTO.
I have an amazing team of people that I really love. I wake up to many emails because we make many things overseas. I touch base with people on other teams and oversee the design team. I’m no longer sketching—I’m thinking big picture and more strategically. I collaborate with NSTO’s VP of marketing and spend a lot of time pushing for things to be different. I do drops rather than collections, and come up with tightly edited capsules. [I also] put together decks, creative pitches, design pitches, and informational pitches for the team and approve fabrics. I also oversee all production. We just started working in 3D to be more sustainable. I work on my other [projects] after work. I usually go to bed at midnight.
Where do you find the energy to do all that?
Do you hear me talking [this fast]? [Laughs]. The key to a lot of it is that I don’t do it for money. I love working and making the brands good. I’m not OCD and I’m not a perfectionist—I’m an agile operator.
What are you trying to accomplish in designing for each of your brands?
For NSTO it is young, cool, fun, and at the right price point. I look at a lot of vintage garments. For Need Supply, it’s workwear and utilitarian-inspired. With Totokaelo Archive, I look at a lot of vintage Yohji [Yamamoto]], Comme des Garçons, [Maison] Margiela, and more serious, intricate pieces. LHD is all about the print. Our print designer is in Australia and each collection is based on a different location in the world. We do a lot of research [in preparation for each collection]. For the sweater brand [INEXCLUV], we look at a lot of Acne, The Row, and recycled yarn.
Totokaelo isn’t just a clothing store. It’s a lifestyle brand with jewelry, homewares, and candles presented alongside the garments. Do you think the fashion industry is pivoting in this direction?
That might not be a trend, but it’s the right space to be in because it feels very personal. I feel like people are gravitating toward personalization. My claim to fame is [that I ask], “Why make 1,000 pieces of something if only 50 people are going to wear it?” Your customer tells you what they want, and they want the experience versus buying more things. That’s why niche concept stores are doing well, despite retail doing so poorly. [This] can also live in a digital space. I can’t imagine going back to these big [brands]. It feels like you’re so far removed. It’s more fun to build a community and not just apparel.
Right! Especially in the age of online shopping, people are craving human interaction.
At Totokaelo New York, I was friends with the girls who were helping me [buy something]. You don’t feel pressured to buy something, but you want to see what [the employees are] wearing and find unique stuff. You can’t find that on Amazon—and why would you want to?
It’s becoming more popular for American brands to make their clothing in the US, or in the city where the brand is headquartered. But NSTO’s clothing still produces overseas. Why is that?
The cost of [having] garments made in New York is expensive, and the quality is not any better. You give [Chinese factory employees a sample], and they find a way to get it done. They’re an extension of our team. They’re also going to be winning the sustainability game before we are. It’s much more futuristic there with the amount of resources and fabrics. The stigma about making things in China needs to go away. I’ve lived in a factory owner’s house. I have known them for fifteen years. They’re family.
What actions are the Chinese factories taking toward sustainability?
Most of the factories are getting on board with 3D design so they don’t have to make a bunch of samples, which reduces waste. They’re starting to use recycled yarns and fabrics. Today, walking in the fabric show, [a great] amount of Chinese yarns are certified sustainable. The pressure for them to be more sustainable is really high. They’re big contributors to the problem, and I definitely see their [progress]. Now, they’re taking production for 20-30 units, not over-producing, and accepting small businesses, which is more sustainable as well.
I’ve never heard about manufacturing in China from that perspective.
I seek out the good side of things. There’s still horrible things everywhere; I’m just trying to make it the best it can be. If we can afford to choose a sustainable option, we will. We don’t want to be inaccessible. We don’t need to create a $10,000 jacket from The Row. That exists already. So, we’re working on getting accessible, affordable items to our audience.
What’s next for you and NSTO?
We are launching a bunch of new product categories next year. We’re diversifying beyond apparel with some exciting collaborations and product launches. Getting more involved with our consumer is really important.
Cassandra Hobbins is a judge for the 2019 GRAY Awards. To get your tickets to the event, taking place on November 20 at Seattle’s Nordic Museum, visit grayawards.com.