For Carol Hannah Whitfield, fashion is about feeling. What began as a childhood hobby blossomed into a fairly secretive profession until Project Runway launched her into the public’s eye in 2009. Carol Hannah’s self-taught skill of pattern making and draping combined with watching her mother sew enabled her to start her love affair with design. She has been named "The People's Champion" in the design industry, and prides herself and her business on providing support and encouragement for women during the most memorable time of their lives.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I started sewing at the ripe old age of seven. My mom taught me, and over the years it went from a hobby to an obsession to a career. I was the most awkward, shy, insecure middle schooler you’ve ever seen, and making my own clothes made me feel better about myself. Friends began asking me to make things for them, and I did my first wedding dress in high school. I tried out for Project Runway after college on a whim and all of a sudden my life turned upside down. In the three years since doing the show, my bridal line has grown into more than I could have imagined. We’re in over 50 retailers with a growing national and international presence, and I get to spend every day doing what I love and helping women feel good about themselves. I think middle school me would approve.
Q: Innovation requires creative thinking. How do you tap into the creative thinking resources within your business?
A: Creative thinking in my case applies to two very separate areas- design and business. Design-wise, I have a pretty specific set of environmental parameters that help me do my best work. Think 11pm-4am, lots of coffee, blasting music alone, and on a tight time crunch to ward off over-thinking designs, the less sleep the better. Little crazy = better work. This is helpful to no one but me, but on the business side I think one of the most exciting things about starting a new company, especially starting one with no outside funding and very little capital, is that it forces you to think creatively. Working with small resources makes you quite scrappy and when you don’t have the cash to throw at something, you can surprise yourself with the solutions you will find. Now three years into our business, we are still constantly reevaluating how we do things and editing our systems. It’s just as exciting to see the pieces of the big picture business puzzle come together as it is to put together a new collection.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: Honestly, I think the big picture is clearest to me when I stop and step back and take a break. Realizing that was such a hard lesson to learn, as when you are starting a business you often feel like you cannot stop working for a single moment or you will fail. During the first couple years, you could always find me up until 3 or 4 am writing emails, working on our web content or marketing plans. I’ve since learned (the hard way) that treating yourself like a robot is far more detrimental than taking a break when you need one regardless of how long your to-do list is. I also think that the most inspirational and visionary moments come immediately after little successes (adrenaline) or in the face of an obstacle (forced innovation).
Q: What do you believe makes a great brand?
A: Gumption, sticking to your vision no matter what, knowing what sets you apart and basing everything else around that. Compromise is your biggest enemy.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: As an employer, I can say that attitude can make up for lack of experience at times. I think sometimes young people make the mistake of trying to explain how their entry level resume actually has the desired experience for the job hidden in it somewhere. There’s not a thing wrong with being young and looking for your first job, but own it and show your potential employer why they should hire you anyway based on your attitude and motivation and willingness to learn.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: Artistic expression, genuineness, kindness, and efficiency. Especially after my time in reality TV on Project Runway, I really value realness. That’s one of the reasons I love working in bridal – it’s an area of fashion that has a genuine impact on a woman.
ON Letting go
Q: Can you share an example of how letting go enabled you to reach something new?
A: Letting go has been so very hard to learn to do, but you simply cannot control everything and you will kill yourself or your business’s growth if you can’t figure it out.
ON Taking Risk
Q: Usually reaching something great or grand in life requires taking a risk. What has been your greatest risk so far and how was it rewarding?
A: Moving to NYC from South Carolina, launching a line in the middle of a recession at the age of 23, opening a showroom here, …Gosh, I feel like everyday in business is a risk! Calculated risks, though. Going on a reality tv show with very little idea of the actual scale of what I was getting into- now there’s a real risk. The amount of publicity and free marketing from the show would be extremely hard to beat and it’s opened a lot of doors for me. It could have been a disaster, but I am very grateful.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: I analyze everything excessively. Be conservative when you think about the rewards and extreme when you think about the possible negatives. If the numbers aren’t there or the worst case scenario is one I can’t accept, I won’t do it. If you go into a decision understanding that you can deal with the worst possible outcome, it’s not as scary.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure”. What do you know for sure?
A: I know for sure that I am meant to make things. I can’t stop! I cannot really explain the feeling of seeing something you envisioned come into being and then to see it make someone else equally as happy as it makes you.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: My design aesthetic is whimsical, ethereal, a bit bohemian, very fluid, and modern. My personal style is a mix of very feminine pieces with darker, more edgy ones to keep things from becoming too sweet.
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: Mario Badescu drying mask. Mascara. Laura Mercier camouflage and tinted moisturizer.