From Finance To Fashion

It is never too late to change careers and pursue your passion. How this entrepreneur turned a problem into an ever-growing modern sportswear brand based on quality craftsmanship and enduring style.

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Having worked in business casual environments in previous investment banking and venture capital positions, Zachary Prell '05 found that his wardrobe neither fit well nor was versatile enough to transition from day to evening. From this experience, he saw an opportunity to solve a problem and conceived of the idea for a modern sportswear brand formed around the fundamental principles of contemporary fit, clean silhouettes, quality craftsmanship and enduring style.

Today, his eponymous men’s sportswear brand is carried in 200 points of distribution across the U.S., including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as leading specialty stores. Prell’s long-term vision is to create an enduring modern American lifestyle brand featuring sportswear, tailored clothing, accessories and licensed products sold through various channels, as well as an online shop and ultimately, a select network of brick-and-mortar ZACHARY PRELL flagship stores to showcase the entire brand experience.

What are some key lessons you have learned from the fashion industry?

  • The fashion industry changes at lightning speed and trends come and go. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to try to adapt to these changes and learn from them, while always remaining true to my long-term vision.
  • For someone with startup aspirations in fashion, I would advise spending as much time as needed to develop a collection that has a point of view and is genuinely differentiated. There are many brands in the market and yours needs to have an authentic value proposition, unique identity and specific reason for being.
  • Be prepared for lots of skepticism and rejection from buyers, manufacturing partners and investors. Naturally, such rejection may cause anxiety, self-doubt or second-guessing. Take feedback earnestly, assimilate it and keep moving forward.
  • Finally, building a fashion brand is a long-term endeavor that is capital and resource intensive. Be prepared to go “all in” for many years and set realistic goals along the way for measuring success.

How did your experience at Columbia Business School shape your path?

Every day at Columbia Business School presented a new opportunity for inspiration and collaboration with my classmates, peers, professors and the Columbia community at large. I was especially inspired by the entrepreneurship and retail leadership courses that featured senior industry leaders discussing their own backgrounds and companies. It was impressive to listen to their journeys and these sessions sparked my own imagination.

Additionally, I loved the courses that focused on case studies dealing with real-world business situations and the key decisions executives made along the way. Analyzing the cases and then exchanging ideas with my classmates and learning from their different perspectives during these discussions was rewarding.

Finally, tapping into the network of alumni at Columbia Business School was an invaluable resource. I took initiative to contact and meet fashion executives across different functional areas to learn firsthand about the industry from the ground up. It was through the CBS community that I was introduced to a small factory in New York City’s Garment District where I produced our earliest prototypes.

What advice would you give to a student who is thinking of starting a company?

  • It’s never too late to change careers and pursue your passion. Dream big, seek out experienced advisors and ask lots of questions.
  • Take advantage of being in the living laboratory that is New York City and approach your time at Columbia Business School, and the relationships developed there, as a unique period to explore new opportunities and find inspiration.
  • Write a business plan to explain your concept and accompanying go-to-market and sales strategies, define the competitive landscape and estimate the necessary capital required. Pressure test your ideas with others. Understand the market in which you’re potentially entering and how you’ll solve an actual problem.
  • Most importantly, make a tangible prototype and then keep refining the product or service offering.

Can you share some fun facts about ZACHARY PRELL?

  • My New York City one-bedroom apartment served as our warehouse and distribution center for the first few years.
  • I designed the sport shirt patterns for our second collection using Microsoft Excel. Shortly thereafter, I partnered with the industry’s leading Italian mills and began selecting fabrics from their seasonal collections as well as designing our own exclusive patterns utilizing their CAD (computer-aided design) resources.
  • In what has become a tradition, sport shirt styles are named in honor of family, friends, advisors and colleagues to thank them for their show of support. The IRVING, named after my grandfather, was our brand's very first shirt and sold out during the inaugural season.
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