Maria Lucia Hohan: "You aren't owed a thing. You have to get out there and fight for whatever it is you want"
Beyoncé’s new album, Lemonade, launched in April this year, has set the fashion world abuzz with another name: Maria Lucia Hohan. While the album went Gold after selling 500,000 copies in the first week, the commentary also focused on Beyoncé’s outfits.
Although some of the biggest names in entertainment have worn her creations - among them Nicole Kidman, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and Rihanna – Maria Lucia Hohan is not a household name in Romania.
Maria’s journey into the world of fashion started ten years ago after graduating from L’Institut Supérieur des Arts Appliqués in Paris. She began her career as an intern at the Krizia fashion label in Milan. From Milan, she returned to Bucharest to open her own shop with a modest 800 Euro investment.
Despite her success with the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty and growing business, Maria Lucia Hohan maintains a low profile in public life.
We discovered that she reads PressOne, and were very grateful that she granted us the privilege of an interview.
- We understand that you initially wanted to focus on interior design and only later decided on fashion. How did the transition take place?
Maria Lucia Hohan: It was both a choice and an opportunity. The passion for interior design didn’t go anywhere, but it was hard for an 18 year old to pass up the opportunity to study fashion design in Paris. Fashion eventually won me over and I made a career out of it.
There are quite a few similarities between the two fields. I often find myself changing the interiors of my home, office, or even places I visit on vacation.
- What is the life of Fashion Design students in Paris like?
Pretty much like that of any other student in the most beautiful city in the world. Obviously, I didn’t have access to all the great things that such an amazing city can offer, but there were the museums, the streets, and the spectacular architecture. I remember how I loved mornings, simply because of the thought that I’d get to see Paris again.
I would take the bus and my eyes would take in everything I saw on the other side of the window, I’d look at the people around me and it was easy to understand why they seemed so happy, so satisfied with life. The place you live in, or where you learn, has a great influence on your well-being.
I really loved every moment of it. I feel as though the years I spent ‘acquiring’ all of that cultural baggage have shaped me even more so than my formal education. The environment also contributed, everything was new and different, from the language to the way I did my personal banking.
- What are the stylistic influences you’ve retained from that era?
I have an appreciation for French lingerie, for their interiors, for their very natural, understated sense of style, the obsession with comfort – which is why I wanted to transform the evening gown into something more simple and comfortable. Without the accessories and the restrictions they bring.
- What are some of the lessons you learned during your internship with Krizia?
Krizia was a very positive experience. The most important lesson was the realization that I wanted to have my own business and that I wanted to live in Romania.
When I first visited Krizia, I noticed they had a Mac desktop that nobody was using. I was taken in by all the possibilities that online creative software offered. So I brought to the founder’s attention how we might integrate online work with hand-sewn designs and patterns. The idea was well received and I got the opportunity to learn a lot. It didn’t come out of the blue though. I’d sent out my portfolio to hundreds of places, but Krizia was one of the few that called me back.
And I do feel I have to expand on this point a bit. Nobody gets discovered by just hanging out at home. You have to go out, search, create database sheets, network, be persistent, fight for yourself, and hustle.
I try to pass on this message to the young people I meet. We aren’t owed a thing. The status, career, salary, or recognition we dream about has to be earned every step of the way.
- Why did you come back home so quickly?
I called my parents and told them I’d be coming back to Romania to start my own shop. They were surprised, but it wasn’t unexpected either. Both my parents had their own businesses and built their own dreams since right after the revolution. That’s always been the model for me.
- How did you launch the Maria Lucia Hohan brand?
Brands take years to build. I opened a shop with an 800 Euro investment and two second-hand sewing machines. My father helped me with the money. The brand came later.
- With whom did you work to develop your marketing strategy?
Our school emphasized the importance of fashion marketing. You don’t learn everything, but you get a good idea about where to start.
I learned quite a bit on my own, trying to understand as much as possible. I based a lot of it on gut instinct and online marketing. Later, when I could afford them, I started working with agencies. Even so, I still tend to do a lot of my own marketing.
I know that Romanian managers are often accused of micro-management, but when you’re dealing with a fashion brand, details are important. It is critical to be authentic.
MLH is my name, Maria Lucia Hohan, so I feel responsible for it. It’s all very personal.
- Who were the first celebrities to wear MLH (in Romania and abroad)?
- Andreea Raicu in Romania and Jennifer Hudson in the USA.
Jennifer Hudson wore an MLH dress at Barack Obama’s 2011 birthday festivities and she has since opted for MLH dresses at many other events.
- Do your sales spike when a MLH dress is worn by a celebrity or when it’s profiled in a widely circulated magazine?
It depends on who wore the dress, the accompanying accessories, and the reaction of the public and critics.
In general it’s important for the brand to get this kind of visibility, but buyers are interested in other factors – production, delivery, quality, relevance in the marketplace, and only later the celebrities who might be wearing the dresses.
There are cases, too, like Beyoncé’s, where the star power helps sell a particular dress.
- What is the process whereby one of your creations becomes the beneficiary of celebrity promotion?
It’s a very long road that may even take years. It requires a mix of luck, perseverance, and consistent quality. It’s usually a celebrity’s fashion stylist who will recommend an outfit, but getting to them can be complicated. It’s a mix of international press, online marketing, agencies, and intermediaries.
- How did you manage to make it into the world of Hollywood celebrities?
Online marketing had a lot to do with it. How else can anyone make it from a shop in Romania to the American A-Lister’s shortlist?
- What is something about the fashion industry that the public at large may not understand?
It’s starting to decline, eaten up from the inside by greed. The focus is only on ROI (Return on Investment), on bigger profits, and an increasing obsession with the already excessive consumerism that doesn’t serve anybody’s interest, not even in the short-term.
We’re up to six collections in a year from two. We’re working a year ahead for every season, just to keep up with worldwide delivery schedules. The pressure is unrelenting but I think it’s important for smaller brands to exist alongside the giants of the industry.
It’s these shops that are able to provide innovation, quality, and custom-made designs at more accessible prices. They also tend to work with well-paid teams where everyone receives respect and appreciation.
Over the past ten years there’s been a dramatic decline in the quality of consumer fashion. Fashion, after all, is more than just the hue of the season. And now it’s beginning to lose this enchanting aspect of pageantry, of its proximity to art, to personal expression, to identity and interpretation.
I’m well aware that it’s always been, and will continue to remain, a business. But I believe it’s possible to also put your soul into it, as well as common sense.
- Who are some of the big names who have worn the MLH label to date?
Quite a few, including: Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Dita von Teese, Nicole Kidman, Kelly Rowland, Goldie Hawn, Paris Hilton, Eva Longoria, Gigi Hadid, Kandell Janner, Karlie Kloss, Mena Suvari, Giuliana Rancic, Christina Aguilera, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sofia Vergara, Maria Sharapova, Shakira, Katherine Heigl, Vanessa Hudgens, Rihanna, and many wonderful Romanian women who’ve made me very proud.
- How did the Meteora dress end up in Beyoncé’s wardrobe?
- Her stylists asked for a series of dresses that were tailored with her in mind, out of which they selected four. The dress she wore though wasn’t created for her; it was picked up by American agencies from the Resort collection without us even knowing about it.
The designs we made for Beyoncé were very different. But that’s the nature of the business, you don’t know what a celeb will wear – and neither will they, at times – until the last minute.
- What is the story behind the Meteora dress?
It’s a dress made for the Resort collection, that I based on my own personal style, and I didn’t expect that it would sell all that well, even before it was worn by Beyoncé.
I wore it many times, pretty convinced that the indiscernible silhouette made out of silk and lace would only be selected by a few clients. It went on to be a lot bigger than I’d imagined.
Dita Von Teese is one of the artists who draw inspiration from the MLH Store:
- As a designer, what has been your most moving moment?
When Jennifer Lopez wore an MLH outfit for the first time she wrote on Facebook that it was one of her favorites. Then her stylist got in touch to tell me that she wanted to buy it. It was the first time a celebrity bought an outfit directly.
Jennifer Lopez wore her first MLH outfit on the 2011 premiere of American Idol. The reactions were so positive that she’s taken to wearing MLH at many red carpet appearances.
- How are prices set in this very high-end industry?
In the consumer market prices are different from one retailer to another. As for MLH, I take into consideration a balanced outlook between the price, quality, and availability.
- What would you say about the prices of MLH fashion as compared to other high-end designers?
They’re more affordable.
- How often do you travel overseas?
I try to avoid traveling too far from my family.
- How do you maintain a work-life balance?
I choose to attend a limited number of events, I try to keep my private life to myself, and I focus more on family than my career.
The fashion industry can overwhelm you if you’re not careful. I also keep a close eye on our growth to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.
- How much time do you spend sourcing materials?
I’ve never looked at it as a time sensitive issue; it’s part of the creative process. Actually, it is my favorite part.
- Which of your clients come closest to the ideal model as you design your outfits?
- Is your daughter also passionate about fashion?
She comes to the shop with me and is fascinated by the MLH universe – which she has at home as well.
- What’s your greatest satisfaction?
That I can have it all: Family, friends, and a career.