Interview by Jose Morales & Luis De Jesus / Photography by Jose Morales / Hair by Vinzar New York / Makeup by Coral Del Mar
New York City, NY. USA – Since launching in 2018, Burnett New York has made waves throughout the fashion industry with its mission to impact all women positively. The company, co-founded by Emily Burnett and Sterling McDavid, has quickly cemented itself as a powerhouse for women’s empowerment, and a beacon of inclusivity through its business model: a brand by women and created for women.
Fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry, with major luxury brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Balenciaga enjoying a significant portion of those profits. Even though women are fashion’s biggest spenders and drivers of the industry, men still run the business, with top leadership positions across all areas being disproportionately helmed by men.
According to a 2015 worldwide study of 50 major fashion companies conducted by Business of Fashion (BoF), only seven of those were headed by women. In 2016, BoF surveyed 313 brands showing across the four major fashion weeks: New York, London, Paris, and Milan. The average number of female designers across all four was 40.2 percent, with Milan having the lowest proportion of female designers at only 31 perfect. Their findings show that the majority of clothes for women are being created by male designers. This “Glass Runway,” a term coined by Glamour magazine in a study done in partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and McKinsey & Company consulting group, is part of the many barriers women are facing in the fashion industry; barriers the team at Burnett New York is determined to eradicate one collection at a time.
We visited the Burnett New York’s design house and showroom in New York City (just a block away from the Fashion Institute of Technology) on a busy Monday morning. While we observed the work being done in preparation for one of their latest collections, it was admirable to witness the team’s attention to detail and their dedication to furthering the brand’s mission. The synergy between Burnett and McDavid was palpable in the air, both clearly passionate about their roles within the company.
Emily Burnett is a veteran of the industry whose career began with the design team at Ralph Lauren. Her 10-year tenure as Creative Director for the luxury design house Dennis Basso, in New York City, led to a reinvention of the brand’s aesthetic, making it one of the most coveted brands during New York Fashion Week. Her knowledge of the fashion industry is complemented by McDavid’s expertise in marketing, sales, and finances, all acquired through years of work as an analyst for Goldman Sachs. McDavid is also the founder of The Starling Project: a luxury home fragrance line with the mission of providing solar energy to communities in need around the world. She is also a director for the Unicef’s New York Board.
While sitting with Burnett and McDavid, we discussed Burnett New York’s mission within the industry and outside of it, the creative work behind the brand, and the trajectory that has led them to the success achieved in such a short period of time.
– Emily, can you tell us about your background in the fashion industry?
EB: I started my career at Ralph Lauren Black Label under Whitney Fairchild. Most recently, I was the Creative Director of Dennis Basso for ten years. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design and a Bachelor’s Degree in Media Studies from Eugene Lang College. Both part of The New School University.
– When presented with the task of planning a new collection and bringing it to fruition, where do you draw inspiration from, and how long is this process?
EB: The process for planning each collection is between 4-6 months. I get inspired by travel, art, films, and culture, as well as empowering women like Amal Clooney. I start with my inspiration/mood board, fabrics that I love, and connect with and feel that are right for the Burnett woman. A woman who is strong and confident but also very feminine.
– You both met during a very special time for Sterling: her marriage and the creation of her wedding dress. Sterling, besides recognizing Emily’s talent, what other factors motivated you to crossover into the world of fashion?
SM: After a career at Goldman Sachs, I found myself searching for ways I could use my skill set in a more creative industry. The great thing about having a background in finance is that it allows you to pivot to a different career as finance is relative in every profession. I left Goldman to study architecture and interiors, ultimately leading me to a career flipping properties which then led to the launch of The Starling Project, a luxury home fragrance line that benefits UNICEF’s solar energy programs. I am on the Board of Directors for UNICEF, and my passion for the cause drove me to create a social impact luxury brand.
When I met Emily, The Starling Project was already a successful brand carried by retailers such as Barneys. I found myself itching to start something bigger, and after getting to know Emily, I thought, ‘This woman is a real talent – how has she not already started her own label?’ I decided to ask her the question. It turns out the real reason she had not ventured off on her own was that she knew she needed a business partner. It was, indeed, the perfect match. That one conversation led to months of planning, creating a business plan, pitching to investors, and ultimately the launch of Burnett New York.
I believe life presents opportunities, and often, they are unexpected. I didn’t even know to launch a fashion label was my purpose in life, but when I met Emily, it quickly became apparent that I had found my missing puzzle piece.
– Sterling, what do you feel has been the most fulfilling factor in this career move?
I am so fulfilled by creating a company that is uplifting and empowering to all women. It truly is a dream come true. I remember looking up to powerful, entrepreneurial women my entire life who inspired me to shoot for the stars. I hope that we are doing the same for girls and women around the world.
– Running a business as a partnership requires commitment. Those involved in this partnership must complement each other. What do you think has been the synergistic factor in the success of Burnett New York?
SM: We would not have launched this business if it were not for the fact that we have perfectly complementary skillsets. I have a background in finance, marketing, and sales, while Emily has the creative experience. It truly makes a perfect balance as we can both work together efficiently, trusting one another’s expertise. It is also imperative to have the same values. We both feel strongly about creating a healthy and positive work environment and delivering a quality product. We believe in being a positive force in the fashion industry in every way.
– Burnett New York’s mission is to empower women through its creations and business model. When thinking about the grasp male designers have had in this field for years, what advice do you have for female designers who now look up to you as role models?
EB – Our advice is to never give up on your dream, set your goals sky-high, surround yourself with influential women, find strong female mentors, and don’t be afraid to take the risk when the time is right.
– In such a short period, Burnett has cemented itself as a beacon of inclusivity for all women. A commitment demonstrated throughout your fashion shows and events. What are your thoughts on tokenism, and brands that now preach inclusivity because they might feel forced to or as a marketing move, but may not honestly believe in it?
EB – Inclusivity is in Burnett New York’s DNA. We both felt so strongly that the industry was not doing its part at empowering and inspiring all women. From the start, we had a strong grasp of our brand’s identity. We believe clothing can be a powerful tool to further a woman’s ambition and that every woman, no matter her age, size, or ethnicity, should be appreciated and uplifted. For us, it is not a marketing strategy. It is a mindset.
– Thinking of the changes that have happened in the world of fashion since the onset of social media, including the pressure designers might feel to release multiple collections within a shorter period of time, how has Burnett approached this new generation of consumers?
EB – We know we have to keep up with this fast world, and we are dedicated to producing four collections a year. We hope to spread a positive message with each collection and keep our consumers engaged and committed to our mission. A way we have found to be lucrative for connecting with our consumers is to hold educational or inspiring events that bring women together for a cause. This is the best way for us to showcase the Burnett culture and inspire women to become Burnett women.
– From the beginning, Burnett New York has been deeply involved with charities. What other plans are there to continue to cause a positive impact in this date and age?
SM – We’re proud to say that social impact is also a part of Burnett New York’s DNA. From the start, we agreed that giving back to girl’s education programs would be a part of our business model as we both know our success is attributed to the fact that we had access to education. We currently support UNICEF’s Girls Empowerment Program. We also believe in supporting other women who are passionate about similar causes, such as our friend, the model Flaviana Matata, who runs the Flaviana Matata Foundation. We are proud to say that with our February New York Fashion Week (NYFW) 2019 Party, we were able to help raise $30,000 for the foundation.
– Emily, when discussing this past September 2019 New York Fashion Week runway show, what was the message you wanted for your guests and consumers present at the show to grasp from this collection?
EB – Burnett New York’s Spring 2020 season recognizes the Burnett woman becoming a representative of unconventional ideas of beauty, innovation, and leadership. The collection challenges the traditional archetype of a woman and reimagines her power and ability to grow and evolve. We chose Elizabeth Street Garden as the venue for the show as we think it is the perfect representation of growth.
– Emily, looking back at the first NYFW Burnett New York show in February, when you took your walk down the runway together with the models, there was a certain spark in your eyes. That spark that expresses a mix of emotions: from excitement to nervousness, from disbelief to the realization of the moment. Thinking back to your childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer, and your trajectory in this field, what was going through your head then while walking down the runway of your first show?
EB: It was definitely a career-defining moment for me. It was especially moving to look around at a room full of women who really believe in the mission of our brand. It was also an incredible feeling of recognition for decades of hard work and perseverance.
– Sterling, thinking back to that day, and all the hard work you have done together, what thoughts were running through your head?
SM: I have practically spent my entire life immersed in the fashion world, thanks to my mother, who has always been involved in the industry. I started attending New York Fashion Week shows as a teenager, and I remember thinking it was something beyond my reach. To be sitting front row at your own New York Fashion Week show is one of the most surreal feelings in the world. I chose to be in front of the house as opposed to backstage because I wanted to see the reactions of all who attended. It was more than a dream come true to feel the positive vibrations from all the people who support our brand and stand by all we believe in.
– What is next for Burnett New York?
EB: There is always something new in the works for Burnett New York! We can’t give too much away about the future, but we recently launched a bridal collection. Given it is the reason we met in the first place, we thought it was a nice addition to the Burnett New York collection. – GM
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE FASHION ISSUE