After watching the documentary Girl Rising, Olivia Fay knew she wanted to contribute to closing the gender inequality gap. At first, Fay was unsure how she could use her fashion background at companies including Prada, Cartier, Vera Wang, Alberta Ferretti and Belstaff to help the millions of girls around the world who are denied access to education. “Research led me to a study in Kenya, which found that giving school uniforms to students who did not previously own one reduced school absenteeism by 64%. Even in cases without the requirement, schoolgirls likely wouldn’t go to school if they didn’t have a school uniform,” Fay says. The study provided a moment of clarity for Fay, and she started Rallier, a New York-based contemporary womenswear label inspired by school uniforms. For each Rallier dress sold, one to three school uniforms are donated to schoolgirls through their founding non-profit partner, Shining Hope for Communities. The uniforms are made by local women in Kibera, Kenya, so Rallier provides access to both education and employment.
Career Profile: Olivia Fay, CEO, Founder, and Creative Director of Rallier
What inspired you to start Rallier? What was your career path?
I started Rallier after discovering that the cost of a school uniform was keeping girls around the world out of school. Having worked in the fashion industry for several years, it struck me that lack of access to a piece of clothing could have such an impact on someone’s outcome. At the same time, I think we can all relate to the influence that clothing has on where and how we decide to show up in our lives. In a way, we’ve all created uniforms for ourselves based on our own personalities, needs and desires.
In conceptualizing Rallier, I was deeply inspired by this notion of modern uniform dressing as a vehicle for women to define their presence on their own terms. Uniform dressing interpreted through a modern lens is a key inspirational touchpoint for Rallier.
Before Rallier, I had a public relations career. I worked in-house for brands such as Prada and Cartier. My path to fashion public relations stemmed from being a creative person — I was a fine arts and art history major as an undergraduate at The George Washington University — with a parent who insisted that I develop a quantitative skill set. My former career as a fashion publicist was a lesson in how creativity and business intersect and coexist. This lesson only continues with Rallier, because it is also very much a creative and quantitative endeavor.
What is Rallier’s mission, and how do you achieve it?
Rallier believes in the power of uniform dressing — for all. For every Rallier dress sold, school uniforms are sourced from regions plagued by gender inequality and given to local schoolgirls.
What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Rallier?
The biggest challenge has been embracing the unknown. Before Rallier, I was on what felt like a very stable, linear career path. Going from such established fashion brands to creating something entirely new took a lot of getting used to. Learning to live comfortably in the unknown was at first a challenge, but it’s now a mindset filled with rewards.
What advice do you have for other women who hope to start their own businesses?
It has been said before, but I believe you will burn out unless you choose to start something that you care about deeply. It has to be something that will push you to keep moving forward when things get hard — and they inevitably will. We all have things that we will care about no matter what. Whether or not I started Rallier, fashion and girls’ education would have still been a part of my life.
What is a workday as Olivia like? Please walk me through a day!
One of my favorite things about running Rallier is that no two days are completely alike, but I do have some consistencies. My mornings almost always involve checking for new orders and preparing them to be shipped out. I often meet with other women entrepreneurs during lunch to compare notes and vent about common challenges. In the afternoons, I’m likely at our factory in the Garment District to check up on current production or review samples that are in development. At least once a day, I analyze our website’s traffic and sales to try to spot informative trends and patterns. There are also editor appointments and sourcing trips that occur at least a few times a month. My days also almost always include coffee with a new potential partner, interested customer, employee candidate or other connection. I can’t say that I get to it every day, but I also try to share on our Instagram account at least a few times a week.
What are your responsibilities as CEO and creative director of Rallier?
Everything! At this stage in the brand’s development, there’s nothing I’m not responsible for. It’s a stressful yet thrilling place to be. Today, I’m just as involved with steaming dresses before a trunk show as I am with closing a fundraising round or choosing the direction of our next collection. Building out our team could not come soon enough!
What is the most important characteristic someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
What are three characteristics you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?
Aside from having the required skill set, I look for loyalty, diligence and self-awareness.
What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?
Kindness — toward others and toward myself — has proven to be a very valuable skill. It’s also really important to have an understanding of what you will and will not tolerate. The tough part is that I’ve developed these skills by experiencing unkindness and tolerating too much. The challenge of starting my own company has forced me to identify what’s not working and quickly adapt. For me, struggling and putting myself in challenging environments has been the best source of skill development. I know — not what you wanted to hear!
What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?
Don’t let your job title dictate who you are. Earlier in my career, I worked for a number of big name brands. I didn’t realize how much my confidence and sense of self stemmed from some of those names until I left. Choosing a different career path forced me to redevelop self-confidence in a way that is untethered to a particular job title, company name or professional accomplishment.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
That my voice mattered.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Trust yourself.” My boss at Prada, who has since become one of my closest friends, said this to me when I asked her to help me navigate a particular work challenge. It’s the best advice, and also one of the greatest gifts, I’ve ever received.
What is your business advice for other young professional women?
I tell all my young interns to stop being so hard on themselves. I’ve found that they want to know exactly what they should be doing at this moment, but we’re all still trying to figure that out in one way or another. It doesn’t change as you get older, so go easy on yourself and work to get to a place where you’re comfortable with the unknown