Wearing New York on Your Sleeve with Lynne Lambert from NYC Subway Line
She’s been on the right track to building a fashion brand (literally)!
NYC subway letters and numbers are on every corner in Manhattan, but no one thought these iconic symbols could be part of popular fashion. That is until Lynne Lambert came up with the original idea to turn subway art into a wearable and accessory collection. Lynne’s company, NYC Subway Line (www.nycsubwayline.net), which she launched in 1995, started out selling subway tees and then quickly grew into a full-fashion line, becoming New York’s own fashion brand officially licensed by the MTA. However, her business has been through many swift curves. From Apple buying her laptop sleeves to President Clinton walking through Brooklyn wearing her shirt to Hurricane Sandy washing away her warehouse merchandise, Lynne has been through it all. SheBOOM spoke with Lynne about what she’s learned and how she keeps moving ahead.
You’ve been in the business for a long time? To what do you attribute your staying power?
I believe my original idea, to make our NYC Subways wearable, was a very strong one. The subway maps and signs are iconic, but no one had really made use of them before. Even people who have never visited NYC recognize these symbols from TV, film, music videos or Instagram. I really spun them upscale, so that they’ve become both fashionable and aspirational!
How did your training early on benefit you?
Actually, I never had any formal business training. (Which has been a challenge!) But when I was one of the winners of the Make Mine a Million $ Business contest, I did get some coaching, both in groups and individually, which was helpful. My background as an actor was of little use for anything but the sales end of my business, but I’ve also been a volunteer trustee of the Health & Retirement Funds for the American Federation of TV & Radio Artists for a couple of decades. That experience helped me learn about how that business worked! I’ve had some mentors along the way who have been very helpful. Lastly, I was blessed with finding a wonderful attorney, a woman who has become a good friend. She’s smart as a whip, and she’s helped a great deal too!
As you grew your company, what did you look for in team members? How did this change over time?
I have learned that I need creative people who are also detail oriented. From the beginning, I’ve known I needed to only work with people who were nice. There’s just no room for drama. Business issues can be dramatic enough. I also found that I needed someone who had a complimentary set of skills to balance mine out. When I have a mixture of these players, things work best. I started out alone with a warehouse, where I had to do my own picking and packing. I then had a series of paid interns, each of whom were really great. Finally, we grew enough that when our fantastic intern was graduating from college, we hired her as our first full time employee. We always try to have a paid intern from one of the local colleges. They bring a fresh young point of view to our line, which is appreciated! Everyone here has to wear lots of hats, which is both stimulating and also a challenge. I need employees who can do that juggling!
Lowest point? How did you get through it?
Our line used to be warehoused a few feet from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, my husband, grown son and I had just finished dinner. The phone rang and it was the warehouse manager telling us that he had watched a 4′ storm surge break down the door to the warehouse on their security camera and all might be lost! As soon as the roads could be traveled, we went to see the damage. The three of us waded through polluted standing water in the cold with no electricity to view the damage with electric lanterns. Everything from 5′ down was ruined. We filled a 30′ dumpster over the course of a week with damaged products which had to be disposed of. Unfortunately, what was safe and dry were our slowest selling products which had been stored up high. We donated much of that to Hurricane Sandy relief, gathered up the rest, found a new warehouse in NJ up on a hill and started over. Fortunately we had marine insurance which helped us pay for some of the replenishment. We also got an SBA loan. But I never would have survived that week without my husband and son who were uncomplaining and so helpful. We just trudged through it, half numb, but kept working. It was quite a nightmare but we’re still standing!
I was thrilled when Macy’s brought our accessories into their New York stores, when Apple bought our laptop sleeves, when the Museum of Modern Art put us into their Design stores and when Urban Outfitters bought our tees and accessories! Each order was a huge accomplishment! But maybe the best moment was when President Clinton wore a shirt and hat I sent him when he opened his office in Harlem. The newspapers had a picture of him wearing the shirt, and he sent a hand-written thank you note! I framed it! That beat all of the celebrities who had worn our line before.
We have just sampled the coolest subway logo folding chairs and some great NYC subway pillows, which we’ll be shipping next year! We’re excited to keep creating new and fashionable items for people who love NYC!
We at sheBOOM loved getting “on board with Lynne’s adventures and we look forward to following her to the next stop! Do YOU have a story to share? Please get in touch!