Breaking into Fashion with Keryn Francisco of lucy Activewear

Many would have been surprised to know that behind the confines of her desk Keryn Francisco, a recruiter in the biomedical industry, had a secret innate passion for fashion design. Though her desire to join the ranks of the fashion world bordered on obsessive, her dreams felt out of reach and elusive given her career background and job title. It wasn’t until she landed a temporary assignment at Levi Strauss & Co. in the staffing department that she decided to pursue her passion.

Keryn’s role in staffing eventually evolved into a retail marketing assistant position—her first big break that took her to the fashion capital of the world, New York City. After enrolling in the accelerated fashion design programs at FIT and Parsons, Keryn moved into a design assistant role, taking her back to Levi’s San Francisco office. Still, landing the dream job came at a price for Keryn; at just 29-years-old, she found herself experiencing major symptoms of career burnout.

But now she proudly calls herself the creative director of lucy Activewear in the Bay Area, where she loves everything her company represents. Keep scrolling for more on how Keryn recovered from career burnout at 29-years-old, what she loves most about her current role, and where she draws inspiration from these days.

Full name: Keryn Francisco
Location: Bay Area, CA
Age: 45
Current title/company: Creative Director of lucy Activewear
Educational background:  B.A. in English (UC Berkeley), FIT and Parsons

What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it? 
My first job when I graduated was as a recruiter in the biomedical industry. It was the result of many summers as a “Kelly Girl” administrative temp. At the time, it was completely unrelated to my true, innate passion in fashion design. It was frustrating to be obsessed with the fashion world but working with nurses and medical technologists—my dreams seemed elusive and impossible. But in retrospect, my first jobs taught me some extremely valuable skills.

I learned about adapting quickly to different environments, cultures, and processes. I learned computer skills across several platforms; I learned about customer service and working with the general public; I learned about organization and project management. Most importantly, from being exposed to so many industries, personalities and experiences it was clear to me what I DIDN’T want to do. I became extremely focused on what I wanted.

You eventually worked your way out of the medical technology field to a temp assignment at Levi Strauss & Co. How did you turn that assignment into a full-time position at the company? What did your role entail once you became a regular staff member?
The staffing department at Levi’s actually ended up being the best place to be—I had the inside scoop on all the best jobs and made connections with all the hiring managers! I set up 30-minute informational interviews with everyone I could including people outside the Design Department. I was truly just curious about all aspects of the apparel industry, so I met with people in finance, marketing, sourcing, merchandising, planning, visual marketing…anyone who would accept my meeting requests! It was good to get wide exposure.

When a job in New York opened up as a retail marketing assistant, I applied for it because I had just learned about that department. Next thing I knew, I was being relocated across the country—it was my big break in the Big Apple! I was responsible for coordinating Levi’s shops in department stores all over the country. I also organized some fun events with MTV and Macy’s Herald Square. It was the best, most exciting, job ever for a 24-year-old!

My manager at the time also became my most beloved mentor and role model. She cared about me and was sincerely committed to my success. I realized that you didn’t have to be mean to be a powerful woman. She taught me grace and kindness as well as intelligence and strength.

Yet you were still determined to go to design school and were admitted to the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design in their accelerated programs. What skill set did you gain from design school that you weren’t getting from the workforce? How did you balance school with a full-time job?
Design school was very intense because I was juggling work and school. There were long nights working on my school projects because I couldn’t work on them during the day while at work. It was the mid-90s and everything was very analogue, so I learned the ‘handcraft’ of design—I feel like this is becoming a bit of a lost art.

We illustrated with marker pens, watercolor, and pencils on 9-head tall figures with tracing paper and erasers. I created tweed textures by flicking paint from a toothbrush! I also learned pattern making and draping with slopers, muslin, and mannequins. I prototyped hundreds of garments myself on old Juki sewing machines and spent as many hours in the fabric store with very little money.

Now, we design and color everything on the computer and evaluate them on a piece of paper. We don’t see first prototypes for weeks. Someone else creates the patterns overseas, in a second language. So I learned that knowing the fundamentals of ‘dress making’ is very important. Communicating your design intentions to other teams with a solid technical vocabulary is more important than fancy ideas. Without it you might get back something completely weird, doesn’t fit right, or worse—impossible to make in mass production.

What was your next career step after finishing the fashion design program?
When an actual design assistant position back at the Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco opened up, I jumped at the opportunity! I studied and worked hard for the interview project. I wasn’t quite ready to leave Manhattan but I was definitely ready to start my design career. Funny now that I think back how anxious I was that I was too old (in my 20s!) to start another career path. It’s never too late.

Funny now that I think back, how anxious I was that I was too old (in my 20s!) to start another career path.  It’s never too late.

Tell us more about yout time spent at Levi’s. How did your role with the company evolve over the years?
I look back at my time at Levi’s a lot like when I went to Berkeley. Here was this institution of history, knowledge, and excellence with incredibly talented and creative people around me….I couldn’t believe that I was a part of it! I was young and naïve. I worked ridiculously long hours because I had so much to learn. I was insecure as well because I was too rapidly promoted from assistant to senior designer in three years but my passion for design paid off.

At 29-years-old, you experienced major burnout after working incredibly long hours and soaking up all the knowledge you could during your time at Levi’s. You ended up heading to Bali for several months to recover. Tell us more! What made you choose Bali? How did you finance several months off of work, and what kind of self-reflection did you experience during your time away?
I remember working and traveling so much that I was sleep deprived, stressed out, and emotionally depleted. It was a very dark time. I was on a flight to an overseas factory, banging away at some ‘urgent’ work project on my laptop, when a woman sitting next to me said straight out, “You know, I had a heart attack when I was 29.” I blinked at her, acted confused, but knew on a deep level why she felt compelled to share that with me. I was a wreck and it showed.

She told me about her experience in Bali and how it grounded her. The next week, I quit my job and arrived in Ubud, Bali for a two-week cleansing program. I ended up staying in the country for four months total! I lived very simply in modest accommodations and spent a lot of time alone, hiking, taking meditation classes and yoga, and learning about the culture. This sounds ridiculous, but I had to learn how to relax! Being in Bali removed all the material things I was attached to—the resume, the car, the fast lifestyle. I had to admit some hard things to myself: I was addicted to external validation, I was insecure about my abilities, and I was miserable trying to keep up someone else’s expectations of me.  I also met a young woman who was a doctor in the emergency room in East Los Angeles. Talk about perspective: She was actually saving lives of gunshot and stabbing victims on a regular basis. And I was running myself ragged over colored cotton!  Clearly, I was taking my life way too seriously.

When I returned to the U.S., I stayed with family and friends, worked in retail for $9/hour, and also took some small business classes. I was exploring every opportunity like a kid again! I started over. I think the Zen Buddists call this Shoshin or “beginners mind.”

Before landing your current role as creative director of Lucy Activewear, you were the global women’s training design director at Nike. What did that position entail on a daily basis, and what were the biggest lessons you learned while working for such a prominent company?
I had the great privilege of working for the world’s oldest apparel company, Levi’s, and the world’s largest apparel brand, Nike. I really love Nike’s maxims around innovation, “being a sponge,” having a wide perspective, and tolerating ambiguity.  It’s a company that respects and understands design and the power of creativity, whether you’re a designer or not.

I learned the importance of building a brand, rather than designing just a bunch of trendy clothes. I learned to distinguish between a fad and a megatrend, and clothes that are “cute” versus those that are engineered to perform. Nike helped me to see a larger, more holistic perspective, and gave me more courage to innovate, be original and systematic in my approach to design.

You can lose yourself in a big company, trying to please others’ agenda and to reach some unattainable, iconic goal. That can be very dangerous and soul sucking for a creative person. I learned that it’s important to stay true to youself and not get caught up in the politics.

Let’s talk about your current role. How did you land the opportunity to work for Lucy Activewear?
I focused solely on my career for so much of my life but finally decided to have a child at the age 41. I worried that I had waited too long. In another unexpected turn of events, I became a single parent so I moved back to the Bay Area to be closer to my family. This ultimately led me to Lucy Activewear as creative director.

I’m thrilled to finally work for a company that is only focused on women’s apparel. At Lucy, it’s always women first. We understand women. Women’s clothing is nuanced, it’s emotional. We create gorgeous and stylish clothing, and back it up with performance. Everything I’ve learned in my 25 years in the industry is really coming together here. It really comes from the heart.

I was exploring every opportunity like a kid again!  I started over.  I think the Zen Buddists call this Shoshin or “beginners mind.”

Tell us what your job entails on a daily basis. What does a typical day in the office look like?
We laugh a lot!  Some of our designers are into crystals to ward off bad juju and we’re all obsessed with succulent plants and tillandsia around the office. We want to create beautiful things from a beautiful space.

Besides the usual meetings that fill up my day, I love working and brainstorming with my team. Creative people excite and inspire me, especially the younger ones.  I learn from all of the lucy designers—they challenge me constantly to see things with fresh eyes. We have off sites where we share our ideas without judgement and everyone is incredibly supportive of one another. I realize how fortunate I am to have a well-balanced team. You can see us at work here.

What do you believe are the most important things to look for in a company when job searching or making a career transition?
You have to be attracted to the product that your target company makes. If you have a steep learning curve, you may have to think harder about things that could may have more intuitive and natural if you initially love a company or product—these decisions and results are magical and cool because they aren’t forced or contrived.

Being adaptable and open to different ways of doing things will grease your career path. The quickest way to fail is to walk into a new company presuming that you know how to save it because: “Clearly, they are doing everything wrong.” You won’t be the brand’s messiah if you announce yourself as such! Be like water and go with their flow first. Don’t worry, you’ll have the opportunity to gracefully infuse your influence.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career? How were you able to overcome them? What are the greatest rewards?
People often think that designers are “problem solvers.” A colleague recently repositioned that for me by saying, “Designers are ‘problem finders.'” I love that.

I think in my career, I’ve put so much pressure on myself to fix things, and make them perfect: processes, product architectures, designs, brand positioning, etc. But now I embrace life’s common themes of imperfection and finding problems. Only then can I design around it. Rather than being mad at the problem and forcing it away, I want to make the problem less of an issue or, better yet, a non-issue.

For example, the notion of ‘shape wear’ makes me crazy. It’s almost medieval, at best, Victorian. A woman can’t possibly be at her best if she can’t breathe! Being uncomfortable is not cute! I’d rather design for a real woman’s body and flatter her figure so that she feels free, effortless, and pretty.  When a woman of any shape, age, or stage in her life feels beautiful, the most herself, and even sexy in our clothes, that’s incredibly rewarding.

How have your previous experiences prepared you for this role?
When you work for a massive brand, there is a lot of internal ‘selling’ that you must do to have other stakeholders buy into your abstract idea. When you think about the fact that thousands of garments will be made from your one paper sketch, you’d better believe in what you’re pitching whether it’s from a brand, trend, or costing perspective! Designers need to think of many moving parts, restrictions, and concerns before we even start drawing.

At Lucy, our designers take great care in researching their designs beforehand in order to achieve the best execution while addressing real needs of our Lucy fans. Steve Jobs puts this quite simply, “Design is not how it looks. It’s how it works.” If you can get these things aligned then your design flows and it seems effortless and intuitive. It works.

Why are you passionate about your current role, and where do you draw inspiration or motivation?
I’ll be honest, I’ve worn clothes that weren’t made well, were cheap, or trendy. My mom was a tailor, so I’ve altered a lot of ill-fitting clothes in my life! Ultimately, its a waste of my hard-earned money and precious time.

I believe the Lucy fan deserves so much more. Our team is passionate about quality construction (inside and out), our luxurious and soft fabrics and obsessing about our flattering fits. We won’t compromise in these areas. We want our clothes to have a timeless elegance, and a level of versatility and quality so that our customer is getting the most value out of every outfit. Anything to make her life easier and effortless during her busy day…that’s inspiring!

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Relax, it’s all going to work out.

Keryn Francisco is The Everygirl…

Favorite way to blow off steam?
DANCE DANCE DANCE!  Turn on some old skool hip-hop and I just lose it!

East coast or west coast?
West coast is the best coast! Yay Bay Area!

Favorite place to travel for work?
When I need an injection of creative inspiration and energy it’s Tokyo and New York City, hands down.

Aidan or Big?
In my past, shamefully, it would be Big (or preferably, Smith!). But today, Harry (Charlotte’s husband) seems way more compelling!

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
My maternal grandmother. She was a military wife and raised six children on her own while my grandfather was away during the war and yet she was so stylish and glamorous in the 40s. I would love to compare her life as a single mom to mine. The similarities and differences must be mind-blowing! She didn’t have half of the opportunities as I have, and yet I think we would be able to talk about being a mother, a woman, and maybe even about shoes, for days.