Pauline Sokol Nakios began her career in retail straight out of college, working at a boutique in Atlanta before launching her own clothing business, Lilla P, in 1998. Nearly 17 years have passed since then and in that time Pauline has grown Lilla P from a small start-up business offering a single t-shirt to the expansive fashion brand that it is today.
Pauline’s goal? To “always design easy pieces that become coveted items in a woman’s wardrobe—an everyday layering tank, a flattering tee, the perfect sweater, a casual blazer.” And we think she’s nailed it. Lilla P’s staying power can certainly be attributed to the impeccable fit and timeless quality of the clothing they offer; however, it’s clear that another reason for Lilla P’s success is the diligent team behind the brand, with Pauline at the helm.
Today, Pauline continues to expand her business while also managing charitable commitments and raising her children. How does she do it? Talent, work ethic, and early morning workouts to jumpstart her day. (She could definitely teach us a thing or two about time management!) Keep reading to learn more about Pauline’s successful career and the advice she has on staying true: “It is okay to not be good at absolutely everything. Know your core competency and hire the rest!”
Full Name: Pauline Sokol Nakios
Current Title/Company: Lilla P Owner + Creative Director
Educational Background: BFA from University of Georgia
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job out of college was at a clothing boutique in Atlanta called Tootsies. I had always worked in retail throughout college and absolutely loved the brands that Tootsies sold so this was a great coup for my first entry into the fashion world. I had a friend who worked there and made an introduction for me.
In 1998 you launched Lilla P, a lifestyle clothing brand. How did you come up with the idea for Lilla P?
I have always been a t-shirt girl at heart. I had a million tees but never felt like any one of them was just perfect, so I decided to design my own. Luckily I had access to a manufacturer and had them create a sample for what I thought was the “ideal” tee missing in the market.
Production can be very challenging. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. I worked for an ad specialty company and we had produced some t-shirts with a manufacturer in South Carolina. When I started Lilla P I contacted them and they produced my first sample with them. Through them, I met dye houses and made many connections from there. Networking and asking the right questions is extremely important. My first sample (which is also what I launched the company with) was a short sleeve crew neck t-shirt in one size and five colors. I loved the idea of “one size” but quickly learned that I needed a size scale. We now have XS-XL which allows me to fit many women—we come in many size and shapes.
Can you take us through the process of launching Lilla P? How did you go about writing a business plan and organizing finances for Lilla P when it first launched?
I’d be lying if I told you I had a 50 page business plan! At the time I was young and naïve. I had the idea, a vision, and a little money saved and literally dove in head first. At first, Lilla P was really just a hobby. I’d make samples and play around with fit and I invested only what I was willing to lose. That initial investment lasted me a year or so. In order to grow and invest in more inventory, I was able to secure a small business loan. Things are quite different today and unfortunately banks are not as willing to take the risk on a small business. Managing cash flow in an inventory-based business can be tricky and it is important to do it well.
As I mentioned above, production is one of the most challenging parts of this business. When I first started, I used my initial investment and put most of that into inventory. I produced the stock and then I went and sold it once it was in my hands. As I grew and added more styles to the line, I realized that I could not possibly hold stock in all of the new skus. I also learned that stores buy well in advance of the season—usually about 6 months. I then started to proceed in a more traditional manner by creating a sample line and selling to stores from those samples. Once I had the orders, I would then project out and make my buy.
As a new company, the factories are not quick to extend terms. I had to pay for the inventory when it shipped—often times there was also a deposit required. Therefore, the production was paid for well in advance of me shipping it to the end users and receiving payment. That is when I had to find financial assistance to bridge the period between paying for inventory and receiving payment for it. I needed a loan that I could draw from when it was time to pay the factories. Once my customers paid me for the open invoices, I would pay the loan back. To sum it up, it is important to have a financial understanding of what it takes to run an inventory-based business. I am also fortunate to have my husband, Thomas, as my business partner.
Lilla P is a collection of timeless, casual pieces made with quality fabrics and an impeccable fit. Tell us more about the collections you create and the inspiration behind them!
Why thanks! Each season, the collection is comprised of must-have staples that nod to the current trends in the market. My goal is to always design easy pieces that become coveted items in a woman’s wardrobe—an everyday layering tank, a flattering tee, the perfect sweater, a casual blazer. I am inspired by simplicity and detail in architecture, home décor, art, and the everyday aspects of our lives.
I also get a ton of inspiration from our travels. I love exploring colors and textures that are apparent in other countries and weaving them into our inspiration boards. We have traveled to Greece on several occasions and have fallen in love with everything Greek! The signature blue color that you see all over Greece is apparent in my Summer 15 line as well as rich earth tones inspired by the landscape.
Lilla P has been in business for nearly 17 years, and during that time has grown a great deal. Tell us how Lilla P has expanded over the years.
The line started as basic tees and has evolved into a full collection to fit the needs of a woman’s expanding casual lifestyle. We had the tee shirt concept down pat but our customers wanted more from us, which was a good thing. I knew that whatever categories we added had to be synergistic to what we were known for, which was cotton. The addition of sweaters, jackets, bottoms, and wovens has allowed us to expand the Lilla P brand name and have a meaningful presence at retail when all merchandised together.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you would have known when starting your business in 1998?
Oh gosh, there is so much! For starters, I wish I had the discipline and wherewithal to launch with a real business plan! I think it’s important to think through your business strategy and create a road map for how you want to grow and expand.
I also learned a valuable lesson early on about putting too much trust in others. You must look after yourself and always appear to know more than you really do. If you show signs of vulnerability, you open yourself up to be taken advantage of. Additionally, it is okay to not be good at absolutely everything. Know your core competency and hire the rest!
How did you initially market Lilla P to customers? How have you spread the word about Lilla P since you first opened?
I initially called stores that I knew and loved or had a connection to. Many were kind enough to try selling a couple dozen tees. I then hired sales representatives in territories across the US that would be responsible for getting the line into the best stores in their regions. It’s simply impossible to do it all yourself. Trade shows as well my sales force continue to help market the brand to retailers throughout the US, Canada, and now the UK. We also work with a wonderful PR firm that does a stellar job engaging the right audience through social media outlets as well as editors and influential tastemakers that are in line with our brand aesthetic.
Tell us about your team! How many employees do you currently have? What is the office culture like?
My team is incredible and thankfully makes going to work everyday something I look forward to! I am in business with my husband so I feel like our team of 20+ is really an extension of our family. Our crew is made up of sales, design, retail (we have a shop on West 14th Street in NYC), accounting, e-commerce, PR, and marketing. I recognize that we all spend more time at work than we do at home so it’s always been very important to me to create a warm and comfortable work environment for my team. We have a wonderful, open office and we preach respect and unity. We also like to make it fun—team cocktails after a long show is always something we look forward to.
What has been the most challenging part of owning and operating a business?
The challenging part of owning your own business is that you can never truly turn it off. At the end of the day, it is my husband and I that have to make sure the business is healthy and the best decisions are made. It’s also been challenging balancing work life and the kids—but that’s another article!
The most rewarding?
Lessons are learned and mistakes are made but the most rewarding part is looking back at the last 16 years and realizing that I could make this happen.
What advice can you give women seeking careers in the fashion industry?
I would suggest getting as much experience in the industry as possible. Expose yourself to different aspects of the industry even if you are already sure of what you want to do. It’s important that when you set out on your own you are not going in with blinders on. Networking is essential—join industry groups and attend seminars and trade shows. Surround yourself with good people—the stronger your network, the easier it is to make things happen.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. It is good to be put into a position where you actually may just surprise yourself.
What is a typical work day like for you?
On a good day, I’m up at 5:30am to squeeze in a quick workout before the day starts, but that’s not every day! Thankfully I live right around the corner from my office so I always try and take my boys to school whenever possible. It’s definitely a little highlight of my morning routine. I arrive to the office by 8:45 and always start my day reviewing my calendar and responding to emails. Since I’m not typically sitting in front of my computer all day, I like to knock out as much correspondence as I can early on so that the rest of my day can be spent in design meetings and fittings with my team. We work on several seasons at once which keeps us on our toes (and in back to back meetings all day!). Our office is a big open space and my desk is right in the middle so I am constantly being pulled into various meetings throughout the day to go over sales, web, PR, and marketing. When we can, I try to grab lunch with my husband, which is usually spent talking about work in one capacity or another. Evenings vary night to night as I have a lot of charitable commitments outside the office that require dinners and meetings with board members, but on an ideal night I like to be home on the early side so can tuck my kids into bed and read them a book or two.
Best moment of your career so far?
The everyday excitement is always seeing people walking down the street and looking great in Lilla P—that thrill never grows old! And then there are the milestone celebrations like watching the collection take off oversees and becoming a global brand.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. It is good to be put into a position where you actually may just surprise yourself.
Pauline Sokol Nakios is The Everygirl…
Morning or night?
Morning for sure!
What is your go-to outfit?
I’m not sure what I would do without denim in my life. Every day involves my newest pair of jeans and my favorite black Lilla P tank. This is pretty much the foundation of my wardrobe every single day.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Choose your words wisely! Email is forever! Know that whatever you put out there can never be taken back.
Favorite part about living in NYC?
Being able to order a Greek salad at midnight! No, seriously, I’m addicted to the energy and the accessibility of everything in NYC—a last minute concert at the Garden, an amazing meal at any one of ten restaurants within two blocks of my apartment, the Whitney Museum that’s about to go up just around the corner from our office. I love that everyday feels new and exciting and that there is inspiration everywhere you look.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Hands down, lunch with my grandmother would be pretty amazing. Unfortunately she passed away when I was a teenager and so she has missed this entire chapter of my working life. I named my company after her and it would be special to talk to her about this journey. We would for sure have lunch at Zampa and I would get my favorite Brussels sprout salad.