In The Studio With Wolf Circus
Self-made jewelry designer and business mogul Fiona Morrison is in the studio continuing to create her line Wolf Circus, with a little help from the FIT Grant she won back in June of this year. Starting Wolf Circus while in college, Morrison took inspiration from her friends and realized there was a high demand for vintage jewelry that was still affordable. In the beginning, the line was simple but as Morrison grew so did the business. Going from three employees to now having twelve hard-working girls to make Wolf Circus what it is today, these pieces have become popular for both men and women who are looking for that chic vintage look.
The Canadian-based businesswoman/ designer talked to Milk about the emotions behind winning this grant and making sure her line is timeless yet affordable. By keeping her targeted customer in mind throughout the years, Morrison has been able to keep building on this ever-growing brand. “My customer isn’t the kind of person that’s taking off her necklace each night and putting it back in its box and shining it every day. They’re in the shower with it or off surfing,” says Morrison.
Do you want to tell us about your new studio?
We’re so excited that we have finally moved into a larger studio space, so many wonderful things have happened this year. Earlier in the year I won the FIT grant and Tommy Hilfiger was the one who handed me the cheque, it was such a surreal experience. After that, we were able to double our square footage and start the process of hiring more team members.
How did that even happen?
Last fall I received a mass email sent out to designers who attended Capsule Tradeshows. It was for small designers to apply for this program, and it was through FIT (Fashion’s Institute Technology) here in New York. Essentially I went back to school for an MBA boot camp and was living in New York for the month of January and re-analyzing all aspects of my business, working with mentors and just really figuring out what our values were in the brand and also pivots we needed to make and changes and ways to improve over-all and getting really amazing information from industry leaders.
What did you feel like you learned, maybe an “Oh my god I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before?” moment.
I feel like when you’re running a business, especially on a smaller scale and working on so many aspects of it, you end up working in the business and never get to step outside the box and look at the overall industry. It was really refreshing to do that and to be able to take that time to really look at and compare yourself to other big players out there. Most of my job has been self-taught, from finances, how I run our inventory system, and so many other aspects have been skills I figure out and then adapt myself into the business. It was an incredible opportunity to meet experts in the industry to teach us their best practices. The information and knowledge along with the mentors they connect you with have been incredibly beneficial. Then I had to re-write my business plan, which was the hardest I have ever worked in my life. I locked myself in my apartment from 8 AM in the morning to 7 PM at night every single day for four weeks glued to my computer just working on my business plan. It was an intense but rewarding experience evaluating every area of the business. Figuring out what areas needed improving and how we were going to do it, just looking at the overall markets and strategies that were in place as we grew. So I submitted that alongside 25 other designers and was chosen to be in the final 12 to give a presentation.
Was the presentation of your new business plan?
Yeah, kind of! It was a very condensed version. It’s hard to take 60 to 75 pages of a business plan and boil it down into a five-minute speech and make it interesting and compelling. I had to present in front of a group of panel industry leaders and then I made it into the final round. An hour later I presented with 4 others, Tommy Hilfiger was there and so many other industry leaders, and then I ended up winning!
Did they tell you at the event that you won?
Yeah, it was a very quick sequence of events. Like let’s say it started at 7 PM, I do my first presentation and then an hour later you find out you made the second round and then within 30 minutes later you’re presenting the second one and then literally the judges took 20 minutes to decide. It was unanimous among all of them that I was the winner! Which was the most surreal experience ever!
Was it other fashion designers?
Yeah! There was a really amazing shoe line called Hopp, a bag line and also a woman’s wear business suit line. It was so crazy because me being the only person from out of the country I was just like ‘oh I don’t have a chance, I’m just this girl from Vancouver island’. It was the most amazing thing.
Did you cry?
I almost cried, I didn’t really know what to do but I definitely was shaking and in shock. It’s also funny because when you’re applying for something like this and filling out an application for it I was just like there is no way they’re going to pick me I’ll just spend 30 minutes to fill out this application. The opportunity was amazing, and it’s been such perfect timing for our business because we’re on such a huge growth rate right now and in order to keep up with that momentum having this grant has helped put us in the right direction. It has allowed us to move into a larger office and hire more team members so we can keep up with everything. I’m just really excited to open up so many possibilities for us.
That’s nuts! So the whole program was only one month, right?
The program was one month in January and then that’s when you went back to school. So I moved to New York for a month and then after that, I just worked on my business plan and revising my presentation.
Okay got it. And then you presented it at the beginning of summer?
So what are the roots of Wolf Circus?
Wolf Circus started in a really funny way. I was attending university and was in my second year and working at a small boutique at the time and I really noticed a gap in the market for modern cool badass jewelry, and I kind of had set out this vision to create that. At the time I was saying our customer was “the bold, beautiful, brainy, and badass” I was maybe 19 or 20 at the time and — I’m never going to forget the day I turned and looked at my parents and was like, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to start a jewelry line,” and my they looked at me and said, “Please go get an education today, sweetie.”
Then my dad turns to me and says, “Fiona anything you do in life is gonna turn into a circus.” Just because of my personality and how I’m always on the go, you know trying to do a million things at once and so it started there!
It started obviously very small and I was just selling to smaller local stores and drilling bullet casings, but I had this innate need to always be driving and pushing things, I think I have such a passion for who I was creating jewelry for, and why I was creating it and then I just kept growing it. When I graduated from university a few years later I was really able to work on it and have it take off, and I would say about two or three years ago it really started to skyrocket. Last January I had six employees working for me and now there are twelve. So it’s just been the craziest growth spurt ever but we’re so incredibly thankful for how everything’s been working out so well for the brand and how we are being received.
How do you find the right people to work for you? What are the traits that you look for?
Our team is just some of the most hard-working incredible groups of women. It’s a small brand and its so important to have the right people alongside you. When you’re working for a small business it’s not like a big company where you know you’re doing one very specific job and it’s really set out and has guidelines of what that job entails. For a small company, every one of your employees’ contributions ends up being the most key integral aspect of the brand’s growth. You just have to find people who are so driven and so dedicated to helping you grow your brand as much as you are and I think that’s so important. I’m kind of just finding people that have characteristics of being so dedicated and as passionate as I am. I mean it really started with one employee named Michelle she’s literally my right-hand woman and she’s currently our COO and marketing manager. She and I have always had the same mindset of what needs to get done we get it done.
I think it’s having that mindset too, of not being stopped by not knowing what to do and not knowing how to accomplish the job and to be like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here but I’m gonna get it done.’ I was in university I didn’t know the first thing about running a jewelry company but had the work ethic and motivation. Along the way, you have to figure everything out, or reach out to the right people and connect yourself.
What is your design process and how has it changed over the years?
Since we started, the line has changed completely. When I first started I was literally shopping in second-hand stores and finding vintage charms and buying crystals and wire wrapping them. I am still inspired by vintage pieces however most of my inspiration is drawn from art, traveling and sourcing inspiration from my experiences.
The early stages!
Yeah, the early stages! It’s definitely developed since then, but most of my design process like the core root of it obviously pulled so much inspiration from art. My father was so into Miro and he had so many beautiful Miro prints all over our house and so that was a big thing that I was really into. We pull so much inspiration from so many different elements this season a lot of it has been working with- I went to Copenhagen this summer so adding more bright fun colorful elements to our designs was really crucial for me. Also, I worked with a glass artist and it turned out really amazing but a lot of that process is trial and error where you have an idea in your mind and you really want to create it, but it doesn’t always become that idea because of how finicky glass is and how inconsistent it is. The upside though is the organic nature of working with glass and the uniqueness and how each piece is going to be so different, I think it creates such a beautiful process and sort of playing with that. My biggest inspiration comes from my friends and how they’re styling their jewelry. I always find so much inspiration in seeing how my friends may be obsessed with their dad’s chain bracelet, or how they’re wearing their grandmother’s belt they made into a necklace. So many fun playful elements, I pull so much inspiration from what is around me which I think is so important.
When I first started the line I really wanted it to be something that was affordable and attainable for all my friends because we were all in university and we were all shopping on a budget and I still have so much of that in my brand. I want to make it as attainable as possible but at the same time, quality is very important to us. We use recycled sterling silver or recycled bronze with gold plating and in terms of longevity, we really want the customers to be able to wear their pieces forever. Our customer isn’t the type of person who is taking off their necklace each night and putting it back in its box and shining it every day. They are in the shower with it or off surfing or so we accommodate with plenty of free repairs when someone’s chain breaks because they’ve gone too hard on the dancefloor and it got tangled in their hair you know? I think that’s so important for brands these days to consider sustainability and what is the longevity of an item and what’s going to happen once they’re done wearing it, and so we offer things like free gold replating if they banged it on something and the gold plating is chipped off. Having that ability to keep their jewelry new for years and years not only helps slow the purchasing cycles of fast fashion it also keeps our customers happy.
Do you want to talk more about the glass pieces?
We are insanely excited about the glass pieces. We were scouring different colors and getting some inspiration and I came across this 1995 Gucci campaign it was all these men in suits and it was these velour-like velvet tonal bright orange, pale yellow electric blue suits, and so I was really inspired by those colors. I just wanted something so bright and so fun and a pop of color but still very wearable. Glass seemed like a great way to incorporate these colors into jewelry and having the opportunity to work with a local artist to do so.
And the men’s stuff?
We decided to launch an everybody line and I think it really came down to the fact that we have been doing women’s jewelry for so long and I saw how many guys were wearing our line naturally. Many of our pieces-like our signet rings- are so gender-fluid. So I wanted to create a collection that was slightly more masculine but still works for everybody. Even our current collection, personally I would wear and rock all the pieces in it. There’s such a gap in the market for really modern men’s jewelry which is affordable quality and a brand which they really feel genuine in wearing. So that’s why we launched the collection and we’re so excited to see kind of how it unfolds and grows.
For Christmas when all my girlfriends are gonna have to get their boyfriends something it’s gonna be this, because anywhere else, for the simplest jewelry is so expensive!
Yes! And so that’s the thing we want, quality yet attainable. I personally love it because it reminds me of me when I was younger and buying my boyfriend at the time a hoodie for Christmas, I was buying it for him but also for myself to steal later. Our jewelry is kind of like that, where it’s something that a girl would maybe buy for her boyfriend but possibly want a version for herself.
So once you get the inspiration, what happens next?
The design process is really so different for each piece, for example with the glasswork we had to play with so many different elements and so much trial and error until we came up with something concrete. A lot of our collection works that way too, where I’ll think of an idea and I’ll have a sketch for it and then with the creation process it sometimes turns into a completely different piece. Lots of our initial designs become altered once we begin playing with it and looking at how wearable it is and how much it will cost a customer. Normally it starts with a sketch and then everything is usually hand-carved in wax and then its cast into metal. If it’s a different element beyond silver or bronze, which we incorporated a lot this season, it’s a lot of sourcing freshwater pearls and playing with hand-blown glass and finding bead and color inspiration.
And then so what actually happens at the studio?
The studio is actually everything! All of our production happens there, all of our polishing and soldering and packaging orders and customer service- just everything pretty much happens there.
Do you shoot e-com there as well?
We usually shoot that at a photo studio, but everything happens primarily in Vancouver. Certain production elements don’t happen in Vancouver only because, at our studio, we don’t have the capacity and space to finish everything. I believe in the importance of having your team in house. A lot of the drive for my business is the fact that I have been able to build up a really amazing group of women in my studio who create such a family, and a wonderful working environment. We do fun things like pottery classes and family-style dinners. We try to do something fun once a month and I think it’s really great to have that family environment for your work and that’s why we kept a lot of our production in house and trying to grow everything organically here, in our studio in Vancouver.
What did you learn from opening a pop-up in New York?
We were so incredibly grateful for how much support and love we received from this pop-up. It was a dream come true doing this when you first start something you’re always like ‘oh I don’t know,’ I’m from a little island in Canada and I don’t know if my brand will ever be relevant in New York, but seeing the response we have gotten and how many amazing customers we have, and just meeting them and hearing their stories. Recently I heard a story about this girl and she was like ‘Oh you’re Fiona from Wolf Circus, I was in a bar in Berlin and I was wearing your femme necklace and the girl sitting across the bar looked at me and was like hello! and she held up her femme necklace,’ and it was so crazy to see that they are halfway across the world and this German girl and this girl from Vancouver that both have the same necklace became best friends after. I love hearing stories like that, it’s been such an amazing experience.
I’ve definitely learned that it takes so much work to run a pop-up! We really want to hold more as we believe in the importance of having those interactional experiences with customers. I think because we deal with so many customers over Instagram or email and they deal with our retailers, so it becomes an amazing experience to have that conversation with them and do some really fun experimental elements like our DIY beading night, where we had everyone make their own necklace and put everything together. It’s just been such a rewarding and amazing experience and so we definitely want to do it again.
What is your advice to people who want to start their own company?
I’d say that the biggest thing I have for advice is that when someone is trying to start their own business or grow something, is that you should take a lot of pride and patience and focus on growing organically. I see a large benefit in the learning curve for people to take that time and invest in figuring out who their customers are and making those strong relationships with them. I think that I’ve seen so many brands these days get a huge investment in their company and they can go ahead and buy all their customers and I think it’s just so important when you’re starting small to really just take that pride and find out who your customer is and establishing a relationship and those customers will stay with you for so long.
How do you balance your vision with what the customer wants?
That’s actually a really good question because I definitely struggled with that in the beginning. Back in my early university days, I was able to start learning who our customer was – “the bold, beautiful, brainy, and badass” it’s the funniest thing because the “Four B’s” is something that all our older customers remember and we don’t use it anymore, but it still definitely represents our growth till this day. It’s important when you’re starting out to understand and listen to your customers because that’s the person that’s going to help you grow your business. Then eventually you can grow with your customer and understand where the growth is headed. It’s so good to be aware of what your customer really needs and finding ways to really target that but at the same time, having a strong vision and making what you really love and trusting your customer will probably love it too, is a great way to keep your brand authentically you.
Images Courtesy of Ian Lanterman
Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.