How a missing piece in Paige Mycoskie’s closet led to a global lifestyle brand rooted in good vibes.
After years of searching for the perfect vintage T-shirt Paige Mycoskie had an idea: learn to make the tee of her dreams. And a thread of the needle is all it took—Mycoskie’s passion for 1970’s fashion and music manifested in Aviator Nation, a global lifestyle brand manufactured sustainably in Los Angeles. The brand’s signature symbol, a lightning bolt, stands for positive energy—which Mycoskie embodies inside and out. In the wake of quarantine shutdowns, she launched an online flash sale on Aviator Nation’s site to supplement her 200+ employees’ salaries. The online sale resulted in the brand’s biggest day of all time by selling $1.5 million in just 24 hours.
Keeping the garments made in America is a core value for the brand. The quality, Mycoskie says, becomes so much more important when you can watch your creation come to fruition. A single storefront in Venice, California, grew into 14 retail locations that bring nostalgic and welcoming atmospheres to their local communities. It goes without saying that Mycoksie’s business practices and values have led the brand to harness an incredible power that brings people together. Ahead, Mycoskie shares how she sparks inspiration for design, the importance of manufacturing in America, and the incredible growth she’s experienced over the past 15 years.
Aviator Nation was born in your garage in 2006 and has since grown into a global lifestyle brand. What was the lightbulb moment for Aviator Nation, and what inspired you to pursue this path?
There were a few lightbulb moments for me but the big first one was when I was wearing clothes that I had made for myself around Venice (where I live), and I literally got stopped by 3 people in the same day. One person stopped me on the street, one in the grocery store and another one in a store I liked to shop at called Planet Blue. In this one single day I was stopped by three different people asking me “what are you wearing and where can I buy it?”. It was extremely obvious to me that people liked what I was doing, and that I should try to sell the clothes I was making for myself.
At this same time (as above) I was working at a local surf shop called ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica as a buyer’s assistant. I went to a San Diego trades how with my boss (the main buyer) and got stopped at that show probably 50 times with the same question. People were at the show to BUY clothes for their stores, so that experience pushed me over the edge to quit my job and start sewing my own collection. It was super clear that random people on the street and store buyers wanted to buy the clothes I was making for myself!
You have what many would consider a dream job—not only does AN have 15 destination retail locations, the brand has been a part of incredible partnerships, including Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza, and tours with John Mayer. What are some of the common misconceptions people have about what it takes to build and run a business like Aviator Nation?
Ok, there are SO many misconceptions I could go on for days ha-ha. One of the main misconceptions is that the fashion business is a lot more difficult than people realize. People think if they love clothes, they should start a clothing brand. I see it quite a bit that people want to have a clothing brand. The difficulties of this industry are super unknown because you only see the sexy side of the biz from the outside.
Inventory management is a major difficulty. It’s incredibly hard to keep the right amount of inventory—not too much, not too little. You completely predict what people will want to buy because clothes take a long time to make (especially our clothes). You invest a lot in inventory when you really don’t know if it’s going to sell or not. One single garment has a minimum of 6 SKUS because each size is a different product, and then you have the color options, etc. I design hundreds of styles every season (you do the math) and manage thousands of new SKUS every 3 months (4 seasons a year).
Then you have to realize that trends change at lightspeed, so at any moment what you are doing could become not cool. Luckily, I have a knack for being ahead of the curve and designing clothes that people end up loving. But this is an extremely competitive industry and unfortunately you always have hundreds of other brands sitting on the sidelines just waiting to knock you off at any given moment.
Fashion, I’ve realized, is mostly brands looking at other brands copying what they do. There are very few totally original designers out there. This adds another spin to the industry because not only do you have to come up with new designs every season, you have to grow thick skin and learn not to worry about the people knocking you off.
I focus on quality because I believe matching my quality is pretty impossible. I spend a lot of money making the garment quality superior and putting incredible detail into each piece. That is hard to replicate, and I believe that is what keeps us superior.
You have such an impressive resume––you developed successful campaigns for companies like TOMS shoes early on in your career, and later was named GQ Magazines Designer of the Year and one of LA Business Journals Top Bosses Under 30, What keeps you inspired and motivated to keep going even on your most challenging days?
I love the clothes. Since I was a young girl, I loved fashion and I don’t think that passion will ever go away. I think I was born with this passion for a certain style of clothes—casual, comfortable, bold— and every time I sit down to design a collection, I feel like I’m on a high. That never goes away, and it keeps me inspired and motivated even on the challenging days. I get to make what I want to wear—I love creating something out of nothing. There are a million other perks to my job but designing the clothes is definitely the most fun part of the gig.
Aviator Nation is still manufactured in Los Angeles! After 15 years, you continue to inspire others to push the limits on manufacturing locally. What advice do you have for those hoping to start their own conscious brands?
I truly think the most important thing anyone starting a new brand or business can do right now is manufacture in America. It is so important that we bring manufacturing back home. I look around and I see the homeless population growing, I see people hungry that can’t afford health insurance or new clothes for their kids. It’s so sad to see this on my home turf and it’s totally unnecessary. Most of the products Americans consume are from China. Not only do we use up valuable resources shipping products into America from China, but we are giving all of our jobs to another country. I understand it is a lot less expensive to manufacture overseas, but it’s killing our job market and often creating an incredibly detached quality level too. When you produce and sell a product that you can physically watch being made, the quality becomes so much more important.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career—knowing what you know now—what advice would you give to yourself?
Mistakes are truly the fuel for growth and the painful moments are the ones that make you stronger in the end. Early on you will make a lot of mistakes—it’s totally inevitable. You have to realize that getting down about those mistakes is a simple waste of energy. The faster you let things go, move on and stop worrying about the mistake, the faster you can start living your best life and get back to the fun of it.
How have you remained true and authentic to who you are and what advice can you share for people who are struggling with that?
This is a big one. It is extremely tough to stay true to yourself in fashion. I am constantly being pulled in a hundred directions. People tell me regularly you should do this or do that. Everyone wants to tell fashion designers what to design. I have to listen and be respectful to the people around me, but at the end of the day I really need to ignore most of it. I tell myself “Paige, Aviator Nation is you so you need to keep doing you”. I design from my heart and sometimes it is weird and random and wild, but that random authenticity of designing what pops into my head is a lot more powerful than studying trend reports and trying to do what the masses are doing.
Different is always good. I encourage people who struggle with this to ignore trend reports, get off social media, go into nature, deep dive into their own soul and write down what comes to their head—then go back into the world and make it happen. You have an original idea that is not coming from what someone else is doing. Planting a seed into your soul becomes incredibly exciting. Of course, the harder part is making your idea a reality, but if you can do that then you become a real entrepreneur and that original idea makes you a true innovator. Accomplishing “innovator status” and living in innovation can be the most rewarding part of the journey.
My go-to background music to listen to while working is…
I listen to a lot of house music. I love Zhu, Sylvan Esso, Sofi Tucker. I need super upbeat jams at work. If I’m in the mood for more chill I usually listen to Camp Radio because it takes me back to my roots of “Americana Folk” which is an everyday favorite style for me.
Three traits that got me to where I am today are…
Confidence, perseverance, resilience.
The worst career advice I’ve ever received is…
“You should just be a designer for other companies. Don’t try to start your own brand, it’s way too much work and too difficult. Too much risk and stress.”
Sure, it would have been a lot easier and less risky to just be a designer, and I would have made a lot of money without the stress. But I would never have been challenged the way I was the last 15 years. I never would have grown the way I have. I also wouldn’t have the incredible team that I have beside me today. I am thankful every day that I started Aviator Nation! The challenges this company and this industry has brought me truly made me the person that I am today. Thank God I’m not just a designer.