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Why Is a ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Star Getting Into Fashion?

In the 18 years that Susan Bender has sold her designs, she has been all about the business and not personal fame. That is about to change, thanks to a collaboration with Heather Dubrow of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Bender described Dubrow as having a lot of confidence and being “very direct, elegant and sensitive. Things hurt her and she will express that. If she has hurt someone, she tries to be really careful to understand how [that happened],” Bender said. “But she is like sunshine. She walks into a room and smiles. She is so present and positive.”

Arriving at a recent shoot in New York with Bender, Dubrow greeted every member of the photo and video teams with a hug and readily agreed to any retakes with “Sure, tell me what you need,” according to Bender.

The designer’s hope is that their direct-to-consumer capsule collection’s sales will exceed those of her signature label and will lead to future collections.

Bender’s route to fashion is unconventional in that she attended New York University’s Stern Business School instead of a design-centric one and started out working in consumer products specializing in brand management. Having always wanted to go into fashion, she decided to take a detour and connected with a New York City patternmaker to create her own designs, which took off thanks to her friends’ interest. That financial background serves Bender well. “I check the bottom line constantly, and what we’re spending. I manage all of it relentlessly,” Bender said.

After 12 years of selling to friends and clients, she ventured into wholesale six years ago. At that time the jeweler Jennifer Miller and her husband approached Bender about teaming up on a project on the condition that she wholesaled. Now with annual sales of nearly $2 million, Bender produces her signature collection in New York City. Her namesake label is offered nationwide in such retailers Bergdorf Goodman and Elyse Walker. From the start, she opted not to pursue major chains, having been advised that one off season could put a dent in her business. “I didn’t want to go through that. I understand that there are markdowns, returns and all of that,” said Bender, who joined the New York City showroom High Alchemy, after being introduced to cofounders Susan Sokol and Suzanne Zikas.

She reached out to Dubrow over social media after seeing the reality star wear one of her jackets. That opened up an exchange, and the pair quickly found similarities such as the belief that years-old “great things” should be worn often and for forever. They also felt that designer-level staples are not always offered at retail. Another commonality was that Bender’s daughter Chloe attended Dubrow’s alma mater — Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts — and one of Dubrow’s eldest daughters Max attends Bender’s alma mater — Tufts University.

The eight-piece collaborative capsule collection will debut in August with a focus on versatility. A white cotton stretch blouse was a must for Dubrow, who traveled to New York to help find the right one. A coat dress with nickel metal zippers were replaced with tonal ones to blend in, after Dubrow piped up with an “absolutely not,” Bender said.“She definitely had opinions. We had a ninth piece, and she said, ‘You know, that’s our weak link. Let’s get rid of it.’ I said, ‘No problem.’”

Having another pair of eyes sizing up the selection is helpful, especially since Dubrow is “such a good representation of who wears the clothes,” Bender said. “She also has a sense of what her audience wants.”

Bender gains Instagram followers every time Dubrow references her company, but that hasn’t translated to a surge in sales. (Dubrow has 2 million Instagram followers.) However, years ago a woman phoned Bender looking for a Bender-designed jacket that Dubrow wore in a social media post. Unfamiliar with Dubrow at that point, and not heavily into social media at that point, Bender was stumped. After the caller sent an image of Dubrow in one of the designer’s most popular designs, she sold the caller one.

The collaborative line with Dubrow will be priced more affordably than Bender’s signature stretch leather line that starts at $1,600 and has an average price of $2,000. The price points are in line wth her commitment to paying factory workers’ fair wages and domestic manufacturing. Understanding those high prices aren’t for everyone and it “takes a special person to spend $1,995 on a tiny little jacket,” Bender is producing the capsule collection with napa leather in Turkey and will sell directly to shoppers to lower costs. The average price is expected to be $495, but the designs have not been “dumbed down,” Bender said.

Acknowledging how conversion rates for social media can be inexact, Bender said, “I really think that these pieces are so useful, timeless, and well-priced. We don’t want any of our stores to say, ‘Oh, she’s undercutting her own business.’ They have a very Susan Bender vibe, and are extraordinarily well-made. But they are being done for a different consumer,” Bender said.

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