A question of photography: Nicole Najafi, Founder & CEO of Industry Standard

A veteran of YSL, Lanvin and Balenciaga, Nicole Najafi is the Founder & CEO of Industry Standard - an online boutique that specializes in denim jeans for women. But jeans with a difference: Industry Standard only offers six very simple styles. They have perfected one pair of each look - skinny or relaxed; ink, indigo, black or white; midrise, highrise or boyfriend. No logos. No distressing. No fraying.  And this focus on clean simplicity is proving popular, with her burgeoning empire getting picked up by luxury store Fivestory in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

PhotoOp met up with Nicole to discuss her “Goldilocks experience” with the photography industry, as her company has grown from bootstrapped start-up to widely-acclaimed darling of The New York Times, Refinery 29, Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.

Back to Black - an example of brand & photographer working together to choose selects. Shot by Matt Hillman

Back to Black - an example of brand & photographer working together to choose selects. Shot by Matt Hillman

PhotoOp: Getting a start-up off the ground is no mean feat, particularly in a category as competitive as the fashion space. What have your dealings been like with photographers as you set up your website, shoot your product, etc.?

Nicole Najafi: Let me begin by saying that a lot of people ask me the biggest mistake I made when starting my own business. And my answer is always the same - working with the wrong photographers.

PO: Punchy way to kick-off our conversation! What makes that your go-to response?

NN: Because I work in e-commerce and imagery is critical to the success of an e-commerce company.

PO: How much experience had you had working with photographers, prior to starting Industry Standard?

NN: Some, but not a huge amount. When I was at Balenciaga I ran the e-commerce department for the US market. It was the best training I could ask for in terms of starting my own company, but most of the photography was handled out of the Paris office - I only really dealt with a photographer on the odd occasion.

PO: What type of photographer did you hire? And how did you find them?

NN: He was a fashion photographer who could shoot e-commerce too. And I actually didn’t choose him, he was hired out of the Paris office. My team’s interaction with him was pretty limited, with most of our product being shot out of France. If there was something I needed captured then I would have the item messengered to his studio in New York, where he’d get the imagery for us. I was only on-set with him a handful of times.

PO: So it’s fair to say you were a little green when you started working with photographers?

NN: Completely. I have worked with 3 photographers so far with Industry Standard - and it has definitely been a steep learning curve. The first two were both disasters for very different reasons. And the third has been amazing.

PO: Just like Goldilocks- the third was “just right”…

NN: Ha! I’ll have to remember that one.

The Margot Midrise, in indigo. Shot by Matt Hillman

The Margot Midrise, in indigo. Shot by Matt Hillman

PO: What type of of photographer were you looking for? Fashion? Still-life? Product?

NN: A Fashion photographer that could also shoot product. I mostly use photos in lookbooks and on my site. I wanted some editorialized shots that help give the jeans some emotional impact, but the photographer needed to understand how to light and effectively capture the products - so I can sell them.

PO: How did you find these photographers?

NN: All three were through referrals. I wish there had been a tool where I could find and book photographers based on what I needed, that fell within my budget.

PO: Did the photographer being repped have any bearing on who you went with?

NN: No. I didnt even think about it. I was just looking for a photographer, so I asked my friends. Luckily I know a few people in the fashion industry to turn to.

PO: Tell us about your first photographer. What went wrong?

NN: As I said, I was pretty green when it came to the photography industry. The first shoot was for a lookbook. I was working within a strict budget and decided to splurge on a fashion-lifestyle photographer, and skimped on the model. He was a good photographer: he had a great portfolio, a studio, the works. And he had worked with a lot of impressive brands, which was validating for me. But it soon became apparent that I was not an important client to him. I was a fresh start-up with no brand footprint to speak of, and frankly I don’t think he cared. He did an okay job, but his heart wasn’t in it.

PO: It was that apparent?

NN: Yes. And I was discouraged from working with him again because of it.

PO: Tell us about photographer number two.

NN: With photographer number two the pendulum swung the other way, and I went with someone who was very affordable. He was another referral, and I wish I had known a little more about his background before hiring him - because it transpired that he had very little technical abilities. In fact, he had recently been working in finance, and had just decided that he wanted to be a photographer. It was like he just a bought a camera and figured that was all it took: boom! now he’s a photographer. I mean, he had a website, but that was about it. And it was when I got the images back that his lack of experience really showed - the feet were cut off, lots of the pictures were blurry and the model’s eyes were closed. It was a total waste of money.

PO: But number three…

NN: Number three was amazing. He still is. Matt (Hillman) - www.matthillman.com - had just recently graduated from photography school and had lots of technical skill; but he was hungry to prove himself. So he worked within my budget. In fact, he saw the job as an opportunity to grow together - which I love. We’ve done a few big shoots together and at this point I wont use anyone else. He gets the lighting and propping that’s right for my brand, and he works well with the rest of my team.

PO: What do you look for from a photographer when you’re on-set?

NN: On top of taking excellent photos, I am looking for a photographer to lead the set. I want the photographer to translate my brand needs. If the model needs to stand a certain way to best show off the jeans, for example, I want the photographer to make that happen. Shoots are costly, so time management is very important. I love it when a photographer is 10-minutes early, already-fed, and eager to get started.

I also like it when a photographer thinks proactively. We’re shooting white jeans now, but before we shoot a black pair let’s just get that other white pair in - because the lighting is already set-up for it. This shows you’re owning your space.

White-on-white. Shot by Matt Hillman

White-on-white. Shot by Matt Hillman

PO: What can a photographer do to make your life easier?

NN: I like it when a photographer moves quickly to get me the photos. Matt sends the RAW shots the following day after a shoot. Then I choose around 15 selects out of the 1,000 images. He does all the post and sends them back to me within a week, which is amazing. I appreciate this isn’t the norm, but it’s hugely appreciated. He goes the extra mile.

The first photographer I mentioned wouldn’t let me choose the selects. I understand that some photographers want to review the editorial work first, to retain control of the creative quality. But I honestly don’t think the first photographer gave me the best shots for my purposes.

So it really means a lot that Mat trusts me and my taste when it comes to getting the selects. And this trust has actually led to some really great imagery. For example, there are three pictures I currently have on the site that work together. I don’t know if many photographers would have sent me the 3rd shot because the girl has some hair in her eyes; but when I was going through the images it occurred to me that there was an opportunity to tell a fun, engaging visual story.

And I like to pay this trust back by referring him to other brands, If anyone ever asks me if I know someone, then I always pass along Matt’s details. I know he’ll do a great job, so it reflects well on me too.

PO: Any parting thoughts or pearls or wisdom?

NN: For an e-commerce brand, imagery is your currency. Be sure your photographer understands how important his product is to the success of your company. And that his work and work ethic reflects this.