Q&A: Anna Lee Debuts Workerby Product Development Studio

Most know her as the founder of the (non-defunct) nonprofit MNfashion, which hosted Minneapolis-St. Paul’s first fashion week, and the creator of the long-running rock/fashion show Voltage: Fashion Amplified. But five years after stepping down from the organization and out of the fashion limelight, Anna Lee is in the midst of her second act.

Last year, she revived her hat brand, Ruby3, with a new collection of Kentucky Derby-inspired toppers–her first collection since 2011. It was just a taste of what was to come: Workerby, a product development studio with a mission to build community and commerce through creative business development consulting and workshops, with services spanning technical development, design, and prototyping, which she launched a few short weeks ago, right before quitting her product development job at Target. She’s also launched a new hat collection for fall and is gearing up for the Shoot (a live photo shoot event Lee is co-producing with fashion designer Kathryn Sterner Sieve of Winsome Goods), which helps to kick off the inaugural fall Fashion Week MN this Sunday. It features her hats along with fall collections from up-and-coming local fashion designers including Sieve, Emily Trevor, Gina Moorhead (House of Gina Marie), and Lauren Neal (Neal Jewelry).

So it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with Lee, which I did recently at the studio space she shares with a number of other creative types, including Sieve.

What have you been up to since leaving MNfashion and Voltage?

I did a ton of gardening—I didn’t make hats for a couple of years. At Target, I was designing hats and cold-weather accessories, so I was mainly building back my resources and getting back into my field–something that helped me build up the skills to speak the language and to understand the ins and outs of what’s going on in the industry.

The million dollar question: Why return to the world of entrepreneurship and local fashion?

I’ve gotten to the place I needed to be because of that time, working a corporate job. It really offered the space to show up to work and be working in the industry and still nurturing my creativity. As I move forward, I try to ask myself, does it align to the things that are most important to me? One of the reasons I quit [Target] this summer was I was starting Workerby and working on Ruby3 in preparation to maybe quit in a year, and that started growing so quickly that it started cutting me off from the people that were important to me. I was creating, but I wasn’t connecting. So that’s when I was like, alright, it’s got to happen now, because at this point I’m not longer reaching the goals that are important to me. It was also an interesting time to step away from Target, there’s just so much change happening right now. I’m excited for Target, but it’s one of those things when there’s so much of that, it really inspired me to think, what is important to me? Instead of just going along on the journey with a large group of people, I knew it was my time to do something for me. I know how to do the rollercoaster, and so I was like, let’s simplify it and make the change about my own business.

[View hats from Anna Lee’s fall 2015 collection for Ruby3 in Minnesota Monthly’s September fashion editorial, Fall Fashion: Minnesota Style]

Can you give us some context about what the climate was like around the time you left MNfashion?

When I stepped down from MNfashion, there was a lot going on in the community and industry and for me personally. We were also in a financial downturn so it was really hard to keep an organization running. We kind of hit this peak place that we could for the resources that we had, which didn’t match up with everyone’s hopes and expectations. So it caused me to do a lot of the inevitable soul searching, and figuring out what really matters. It came down for me to two words: creation and connection. I want to be always creating, always making new work whether it was someone was going to wear, or something that I just thought was pretty. The other piece is what I call connection–coming down to the essence of why that’s important, which is having true connections with friends, family, and collaborators. And that’s really informed the way I’ve gone about the next phase of my career.

How did going back to Target after MNfashion affected your new business, Workerby?

I learned the things that frustrated me and wanted to do differently in my own small-scale business, and being able to be more quick-reacting, running a bit more lean–the total opposite of Target. Ultimately, it’s like that, okay, you see what works and you see what things don’t work, and having one’s own business you get to make more of those decisions, and deal with some of the costs and benefits of that. I have this confidence I didn’t have when I started MNfashion. It’s not my first rodeo. Feeling that I understand some of the ebb and flow, even though I don’t know exactly what’s next.

And how does jumping back into the entrepreneurship role with Workerby feel different now than it did with MNfashion?

Going through what one could consider failure, and then getting distance on it and realizing it wasn’t so much failure, it was actually just part of the big picture. So I’m less scared of failure now. I joke, I’m totally terrified but I’m really happy. I’m part of a creative entrepreneurs group where people can just throw something out there, I’m riding that edge of I’ve got this and holy crap! That’s the best, that’s where the amazing things happen. Because there’s the larger community we have now in the Twin Cities and due to the internet, there’s so much more support. I feel like I’m surrounded by peers instead of forging it by myself. I’m doing it for myself now, which is the biggest change. The other piece that’s different is the understanding of value. When I started MNfashion, I did it because I had to do it. Like, hopefully I get paid! Taking the non-profit approach and spending a lot of my time applying for grants or doing fundraising, and the approach I’m taking now is certainly more of a for-profit model. I’m still doing the workshops and career coaching, but now there’s a framework around it, where I’m like, this is my time per hour, and that’s a huge shift. Because then I can have the confidence, the challenges I have with this endeavor will be totally different because of the approach and the attitude.”

Ruby3 hats

image courtesy ruby3

It seems like you have a more focused business model with Workerby than the more broad model of MNfashion.

It was pretty lofty. At the same time, I feel like it did what we intended it to do, it created community and created a framework. But this right now is, what do I need to do for my business, and what parts of my business can impact others in a positive way and help the community and help people build their businesses but ultimately I need to tend to mine first. So the whole approach is totally different.

That part of MNfashion I feel like is carried over somewhat, but more in a more for-profit way.

Yeah, I feel like it’s the heart why I do what I do. So I feel like bringing the heart and community in a way that is just much more focused and I think has been very–I know this sounds cheesy–but life-giving, energizing, and invigorating for me. I did my first workshop a few weeks ago, after a long day at work, and I hadn’t been that energized and positive at 10 o’clock at night in a long time. It was about the perfectionism paralysis and the role of anxiety in the creative process–it was taking one of those things that we all deal with, and presenting it in a way that helps us connect.

Can you tell me more about the workshops?

I’m doing all the workshops in beta format right now to test things out and get feedback. Like all workshops I teach, I want them to be about community through conversations. It’s that connection piece, where I don’t think we’re going to create community in the same ways we’ve traditionally, like networking events, I told everybody at the events that networking events can be bullshit, you don’t get out of it was the intended thing is–they can be really contrived, the people you really want to connect with aren’t necessarily going to show up to a networking event, because they don’t want everyone to inundate them with cards–it needs to be more organic. My goal with the workshops is to bring together like-minded people from different industries. There were only a few people from the last workshop that were fashion designers–it was really about creativity. We had some amazing conversations going back and forth, people offering to stay late to continue conversations. To me, that’s community–when you’re doing one thing, it’s a side effect. Versus, I’m going to create community, right here! You can’t do it if you’re being totally obvious about it. It needs to be kind of the outcome of something else. That’s what Voltage was, where I was like, I’m going to create industry through this rock ‘n roll fashion show, we’re going to create deadlines and workshops and writing business plans and connecting with buyers, all of that went through this thing where it was this package that people wanted to be involved with because it was exciting. People thought they’d do it for exposure, not necessarily realizing all of the things that would go into it, but people would end up with cohesive collections in the end, and maybe even orders.

How did your event this Sunday, the Shoot, come about?

It’s a lot of up-front work to do a fashion show. We want to sell our work, we want to get good photos to promote our work, and we want to work with good people. So what if we actually did a photo shoot instead of the whole production? What if we just took the pictures and made that the process? We’ve been talking about the importance of the work that goes into it, highlighting all the artistry and skill that goes into making something happen. It’s not just this glossy end product. The runway is very exciting and appealing, but I think people are equally excited about the behind-the-scenes stuff, you know, it’s like everyone wants to get backstage and all that stuff. So we just decided, let’s make the show the photo shoot so people can see the process. They’ll be able to see the images as they’re being shot by the photographer projected up on the wall, seeing the out-takes, you’re seeing all that happening, but also in a format where people can try the pieces on and buy them. If we want to capture photos and sell our work, that’s what we’re going to do for our event, and just letting people in on the process. And we’ve been really energized by it every time we get the whole group together–it’s a pretty collaborative experience. We’re trying to keep the event pretty chill, but really raise the creative buzz around it, so people leave inspired and have a better idea of what goes into it, or just feeling excited about a new brand or artisan they didn’t know existed.

The Shoot takes place 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, September 20 at Public Functionary, 1400 12th Ave. N.E., Mpls. Tickets are $20 and available via fashionweekmn.com

Promotional image for the Shoot featuring Winsome Goods clothing and Ruby3 hats

winsome goods