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Going Slow to Grow Fast with Francisco Costa

It's a Matter Of...Magic

October 28, 2020
October 28, 2020

Brands built by creative minds with a clear vision informed by a personal journey are always the most interesting. Peeling back the layers reveals a brand that represents the sum of its parts that lays the foundation for nuanced storytelling and dimensions of discovery is hard to replicate. Kelly Kovack talks with Francisco Costa, founder of Costa Brazil, who has built such a brand. From the name to the packaging and from the formulations to the supply chain, the vision is uniquely tied to Francisco’s personal story. 

Francisco Costa [00:00:26]:
           Hi everyone, I’m Francisco Costa. I’m the founder and creator of Costa Brazil, and to me, it’s a matter of magic.

Kelly Kovack [00:00:39]:
               Building a career is rarely a straight path, rather it’s an amalgam of choices, both intended and fortuitous. I’m Kelly Kovack, founder of Beauty Matter, and I love digging into these stories. Brands built by creative minds with a clear vision informed by their personal journey are always the most interesting. Peeling back the layers reveals a brand that represents the sum of its parts; it lays the foundation for nuanced storytelling and dimensions of discovery. These brands have become increasingly rare. The blanding aesthetic and the innovative approach of the past few years has created a landscape of brands with made-up names, Sans Serif type, clever language, who all think they’re disrupting the status quo. In reality, they all look the same, talk the same, and act the same. Brands built the older fashioned way, however, are hard to replicate. Francisco Costa, founder of Costa Brazil, has built such a brand. From the name, to the packaging, and from the formulations to the supply chain, the vision is uniquely tied to Francisco’s personal story. 

So Francisco, thank you so much for making the time to do the podcast. We got to know each other a little bit over a webinar we did on building luxury brands. I’m really excited to sort of talk more about your story, and especially the background, you know, because you’ve spent years in fashion and I’m a firm believer that our history usually informs, consciously or subconsciously, everything we do, and while most people, I guess especially in beauty, associate you with your time at Calvin Klein, perhaps because it was your last position and you made such an imprint on that brand and had a tremendous amount of success there, but I know there was a path that got you to that place. I mean, your imprint was really profound there. I think I read somewhere that the company was valued at $700 million when you started, and 13 years later, it was $8 billion, so that’s – I mean, that’s success in so many ways, but also I think…

Francisco Costa [00:03:02]:
           I just wish I had a little bit of that. 

Kelly Kovack [00:03:05]:
               Well, that’s a whole other story, right? But, I do, like I remember your time at Calvin Klein, and it was – you sort of brought your own sort of iconic vision to an iconic brand, but you had sort of all these other amazing positions at brands that are sort of just as big. You know, what got you to that point as the Creative Director at Calvin Klein? And, you know, I guess it was a pretty seminal moment in your career, but what was the path that led you to New York and led you, ultimately, to Calvin Klein?

Francisco Costa [00:03:46]:
           It’s so funny, because I was debating what mattered to me the most, and it just made me think what really brought me here: passion, belief, passion. I think in life, everything is really about making…you know, just making those decisions that bring you forward, right? So, I was 18 years old when I left Brazil, and I could not speak a word of English. I think I’m doing a little better now.

Kelly Kovack [00:04:21]:
               Your English is fantastic.

Francisco Costa [00:04:23]:
           Well, I just had this drive, and my mom had just passed away at the time. She used to own a children’s wear manufacturer, so just to give a little feedback here on the history and why then I arrived in beauty, which is really a timeline that’s so incredible when I look back. Of course, nothing was planned. So, my mom was really entrepreneurial, she has very little formal education, we all come from a very small town in the mountains in Brazil, [unclear 00:04:58], and she decided to build this company, and the reason she built this company was really with a social purpose behind. Again, I did not know that then; today I look back and I realize that. So, she opened a – obviously it was all women because she was making clothes for children’s wear, for children. So, she created a little school where she taught local women how to embroider, how to sew, and what have you. Next thing, she creates this home for the kids of the women who actually go to work. Next thing, she’s like distributing all this leftover fabric to all the rural areas within this town so they can learn how to quilt. So, then, you know, she was a member of our Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which if you’re Catholic, you probably understand what that means; it’s a community that really serves the poor and the ones in need. So, she was very involved in the community in that sense. It was so forward-thinking, now I think, my god, 50 years ago – 30 years ago, she was just so ahead of her time, and again, just with pure drive, pure passion, of doing, of changing people’s lives, of making the community special, special to her and special to the people that she lived with. Of course, it was a town that growing up was 3,000 people, it was really a small community. By the time I left and came back to visit, of course I go every year, the town today is 10,000 people; it’s still very tiny. But, I think the impact that she created really had a tremendous effect on it, and again, I didn’t realize that until now, right? So, this is a woman who was tremendously influential on my career and the way I see things and the way I want to communicate my legacy, and that’s what it is. I came to the U.S. in 1985, ’86, I went back to Brazil, came back again, enrolled myself at FIT taking classes at night because I couldn’t speak really English, so I would take continuing education courses so I could actually get things going. In the mornings, I was to go to Hunter College. The smartest thing that I did, all of the money that I had, I enlisted myself in Hunter College to take courses in English as a second language, which of course granted me a visa to be in the U.S. legally. So, that’s a very initial story. So, I think, again, back to your question, every single step in my career has been driven by passion; has been driven by a goal; it’s been driven by a vision of where I could actually relay my own story, be consequently in my own path. And, it hasn’t been very easy, obviously, but it has been really wonderful. It’s the most wonderful journey, I think, a human being can have, living in a small town in the middle of Brazil, coming to New York, being absolutely mesmerized by everything, not even knowing the opportunities, you know, but really feeling that I had this space. A lot of people asked me then, right, when I was in college and what have you, have you ever felt ostracized by being an immigrant or by being in the west or what have you, and for me, it was exactly the opposite. New York just embraced me in so many ways, but again, based upon this idea of this passion and this drive made me, or led me, to be in the right places and making the right decisions, and really do my job in the best way I possibly could.

Kelly Kovack [00:09:19]:
               Yeah, I mean I think I came to New York a little bit later, in the early ‘90s, and you know, I often think that – and I came here not really knowing anyone, not really having an idea of what I wanted to do, but I really think that there isn’t another city that…I would have been a completely different person. In New York, you can recreate yourself a million times, and it’s just like anything is possible here. It’s not easy, but anything is possible.

Francisco Costa [00:09:52]:
           Yeah, it’s really incredible. I remember one of the things that was really remarkable, I obviously – I was looking for this freedom as well. As a very young kid, the freedom of being in New York, just on my own, was just unbelievable. My mom had just passed away when I made that decision to come over, because I was basically, you know, growing up, I was working at a company the whole time, all of us, the whole family. But, on another note, it was very interesting because I remember I arrived in June or something, middle of June, or late May, and the first thing I encountered was Gay Pride, which was like “Whoa!”

Kelly Kovack [00:10:35]:
               That’s amazing.

Francisco Costa [00:10:36]:
           Oh my god, am I gay? Or am I? I never questioned myself about being one thing or the other, and sincerely, it was really humbling to feel that oh my god, I can exercise the freedom of being whatever I want to be. So, I remember that. It wasn’t just for the Gay Pride, but I mean, that was such a shock, right, it was culture shock; it was like, “Wow, what’s happening here?” But then, I became very much aware – it was in 1986, AIDS was such an important thing for all of us. The Reagan administration, I mean, all that was happening, all that was not happening at the time, people were dying, and I had two friends here, one was 27, one was 28, who just passed in two years and it was really traumatic to me, I thought, “I’m going to be the next person,” because of the way I lived and the way they lived and vice versa, it was like, “What’s going on here?” So, that really led me to be slightly more vocal, you know, so I became sort not very evolved, but I would be engaging with Act Up at the time, which was an amazing organization that really spoke up about the cause. I don’t know if you remember that, but it was such an incredible moment in my life, which also gave me a lot more strength even to think that in America, such a great country, you could speak up; you could act up; you could just be yourself. Again, completely away from sexuality, it was really the freedom of exploring whatever it is that you wanted. So, I think this is a very poignant moment for me, understanding what America meant to me, what New York meant to me. It somewhat really opened the doors. The feeling of freedom that one could have here is really, really important, and I don’t think in Brazil one could have had that experience, of course not. So, very important.

Kelly Kovack [00:12:58]:
               Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, I started my career very early on. My first job in New York, I was in kind of retail. When I was supposed to be going to college, I was running Benneton stores.

Francisco Costa [00:13:13]:
           Oh my god, I loved Benneton!

Kelly Kovack [00:13:15]:
               My parents didn’t know that, they thought I was going to college, and I did show up once in a while to school. But, when I came to New York, my first job was in Bergdorf Goodman and sort of in the men’s store selling advanced designers like Steven Sprouse, Issey Miyake, Dolce & Gabbana, you know, and I thought I wanted to be a buyer, but I was a pretty good sales person, so within a year, I was making more money than any assistant buyer was ever going to make, but I found my way to the wholesale side of the fashion business working for a leather supplier, and then ultimately ended up in beauty, but I read, and I’ve read about, and I see, just sort of the amount of kind of creative energy that has been required of designers and creative directors in the fashion industry, and you know, obviously, the burnout has been very public in many ways. I mean, in so many ways, it’s just…the business is unsustainable on so many levels. Did that have anything to do with you making a decision to step away from fashion? I think my other question was, creatively, how did you keep up that momentum of having to create that many collections?

Francisco Costa [00:14:42]:
           Well, I mean, a lot of questions.

Kelly Kovack [00:14:45]:
               I know, I know.

Francisco Costa [00:14:47]:
           Going back to that experience that you lived, oh my god, I remember, I used to live on the Upper East Side and Charivari, it was such an amazing store. Well, actually, Marc Jacobs started at Charivari and what have you. So, just going through, you know, it was just a very valuable experience, everything – it was a school. New York to me was a school. When it comes to how do you keep going, how we kept going, I made no decision to leave fashion. I think it really was…the decision was no decision, but it was really just an intuitive feeling, let’s put it that way, of wanting to do something else that I could express finally who I really was, fully. The essence, fully, in something. So, I think working at the start of my career, making $125 a week sketching at this company called Chris Yunning, and I remember every single one of them, you know? And then, my second job was this company called Susan Bennett. It was based on Broadway, and all I did was sketch dresses. Then, I got my first break, which was New Blast Dresses, which was a licensing of this one larger group called The Hero Group, and The Hero Group was, I mean, the CEO, was incredibly feared on Seventh Avenue, Mr. Rounick, Herbert Rounick, and I don’t know. I got this job there as an assistant of the assistant of the assistant. For some reason, after like a year, this guy calls me up in his office, the CEO, and he’s like a whole garmanto, right, the whole style, and I’m terrified that what have I done wrong? I’m here until like eight o’clock every night, folding all the assembly, leaving the room absolutely perfect, sketching, doing everything I’m not supposed to do, really, to make the environment perfect. What am I doing wrong? I can’t be fired, oh my god. So, I get to his office, and he says, “You know, I just signed with Oscar de Lorenzo, and I think you’re a perfect match to help with that business.” So, again, he just signed the licensing to create Oscar de Lorenzo’s studo. So, I’m like, “What?” I mean, freaking out, basically. I’m still the assistant of the assistant of the assistant, you know what I mean, but of course, a lot of my sketches were being put to work, people were seeing results from what they were seeing, and what have you. So, just to illustrate that I was, I think because maybe one thing of somebody not being from his own country, I know my drive, and again, my goals were so strong, I always worked very hard, always. So, with that being said, I joined Oscar de Lorenzo, and then later on, to join Oscar with Oscar and his own company, not just the license, which was great. So, and Rounick once said to me – he sent me a letter saying something like that, actually I have the letter somewhere, and it says that once a shoes salesman became the president of the United States. Don’t be afraid, you’re going to be great.

Kelly Kovack [00:18:44]:
               Oh, that’s amazing.

Francisco Costa [00:18:45]:
           Harry Truman, right, Harry Truman. So, it was really things throughout all my career that I always remember, people were so kind. I always had those moments of kindness, of guidance, even on moments that I thought I was just dying. So, with that being said, yes, I always worked very hard, and as I started engaging, Oscar, it was very civilized, I never felt the pressure. You know, working with Oscar was always like a family. I left Oscar to go to Tom Ford and Gucci. I got a call one day from a head hunter, which I didn’t know what a head hunter was. Somebody calling me, they have a French accent, and says to me, you know, I’m such and such, and you know, the conversation is, “What do you do?” She wasn’t like going directly to the chase, and I didn’t know what this woman was talking about. I said, “What exactly do you do?” She said, “I’m a recruiter. I’m a head hunter.” I said, “What?” Anyway, she had set up meetings for me with Tom Ford. I remember it was January, I was in the middle of a collection, showing fabric, and I ran into the Gucci offices on Fifth Avenue above the store, I met with Tom, and you know, I basically did a couple sketches, and I didn’t have a portfolio or anything. Luckily enough, I think all my jobs have really been word of mouth; I’ve never really had to present anything, but I did like 12 sketches based on a glamor card. So, here you go. He says to me, “Well, find a lawyer, because I’d like you to join me at Gucci at the end of June.” I mean, this is so out of place, because here I’m doing flower dresses, you know.

Kelly Kovack [00:20:43]:
               Right, it’s totally different.

Francisco Costa [00:20:45]:
           And I’m going to Gucci with Tom Ford, the king of sleekness? I was so the opposite, you know what I mean? So, I did accept the job, and here we go, I moved to Europe and I had a fantastic four years with Tom, and I didn’t feel any pressure, okay, I’m just telling the story because it goes back, obviously, to your question. I did not feel any pressure. The pressure was to be creative, and I was. The first collection, for instance, that I did for Gucci with Tom, under his direction of course, the inspiration was Cher, and it was bold for Tom to do Cher that it was to my advantage, because coming from a house, I understood color, I understood embroideries, I understood this and that. So, we did a collection, it was extremely successful. It was a breakthrough of his career in Gucci, when Gucci was going slightly down off its peak, it was flower pants, you know, flower prints, everything was printed, you know, pleather jeans. That season they had hobo bags, they were all colors of the rainbow, and it was like a $30,000 hobo bag we sold. It was insane. You know what I mean? So, with that being said, it was a great step, a great career step, and then I get a call, Donna Karen wants to see me. I interviewed with her in London and nothing really happened, although I really love Donna. And then, I get a call from Calvin as well, and I said, “What’s going on here? Calvin, oh my god, no, I can’t do Calvin. That’s crazy. Calvin is the most perfect brand in the world,” you know what I mean? Because, really, he exuded to me – I always looked at Calvin as perfection, because it was perfection. The man knew exactly what he wanted, and he created this incredible brand who was so seminal with fashion in the world because he spoke of lifestyle, right? His portfolio is about lifestyle. It’s the sensuality, what you eat and what you dress, how you look, how you act; everything was meticulously explained through his campaigns, the way he acted, the way he lived, perfection. Me? Calvin? There’s no way I could do this. I like color, I like embroidery, I like maximalism, you know what I mean, and that’s that. So, I said no, and then I said yes to a job that Oscar de Lorenzo had just left [unclear 00:23:31], he was doing the couture, which I had worked on the couture with him. He called me up and says, “I’m leaving, and I want to lead you there because it’s going to be great for you.” So, I got this amazing lawyer, I was still very immature, I get this lawyer to organize the contract, and she was very straightforward: “Francisco, you know, it would be very hard for you to make that company successful, because the infrastructure is not there, and the financials, I checked, are not there.” So, I was super upset because by that time, I was halfway through this contract and I had quit Gucci. Oh my god, what am I going to do now? So, I came back to New York, really like, completely not knowing what to do next, and it just so happens that Barry Short, who is a very dear friend of mine, and John, my partner, they’re in the same business. They both entered the horse business. I mean, Barry, of course, ran and founded Calvin with Calvin, but he also had a love and passion for horse racing. So, John and Barry were at the very start, they knew each other there, and for some reason, you know, my name came about, and John said to Barry, “Well, Francisco is back in New York,” so Calvin called me back and got me to decide upon that basically. And, I was [unclear 00:25:04] every step of the way. So, now, now it’s a very interesting story, because what nobody knows, at the moment I accepted the job and I was working with him for eight months, the company gets sold.

Kelly Kovack [00:25:21]:
               So, it changes everything.

Francisco Costa [00:25:23]:
           And, I mean, excuse was my language, “Shite, what am I going to do now?” You know, here I’m working for this guy, you know, the whole studio - I was the creative director – the whole studio left voluntarily. Nobody believed that by Calvin leaving, that could continue. These are people that were very, very believers of the Calvin world and structure and what have you. Not just the studio left, but a whole team that was Calvin, per se, the seamstresses, the patternmakers, the rooms, everybody gets fired. And I’m like, “What? Am I here by myself?” Basically. So, immediately, I had somebody at the store on Madison Avenue, his name was Josh, and I said, “Josh,” Josh was a salesperson, a young kid, very, very connected. I said, “Josh, can you please help me? Come and help me here?” because you know, because you start building this thing again, we probably were. In the meantime, the company gets licensed, so the collection was no longer, you know, collection. It was licensed. Here was a company in Italy to fabricate collections, to manufacture collections, and I was to be a believer of it all. Of course, it was a disaster. Disaster, because you know, what Calvin stood for and the way he operated was very intimate, it was a community of people, it was a sample room, it was a seamstress, the language was there, all the patterns were there, they did things certain ways, the culture of the company that was there, completely disappeared. I didn’t have patterns left. Everything was completely washed. So, it was really terrifying, but I took the task. I said, “You know what? This is an amazing opportunity; I’m going to just do it.” So, I started working with Josh and I, slowly building this team. I remember the first time; my first collection was the resort collection. There was nobody in the company, it was like one or two people in a very senior level. I designed a collection, I sent the sketches to Italy, they shipped the collection back, you know, we’re talking about 300 pieces, and there was nobody to ship it fucking back. Not even a box or anything. So, I had to go to – you know the store, I think it’s Kmart or one of those, right behind the Grand Station…

Kelly Kovack [00:28:06]:
               Madison Square Garden.

Francisco Costa [00:28:07]:
           Madison Square Garden.

Kelly Kovack [00:28:08]:
               Yeah, it’s a Kmart I think.

Francisco Costa [00:28:10]:
           Kmart. In a very rainy, crazy evening, it was like six o’clock, rushing to that space to get suitcases for me to ship the collection myself. So, this was my beginning at Calvin.

Kelly Kovack [00:28:22]:
               It wasn’t exactly what you signed up for.

Francisco Costa [00:28:24]:
           No, and people don’t believe – people don’t know, and they think that I walked in that structure that was no longer there, gone with the wind. But, again, my passion, my drive, I started getting that slowly back. I said, “Guys…” making them understand that being a license wasn’t really what Calvin needed, neither was it the way to go about a collection of a great American designer, you know what I mean? So, I kept the standards really high. I kept doing things over and over and over. I managed to hire one seamstress, hire another seamstress, hire another one, next thing I have a full studio which grew up with my culture, grew up with what I did. So, with that being said, the level of stress that was there, it was tremendous. And, I never really got the…I’m not complaining, I mean, it’s just a matter of fact, and it’s documented, that the support that was once there never existed, it never came back. So, again, it was really hardcore, and that really, at times, burned you out, you know what I mean? So, I saw myself in the same situations, and many designers out there, you know, you work, work, work, work, you prove yourself, you prove yourself, prove yourself, prove yourself, and it’s never enough.

Kelly Kovack [00:29:54]:
               You’re only as good as your last collection.

Francisco Costa [00:29:56]:
           It was never enough, and the most wonderful thing about where we’re living today is I think we’re on a clock to set up something that’s really good, which it really goes back to the planet, right? It was totally unsustainable. All of this super, super out there manufacturing of goods, we don’t need that much goods, we don’t need that much stuff. We have this countdown; we have to buy less, we have to buy better. We have to be considerate, we have to be 360 the way we look at things today, you know what I mean? And, most importantly, the total proof of how that wasn’t sustainable is just to see today how retail has gone bonkers. So, you know, I think the state of fashion today is really a reflection of greed, of retail, and super power of magazines, because you’re never good enough for retail. I mean, you had to ship so early all the time because you had to be very competitive, right? So, you accelerated the process of making the tech style, making a collection, the numbers of collections that were never sold in folders, you know, having to compete with prices because it’s your collection, but other people offer the same thing, especially when the big companies came in like Zara and pop shops, they were starting to knock things off; that created a huge mess in the industry, huge. So, I think what we’re living now is a bit of a reflection of the acceleration without thinking, without being considerate to the designs, to the industry itself, because it was just not sustainable. So, I think the clock is being reset in a very…I feel like nothing is…I mean, of course, it’s tragic, what we’re living today, it’s very challenging, but I think again, the world is sucking us for something that will be a lot better, and after, you know, 13 years at Calvin, and just doing and doing and doing and being blinded in doing with no rhyme or reason, just doing because we had to do it over and over made me really exhausted – real exhausted, and I said, “You know what? This is not it. It’s not happening.” So, I obviously, architecture, for me, is a very close thing, art, is a very inspiring thing, people are very inspiring to me. So, there must be something there. And, I came across this book that I really, really love, which it was almost my bible. Every collection, I’m opening a Manzoni book. Manzoni was an artist, an Italian artist, from the Arte Povera Movement in Italy, 1950s, ‘60s, and what have you. He was one of the leaders of the movement, which dealt with art in a very Italian chic way, in a very organic, but at times not organic, if I can say that, but somewhat humorous. So, he had…the anthology of this guy’s work is really beautiful, because it’s also a lot about text, a lot about communication done in highs and lows. For instance, he created this series of cans, of you know, cans, basically, in which he used to call the pieces “Merda d’artista,” he would basically create this idea of packing shit, you know what I mean? So, it was really like an Italian chic concept, and the whole thing looks so beautiful, if you ever have a chance, take a look, because it’s beautiful cans, everything is packaged really stunningly, everything is just amazing, and I can be looking at that, although every time I open his book was to see the textile, was to see his canvasses, it was to see the lineage of how he developed things, and one time I opened this book and I see this other brand with him. It was like, “What is this? This is amazing. This is either food or beauty.”