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Bret Schnitker


Bret Schnitker: Encouraging Change to Adapt to Ever-Changing Market Demands

Bret Schnitker, the CEO of Stars Design Group, is an expert and innovator in the apparel industry. Currently, his company has 60 facilities in over 14 different countries. Bret started in the apparel business early on as a young college graduate. He worked his way up a multi-billion dollar retailer, becoming a Director of Design and VP. He shares with us how he stays a step ahead on trends, bringing success to Stars Design Group and INSPR.

Getting Into the Apparel Industry

Bret Schnitker started his career in the apparel industry when he got a job at a huge retailer. Eventually, he became the Director of Design, where he designed products with a large private label organization. That’s where he learned his expertise. 

“I happened to be really successful. I think some of that was luck. Being young, they allowed me to travel multiple countries and learn the technical side from the ground up.”

Bret Schnitker, CEO of Stars Design Group

In the late 90s, the US apparel manufacturing industry withered away because it became more economical to manufacture apparel in other countries. Bret had the opportunity to observe and study the technical aspects of the industry in different places. There, he learned valuable insights that became helpful in growing his own company, Stars Design Group and eventually, INSPR.  

Embracing Technology Early On

Stars Design Group has been around for over 20 years. Bret has a very unique focus in the industry as he and his team are involved with their clients in everything, from design to delivery. 

“Our basic platform is talent. In technology, we employ a lot of unique technology. We were the early adopters of 3D rendering where our artists can design entire collections in 3D. We’ve done that for over 10 years. Nowadays, it’s becoming more and more commonplace but we adopted that early.”

Stars Design Group have clients that are mainly brands or retailers and they have a wide variety of needs. The company is comprised of specialists that can handle all sorts of apparel, from tops, bottoms, leather jackets, and more. 

“In terms of manufacturing, we wrap the whole thing out with our clients, placing them on the right facilities around the world. We travel with them and dialogue with them to come up with the best solutions.”

Initiatives to Promote Dialogue in the Industry

One of the many initiatives of Bret’s companies is their podcast Clothing Coulture, which he calls the “brainchild” of Emily Lane, the Chief Strategy Officer of Stars Design Group and COO of INSPR

“She really felt we needed to get more expertise out in the industry. Today, we’re in about 58 countries and we’ve got 20,000 listeners. In a short amount of time, we’re growing rapidly and we’re talking to interesting people around the world. We’re now on our second season.”

Emily Lane CSO at Stars Design Group and COO of INSPR

Bret also shared about their other initiative called United Coulture which aims to showcase designers to become recognized. They even went on a government trade mission to El Salvador before the COVID pandemic. There, they worked with a number of factories to bring them along the way in terms of development. 

“In El Salvador, we had a wonderful week and met amazing people. They’re fully sustainable and we met a designer who builds opportunities for women there. We also have her on our United Coulture platform.” 

Moving Forward and Acquiring INSPR

Before the acquisition, Bret met Chantel Waterbury, who was the CEO of INSPR 1.0. Bret had expected their initial call to last for 30 minutes but it lasted over two hours. He was fascinated by how she was able to distill her vision that Bret had for years. 

Chantel had developed a community of creators and influencers, and had some very successful launches. But this does not mean that INSPR 1.0 didn’t face challenges. 

“In INSPR 1.0, one of the biggest challenges was the lack of technical and production ability to sustain consistent collections. Chantel was a wonderful designer, which had kept on today. But the backend production aspect is something that I think people simplify, especially today.”

Production is actually complex and requires a lot of expertise. Bret shared how Chantel consistently had challenges with deliveries, quality, and fit. 

“I think when you look at those various aspects, these are key things that an influencer is going to have serious red flags.”

Influencers develop a very authentic following, and if they’re going to put their name on something, they don’t want that brand equity to be damaged in any way by products that are inconsistent. 

“Influencers see products that are kind of low and challenged in quality and they get very nervous because their source of income is tied to that authenticity with brand equity.”

At that point, Bret felt that it was a good opportunity to partner with some outside investors and purchase INSPR. Bret plans to launch INSPR online initially and eventually start to build brick and mortar lifestyle stores in LA, New York, Hong Kong, and London. 

“There, customers can touch and feel clothing. It will be a totally different environment. There will be events, whether in coffee shops or bars where people can hang out.” 

Evolving as a Company and Collaborating with Influencers

Bret emphasized the importance of evolution as a company and stated that they are always thinking about how to evolve along with the times such as collaborating with influencers. 

“There’s been a massive increase in authenticity and storytelling. That has existed in marketing before but it’s now more important than ever. The audiences are jaded from the typical advertising marketing vehicle. They really want to hear stories and some positive authentic positivity behind what’s going on.”

People follow influencers because they love who they are and they love their stories. They can relate to that, and so it’s really important to make sure you find the influencer who is the right fit, Bret added. 

“The ‘influencers’ before were not authentic. They were rock and roll stars and actors that were all fake but we still wore whatever it is that they wore. Today, with that evolution with influencers, I started really feeling there was this opportunity to grow on a model that was developing rapidly.”

Vision for Future Collaborations

The influencers are the visionary behind the brands. Many of them don’t have a long history in apparel but they want to develop it, Bret stated. 

“They have this wonderful sense of style and they know what they want and they know what their audiences want. So our process is to, first of all, work through a contract. We have a unique profit-sharing model that provides a large percentage to influencers. I think it’s an appealing model.”

Stars Design Group has a team of experts that helps influencers channel their vision and thoughts onto paper so that they can develop them. 

“It’s important to make sure that the vision aligns with their audience. We start to grow capsules and continue to do so until it becomes a full-fledged line that designers can work on. We add the wisdom of experience to the influencers’ vision so they can create and have fun in the creative process. They get to experience everything, and that’s a big part of the collaboration as well.”

Tips to Other Brands That Want to Tap Influencers

When brands look at influencers, they think first about their ability to bring an audience in, and they don’t go a lot deeper than that. Some companies just pay the influencer and people see the product and maybe some convert into sales but they move on. Bret calls this the “hit and run” situation between brands and influencers. 

“For us, this is a much longer term relationship. We’re really growing the influencers’ brands. And to do that is to understand who the influencer is in detail. We spend a lot of time really getting to know them. We ask them questions that can give us insight into their way of thinking, like ‘what inspires you?’ ‘what makes you unique in the industry?’ ‘what trips your trigger?’ and so on.”

What’s Next for Stars Design Group and INSPR?

“We’ll continue to push the boundaries on technology as it relates to fashion. We think that augmented reality is going to be a part of it. Digitized fashion is going to be important. Also, our United Coulture will be launching online. It’s a celebration and awareness for designers, which we’ll expand to photographers and all the creative community. We’re looking to open an office in Paris in the next year. There’s a hell of a lot going on. We’re never bored.”

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David Adler is an entrepreneur and freelance blog post writer who enjoys writing about business, entrepreneurship, travel and the influencer marketing space.

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