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Rising Fashion Star Zac Posen Speaks at HBS

At only 23 years of age, Zac Posen is perhaps the youngest speaker to visit HBS. On Friday April 16, the much celebrated American fashion designer, accompanied by his mother Susan, addressed an audience of both HBS and Harvard Graduate School of Design students in an overflowing Hawes Hall classroom. The HBS Luxury Goods and Design Business Club, in association with the Retail and Entrepreneurship Clubs, was responsible for bringing us this talented designer who has achieved amazing success and media recognition with his ready-to-wear women’s collection.

Since his debut, Posen’s collection, which includes dresses priced from $700 to $2,200, has grown considerably in its retail presence. Zac Posen’s collections are carried at various stores including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Bagutta, Jeffrey New York and specialty stores in nine other countries.

Zac’s collection is a favorite of such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry, Claire Danes, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Liv Tyler.

Zac began his one hour talk at HBS by describing his professional background. His first job was as a “coffee runner” at Nicole Miller, followed by an internship as an assistant designer at Tocca. He also worked under the direction of Richard Martin at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Subsequently, Zac referred to his college years at Central St. Martin’s in London as an important step in his career as a designer. At this prestigious institution which boasts various fashion greats as alumni including John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, Zac skipped his first year and was thus both the youngest and only American student in the program. At Central St. Martin’s, Zac studied geometry and pattern-making, following a hands-on approach to fashion design. During his student days in London, Zac began selling his own designs. Through word-of-mouth gained in part by giving out “freebies”, he gained exposure. Zac claims London was a testing ground for the building of his persona and his brand.

Zac told his Harvard audience that the designer “Azzedine Alaia really is the person who had a visceral response to my clothes.” Fortunately for Zac, Alaia introduced Naomi Campbell to his clothes which helped spur buzz about Zac Posen among international fashion circles. Part of the appeal of Zac’s designs is that they are not trend-oriented but instead are made to last, thus having a more timeless and nostalgic quality to them.

After his schooling in London, Zac returned to his native New York City to build upon his success. Immediately, department stores including Henri Bendel’s and Barney’s, began to show interest in his designs, geared to suit all body female body types. Soon after his repatriation, Zac’s older sister Alexandra became involved in the business as Creative Director, having had relevant experience working in a mask company and theater.

Similarly, Zac’s mother Susan, a former corporate lawyer took on the role
of the CEO of the company which has been named Outspoke LLC. Only Zac’s artist father did not join as an active member of the business.

The family team forged ahead by building relationships in the industry which have helped contribute to Zac Posen’s success. Today, Outspoke LLC employs twenty people in a Tribecca studio.

Halfway through his talk at HBS, Zac showed a video of his February 2004 fashion show, called Blixen, at the Bryant Park tents where he featured his seventh collection to tunes mixed by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. While watching the video of the show, Zac provided the Harvard crowd with anecdotes, including a detailed commentary on how he went about producing both the collection as well as the fashion show.

Subsequently, Zac and Susan Posen answered a variety of questions regarding such topics as potentially producing another line, international expansion and working for a luxury conglomerate. Zac made it clear that he would not be swayed into working in a conglomerate. He said, “For myself, I don’t want to work in a stable of designers.” Zac proceeded to comment, “I am a control freak.”

Susan Posen also addressed questions. She alluded to her career as both a corporate lawyer and as a venture capitalist at Diva Capital. Despite her years in intense careers, when describing her role as CEO of Outspoke LLC, Susan claims, “I have never worked so hard in my life.”

Susan delights in this rare opportunity to work with both her children after many years in the corporate world. She describes the Posen team as being “committed to building a company, hopefully an empire,” and as having a “we’ll-show-you attitude.”

No doubt the young Zac Posen, with the help of those behind him, holds a very promising future. In fact, on April 20th, the front page of The Wall Street Journal announced that Sean “P.Diddy” Combs cut a deal with Zac in which Sean Combs will become an equal partner in Posen’s three-year-old business. But that’s another story…

May 3, 2004
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