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President of Vera Wang Cites Keys to Success in Fashion Business

To succeed in the fashion business, Vera Wang President Susan Sokol recommends having the diplomatic skills of an ambassador, a hide as thick as a rhinoceros (OK, she didn’t specifically cite the animal), the moxy to approach anyone at any time, and the creativity to reinvent yourself upon demand.

Then work really, really hard.

Sokol landed her first job in high school by cold calling a 7th Avenue coat designer and having the wherewithal to introduce herself to a company executive and ask for a job after the receptionist had just turned her down. Being around product development in a wholesale environment was “seductive”, said Sokal. The experience she got working in just about every aspect of the business became her springboard to the big time.

After two summers and a couple of years of full-time work, Sokol was ready for something new. A friend introduced her to a young new designer by the name of Calvin Klein. She interviewed with him and partner Barry Schwartz but nothing came of it. Three months later she happened to run into Schwartz, whom she approached and asked if she could interview again. She got the job.

Calvin Klein “turned out to be an incredible company,” said Sokol. In 1972 the organization was small – seven employees in all – and entrepreneurial. Sokol did anything and everything she possibly could to learn the business, from finance to merchandising to sourcing and, eventually, licensing. It was the early ’80s and Klein was destined for greatness.
Her career-defining moment came while she was still relatively new at Calvin Klein. One of his signature designs was the pea coat. At one point they became overstocked in a heavy wool version – over one hundred of them. It was summertime. Oh, and they were fuchsia. Sokol sold them all, at full price, in California. “I was a hero,” she said.

By 1994 Sokol was ready for some time off and resigned from the company. She encouraged HBS students taking similar career breaks to “enjoy that time…this is a time for me and I’m going to do that.”
Then in late 1996 she was offered a position at Donna Karan, which had just gone public. The company was a $100 million wholesale business with three divisions and 140 people. Sokol found the environment a “different kind of culture…much, much more corporate” than Calvin Klein.

Sokol found herself sandwiched between a very tough CEO and a temperamental designer, not atypical for the fashion business. Karan asked her to hire a Japanese designer who did not want the job. Sokol brought in another and Karan decided to hire him. On his first day of work, Karan became upset with Sokol because she hadn’t hired the first designer and ordered the second terminated. (He stayed and ended up working out just fine.) “It’s all about balancing demands,” Sokol said.

Unbelievably, after three years she was laid off. That was “tough” because “I didn’t see it coming,” said Sokol. For a time she consulted to Pegasus Apparel Group/Leiber Group and eventually started her own firm in 2001. There she learned how important it is to keep up the strong relationships she had developed over the years, such as the CEOs of retail giants Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Federated Department Stores. At first, Sokol found herself “reluctant to call, reluctant to put myself out there” and solicit new business. She soon overcame that, winning clients like Michael Kohrs and Bagley Mishka.

But something in her wanted a different kind of challenge and one day she called her friend Vera Wang. Wang was indeed looking for someone and in August 2004 Sokol accepted a position as president of the apparel division.

Vera Wang, known worldwide for her simple, elegant wedding dresses, had a visible brand that Sokol believed she could leverage by building up the top line. Indeed, under Sokol’s leadership the wholesale business more than doubled this year from $2.6 million to $7 million, including a new dress line just purchased by Neiman Marcus. “The business today is actually on fire,” says Sokol.

Areas of opportunity for MBAs in the fashion business include globalization, identifying new business prospects, evaluating new markets, strategy, and licensing. Sokol advises taking risks, being humble, curious, and of course, subscribing to Women’s Wear Daily. It has clearly worked for her.

“I realized this is what I love. At the end of the day, I love fashion.”

March 14, 2005

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