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How Henri Bendel's Creative Director Is Keeping the Century-Old Brand New

And how she says her role stacks up to past gigs designing Marc by Marc Jacobs, Coach and more.
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In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Much has changed over the years at iconic New York retail institution Henri Bendel. It's expanded to become a national chain with 28 stores across the country; it stopped selling apparel in 2009; and just this year it stopped selling third-party brands altogether to focus on its in-house accessories offerings.

The news was disappointing to some designers, but an exciting opportunity for Creative Director Pina Ferlisi, who  joined the company in July of last year and oversees not only all the product, but everything, from the displays to the merchandising to the campaigns and catalogs.

Despite her impressive pedigree -- she designed under Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis, launched Marc by Marc Jacobs, became head of design at Gap, was the creative director for McQ in London and EVP of  design for a little accessories brand called Coach before joining Henri Bendel -- Ferlisi says this is the most fun job she's had yet.

We recently got a chance to pick her brain about her background, what her job is like, and how to make an 120-year-old brand feel relevant. Read on for our interview.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into fashion?

I started in fashion at Perry Ellis with Marc Jacobs and I worked on the grunge collection, so I was there when all of that happened. After Perry Ellis, I worked with Marc again and was creative director of Marc by Marc Jacobs and I launched that. Then I moved on to head of design for Gap, which was great for learning in terms of moving from a designer brand into more of a popular type of brand.

I‘ve always really enjoyed accessories; I did accessories at Marc Jacobs and then from Gap I went to Coach and was EVP of design at Coach and was really focused on handbags and jewelry and all of the accessories obviously because that’s what they do. And then I went to Alexander McQueen and was creative director for McQ in London for a few years. So I’ve really liked designer and more contemporary kind of brands, and then from there I came to Henri Bendel as creative director  and I oversee all creative for the brand, which includes product design, merchandising, marketing, communications, all the campaigns and mailers and catalogs that we do as well as web design, so anything that the customer really interacts with and sees and feels, anything in our stores that is visual. It is creating the world of Henri Bendel.

Did you go to school for design?

Yes. I am from Toronto and I studied in Canada 17 years ago and really started in fashion then. 

I was an intern and my first job I worked for free and did whatever I had to do and I was hired and I think that if you love what you do, there’s never too much, there’s always more you can do. There’s always more you can learn and you’re really energized by it, so I think that for your readers, anyone who’s interested in fashion, it’s a great career, and a great path especially in New York, where it’s a huge industry.

Who is shopping at Henri Bendel these days? How would you describe your customer?

Our customer is very loyal and she’s curious so she’s always looking for the new and the next and when we speak about our customer, we think about five personalities that our customer kind of encompasses: a glamour girl, a fashionista, a chic girl, a quirky girl and a sporty girl. We’re constantly thinking about those five personalities that shop with us and really giving her some newness every month.

How often do you come out with new collections?

We launch new collections maybe three times a year but we do new monthly collections that will be focused on the season, so in summer we do great beach collections and right now we’re launching our premium handbag collection.

What was the impetus for launching that more luxurious handbag line?

We’ve been finding that our customer loves quality, loves detail and we just thought it was the right time to launch a limited edition premium handbag collection using Italian leathers and beautiful hardware that’s really like jewelry. The bags are all lined in suede, so it's more of a luxurious mindset.

Henri Bendel seems to have an air of luxury, but it carries a variety of price points, right?

We try to be aspirational and kind of express that quintessential New York brand in all our stores -- we have 28 stores across the country, so all of our stores we try to use that energy and that whimsical kind of feeling.

Henri Bendel New York recently stopped carrying third party brands. How did that decision come about?

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It was a collective decision but I think it was a decision that came naturally because we were able to focus on our brand and building on the success...because our other stores besides 5th Avenue already only carried Henri Bendel product, and really our customer kind of took us there because that’s what she wanted to buy from us and that’s why she came to our store and so it just became a natural progression.

Has that allowed you to expand into new categories and pieces?

Definitely, we introduced new product categories, we really increased our small leather goods assortment and presentation. You’ll see a lot more small pieces like wallets, pouches and cosmetic accessories, things that girls like to collect, our specialty gifts and home fragrances, really expanding on that. We introduced 'Luxe,' which is more based on fine jewelry and "the look of real" and that was very well-received so we’re continuing to build on that. I think as we introduce more collections and as we continue to develop, I’m sure new things will start popping up. 

I would imagine holiday is a big time for you guys. How are you preparing and what can shoppers expect?

Fifth Avenue is probably on everybody’s shopping plan, so we really do think about holiday a lot. We do all our holiday ornaments, brown and white stripe hat boxes and shopping bags, great party clutches and jewelry for the holidays. There is a lot of self-purchasing as well as gifting, we really try to give you things that you love and want to buy for others. This is going to be the first holiday with only Henri Bendel product, and so far the reaction has been great. We're encouraged.

Where do you find inspiration? Is it looking at your customers? Fashion trends?

I’m always curious about our customer and what she’s reacting to and why, really understanding her lifestyle. I’m influenced by pop culture. Being relevant today you have to be aware of what’s happening on the streets, music and pop culture in general and obviously looking at fashion and the cycle of fashion and what’s happening on the runways. I’m a fashion girl so that’s part of me. 

What has it been like coming to a more retail-focused company from more high-fashion brands? Do you miss it?

For me I love it, I have to say this is the most fun I’ve had in my career. It’s really nice to actually be able to design something and put it in the store and really have direct contact with your customer and not have to sell it to somebody else and have them put it in their store, presented in a way that you didn’t really want it to be presented.I think it’s just the message is so much clearer. I think that Henri Bendel -- our customer really appreciates who we are as a brand and really wants to be her own person and stand apart from her friends and really lead in a way. I think she really appreciates the quality and the heritage.

Do you have a lot of people working under you?

It’s quite a large team -- 10 or 12 designers and I have a visual design team and an art director, so it’s a large team.

What is your average day like?

It’s action-packed. I’d say most of my day is with the design team, I also meet with the visual merchandising team and the president of the brand. We’re always looking at what is happening in store, talking about strategy. I meet with the PR team and marketing. It’s not like one week I focus on this and the next week I focus on that, every day everything overlaps and it all informs each other. My mind is constantly racing in terms of being curious and really learning from what we’ve done and something we do in visual that really can effect the presentation and how the customer shops and then ultimately that links into pr and marketing so it’s a big chain of events.

How do you see Henri Bendel changing and evolving in the next several years?

I hope that Henri Bendel becomes distinctly recognizable as an accessory brand; I hope we continue to be relevant and fashionable to women who want to stand apart from the masses, and I really hope that we continue to grow and open more stores and become our customer’s favorite accessory brand.

You've worked for so many incredible brands and companies, but have you ever thought about doing something of your own?

I have never thought about doing my own collection only because I’m able to bring a part of myself to the brands I work for. Ultimately, really understanding Henri Bendel and what it means as a brand and then I become the filter for that and to me it’s like a puzzle, it’s so exciting and interesting to really figure out what this brand means today and how to make it as exciting as it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 100 years ago. It’s kind of like the things that I want, I want to shop and I want to be surprised I want great new things and everything that I do I would love to wear. I wouldn’t put anything in the store I didn’t love, and you can’t really say that for most places that you work for.

What advice would you give someone who perhaps wants to work for a great accessories brand one day?

Stay curious, listen and learn and really contribute intellectually, intelligently. Accessories are so much fun because you don’t have to worry about body size and you don’t have to worry about seasonality in a way; it really is about designing a beautiful product to stand alone on its own and really understanding that and its not necessarily a head to toe look so it’s really focusing on the beauty of the item that you are designing. I’d say do your research, stay curious and open and really learn and work hard.

This interview has been edited and condensed.