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.
There are few fashion companies in the world with branding as strong and recognizable as that of Kate Spade New York. Whether it's a quirky cat-eared handbag, a bow-bedecked bikini, or a polka-dotted set of champagne glasses, it's not hard to spot a Kate Spade item — or a Kate Spade woman.
That is largely thanks to chief creative officer Deborah Lloyd, whose Manhattan office is an explosion of color and pattern, with plenty of quirky touches dotting the landscape; in the middle of it all is Lloyd herself, wearing a white shirtdress and string of tiny, red worry dolls around her neck on the day we meet. It's a long way from rural England, where she was brought up by a mother who dealt vintage clothing. Between that and gifts sent from a globe-trotting aunt and grandmother, Lloyd grew up with an appreciation for fashion, but never considered trying her hand at design. Then one day her school hosted a careers evening, featuring a speaker from the arts college who talked about fashion. "I suddenly went, 'Oh!'" she says. "I remember to this day, that moment, it just hit me like a lightning bolt and I remember standing up saying, 'I want to become a fashion designer. How do I do it?'"
How she did it was by completing a foundation course in the arts, putting together a portfolio, and applying to London colleges. Though she took courses in everything, when it came time to do her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art, she decided to specialize in menswear — a move that ultimately charted the course of her entire career. "I was very strategic about it," she says. "I knew there were so few women doing menswear, and so few people doing menswear in general, so if you did a good menswear collection you could stand out from the crowd — and sure enough, I did."
When she graduated, Lloyd had job offers from brands like Gucci and Paul Smith, but ended up at Byblos, one of the hottest menswear brands out of Italy in the '90s. "Looking back, it might be nice to have Gucci, but Gucci has been through many iterations," Lloyd says. "When you look at building your career and your CV, you can't second guess it, you've got to go for what feels right." Byblos lead to a job with Daniel Hechter, a brand in Paris where Lloyd was offered the chance to cross over into womenswear. "That opened the flood gates and I was like, 'Why have I been torturing myself with menswear for so long?'" she says.
She spent six years at Daniel Hechter, followed by a short stint at Kenzo running Kenzo Jungle, before ending up back in London working for Aquascutum. But it was Burberry that would push Lloyd's name onto the global stage. Lloyd spent six years there pre-Christopher Bailey, helping transform it from a dusty heritage brand into one of London's most exciting labels as VP of women's design. America came calling via Banana Republic in 2001, where she got to flex her menswear and womenswear design muscles, as well as getting her hand in accessories. But it all truly came together when Lloyd was approached to take the helm of Kate Spade New York in 2007. Here, she tells Fashionista everything from how she knew Burberry was becoming a success to the secrets of building a strong lifestyle brand.
How did you figure out what to do with Burberry?
When I got there, there was nothing, it was such an old-fashioned company. It hadn't really been messed with, so there was the opportunity to look at what the DNA of that company was and build it. I remember going in, before Rose Marie Bravo or any of the leadership came in, and thinking, "Gosh, what am I going to do here," because the collection was vast. Everybody could just come and say, "I want the red trench coat with gold buttons, and I want this horsey lining in it." There was no rigor, there was no collection, everybody did what they wanted to do for their own markets.
I'm thinking, "Right, so Burberry, what would I do with it, what could I do with it?" I remember finding my little design room and creating a capsule collection of about 14 pieces that I felt were the quintessential pieces to drive Burberry forward. No one had asked me to do that, I just did it on my own because I felt that passionately that's what the company should stand for. When Rose Marie Bravo started, I think she saw what I created and understood that there really was something interesting with this brand and we built it from there. It was really funny — you've got this massive company with a well-known name, but nobody, fashion-wise, was looking at it or buying it so it was a huge amount of work that had to go in. I remember the moment when it did start to work, because all of a sudden, all the size zeros started selling.
Katie Couric wore the kilt on morning TV and then suddenly we were off and running. That's when we did the trench dress, and Kate Moss in the Burberry check bikini, and then it all exploded. I did a mini trench coat with a check lining; I took the check on the outside, and it was the first time that check had ever been placed on the outside. Be careful what you wish for, because further down the line we had to employ the check police and that's when I left. [laughs] When I saw the Ab Fab girls totally head-to-toe in it, I could see the writing on the wall there.
I was there for six years and I felt I did as much as I could there; I think they were bringing Christopher [Bailey] in and I was like, "You know what, I want to do something different." My next step would be creative director. That's when Banana Republic called and I thought, "Wow, this could be exciting to use my menswear and my womenswear side." That's when I came to America and the story started over here. It's been 14 years now.
What was it about Banana Republic, specifically, that was appealing to you?
It used to be that secret sauce when I was living in Paris or London — you would come over and it would have the most amazing cashmere or the most amazing pieces. People didn't know [the brand], it was before it became more fast fashion or whatever, and they wanted somebody with a designer's sensibility to come in and rework it. For me, it was a great learning experience to work with such a huge team. To work on men's, women's, and this was the first time I got my hands on accessories so that was exciting.
What made you decide to leave?
At the time I had done six years at Banana; I could see things were happening there, that it was less about design, it was more about the margins. I was like, "You know what, I don't want to work this hard and not have a product I love in the stores." It was getting harder and harder to be a creative person in that world, it was just so big and so hard to get great ideas through all of the different elements. I wanted a slightly less complicated life.
I wrote myself a list of what I really wanted. I really wanted to work on something that wasn't my core competency so I could learn something, and I wanted to work with a brand that had a strong DNA that could be built into something much bigger. I had been to Kate Spade a few times; when then phone call came, I went down to the Broome Street store and then walked in and was like, "Ah, I like this." There were books on the shelves, there was art on the walls that I had collected too; it felt very me and I felt a real deep connection with the brand. But it was just handbags, with a few other little bits and pieces.
I have to say, for the first six months, I have never been so stressed. I was like a bunny in the headlights because you get in and you realize there was no design team. Most of the people were interns. There was no CEO. It was going from a very structured environment with a team with everybody doing everything, to something to build. It's been a long journey — a very exciting one, and obviously a successful one.
You introduced ready-to-wear; why was that important to building the brand?
It was just when we went into the recessions and we were like, "Gosh should we launch it?" We hadn't really planned it, it was just one of those things I did versus being asked to do, I just couldn't help myself.
It was an instant success because, compared to the rest of the marketplace, which in a very depressed environment was just showing black and grey clothes, our best-selling dress was bright yellow with sparkles on it. People wanted a reason to smile, and that's what we brought to them. We brought a positive energy that you see throughout the brand... we came out of the recession really strongly because of it.
Ready to wear was the turning point for the brand where we went from handbag company into more of a lifestyle brand. It opened the doors and we went like, "Ah, so that's what the Kate Spade girl looks like."
How do you define the Kate Spade woman?
I've always said that the success of a good collection is that it shouldn't just be about an age — it's about a mentality, it's about a state of mind. I think that's the secret, that people can tap into our brand whether it's a 16-year-old girl that wants a great iPhone cover or small leather goods, or it's like Iris Apfel — you see her in our advertising campaign — who is wearing all the clothes looking absolutely fabulous.
Kate Spade has had offshoot brands like Kate Spade Saturday, and now Broome Street Collection. How do you decide on those projects?
We started Kate Spade Saturday when we were in a completely different place. We were part of the big conglomerate that was Liz Claiborne, Inc. with 40 other brands. Under that umbrella you had the chance to experiment and do things, but then a lot of those brands got sold off, Liz Claiborne became Kate Spade Inc and all of a sudden everything that goes into that. We realized that, as the entity Kate Spade New York, we had only just started at the beginning of our runway and it felt too early, realistically, just as a single brand, to start financing another offshoot when we wanted to become a global powerhouse ourselves. You have to choose how you invest wisely. Kate Spade Saturday is an incredible idea — who knows, one day it might come back, never say never — but it was just too early in our life cycle to do that.
Broome Street was slightly different. It isn't a totally separate collection, it's a collection we designed to work seamlessly alongside what we're doing with main line.
Kate Spade has also really become known for that quirky detail, like the cat handbags or the flamingo dress; where do you find inspiration for that?
Each season we'll come up with our big idea for a three-month period, and then we just brainstorm with the team. We started it small, but it became a real success. It became a way to differentiate our brand because they're actually always done in a really lovely, high-quality way. They've got a real personality about them, so they became a real connection to our customer. We don't just do it for the sake of it; it's got to have some emotional attachment when we do a piece like that.
How is the 'see now, buy now' conversation affecting Kate Spade?
We've always, as a company, designed clothes 'buy now, wear now.' If you were to go in our stores in the middle of June — when I remember driving down 57th street and seeing all the designer stores when it just finally got hot with bright purple fur coats — you will not see a fur or anything in our stores until at least September. We do curate what we design appropriately for what's happening, hopefully.
What do you think is the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
You can't do everything, you can't always be Super Woman, so surround yourself with people who are really good at the things that you aren't good at, and together you make a great team. Don't be frightened to take on the best talent.
What advice would you give someone who, like yourself growing up, wanted to become a designer?
I've always said, do what you love, so if you love it and you're passionate about it, just keep following your dream, don't give up. It's not going to be easy; people look at fashion and think it's this amazingly fabulous career. It's really hard work, and it's endless. The ideas you have to come up with are constant, so it's hard work — you have to be prepared for that.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself, and for Kate Spade, the brand?
For Kate Spade the brand, it's to create this global lifestyle brand that is seamless wherever you see it in the world; that you walk in and you see it, and you know it's Kate Spade versus anybody else. That was my goal, to create something that was like this entity that is its own thing, nobody else.
For myself, it was to lead a team of incredible women that have created that, and that one day I can drift off into the sunset.
Take more vacation time.
Yes, exactly, travel a little more, work a little less.