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The Mentor Minute With the Co-Lab: Alicia Skehan

We speak with the handbag design consultant for our series on the importance of mentorship in career-building.

When it comes to navigating a career path, no tool in your arsenal can be quite as valuable — or as tricky! — to use as mentorship. We're partnering with The co-lab, a member-led, inclusive global networking community for fashion, beauty, wellness, retail and consumer luxury professionals, to bring you 'The Mentor Minute,' where we chat with professionals about how they've used their role as both a mentor and a mentee to get where they are today.

Alicia Skehan wasn't always going to work in handbags. The designer — who has 15 years of experience under her belt working for pretty much every classic American brand you can find in your closet (think Kate Spade, Coach, MZ Wallace)— initially got her start in apparel design. But a part-time role revealed that she wasn't as passionate about ready-to-wear as she was about the potential for accessories, which led to a career shift.

With the help of a former Parsons professor, Skehan was able to tweak her portfolio and start down the career path she's on today. And there's great news for brands out there looking to tap into her expertise: She recently made the jump to full-time consulting, which means she can apply her passion for great handbag design across all price points.

Read on for Skehan's take on switching professional gears, the value of leaning on your college network and how some of her best mentor relationships came about.  

Talk me through your career path so far.

I have been designing handbags for fifteen years. I actually started out in apparel design. I studied at Parsons School of Design, graduated with my BFA and took a part-time role that a friend and fellow Parsons grad referred me to. That started out a couple days a week, but grew into full-time, and I discovered in the process that I wasn't really excited about it; it was a combination of not having a clear identity of the customer, or a story behind the brand. I became more interested in exploring other categories, since I knew I wanted to make a shift and this was early in my career. So, I redid my portfolio — I had a women's apparel portfolio, so I looked at the bags and shoes in my closet, thinking about my knowledge of construction, how I would interpret some of the collections that were in my portfolio for bags and footwear.

I interviewed for a while and then finally got my start working at Kate Spade, but it was a much smaller company then — Katy and Andy were very much involved. From there, I went to work for Coach, which was wonderful. They had their own building on 34th Street with a factory on the fourth floor, so I learned more about the technical aspect of handbag design. I didn't travel internationally at that job, but working with the in-house factory taught me a lot about the number of patterned pieces that go into a bag, all of the different fillers, etc. From there, I went on to design for Juicy Couture, Cole Haan, MZ Wallace, Kipling — several brands, some very notable ones. Every experience has been a little different, but I've definitely taken away valuable knowledge and saw some examples of how not to do things. Every experience has given me some value.

What role has mentorship played in your career?

I had a footwear design instructor at Parsons, Howard Davis, that I kept in touch with post-graduation. I haven't checked back with him in many, many years, but he was integral in helping me redevelop my portfolio. I think that was helpful for me going from being a student in college to then working and trying to figure out my path, being able to lean on my alumni association. To this day, I utilize the tools that Parsons offers — free classes, alumni discounts, access to libraries, etc.

Who has been helping you in the transition to consulting?

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I joined a couple of networking groups while on the consulting path. I joined the Co-Lab early on; Kristy [Hurt] was offering one-hour sessions to go through your resume and talk about what the next step could be, should you decide it might be best to pivot. Kristy said, 'Your resume, your experience is perfect; if there was a role open, I would be putting you forward as a candidate, but due to the pandemic, clearly there's nothing happening out there in the job market. You should stay in your field and consider consulting.' Later, I was introduced to Erin Halper, who founded a group called the Upside, which is specifically for consultants, and spoke at a Co-Lab panel. She offers an accelerated program and a quarterly group membership. It's a pretty diverse group; everyone who is an Upside member is a consultant or they're transitioning from full-time to consulting. That's been really nice to have, especially during the pandemic. It's really nice to have like-minded people to talk to and brainstorm with, troubleshoot, talk about your business, get feedback and offer feedback to other people.

At what points in your career have you felt you served as a mentor?

I've had interns from the past that I've remained in touch with and then also I'm a Co-Lab member. At the moment, I would say I have two mentees. One of them is a former intern from MZ Wallace. She's working on an apparel line; she just graduated college, so we stayed in touch. It's nothing really formal at all. I'm here to offer advice, provide feedback and build connections — anything that you need to propel forward, I'm happy to weigh in.

At my first job, even though it was apparel, one of my senior team members said, 'I want your experience as a person who's new to this industry to be better than how my start was.' I have always remembered that and want to carry that forward in my working relationships with junior team members.

I connected with another Co-Lab member, a young talented designer who has industry experience, but she's also taken a bit of a turn and has been working in sales and buying. We stay in touch and encourage each other, give each other feedback. She asked me to speak for a group she started for young Black designers, that she hosts every other month. It's small. It's nice. It's an opportunity to share career stories or talk about relevant things in the industry. We celebrate each other and offer support. I know that I'm more experienced, having been in the industry for a long time, and I can give her suggestions, feedback, encouragement. At the same time, she's coming into this industry and I think she also gives me encouragement as a leader, as someone with experience, as someone they want to learn something from. I think you learn just as much as you teach in the best situations.

How have you seen those relationships evolve over time?

I don't really know if I have any concrete examples, but I do hope that the person that's in the mentee space, that you both grow together and you see those that you mentor reach their success or find some place where they're content and confident in their professional role.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in your career that you would share with a mentee?

I think it's extraordinarily important to be nice — just be polite, be gracious, be nice. That goes a long way. I know it's really simple, but I think it's important for everyone to just be kind and want to see people succeed. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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