By LARRY KANTER
Sabrina Kay turns on her computer and groans. There are 150 new e-mails to answer and getting to them all will likely mean staying at the office at least until 11 p.m.
Not that long nights are anything new to Kay. As president and founder of California Design College, a 7-year-old fashion technical school in Koreatown, she saw enrollment swell 200 percent, to 500 students, last year. In the midst of it all, Kay generally found herself working until 2 a.m. At the end of the year, physically and emotionally exhausted, she resolved to take 1999 "off."
Of course with Kay, that's all relative. "I'm only going to work 60 hours a week," she vows.
It's been that way since she arrived in this country from Korea as a teen-ager nearly two decades ago. Despite not speaking any English, she enrolled at Cal State Long Beach and took ESL and general education courses simultaneously all the while working full-time at her father's downtown apparel firm. Seeking to merge her interests in fashion and education, she opened California Design College in 1992, with six students, in a tiny Koreatown office. She hasn't let up since.
Turning to her computer monitor, Kay scrolls through her messages from students, faculty, vendors, board members and fellow educators all with various levels of urgency. But she doesn't get far. A young assistant knocks on her door. "Ms. Kay?" she asks tentatively, presenting a stack of invoices to be paid. With a sigh, Kay switches from her e-mail program to her payroll program and the two begin to pay bills.
In the tightly knit, highly traditional Korean community, Kay is an anomaly a successful businesswoman who has built her career without the help of a husband. She may be anonymous to most Angelenos, but in Koreatown, Kay qualifies as a bona fide celebrity.
She writes regular columns for the Korea Times and Korea Central Daily, offering fashion advice to immigrant women confused by trends in their new country. She also hosts a weekly fashion talk show on Radio Korea as well as a new feature, "One-Minute-a-Day English, with Sabrina Kay," in which she seeks to acquaint Korean listeners with the American vernacular.
The fact that she's attractive, unmarried and travels around town in a sleek Jaguar only adds to her notoriety. Her personal life is dissected in the gossip columns of Korean-language newspapers, and she says she's often asked for her autograph when she goes out to eat in Koreatown.
"Make sure these go out today," Kay tells her assistant, handing the woman a pile of checks. She gets up from behind her desk and begins making the rounds of her school, which occupies a floor and a half of a Wilshire Boulevard office tower.
Well aware of the attention she receives, Kay often feels as if she is on stage. You can see it in the way she dresses. Clad in a conservative blue knit dress with a stylish white collar, her long hair swept in a complicated knot, she is flawlessly accessorized with matching diamond-and-sapphire earrings, pendant and ring, and gunmetal-blue-polished fingernails. Even the subtle blue eyeliner matches perfectly.
She pokes her head into a classroom full of dressmaker dummies, where about 30 students are preparing for their summer fashion show. Kay strides into the room, and begins taking questions. One student wants to know if the school will supply professional models. Probably not, she answers.
"We want you not to just make the clothes, but to act like the president of your own company," Kay says. "We want you to be like an entrepreneur and have all the headaches that an entrepreneur has" which, apparently, includes finding one's own models.
"This is going to be one of the hardest works you do here, and I really want you to enjoy it," says Kay. With no more questions to answer, she leaves the room and continues her rounds.
Young Bae, a 23-year-old design student, returns to her sketches a collection of cocktail dresses and evening wear in shiny sharkskin, distinguished by the unorthodox angles of the hems, waistlines and necklines. The fashion show will be her final project before graduating. For Bae, Kay represents one of the few female role models available.
"She is a woman, and she is very ambitious," Bae says. "A lot of guys are like, 'I work you stay at home.' It's hard to stand up to a man. Because she is a woman, a lot of other women are interested in her."
Kay says she is proud of her role-model status. But success, she admits, has come at a price. Even at 35, she continues to live in Hancock Park with her parents and 13-year-old daughter, the product of a brief, failed marriage in her early 20s. She says she has never gone to a nightclub, never gone dancing. Her last vacation was an executive training seminar at a Colorado ski resort, where the only leisure time was a few hours of afternoon skiing sandwiched between morning and evening training sessions.
After asking an assistant to replace a burned-out lightbulb in the hallway ("Right away, Ms. Kay," the young man answers), Kay returns to her desk and begins returning phone calls. There are still a few hours left in the workday, and plenty of things that need to be accomplished.
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