Question: In your years as chair of Otis' fashion design department, the Los Angeles fashion scene has matured a lot. Assess Los Angeles now.
Answer: So much talent has migrated to this city, it is staggering. I feel that L.A. is really considered in the United States of America, the home, the heart, the core of the contemporary market. That is where most fashion is made, and it filters down to juniors. L.A. is a place lacking in rules in a way that London has rules and New York has rules. If someone from New York comes here, and you take them out to dinner, they'll call you from their room, and they'll ask you what they should wear. That just doesn't happen here.
Q: Celebrities have become sought-after commodities for fashion companies. What do you think of that?
A: It bothers me tremendously because it doesn't have anything to do with personal style. What bothers me even more than that is they are going into making clothing, and because their name is on it, it will sell. But they don't have the capability of doing the work, so there is a whole bevy of designers behind them who are getting no credit.
Q: What are some other recent developments that have impacted the local fashion industry?
A: That whole Orange County garment industry thing is huge. It is the newest thing in America. It is one of the things that has made L.A. such an important marketplace. It has all grown into one mega-important (place). I think people all over the world are trying to do Orange County, but Orange County is authentic. Everyone else is trying to be authentic.
Q: What career choices are available to your students after they graduate?
A: There are three kinds of jobs, generally. We are into a time of global manufacturing. Companies have huge design teams: Nike, St. John, J.Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch. That's one third of it. Then there are domestic design houses, where there is still one designer and a lot of things are made domestically or in Mexico.
Q: What's the last type?
A: The most interesting thing about Los Angeles is that Los Angeles is one of the only garment industry capitals left where there is still some space, and you can literally go to Hollywood, get an old plumbing store, turn it into a shop, get a machine, a pattern maker and make extraordinary special things, which is what is happening on Beverly and Third. Richard Tyler and Eduardo Lucero and all those people started on that strip. They went, "Hopefully, starlets and other wealthy people will come in and buy my clothes."
Q: But you caution your students to take it slowly. What advice do you give ambitious recent graduates?
A: I tell them, "Don't even think about taking on the responsibility of a sole designer yet. I see that it doesn't work. I have only had a few students in 25 years that have been hired into a heavy duty design position." Unless they have an incredibly strong CEO right next to them, they don't make it. And when they don't make it, they'll be bounced out and suddenly be a failure. It is important that they generally take a good decade of learning on the job at the very least.
Q: What is your response to criticism that there isn't enough business in fashion design curriculums?
A: There is a marketing class here that runs for a year about what the designer needs to know about a manufacturing company outside the design room and what the designer needs to know about the retail community. But the truth of the matter is that nobody hires a fashion designer for what they know about business. The fashion designer goes in because they have a lot of ideas, they are willing to work themselves to death, they are not jaded by the fact that green doesn't sell as well as pink. At a point, they will learn business little by little by little. That is part of that 10 to 15 years that it takes to finally get to your own company.
Q: You mentioned ideas. Is creativity really valued in the industry?
A: When I was the age of my students, people never talked about creativity and the impact of it. It was all about the sales people and how many things they could sell. There was never credit for the things they were selling. We did a survey two years ago of manufacturers, faculty and everybody. The two most important things that the industry wants from our students is, No. 1, creativity. It is the process of problem solving: throwing out lots of solutions, analyzing the solutions, editing the solutions until you go, "This is the solution." The second thing is the ability to work in a team.
Q: How did you become the first chairwoman of the fashion department here at Otis?
A: They (Parsons) probably started contacting me in 1979 because Ann Keagy, the chair of Parsons at the time, said, "I have this wonderful graduate there. She is the only person I will accept doing this. I am so against this idea in the first place. I think L.A. is an awful place." All that she associated Los Angeles with was film stars, the color turquoise and coral. It was this really nasty place that had nothing going for it in the way of fashion, but I was here.
Q: How did you end up going to fashion design school in the first place? Was it through your modeling?
A: Stan Herman, who is now the president of Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York, had a company called Mr. Mort. I did a weeklong series of runway shows for him in Dallas. At some point, in talking to him, he said that he was a teacher at Parsons. I said, "Boy would I like to go there more than anything in the world." He went something like, "Bring me some of your work kid, and I'll take a look at it tomorrow after the show." I brought the work. A week later, after he got to New York, I got a phone call from the chair of Parsons in New York saying, "Stan Herman highly recommended that you get into school. It starts in one week, can you get here?" That's when my parents scrambled to get money together.
Q: What was it like making the transition to New York from Irving, Texas, where you grew up?
A: It was like going to the moon. I don't think I had ever been out of the state of Texas. My dad was a cop and there were a lot of kids in my family. I had no money to go to school, nor did my parents. The significance of that story is that I learned about working hard and making things happen. I still am completely driven by all that with regard to my students, too. I did finish at the top of my class. Then, my first job was in London for Jaeger of London. I was just kind of gone in two weeks after finishing school. So, I saw this whole thing happen to me that was like a dream really.
Q: Did you know what it would be like to study fashion?
A: No. Ann Keagy let me keep all my books in her office because I had no place to stash my things. She said something really significant to me. She said, "You better go into those classrooms, and you better size up the competition. You have to outwork everyone in that room in order to stay." That is exactly what I did, and it paid off.
Q: After graduating from Parsons, why did you choose to work for Jaeger of London?
A: I picked that job because I was hired by this man named Jack Mulqueen, who is a famous garment industry entrepreneur. He offered to pay me more money than any Parsons graduate had ever been paid up to that point. It was $550 a week, which is not very much, but it was staggering in 1973. It wasn't really the money, it was more that on the interview he said, "Do you have a passport? If I hire you, we are leaving for Europe in two weeks." I got the passport and in fact we went from Paris to London to Milan, until he dropped me in the headquarters of Jaeger in London.
Q: Has the salary for entry-level designers increased substantially since you started out?
A: When I graduated, I made the most money as an assistant designer as anybody had at that time, $550 a week. The average student out of our senior class will be hired for $500 a week to start in 2006. It has never changed. But companies are very competitive about getting the top talent, and they are willing to go up into the $700 range. After about three months, they will reassess performance, and they will pay more than $500 a week because (assistant designers) can't live on that and can't pay back student loans on that.
Q: What did you do after you got to London?
A: I was doing clothing that had nothing to do with the kind of clothing I wore or related to. They make very classic British, camel hair coats and Shetland sweaters, clothes that are for career women that are investment pieces.
Q: But that's where you met your husband, Peter Christian, right?
A: It was right after I got to London. We were staying around the corner from Hyde Park Corner, where the original Hard Rock Caf & #233; was. I remember seeing it all the time, but was never in any position to go there with elderly executives. Then, they all left. The second they left, I went to Carnaby Street. I got myself boots, a pair of jeans, real clothes that I would wear. I went straight to the Hard Rock Caf & #233; where I had seen lines to get in every single day and night. I met Peter at the door.
Q: What brought you back to the states?
A: The pound was dropping against the dollar, and every day it was costing more and more to live in London. So, we moved back to America. We went to Texas, we got married in my parents' back yard. We inherited my grandmother's old, clunky Dodge Dart with a push-button transmission and took off for L.A. where we absolutely knew no one.
Q: Why Los Angeles?
A: In London, every American that you would meet, you befriended. Everybody in London in the early '70s was talking about how incredible a place L.A. was. It was that L.A. seemed like huge important city, but kind of frontiersy.
Q: How did you get hired at an L.A. junior apparel company?
A: I ended up meeting this person who became one the most incredible mentors of my whole entire life David Plummer. He owned Eclipse. He said, "I am starting this new line. I want to know if you are interested in doing it." It was junior clothing that was produced in South Korea. I had never done any kind of work like that before.
Q: Eclipse ended up turning into a relatively big company, largely based on a T-shirt you designed. Tell me about that.
A: There was a T-shirt that we made that had a rainbow that went all the way from one end to the other. There were millions of them in Los Angeles. That was a little thing I drew on a cocktail napkin one night when he bought me a martini after work. He stuck it in his pocket and took off to Korea. I remember going into a factory in Korea and standing in the front. The factory went so far back that my eyes could hardly see the back wall, and they were all making that T-shirt. He ended up buying quite a lot of property based on the amount of money he made on that T-shirt.
Q: After that, you went out on your own.
A: I wanted to simply do clothes that I wanted to wear. I never wore a rainbow T-shirt ever.
Q: So what is your personal style?
A: I am a minimalist. I don't make any statements about clothes at all. I just wear black. Black helps me to concentrate.
Q: What did you do when you went out on your own?
A: I started Staples with two people who became my partners, Pat Stimac and Gary Brownstein. I think we started with 10 cotton knit dresses in interesting shapes and all kinds of colors. They did well, and the next thing I knew it was 20 dresses, and then it became dresses and separates. It grew into a monster unto itself.
Q: Eventually, you decided to devote yourself full time to Otis. Wasn't that a tough decision?
A: Otis got bigger and bigger and bigger, and the Staples collection got bigger and bigger and bigger. I was just about dead. It must have been about 1993. I remember having a meeting with my two partners in a restaurant and telling them I couldn't do it anymore. They were seriously upset with me. We stopped speaking for several months. Within about three months, they said, "We will take whatever you can give us." That is what I still do.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: My saving grace is my garden. My parents in Texas never grew one flower, ever. Then I went to New York, no flowers there. Then I went to London, no flowers there. Then, when I moved to LA., the most phenomenal thing happened to me within the first week. A cat adopted me. Since then, I have been a cat lover. I never have managed the time to have children, but my husband and I did agree we would raise a litter together. I have had as many as 13 at one time; right now I have four. I go out in the garden, they all come out with me. It is the most important thing to be able to learn to handle yourself. This is a very stressful job, there is no two ways about it. And I think to be able to go and plop myself down in the middle of the flower bed, it is so therapeutic.
Title: Founding chair, fashion design department, Otis College of Art and Design
Education: B.F.A., Parsons School of Design
Born: 1949; Dallas
Career Turning Point: Becoming chair of fashion design department at Otis
Most Admired People: Designers Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier and Bob Mackie; former Parsons chairs Ann Keagy and Frank Rizzo; parents
Personal: Married to Peter Christian
Hobbies: Gardening, taking care of pet cats, reading and creating custom greeting cards for friends and family
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