Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, got her start in the apparel world by working her way through college as a fitting model, or a live mannequin used by designers and manufacturers to test the fit of clothing on a real person. Her professional career has included sales, marketing and design for various fashion companies. She bought one, but later shut it down and became president of White Stag, which became part of Wal-Mart. Then she was director of what is now the California Market Center, a showroom facility. She has served as head of the Fashion Association since 1994, when it formed in response to the discovery of a slave-labor sewing operation in El Monte. The organization's role was initially to investigate and address the issue of sweatshop labor. She has continued to serve the apparel community through her work at the fashion association, making connections between businesses and offering insight on the inner workings of fashion and apparel, including technology, education, management and trade issues. Metchek sat down with the Business Journal in her downtown office to discuss her journey from New York marketing assistant to L.A. fashion association leader and her dislike for shopping.

Question: How did you get started in the fashion business?

Answer: I started in the business as a fitting model. That's the way you worked your way through school in New York. So I was very familiar with clothes, and I majored in marketing and management at NYU.

Q: Did you intend to work in the fashion business?

A: No, in the advertising business. My first job out of school was as the assistant advertising manager of what was then called D.B. Fuller & Co. It was a very big, very famous company in textiles. As a matter of fact, I can still see their logo. It was a gentleman in a top hat with a black patch over his eye, kind of like Mr. Peanut.

Q: How did you move out of advertising?

A: When my husband and I first came to California in the early '60s, I was a showroom salesperson and assistant advertising manager. And while I took a leave to have three children in two years, I took pattern-making classes with that wonderful attitude we have in California of "I can do that." But I was not very good at it. I was better at merchandising. My very first job was a disaster, but my bosses were lovely people. They knew I had talent but that I couldn't make a pattern. Fortunately I was good enough to get a better job that got me an assistant who made the patterns.

Q: Why did you need to learn pattern making?

A: You can't design without understanding the rudimentaries how does a sleeve fit, how does a collar work. And so I took the pattern-making classes. Even though I wasn't very good, it's been phenomenal for me over the years because I can see when a garment is put together well. I can hold a garment up in the store and say that will fit me, and that won't. It's a great skill to have and something every student of design needs.

Q: What happened after you left pattern making?

A: I became the sportswear designer for Catalina, which at that time was the No. 1 swimwear brand in the world. In 1967, I became the dress designer for Anjac Corp. Every time I had a hot dress, Anjac owner Jack Needleman bought another building. He turned his successful apparel business into an ultrasuccessful real estate business, Anjac Fashion Buildings. Later I bought Anjac Corp., and I changed the name to Ilse M. Inc. In 1990, I closed it to become president of White Stag for Warnaco. When Warnaco went public, it was my task to help sell White Stag to Wal-Mart, and then I made private-label product under the White Stag brand for Wal-Mart. In 1992, the Morse family, who owned California Mart, asked me to come in and be executive director. And when the mart was sold in 1994, that's the time I started with the fashion association. I've never not worked.

Q: Except for the time you took off to have kids.

A: And as soon as they were 3 years old, I was out of there.

Q: So you like to keep busy?

A: Oh, yes, I'll be working forever. I have absolutely no desire to retire.

Q: Tell me about your childhood.

A: I was born in Frankfurt, Germany. My family came out of Germany with nothing in 1939, family dispersed or killed, and speaking no English. I went to kindergarten speaking no English. It was a very difficult transition for my parents. We were not religious at all. That's probably why my father stayed in Germany too long, because we were not religious. We went right to Brooklyn from Germany. There was an enclave of us in Brooklyn, a very, very tight German group. And then I left Brooklyn to go to NYU. And I never went back to Brooklyn.

Q: What did your parents do when they got to New York?

A: My father was a metallurgist. He worked for a doll company. My father designed the process to make the first doll with skin with the inside still metal. My mother worked at Abraham & Straus, which was a big retail store that's now part of Macy's, in the Playtex department for 25 years. She was a working woman, too, when it wasn't fashionable to be a working woman.

Q: Was it out of necessity?

A: No. Staying home was not for my mother.

Q: So you're like your mother.

A: Yes, and my children are like me. One daughter is a senior executive with Microsoft in Seattle, another daughter is a special education teacher in New York, and another daughter is a Parkinson's specialist therapist in Los Angeles.

Q: What brought you to California?

A: My husband, Mitch Metchek, and I took all our wedding presents and cashed them in and went to Mexico. We stayed there until the money ran out. We were going to get a quick job in California to get enough money to go back to New York. When I got here, I called the sales rep in Los Angeles for D.B. Fuller and asked if he had a job for me. He said one of the people he worked for happened to be looking for an assistant in the showroom. My first job was $75 a week, and my husband's job was $80 a week. He sold textiles. We didn't have a penny other than that. That was January. By August, I had my mother send out my clothes. By that time, we had enough money to buy a stove. See, the apartment came with a refrigerator but no stove. And we cooked everything with an electric pan and a coffee pot. We made soup in the coffee pot. And we had a card table and chairs. That was in North Hollywood. We never went back.

Q: Did you miss New York?

A: It took me two years to really feel this is home. But my husband had asthma, and he was a changed man out here. So we just enjoyed the weather, enjoyed the life. I learned how to drive. I still remember my first yellow Plymouth. It's great to start off that way. You don't know you're struggling. And everything you get you appreciate because you did it yourself.

Q: What would you consider your career turning point?

A: Mitch died of cancer in 1983. His death propelled me to buy Anjac. When he died, that's when I said to Mr. Needleman, either sell me the business or I'm going to open up my own, because I was alone. My children were already in college. And I saw no reason to work for somebody else anymore. That was a key turning point for me. And a very difficult transition, because when you're working for someone, even though I was president of the company at the time, somebody's got your back. When you're on your own, nobody's got your back. I remarried another textile man in 1999, Hank Pola. He's retired.

Q: Who would you consider the most influential people in your life?

A: There was Stanley Hirsh who owned the Cooper and Bendix buildings, fashion company sites. He was my friend and mentor, and when I needed financial help, he was my partner, too. And Jack Needleman, who I worked for at Anjac for 17 years. He taught me everything there is to know about bottom lining. If there was no return on investment, he wouldn't do it. He wasn't as nice a man as Stanley, but it was different. Stanley I adored, he was a wonderful friend. I never considered Jack a friend. He was someone I watched because he was incredibly successful. He could make something out of nothing and make it profitable, or drop it. Just like that. He did not have an attachment to anything that wasn't successful. I'm glad I had someone like that to learn from.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring designers?

A: Step No .1: learn how to balance a checkbook. Step No .2: measure everything by return on investment. Just try and step out of yourself and take a look at what's working and what isn't.

Q: What would you consider the best and worst days of your career?

A: When I was honored as Woman of the Year in 2001 by the fashion industry's guild. That was very nice to have that honor. The worst day was probably when I found out my partner was cheating me in my business at Ilse M. That took about half an hour to get his ass out of there. That was tough, but that's life. It never happened again, and it never will.

Q: Do you have some favorite designers you like to wear a lot, or that you admire?

A: The ones I loved are gone. Bliss Blass was my favorite. It always fit. I like the Joan Vass line for casual. But I'm not a good shopper. I only buy what I need that moment.

Q: So you don't enjoy shopping?

A: I don't like it at all. I hate it. I'm over it. If I need a pair of black pants, I go right to Brooks Brothers. And if I need a silk blouse, I'll go to Tommy Bahama. That's what I do.

Q: Did you used to enjoy it?

A: First of all, if you're a designer, that's all you do. You spend every waking hour either at your desk or in a store just to see what the trends are, what other people are doing, if there's a new jacket, a new sleeve, what's going on. So you're there constantly. I started not enjoying shopping when I started at the fashion association because when I was at California Mart, everything was there in the showrooms. I would say, "Oh, that's nice, order something like that for me." That was easy. I never had to go into a store.

Q: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

A: I'd be an owner of a manufacturing company. The one thing I would not do is retail. I don't do well with the public. I can't lie, and I can't smile when there's nothing to smile about. And I can't tell you that you look gorgeous in something when you don't.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

A: I go to every place that's hot. I want to see it, even once. I'm not a party animal, although I go out at night a lot, but I want to see what's going on in the world. I don't want to grow old. I don't want to be tired of anything. And I see that happening in many of my contemporaries, the older people. They go to the same restaurants, they complain bitterly about the change, business is not the way it used to be anymore. That's true, but everything changes. Move on.

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