Kay Unger’s talent as a fashion designer and shrewd entrepreneur are heightened by her gracious demeanor, flair, and generosity. Currently, the Chicago native and graduate of Parsons/ The New School for Design in New York is creative head and public face of Phoebe Company LLC and its brands: Kay Unger New York, Phoebe Couture, Unger by Kay Unger, Career Separates by Kay Unger, and Kay J’s by Kay Unger. She is an active member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Board of Directors and participant in the education program in the Dominican Republic for her alma mater (Parsons). Kay is also a board and founding member of The Committee of 200, an organization that advances women’s leadership in business, and the Women’s Campaign Forum. As a cancer survivor, she has taken a personal interest in funding cancer research and has raised over $250,000 for the cause while serving as the president of the Fashion Group International; continues efforts with Stand Up To Cancer, an initiative dedicated to bringing advanced therapies to patients more quickly, by raising funds and awareness in the fashion industry. In 2009, Kay Unger was recognized by City of Hope as “Woman of the Year,” an honor bestowed for notable contributions to her profession, her community, and her charitable causes. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with the incredibly dynamic “Dress Queen” known for her vibrantly hued classic dresses, who shared many of the little known facts owing to her personal and career success.
Upon graduation from The Parson’s New School for Design in the late 1960’s you worked for Geoffrey Beene. Was it difficult for you to land that job?
Actually, I had landed a paid assistant position at a sister company of Geoffrey Beene’s right after I graduated from Parsons. A year later, when the company closed, I landed the job as a designer with Geoffrey Beene.
After a year at Geoffrey Beene you decided to develop your own line, modeling the client after yourself, filling the void for “clean dinner dresses.” How were you able to do this in such a short period of time?
It was something I felt passionate about doing. My dad passed away around that time so I inherited some start-up money which afforded me the opportunity to launch The Gillian Group. I started it in 1972 along with two business partners, Howard Bloom and Jon Levy.
Who were your inspirations for design?
My mom had wonderful style so she was my first source of inspiration. I also loved the designs of Traina Norell (a manufacturer of high-end clothing for sophisticated women) as well as the luxurious fabrics Liberty of London.
Your dresses were sold under the Gillian label, where the group and its many divisions grew into a $125 million company which went bankrupt in 1994. How did such a successful company go bankrupt?
One of my partners embezzled a great deal of money so we had to close our doors. Fortunately, just fifteen days after closing the Gillian Group, Rob Feinberg (former President of Gillian Group) and I launched Phoebe Company LLC where we established the line bearing my name, Kay Unger New York.
How did the dresses produced under Kay Unger New York differ from the dresses produced under the Gillian Group LLC?
We became more quality conscious rather than volume conscious. We didn’t want to fill tons of floor space in our retail stores. We focused on customizing the dresses to fulfill our clients’ lifestyle.
In 2005, you launched Kay J’s, a whimsical print pajama brand. What made you decide to expand from dresses to pajamas?
Kay J’s was created exclusively for Neiman Marcus. They approached me and I thought it would be fun to develop—and it was. Given my background as a painter, it allowed me to explore color and prints in a quirky, fanciful way.
Phoebe Couture is a youthful, edgy line of dresses for day and evening. How do the Phoebe Couture silhouettes differ from those of Kay Unger silhouettes?
Phoebe Couture is a “Younger Unger.” The silhouettes are less tailored—more A-line— than Kay Unger silhouettes. That said, “Young” is not defined by age, but by how you feel. For instance, I happen to be wearing a Phoebe dress (as she points to her modishly striped dress with hem above the knee).
In 2008, Kay Unger New York Eyewear and Phoebe Couture Eyewear were launched. How did this venture come about?
This is a licensing agreement and the eyewear is sold solely through opticians.
Can your dresses be purchased through your own e-commerce site?
No. We found that our stores (Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales,’ and Lord &Taylor) do a better job of selling our dresses on their e-commerce sites. They do what they do best and we do what we do best.
How do you build a relationship with your customers?
I love to make appearances at the retail stores where my dresses are sold. I am very “hands-on” with my customers. I’ll often go into the dressing rooms and personally choose and fit the perfect dress for them based on body type, natural coloring, and personality.
Which top 3 dressing tips would you share with career women?
1. Visualize yourself as powerful and feminine and choose a dress that enhances those positive qualities.
2. Remember to incorporate color— it will instantly make you look and feel great.
3. Think about where you will be wearing the dress and choose one that will be multi-functional so it doesn’t just hang in your closet.
How did you balance your career with motherhood?
I was lucky to be able to afford domestic help and nannies, but I often sacrificed going to all the fun industry parties and PR events because I wanted to be with my sons. That’s how I was able to do it. I cut out a lot of the extras so I could juggle my parenting and career responsibilities.
What advice would you offer women entrepreneurs looking to launch a business?
Do not underestimate the importance of a business plan. It is the blueprint to any well-thought out business. Joining trade associations and organizations within the industry you are looking to start a business is also vital for networking and credibility. I would also say to avoid taking on partners unless you absolutely have to and if you take on a partner, insist on being a 51% owner. It gives you an edge on decision-making.