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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.
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Lifetime Television’s “Fairy Jobmother,” Hayley Taylor first caught my attention with her authoritative stance and glance when I bumped into her life size poster at a local mall. Initially, I didn’t know what the poster was advertising, but Taylor’s bigger than life presence drew me closer. How interesting? A series about career coaching, interview skills, and getting the unemployed back to work; yet this is how I learn about it—in a mall? I Googled her and the show as soon as I got home: to my surprise she was scheduled to appear at The Career Kick Start Boot Camp event the next day at Union Square Park, right in Manhattan. I made up my mind to go since it was practically in the backyard of my office.
I arrived early and observed from the sidelines as the event was being set up, potential employers arrived, and registrants started to line up. The excitement and anticipation was building as everyone prepared to meet “The Fairy Jobmother.” As the clock neared 12 noon, I joined the mingling and found that about half of the “candidates” were actually employed in clerical and administrative positions at nearby companies and were just checking out the scene on that beautiful fall day in New York City. About 10 minutes into working my way through the park, the next hand I shook was that of Hayley Taylor. Apparently, she too had made her way through the crowd and had started greeting people without any special announcement or fanfare. There was no publicist following her around, whispering in her ear, or a personal assistant carrying her hefty tote. She was out there—on her own— “one of us.” Her smile and her handshake conveyed warmth and sincerity. She was genuinely happy to be at this event and was prepared to get right to business by asking and answering questions of her new American fans.
“Hello, I’m Hayley Taylor,” she said to me in an unassuming way. Her bright blue eyes were filled with excitement, and then she followed up her introduction with, “Thank you for coming. What brings you here?” she asked in her down-to-earth, British accent. For a brief second, I thought about saying I was a housewife from New Jersey looking for career advice to get back on my feet. However, her openness deserved to be reciprocated. So I responded, “Nice to meet you, Hayley Taylor. I’m Lizandra Vega.” (Pause) “I’m a career and image coach and I’ve just written a book that focuses on the ABC’s of landing a job,” I said hoping not to sound like I was spying on her. “Really? I’d love to read it. What’s the name?” Taylor inquired. Rather than telling her and having her forget, I handed her a copy out of my own hefty tote bag. “Wow! What an accomplishment! Congratulations on writing a book and thank you so much for sharing it with me.” She graciously accepted my book and gave me one of the comforting bear hugs she gives displaced jobseekers on “ The Fairy Jobmother” series. I managed to get my own kudos to her and then it was time to part our separate ways as she needed to get to everyone else who had come out to meet her. I stuck around for some of the career trivia games led by emcee, Matt Gallant and enjoyed hearing the responses from the audience. Right before I left for my early afternoon meeting, a Lifetime representative asked if I had additional copies of my book to raffle off and would I have a couple of minutes to speak to the audience. I went from spectator to commentator in a flash of Taylor’s wand. Having me spontaneously chime in as a peer at her event is a testament to Hayley Taylor’s modest confidence.
I’ve maintained contact with Taylor since that day and during her most recent visit back to New York, we had the opportunity to chat. I asked about her background and about life experiences that have influenced the delivery of her sage advice.
Hayley Taylor has worked long and hard for all of her triumphs along the way. She attibutes much of her success to, “tenacity, drive, strong communication skills, and networking skills.” I would add that her warm and vivacious personality have had to contribute to getting noticed among the masses. At the age of 16, she worked fulltime as a hairdresser at night, while also attending college fulltime during the day. Her knack for training adult learners was fulfilled when she made herself available to fill in as a trainer at the hair styling school that was part of the salon where she worked. Later, when she was a stay-at-home mom, her husband Mark was downsized after 10 years of service. That was a challenging time which sharpened her budgeting and allocating skills. While many wives might be hard on unemployed husbands or those who accept jobs that are below their earning potential, Taylor encouraged and supported Mark. Their relationship was and still is the foundation to both of their personal and professional success. When her daughter, Morgan (now 13) entered school, Taylor pushed herself back into the workforce despite her lack of self-confidence and lack of childcare support. She alternated work shifts with her husband and traded childcare and carpooling favors with friends and neighbors. As a re-entrant to the job market, she cleverly tapped into the hidden job market as a volunteer at a non-profit government organization which offered job training skills to displaced workers. Her volunteer opportunity soon became a paid position as her talents were discovered. Two years later, her networking capabilities landed her a job offer from a government funded agency as a training provider. She accepted and worked there for 3 full years where she particularly excelled with young, single mothers (ages 18-24), as well as the sick and disabled. Repeatedly, the three most common barriers she helped candidates overcome were similar to those encountered by “Fairy Jobmother” families:
• Lack of self-confidence
• Lack of skill set
• Lack of emotional and financial support
Perhaps, the similarities between Taylor’s real life and reality show candidates are why she was deemed most suited for her role as “The Fairy Jobmother.” She had been initially discovered through a three-part series called, “Benefit Busters” a documentary that was being filmed in her office. You might say her career challenges and compromises are over now that she has been cast in this role. However, Taylor still has to work hard at things like work-life balance and long commutes back and forth from the US to her home in Yorkshire, England. Still, she continues to persevere and be recognized for her work with the unemployed. For those of you out there who are cynics about reality television, you may continue to be. However, I want to let you know that there’s nothing ‘unreal’ about Hayley Taylor. She is what we call in America, “salt of the earth” and that is what makes her approachable and inspirational to the common “Joe” or “Jane” that is unemployed and looking for a glimmer of hope.
Watch Hayley Taylor in “The Fairy Jobmother” on Lifetime Television on Thursdays at 11pm, et/pt. For more information visit: http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/the-fairy-jobmother