NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Technology and an ever-shrinking world present the biggest challenges and opportunities in the business of fashion and retail, according to the panelists in the latest edition of the Powerful Women series, held January 14 at Maura Hall.
"As we are speaking here today, the industry is changing," said Dr. Joyce F. Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, citing the impact of technological advances and the advent of social media. Flexibility is important, she said, which means taking one's passion and channeling it into producing something that is relevant.
Online shopping is "growing like crazy," said Barbara LaMonica, founding partner of the LaMonica-Baas Group, a wholesale and retail fashion consulting firm. "Stores need to change to keep clients coming in," she said. "They need to reach out and get different collections, keep up with the times."
"It keeps me up at night," said Julie Gaynor, vice president and general manager of Neiman Marcus in Westchester. "We have to be accessible to customers in any way they want," she said, whether that's online or in brick-and-mortar stores.
Gaynor said one bold move her company has made is providing all of its sales professionals with smart phones, allowing them to contact customers easily. "People still want that human connection, the expertise we can offer," she said.
Kara Mendelsohn, creative director and designer for women's clothing company Cooper & Ella, noted that the Internet didn't exist when she started in the industry. These days, retailers update their social media channels multiple times a day.
Not only does this provide a way of reaching customers, it's also another means for creative people to work in the industry, Mendelsohn said. "It's an enormous opportunity that didn't exist 15 years ago."
Young people who have a talent for engaging others through social media and blogging should sell that skill to potential employers.
It's never too early to get started either, according to Brown, who told the story of one student who quickly parlayed an internship into managing a department from his dorm room.
Moderator Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson asked the panelists whether they see a trend of production returning to the United States from Asia.
Mendelsohn, who has overseen production facilities around the world, noted that clothes are still being made in the U.S., citing New York's Garment District and the denim industry in Los Angeles. "But the cost is still higher than in Asia," she said. "Stuff made here will be higher-end stuff."
LaMonica said quality control is important, "but it's a global world now."
Brown noted that quality is not just a matter of textile or needlework, but fit. "We find that the market for patternmakers has diminished, except in the couture world."
That realization led to the creation of FIT's Technical Design program, seeking to satisfy the demand for professionals who can precisely communicate the details of a garment, regardless of distance.
The panelists also pulled back the curtain on the perceived glitz and glamour of the industry. Smaller entrepreneurs, LaMonica said, "are constantly juggling all the pieces of the business."
"You sell or you're out," said Mendelsohn. "That's the bottom line."
Unfortunately, that also goes toward explaining the lack of diversity in fashion collections. During the Q&A session, one audience member said retailers need to be more adventurous.
"A lot of the stores do look more alike than they used to," LaMonica said. "You've got to make money in these stores, so many are afraid to take the risk."
While at Bergdorf Goodman, she recalled taking a chance on the up-and-coming Giorgio Armani, and getting burned when he couldn't get production together. It still paid off in the long run, "and we do need to get back to that," LaMonica said.
President Judith Huntington, who spoke at the start of the event, joked that the pressures of running a college were nothing compared to deciding what to wear to an event with the word "fashion" in its name.
Huntington spoke proudly of previous editions of the Powerful Women event, which featured movers and shakers in media and finance -- the latter an arena she spent 25 years in. "But this event is very dear to my heart," Huntington said, confessing to an obsession with fashion.
Huntington also noted the impact technology has had on her shopping habits, confessing to making a flash sale purchase via iPad during a meeting.
Dee DelBello, CEO and publisher of Westfair Business Publications and a CNR alumna, offered a tribute to Mary Jane Denzer, Westchester County's priestess of high fashion.
Denzer, who was unable to attend the show due to a bout with pneumonia, still conducted business from her hospital bed, said DelBello -- coordinating by phone and email the gracefully attired models who helped set the scene for the event.
"For 35 years she has been dressing captains of industry and the rest of us," DelBello said. She praised Denzer's "timeless elegance, grace, sophistication, style, and oh, that Southern Georgia charm." But her success has also required business savvy from the start.
While working at Bergdorf Goodman, a customer asked her to open and manage a store for 50 percent of the business. Denzer agreed, DelBello said, but only if she got 51 percent.