Breakfast with the Boss: Mia Dell'Osso-Caputo, Creative Director and GVP of Merchandising of Men's at Kenneth Cole Productions

Engrossed in Kenneth Cole’s sophisticated-yet-classic urban lines and natural tones with pops of color, the YMA Fashion Scholarship Scholars took a seat at the table for the last “Breakfast with the Boss” of the summer, featuring Mia Dell’Osso-Caputo. In addition to hearing about Mia’s exciting day-to-day process as Creative Director and GVP of Men’s Merchandising, we had the opportunity to walk around the rooms that comprise the heart of Kenneth Cole’s creative design process, getting a hands-on feel for the fabrics and sketches. We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting finish to our 2015 “Breakfast with the Boss” series. Take a look!  

About Kenneth Cole Productions
Kenneth Cole Productions designs, sources and markets a variety of fashion footwear, handbags, apparel and accessories. The company’s three labels include Kenneth Cole Reaction, Kenneth Cole New York, and Kenneth Cole Black Label. Kenneth Cole’s designs have located a special niche within the industry as fashion-forward product that reflects a modern metropolitan lifestyle. Products range from the core basics that remain in our closets to trending and seasonal products, a combination that provides “freshness in assortments” while staying true to the urban customer’s fashion needs. The balance of sales from retail to wholesale throughout its three core lines increases the company’s opportunities in all distribution channels. 

Behind the Design
Mia engaged us with visuals in the form of sketches and concept boards to give us a sense of the origins of her design team. She explained the process of formulating concept and color, which begins with the design and merchandising teams coming up with concept boards internally, and building “brand rooms” which reflect themes and ideas. Next, these design boards are taken to the market and used as a pitch to sell the story in hopes of exciting buyers. Mia walked us through the “Concept in Color” boards that lay out the standout colors by month, as well as boards devoted to the class Kenneth Cole Blackout and Whiteout schemes. We also got to see overarching concept boards of the season, which are used as inspiration for the design team to pull from when detailing its apparel for the season.
 
Mia noted, “Our ‘Urban Uniform’ look takes the form of an interchangeable closet, where no one is buying head-to-toe anything. Yes, some people are wearing suits every day, but the majority of the country is building their closet savvier. You’re buying and investing in individual pieces, and figuring out that there are no boundaries…there are many ways to put them together. We’re very lucky that when we design clothes, we can say ‘Let’s try it!’ and just go for it. It’s a fun experience not to have any boundaries, and not to be tied to any traditional DNA.” Currently, the design team is working on incorporating technology into its everyday urban apparel, while also making the environmentally conscious shift towards “season-less clothing” a priority. 

Words of Wisdom

  • Teamwork. At Kenneth Cole, the whole team works together, from drawing board to final product. “It takes a team to build a line.” 
  • Persistence. “It’s not easy out there, especially when first starting out in the industry. You just have to stay positive—go at it!” 
  • Network. “Keeping those contacts is so important, because a lot of times the job posting doesn’t make it to the ad or to the agency. If I’m looking to fill a position, I call [the people I know]. That’s something that happens a lot in the industry, which is why that network is important to have.”
  • Good First Impression. “In that first moment of professional contact, you want to be just outgoing enough, look like a go-getter, but you don’t want to have so overpowering a personality that the interviewer can’t ask you any questions!” 

Q&A
Q: May He- “Within your design team, how are the departments separated?”
 
A: “We work with design services on concepts and colors, and design services works on how to get the same message across to all licensees. [Our department] takes it and figures out how to make it menswear. The way the team is broken down is that we have designers by category—woven shirts, knits and sweaters, denim, and outerwear. Then we have a merchandising team, a production team, and a technical team. Everyone is mirrored by category—there’s a family to line-build with. If you’re here on knits and sweaters, you’re going to work closely with the merchandising and sourcing teams, so that along the way you become a unit and everyone knows what you’re doing. At Kenneth Cole, our work is from conception to production—we sketch it, then tech pack it, then fit it…your baby is your baby! I love that experience. If we want to put a trim on a garment, it’s not like we have to go to a trim department and ask. It’s purely in our hands, and we get to do it from beginning to end. It’s a different kind of work style, and I love working that way, but it’s not for everyone.”
 
Q: Caley Taylor (Kent State University)- “How are you able to differentiate between the 3 different labels and customers that fit those labels, while also keeping an overall Kenneth Cole aesthetic?”
 
A: “It’s a ‘Good, Better, Best’ strategy built by pricepoint. It’s one brand—there are only so many trends, and we’re Kenneth Cole in DNA no matter what price point. If it’s all about the jogger this season, we don’t say, ‘which brand should we put that in?’ but rather, we’ll put some in an opening price point at $60, and go all the way up to an $800 leather jogger for Black Label. It all has to go together. In our own house, in theory, I should be able to use all of the product from the three lines together and be able to make it look cool together.”
 
Q: Madeline Hanley- “Was there ever a time that you doubted yourself as a designer?”
 
A: “Seeing the samples come in, you’re always worried that it’s not going to come together, but ultimately it always does. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of types of product [throughout my career] and I’m at a place now where I feel confident in what I do. One thing you learn over the years is that you have to be an amazing seller of yourself. A true designer, when they’re passionate about what they’ve done, will be able to sell to internal teams as well as customers."

Thank you to Mia for ending our summer series on such a high note! 

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller

Breakfast with the Boss: Anthony Caputo, Senior Vice President of Design and Merchandising at DDK / Boston Traders

This morning the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund scholars were lucky enough to be invited back to DDK / Boston Traders, where Anthony Caputo, SVP of Design and Merchandising, approached us from the creative side of the business. After a robust question and answer session, Anthony showed us the design process from conception to shipment, inspiring us with larger ideas and concepts (beach sunsets, surfing, volleyball, sailing) that are later channeled into the product categories, prints and fabrications of the overall brand. Take a look! 

About DDK / Boston Traders
DDK is a leading manufacturer and global distributor of men’s outerwear, sportswear and swimwear. The company distributes under licensed brands and private label, with ownership of the Boston Traders intellectual property and design. Boston Traders, a New England-inspired modern yet traditional line of men’s sportswear, is known for outdoor lifestyle comfort, function, value and of course fashion. Additionally, DDK exclusively distributes private label for Saks Fifth Avenue’s modern collection, a path that the company hopes to expand upon with other private labels. As SVP of Design and Merchandising, Anthony is responsible for DDK’s overall design, serving as creative director for the Boston Traders brand as well as working on private labels and new brands. 

The Boss' Journey: Steps to Success
A designer at heart, Anthony graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in Menswear Design & Marketing. Anthony has a wide background of creative experience, coming to DDK from LF Americas, where he served as Vice President of Men’s Design. He started his career at Tommy Hilfiger, and then went on to serve as Design Director at Joseph Abboud and Calvin Klein. Additionally, Anthony served as Creative Director of his own collection for nearly five years, an experience he jokingly likens to “getting [his] Ph.D. in the fashion industry.” Anthony has now been with DDK / Boston Traders for around seven months, an experience somewhat different that requires the use of all of his experience from the past. “DDK has that entrepreneurial spirit which I love,” Anthony explained. 

Words of Wisdom

  • Diversify. “When starting out, get as much exposure as possible to different areas of the industry, including various brand aesthetics and distribution channels, in order to help define where you want to go in the future.” Whether you’re on the design or business side of the industry, diversification is especially important. 
  • Don’t stagnate. For maximum exposure and growth, “try not to get positioned in one distribution level or aesthetic throughout your career. On a daily basis, I work with product that is sold at many different price points and have an understanding and appreciation for all of them.” 
  • Design with both sides of the brain. “I come from the creative side, but having said that, this industry requires more than that. If you’re on the creative side, really try to understand and integrate with the business / merchandising side of the process, and vice versa.” 
  • Develop Relationships. “Networking goes beyond finding jobs and mentors—If you want to have your own business one day as a few of you have mentioned, it will help to build respectful relationships with retailers as well.” 

Q&A
Q: Dvorah Elster (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “What do you take into account when designing for private label brands vs. your own brand?”
 
A: “Your own brand should have a very specific point-of-view from an aesthetic standpoint regardless of who you sell it to. A lot of it also depends on where the brand is in its life cycle. If you have some brand (selling) history, I think it’s a balance of further developing this core while determining how to evolve with new product that compliments the brand. [As for] private label, you’re going to think very specifically about that private label’s aesthetic and provide product accordingly.”
 
Q: Oliver Selby (Savannah College of Art & Design)-  “If someday I hope to start my own business, what direction would you recommend steering in terms of gaining job experience now?”

A: “If you’re looking to start a business, something on a smaller scale is probably going to help you best. The smaller the company, the more exposure you’ll get to the ‘business of design.’ That doesn’t mean you’ll be running the operation, but it does mean that you’ll be more hands-on. The amount of overlap between functions is far greater—as it must naturally be when you have five people running a company [vs. hundreds or thousands]. When everyone is speaking to each other, you can better understand the logistics of [each department]. I learned a ton of that when I had my own business, but I had worked for ten years before that. It doesn’t have to be ten, but get some years [of previous experience] in there before venturing on your own.”

Q: Katie Class (University of Missouri)- “What do you believed has helped you become a leader in this company, and in the industry as a whole?”
 
A: “I think that I learned at my first job, while working for Tommy Hilfiger, that he knew a lot about everything going on within the company, from business to design. Because of this I decided to choose a smaller company for my second career move that really took me into the trenches…I was in Hong Kong, China, India, Europe…that experience was invaluable. I left a growing company to join a smaller one because I felt it would help me gain exposure to more, ultimately helping me to understand the ‘business of design.’ While having the brand name experience is desirable, and something I ended up coming back to, getting that diversification was critical [to my growth and leadership].”
 
Q: Dvorah Elster (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “Starting out working for someone else, how do you maintain your individual creativity / design aesthetic if the brand you’re working for has a more narrow customer or style?”
 
A: “The short answer is that you usually don’t—meaning that you have to, as a designer, say, ‘this is who I’m working for, I’m going to get my head into it and channel my creativity into this lane.’ As designers, we have to figure out how to get ourselves entrenched into the aesthetic of the brand we’re working for. I’m not saying give up your creativity—after all, brands hire you for the creativity they see in you. But being able to design product within the lane that resonates with the consumer and the brand you’re working for…keeping the integrity of the brand…this can be challenging but is necessary. I guess that’s why designers seek [to have] their own brand…but as a designer, there’s something valuable to be learned working for someone else. Try different levels and different brands…see where you feel best!”

Thank you to Anthony and DDK / Boston Traders for your continued generosity and words of advice!

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller

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Breakfast with the Boss: Tom Kingsbury, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and President of Burlington Stores, Inc.

Wednesday morning quickly turned intriguing as the scholars engaged with the fast-paced world of off-price retail at Burlington. Today we had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Kingsbury, CEO and President of Burlington Stores, Inc. In addition to learning about the company and Tom’s exciting career, we were lucky enough to hear relevant advice from Donna Norton, the Burlington’s Talent Acquisition Manager and Head of College Recruitment. Here’s the inside scoop! 

About Burlington
Burlington is a leading national retail chain that offers current, high quality, designer merchandise at up to 65% off of department store prices. Beginning as “Burlington Coat Factory,” a single outlet store in Burlington, New Jersey in 1972, Burlington has grown tremendously, now operating over 544 stores in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Aside from selling the largest selection of coats in the nation, Burlington offers men’s and women’s suits, sportswear, family footwear, handbags, children’s clothing, baby furniture and accessories (under BabyDepot) and home décor. The fast-paced world of off-price retail with constant turnover fuels the company’s entrepreneurial spirit and consumer loyalty, as “the customer feels very confident that they can buy something new every time, and that it won’t be later marked down.”
 
In addition to clothing America with affordable fashions, Burlington aligns its mission with that of the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, focusing substantial resources and effort on developing future industry talent. As Tom explained, “The most important thing for the foundation of our company is talent. People know that, when they come into our company, we’re going to work very hard at setting them up for success.” At one of the best training programs in the industry, new recruits complete a three-month onboarding program to gain understanding of the industry and Burlington’s model before launching their careers at the company. Additionally, Burlington runs a 10-week internship program for college students, a tremendous pipeline for new talent and leadership—many interns later go on to thrive at the company full-time. After all, as Donna noted, “Once you get the off-price bug, you can’t go back.”

The Boss' Journey: Steps to Success
Tom graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a business degree in marketing. Although he initially saw himself wanting to work for a marketing company, he interviewed with a number of department stores and found himself intrigued by retail. Since then, he’s never looked back. “It’s hard to believe that next year will be my 40th year in the business,” Tom shared. As a former Kohl’s and May Company (Filene’s / Kauffman’s) executive with over thirty years of experience in marketing, business development, e-commerce and information technology, Tom entered Burlington 7 years ago out of desire for fast-paced, hands-on merchandising and has lead his team to incredible success.
 
As Tom explained, “I love off-price because it’s very entrepreneurial, and it’s the fastest growing channel in retail. What makes it really special is the fact that you’re always in the moment, constantly chasing product.” Whereas department stores rely on fashion trending intelligence to buy everything in advance of the season, Burlington delivers to its customer by buying only one-third of its product before a given season begins, leaving the remaining two-thirds to be purchased and brought into stores after viewing data about the current season’s sales. While Tom’s many roles as Chairman, CEO, and President of Burlington certainly keep him busy, he also spends quality time in the market hunting new product alongside buyers, merchants and interns, and even travels from store to store, “where the magic really happens.” Between Thanksgiving and Christmas alone, Tom visited over 60 stores, because “with 545 stores, you must have a clear understanding of the stores’ needs before you embark on creating change.”

Words of Wisdom

  • Do your homework. Understand the culture and structure of the company you’re getting into. Every company is different, and it’s especially important to enter an interview with background information and relevant questions, making it clear that you have spent time in a company’s stores. “If someone puts that kind of work into the interview, that’s their work ethic, and we know when they enter our company they are going to work that hard at everything they do.” 
  • Set yourself up for success. Make sure you enter a company where you feel you can thrive and grow. 
  • Don’t move too quickly. Make sure a company is a place you will want to remain for at least 5 years. “As a CEO who hires a lot of people,” Tom explained, “seeing people who jump around a lot from company to company is a red flag. Remaining in one place shows commitment, and that you don’t give up easily.” 
  • Set five-year benchmarks. “I’ve always looked at my career in terms of 5-year increments.” Tom feels that it helps to set goals for yourself in terms of a new position you can reach within the next five years”—for example, moving from GMM to SVP. After five years, you can set your next goal.

Q&A
Q: Dvorah Elster (University of Wisconsin-Madison)- “Given that you have worked for multiple companies, what are some different aspects to consider when looking for a job and assessing a company?”
 
A: “One of the things to really look at is the company’s growth. You really want to join a company that’s growing because the opportunity for personal and career growth is much greater in a company that is growing itself—you never want to feel restricted. You have to do some due diligence in terms of the health of the company overall. Additionally, when you visit a company, you can quickly ascertain how involved all layers of the organization are in terms of [recruiting new talent]. I think mentoring is incredibly important—try to enter a company where you know somebody will take you under their wing and help you grow. Part of the reason I go to stores and markets every week is because I get to interact with divisional buyers, merchandisers, [and many others] to get to know them, help them understand our company’s model, and to help develop them.”
 
Q: Donna Norton (Burlington Talent Acquisition Manager)- “Since you have come on board, how have you seen Burlington’s core customer change and evolve?”
 
A: “We’re attracting a different customer today than we were six years ago. One of the areas we’ve made progress with is the higher income consumer. We’ve seen our biggest growth in the company recently come from those customers that make over $75,000. We’ve recommitted to bringing in more brands, opening [new offices], cleaning our stores and making them easier to navigate, and developing better customer service. While we’re cultivating a new customer, I still think the [core customer demographic] we already have is very loyal…we never want to give up our core customer. We try to approach every change thoughtfully, patiently…reinventing the customer but at the appropriate pace.”

Q: Rachel Feller (YMA FSF Intern)- “Given that you focus so much on recruiting new talent, what do you look for in a candidate when you hire?”
 
A: “We look for people who have off-price experience, who have an entrepreneurial spirit and are comfortable without a lot of hierarchical structure. We look for those who get excited about doing something different every single day. Those who understand product to a certain degree, who are good with negotiating and developing vendor relations, but most importantly, we look for people who really want to learn our model. It’s such a fun model! We find that the most successful people are those who ask questions, make sure they are attentive and are eager to learn.”
 
Q: Anna LaPlaca (UCLA)- “What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job?”
 
“Making sure we’re constantly teaching, training and developing people…it’s not necessarily a challenge, but it’s something that has to be front and forward at all times. I have to make sure [developing talent] is a high priority in everything that I do, and I keep focused on it. Another challenge is making sure that people don’t begin to take for granted our good performance—we’re one of the fastest growing retailers in America, but if we don’t stay focused on [improving], we’re not going to do as well.”
 
At the end of our breakfast, we were greeted by Timothy Chan, a former YMA FSF Scholar from F.I.T. who has found his home full-time at Burlington. It was wonderful to see one of our very own thriving in the company’s culture. A huge “Thank you” to Tom and Donna for providing an engaging, inspiring morning!

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller