Breakfast with the Boss: Colleen Kelly, CEO of Alex Apparel

At the opening Summer 2015 “Breakfast with the Boss,” YMA FSF scholars had their first opportunity of many to meet with an inspirational, influential leader in the fashion industry: Colleen Kelly. Colleen is currently the CEO of Alex Apparel, a private equity backed apparel company specializing in evening dresses. In addition to her successful career, Colleen has generously involved herself with the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund for over ten years, and is extremely passionate about developing fresh, young talent in the fashion industry. Colleen serves on the FSF Scholarship Committee, responsible for the Ambassador Program, and also on the newly formed Alumni Committee. In fact, she was our closing speaker of last year’s series of “Breakfast with the Boss” events, leaving the program on a very high note. Here’s an inside look at what Colleen shared with our scholars! 

The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
While Colleen graduated from college with a major in theater, she loved being around apparel in her many jobs at stores throughout high school and knew she was heading in the direction of fashion. After graduating, she entered the Executive Training Program at Jordan Marsh, a Boston-based department store. This experience launched her corporate career in retail and provided her with a strong skill set. It was through this program that she was placed into her first job as a department manager, where she learned to both give and receive critical feedback for personal growth. 
Colleen was fortunate to work for smaller companies at the beginning of her career to gain expertise and interact with customers. She grew to enjoy working in sales, as she “loved that you could see the results right away,” but ultimately decided it was time for some large company experience. Colleen moved on to become Vice President of Sales at Donna Karan International, where she approached the product from the merchandising side. According to Colleen, “Big companies are really important in terms of training and gaining experience,” while in small companies, “you get to be more hands on” and are exposed to more facets of the business. For this reason, she recommended to our scholars that in their careers, they take the time to experience both small and large company dynamics.

One of Colleen’s main strengths has proven to be that when she “hits a ceiling,” she makes room for continued self-growth. So when the opportunity arose for her to become President of Calvin Klein Jeans at Warnaco at a time when the brand was experiencing inner turmoil, Colleen jumped right in, hiring new talent, changing the team dynamic and turning around the product line. She recalls, “Tackling one problem after the next with an energetic team that worked hard at a difficult task, we turned that business around and became extremely profitable for the Warnaco group.” Her first major experience with turnarounds at Calvin Klein gave her the expertise she needed when she moved on to become Group President at Tommy Hilfiger. Once again, by returning to the company’s roots, reorganizing her team, redesigning the logo and partnering exclusively with Macy’s (at the time a groundbreaking feat), Colleen returned Tommy Hilfiger to a state of growth and profitability.

Colleen’s Motto: “Candor with Kindness”  Colleen explained how during a turnaround, it can be difficult to strike a balance between being direct and upfront with your point of view while also remaining kind and composed. She explained, “People will learn from you and respect you without you telling them that they are less than.” 

Colleen’s Motto: “Candor with Kindness”
Colleen explained how during a turnaround, it can be difficult to strike a balance between being direct and upfront with your point of view while also remaining kind and composed. She explained, “People will learn from you and respect you without you telling them that they are less than.” 

Where She is Now
Colleen finally felt it was time to move on from the big company sphere. Choosing to “bring [her] big company lessons to a small company and help it grow,” she landed a job as President of Kahn Lucas, one of the largest, privately owned manufacturers of girls apparel, where she grew the business and once again implemented a new strategic plan for turnaround. But along the way she never forgot her big dreams of being CEO, or her desire to “be the one who has ultimate say in making the big decisions.” Today, she serves as CEO of Alex Apparel. The company’s designs are sold under the brand names Alex Evenings and Kay Unger, and are distributed at leading department stores such as Nordstroms, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Von Maur and Lord & Taylor. Today, Colleen is working on evolving the product to fit a younger niche, providing a fresh eye to a family company and reinvigorating the brand.  

Scholars' Q&A
Q: Emma Gage (Marist College): Now that you’ve reached your goal of CEO, what has been the most challenging difference between being a CEO and a President?
A: “The big difference is that you can’t just go up to someone’s office and ask them, ‘Can I do this?’ You are in charge. It can be lonely at times, so you must draw from your own experience and draw from your network outside the company to gain insights. Reaching out to mentors from past experiences helps too. It’s a challenge, but that’s the fun part! You can say ‘Ok, I just have to do this,’ and you will keep improving all the time.”
Q: Katie Class (University of Missouri): Having worked with a lot of different types of people in your career, what sets apart the top performers?
A: “It’s all about attitude. You just have to be a yes person, even if you decide it’s a no. You have to think you can do it. I remember telling my parents I was going to be the President of an apparel company at 40 years old, and that happened. I also said I was going to be the CEO by 50…that didn’t happen. I was 5 years late! But it still happened. You need people that are going to be like, ‘yes, let’s do it!’ even if they face a challenge. It’s very mental. You have to wake up and just know you’re going to accomplish something, and be able to get everyone to think that way.”
Q: Samantha Stern (Cornell University): How do you handle the work-life balance, especially given that working for a large company can be extremely stressful?
A: “I’m not a real stickler on the 9-5 thing. I think people are very creative at certain times of day— some people are morning people and others are night people. Sometimes people need to know when to stop. I’m ok with that—I try to be very flexible. When people look like they are burning out, they should move away from a project for a little bit. But that’s not to say it’s busy—in fact it’s often hard to not put in those hours. I’m working 7 days a week right now, 70-80 hours, because the first 90 days [of a turnaround] are critical. But you have to do personal things to give yourself the energy to do this job well. And you kind of need to know when it’s time to pull back.” 

Colleen’s “Words of Wisdom”

  • Sometimes your career zigzags—you take two steps forward and one step back along the way, but you have to make sure you have the right mentors and people surrounding you. If not, it’s time to make a change. 
  • Take ownership of your career path and the decisions you make along the way. 
  • People are the most important part of this job. Yes it’s the fashion industry, but people are going to make you successful. 
  • “Go back to the roots” in a company’s turnaround. 
  • Be open to change. 
  • Don’t jump too quickly from one company or position to another, but also don’t stay in one place for too long or you’ll get stale! It’s all about working hard in your current job and knowing when it’s time to move on to the next one. 
  • It’s not an “I,” it’s a “we.” Teamwork is as, if not more, important than going for the end goal. You can’t do it all yourself. 
  • Be yourself, and don’t change who you are. If you land in a company or position where the only way to get ahead is to change who you are, chances are it’s not the place for you. 

Top Takeaways
Some of our scholars shared with us what they found most meaningful or memorable about Colleen’s presentation. Take a look!
Grace Dusek (Texas A&M University): “Her motto, ‘Candor with Kindness,’ really stuck with me. It’s really comforting to see that you can make your dreams come true but not sacrifice who you are as a person.”
Lindsay Mitchell (University of Missouri): “I was really inspired by her ‘you can do it’ attitude. She knew she wanted to be CEO and did it.”
Maria Catalano (Marist College): “I like that Colleen has big goals for herself, but that she knows she can accomplish what she wants while being kind at the same time.”
Jose Moscoso (Buffalo State College, Alex Apparel Summer Intern): “Just listening to her journey was very motivating. It’s helpful to see the path she took to get [to where she is] and what things you need to know along the way.”
Emma Gage (Marist College): “Knowing you can have a goal that you want to reach, being ok with the fact that it takes time, and understanding that if you believe in yourself and have people who believe in you, you can accomplish anything.”

We couldn’t have asked for a better “boss” to launch our 2015 Breakfast with the Boss series. Thanks to Colleen for all her insights, and to our scholars for their enthusiasm.

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

Rachel Feller