Breakfast with the Boss: Michael Mombello, SVP of Design and Product Development for Neckwear at PVH

Despite being “tied” up at their various internships around the city, the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund scholars took time out of their mornings to hear from inspirational leader and neckwear specialist Michael Mombello (pun intended). Over breakfast, Michael shared with us the many steps along his journey to his current position as Senior Vice President of Design and Product Development for Neckwear at PVH. We were fortunate enough to get a tour of the men’s neckwear showroom, taking in an array of beautiful ties in more patterns, fabrics and colors than we could have imagined. With ties ranging from the simple and classic lines and deep blues of the Indigo collection (inspired by Michael’s trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm) to the modern paisleys and narrowly shaped silhouettes featured in more recent collections, each of our scholars walked away inspired by something different. Here are some of the highlights! 

About PVH
PVH Corporation, with a heritage of over 130 years, is currently the second largest apparel company in the world.  The company excels in growing global brands, marketing them in the United States and internationally. PVH owns a diversified portfolio of noteworthy brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen and IZOD. Additionally, PVH has the license for brands such as Ted Baker, Todd Snyder, Michael Kors, Nautica, Kenneth Cole Reaction and Geoffrey Beene. Its products are distributed to a range of popular department stores, as well as to hundreds of outlet locations. Taking special care to maintain the integrity and core values of each brand in the growth and expansion process, PVH has emerged as a leader domestically and globally. Between its owned brands, licensed brands and private label brands, PVH accounts for greater than sixty percent of the neckwear market share in the United States.

The Boss’ Journey: Steps to Success
Michael graduated form Connecticut College in 1983 with a major in English and a minor in Art History. He always thought he would go into advertising, publishing or marketing, even considering at one point doing admissions work at a boarding school. “I didn’t know I was going to end up in this business at all,” Michael explained. The concept of “not knowing” at the beginning is one we have heard multiple bosses share this summer, and one that Michael made the point of stressing to our scholars. “Just start somewhere,” he suggested. “It doesn’t have to be the perfect job.” This opportunity came for Michael when Macy’s came to his college campus with Bloomingdale’s to look for “thinkers, writers and communicators.” Although not initially planning on interviewing, Michael filled in the slot of a friend who unexpectedly fell ill right before her interview, and from there it was all fate. He earned a spot in Macy’s executive training program where he began as a dress shirt assistant buyer, moved on to become a floor manager, and gained the experience of working for a large retail company. This “sink or swim” opportunity, as Michael described it, really “crystallized why [he was] in the business—it’s all about customer feedback and the relationship with the consumer.” This led naturally to his next role as a store manager and buyer at Polo Ralph Lauren.
After five years’ work with Polo, Michael felt it was time for something new, and landed the position of Men’s Merchandise Director of retail at J. Crew. He especially enjoyed the direct product-to-consumer experience, traveling to style outlets in Hong Kong and expanding J. Crew’s accessories, tailored clothes and footwear. Michael stayed with J. Crew for over five years, but soon “got itchy to give up merchandising and cross over into design.” Listening to his gut, and to his boss who suggested that he try neckwear, Michael moved back to the Ralph Lauren family as Design Director for Chaps, and then became Design Director of Men’s Tailored Clothing at Tommy Hilfiger. He stayed with for thirteen years, finally holding the position of SVP of Design. While he started out with ties and neckwear, Michael moved around between golf, men’s tailored clothing, men’s sportswear and even women’s accessories, embracing the ever-changing dynamic of the company. Today, Michael holds the title of Senior Vice President of Design and Product Development for Neckwear at PVH. Rather than focusing on many product categories within one brand, he now enjoys focusing solely on neckwear and working with many brands and stores.

"Words of Wisdom"

  • Find a place where you can make a difference. Sometimes in the beginning of your career it’s important to get yourself established with larger, more structured brands, but later on make sure you find a job where you feel you are most valuable. 
  • There’s no “I” in team. Learn how to collaborate with others, even in a more rigid company structure where doing so can be difficult. 
  • Work hard now. If you work as hard as you can work in your current position, doors will open to guide you towards the next step on your journey. 
  • Do what feels right. Figure out what feels best to you in this specific moment; listen to your gut. 
  • Be a sponge. Soak up every bit of knowledge you can. Raise your hand when you have a question and never be afraid to ask. 
  • Cast your net wide. You may not know which way your career will turn next, but having a network to reach out to in times of need can make all the difference.
Michael showing scholars the "Indigo" collection, inspired by his trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Michael showing scholars the "Indigo" collection, inspired by his trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Q: Shota Adamia (Brandeis University)- “For all of us who are very new to the business, it’s easy to get caught up in a routine role, and difficult to figure out what kind of team will provide you with the best experience for the future. What do you think are the best kinds of teams/work environments for us to be trying out at the beginning stages of our careers?”
A: “There isn’t one best team. There are endless options in terms of where you can start, and I have many friends in the industry that did complete turnarounds, moving from women’s to men’s, small environment to corporate. I love that I started in merchandising, because I feel like I have developed a left-side right-side brain. In merchandising, you have to know how to appeal to the customer, but you also have to keep in mind that a young Southerner might not want the same product as an older man in the North. You also have to understand the financial implications of your decisions and how they affect sales. While there isn’t one ‘right’ team, sales is a great place to start.”
Q: Megan Blissick (University of Delaware)- “It seems like a lot of your opportunities were self-created. When in a company setting, how do you know when it’s appropriate to ask for a different position, for a raise, or to move elsewhere?”
A: “You’ll know—you’ll just feel it. I always feel like it’s equivalent to shopping for houses with my wife…finally you walk into that one living room and just know that’s the one for you. You all have the luxury of something [my generation] didn’t have—job postings online. You have the ability to search quickly for opportunities that might pique your interest. Currently in the industry there’s a trend of test-driving designers and creative talent. Many times a company will want to see if it’s a good fit at first, but what starts out as freelancing often turns into a full time position, and if you fit well with the team and perform well, even if there isn’t a position that fits you best, they might create one for you. Don’t get discouraged in the first rung of your job—you’ll progress, begin to take on more responsibility and make more money as you go along. I like to think that two years is always a good benchmark. If you know something isn’t right for you you’ll feel it right away, but if you’re hesitant, give yourself some time. Two years is a sufficient amount of time to assess ‘am I on the way up? Or am I sitting here in one place?’”
Q: Alicia Underhill (University of Virginia)- “What are the most important qualities to seek out when choosing a first time job?”
A: “Try to understand as best you can the job description—the actual ‘what is my day-to-day going to look like?’ Companies can’t always give you a sense of that right away, and even if they do, you may not know that half your time will be spent cutting tie swatches or putting boards together, but always try to have a clear understanding of what your main role will be. Also, who is on your team? Are you a person that wants structure, or do you want to be a startup maven? Ultimately, everybody has different needs. Some people have a situation where salary isn’t most important starting out, while others have to work 2-3 jobs—that can determine a lot in the beginning. Regardless, always cast your net wide.”

Top Takeaways
Some of our scholars shared with us what they found most meaningful or memorable about Michael’s presentation. Take a look!
Lizzy Schrantz (Oklahoma State University): "I found it interesting when he said, “know where you can make a difference.” It’s not something I had really considered as much before, but it's really important."
Madalyn Manzeck (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “I took away that hard work pays off. You’re not going to get to the top by not working hard. It may be difficult at first doing the grunt work instead of the fun stuff, but as Michael said, if you work hard at one job, you’ll find an opportunity somewhere else. That was really inspiring.”
Dvorah Elster (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “Hearing how important it is to learn about and experience all of the different aspects of the industry, and how beneficial that can be.”

Many thanks to Michael for his generosity, encouragement and inspiring words!

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

Rachel Feller