Deborah Lloyd is sitting behind her desk wrapping up a meeting with her team as my eyes scan the room. If you’ve visited any of the 340-odd Kate Spade New York stores internationally, the aesthetic of her office is one you’re familiar with. A cross between a boudoir and a perfectly poised showroom, it’s all bright pink furniture here, bow cushions and endless coffee table books there, not to mention huge industrial windows that look out over Park Avenue. A fellow Brit, the conversation in the room quickly turns to Brexit and Theresa May, who, that morning had been announced as Prime Minister, and of course, the possibility that America too, could have a woman at its helm.
Since her coronation as the chief creative officer and president of Kate Spade New York almost a decade ago, the company, once known for its accessibly priced handbags has become a force in ready-to-wear, home, accessories and bridal, with Lloyd at the center of its evolution. She has created a fun, playful aesthetic that reflects her own style sensibility – one that legions of women – many a celebrity included – faithfully subscribe to. Along with the impressive sales numbers and mass expansion since her arrival, the cult of Kate Spade has blossomed like a retail fairytale. At the brand’s presentation back in February, I remember one attendee whisper, “every season, I just want it all.”
Despite her status though, Lloyd isn’t the intimidating president one might expect. She’s funny and personable, something that instantly comes apparent by the relaxed atmosphere in the office as she saunters through. Her career and her approachable aura have made her someone that many aspire to follow. She doesn’t shy away from her achievements – in fact, she credits confidence for getting her where she is today – but she’s the first to speaks highly of the people around her, who dote on her throughout our shoot.
Her ascension may seem instantaneous, but her career is a long and accomplished one. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London in 1998, she was quickly snapped up to head the design studio at Daniel Hechter. After a two-year stint at Kenzo she joined Aquascutum as head of women’s design before taking on perhaps her most notable role as vice president of women’s design at Burberry, where she was credited with bringing an element of cool to the British label. It was after Burberry that she had her eyes set on New York and that’s when Banana Republic called. It was entirely strategic move, she tells me. As creative director she managed not only womenswear but men’s and accessories too. She credits the experience for teaching her how to manage a big team and also how to bring a luxury DNA to a high street brand. After six years on the high street though, she was desperate to get back into luxury. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here she talks about what it means to be a great leader, the role mentorship has played in her career and why it’s important not to be afraid to stand out from the crowd. We suggest you take notes…
WHAT STARTED IT ALL: I always loved fabrics and fashion magazines. I loved pulling tear sheets and making my own mood boards. Later I would customize and make my own pieces either from scratch or vintage finds. At a school career fair I heard someone speak about design college; I was hooked. I remember standing up and saying, “I want to be a fashion designer – how do I make that happen”. I studied at Ravensbourne College of Design and did my masters at the Royal College of Art. When I was there I won the Karl Lagerfeld Scholarship, which was a design bursary that helped with my college fees. He looked at all the design portfolios for that year’s candidates, and awarded the scholarships. I also won many other competitions. I was really good at making my work stand out from the crowd.
The best advice I’ve ever received is to take risks and don’t be afraid to stand out in a crowd. I chose to specialize in menswear at college – there were fewer people in this area so I really stood out as a woman. I went to work in Italy and France without speaking the language – I learned! I was happy to take on new challenges; you have to be confident and believe in yourself – and be decisive!
ON HER EPIC CAREER PATH (& TURNING DOWN A JOB AT GUCCI): My first job was Byblos in Italy. My year at the RCA, Keith Varty and Alan Cleaver of Byblos were our guest examiners. They saw my work early and offered me my first job (I chose them over Gucci and Paul Smith). I didn’t think twice about accepting a job in a foreign country where I didn’t even speak the language. I was ready for the challenge. The reality was hard though. Before the days of cell phones it was a very lonely existence but it made me really strong. I then moved to Paris to work for Daniel Hechter and Kenzo, which was a real pleasure after the isolation of Italy. I loved working there, and these houses taught me so much. Daniel allowed me to flip from being a menswear designer to women’s; something I will always be eternally grateful for. It opened the flood gates for me to express my feminine creativity and I haven’t looked back. After Kenzo came Aquascutum and Burberry – true British brands with a heritage that I loved working on. Distilling the DNA and making it modern and desirable.
MOVING TO NEW YORK TO TAKE THE REIGNS AT BANANA REPUBLIC: When the phone call came from Banana Republic, it was perfectly timed because I was looking for my next challenge. had always admired what they did. It was high street but often could look designer, which I loved! It was a really good secret source! At Banana Republic I was given the opportunity to become the Creative Director over all categories – women’s, men’s and accessories, which would be new for me. I’d tried to come to New York years before, but nobody wanted me! This was a chance to come over and do something meaningful and enhance my career path. I was in New York on September 11th and saw the twin towers fall. If I wasn’t here for that, I feel I might not have come over. It was a momentous, horrific moment, but I saw how New York coped and came together. It was so inspirational. It made me feel the soul of the city was something I wanted to be a part of. Each time I have moved jobs was for a significant change in responsibility and a chance to learn something new. I never wanted to get bored. The places I stayed for a short amount of time were not the perfect fit.
LEAVING BANANA REPUBLIC AFTER SIX YEARS TO JOIN KATE SPADE: I had already worked out what I wanted my next challenge to be: something more designer, creative and smaller, somewhere I could take and build the DNA into something big. Kate Spade New York answered that. As a team we have built the business from just handbags into a global lifestyle brand with 4 pillars: Women’s, Men’s, Kids and Home. As you can imagine the possibilities with this are endless. I’m constantly learning, creating something new and having a fabulous time doing it. It’s still fun and we laugh a lot, but the pressure is on to deliver. I was given the President’s title to represent the fact that I helped build this brand as a founder of Kate Spade & Company. I have a very balanced viewpoint. I’m a designer through and through, but understand the business needs – something that has enabled us to grow and explore new opportunities with confidence.
HER MORNING RITUAL: I wake up around 6am, have a green juice for breakfast and spend a few moments with my dogs – Stan & Lulu. I check all emails and catch up with what is going on in the world. I love a quiet moment to contemplate the day ahead and plan my strategic attack! I like to plan ahead so I’m ready for any surprises. I believe in doing my homework!
WHERE EACH COLLECTION BEGINS: This could be a very long answer! It’s a complicated process with many teams involved. It all starts with the season’s big idea. I love doing the research for this. It’s a moment of freedom to allow my mind to wander and see what catches my eye. It’s hard to define what my gut is telling me, but I know it’s going to be about certain colours or details that keep piquing my interest. I start with a clean white wall and start adding images, print, color and vintage pieces. I work with the team to bring these ideas to life across all categories. I’m like a conductor making sure each designer is following the same score.
ON HER FAVOURITE PART OF IT ALL: Spotting our product out and about is one of my favorite things! I love to see women carrying a bag, or hopping on the train to work each morning. My commute from Brooklyn is one of the best times to see the Kate Spade New York girl in her natural habitat. I love travelling and seeing how different nationalities style our pieces. It truly is a brand that transcends borders.
HOW SHE STAYS INSPIRED TO CREATE (& HER LOVE OF INSTAGRAM): I keep my eyes open and enjoy the journey; it’s amazing what you see. I am especially inspired by travel – from vintage markets, films, art galleries, museums, or just a walk in the park –creativity and inspiration is everywhere. I read industry news, like Women’s Wear Daily every morning, as well as the newspapers. I love Instagram and follow a whole range of strong inspiring women. I have an incredible team who are really good at the things I’m not, so together it works really well.
OVERCOMING EARLY STRUGGLES: When I arrived, 60% of the staff were interns! To start with, we needed people who were good at many things, and as we grew, we needed true experts in their fields. We asked a lot of favors in the beginning until we had a scalable size. Luckily, we came through and are still working with those vendors. They became part of the family.
HER KNACK FOR LEADERSHIP: My family will tell you I was always rather bossy! Great leadership is something I really saw from Rosemary Bravo at Burberry, and later when I came to the U.S.A., I observed a lot of strong women who really knew what they were doing. I learned from them. You can’t do everything yourself. A great leader puts a great team together and allows them to grow. You’re only as good as your team. As you go up the levels, you have to bring the best people in around you. There should be a lot of fun and laughter at work, and we never miss an opportunity to celebrate! You spend so much time at the office, it’s important to enjoy all the people that you’re working with.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORSHIP: My mentor, [Burberry vice chairman] Rose Marie Bravo has played a huge role in my career development. At Burberry, I remember Rose Marie asking what I was doing, and I said, “well, you know, the company is doing this, but this is what I believe the womenswear should look like”. She looked me in the eye and said, “Deborah, you’re the only person I’ve met today who knows what they’re doing.” Which was really lovely. And she’s remained one of my biggest supporters ever since. I think one of the reasons I have this job at Kate Spade New York is because she gave me an amazing reference—she’s always supported me. Rose Marie allowed me to develop that range, and what I learned there was amazing. I love to mentor young designers especially those I work with. I try to use our meetings together to educate and explain why something works or doesn’t. I’m on the Board of Directors of the CFDA and work with many young designers on building their businesses too.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL: The best advice I’ve ever received is to take risks and don’t be afraid to stand out in a crowd. I chose to specialize in menswear at college – there were fewer people in this area so I really stood out as a woman. I went to work in Italy and France without speaking the language – I learned! I was happy to take on new challenges; you have to be confident and believe in yourself – and be decisive! Remember you are not always going to succeed. Often failures make you learn and certainly make you stronger. As a creative director, I’ve had to trust myself as the guardian of a brand to have the right instinct. Confidence is everything. I feel it’s important to make decisions and keep the process moving. You can always course correct later.
THE ADVICE SHE FEELS WOMEN NEED TO HEAR: It’s important to seize every opportunity, whether it is an internship or an entry-level job as an assistant. Be prepared to work hard and learn as much as you can, and don’t ever be afraid to take risks. Confidence is key! At Kate Spade New York, over 80% of the workforce is female and they are all incredible. Women can multi task brilliantly and are capable of anything.
ON WHAT SHE’S MOST PROUD OF: Taking the company to where it is today. When I started at the brand, it was a small handbag company. Today, I’ve helped to create a global lifestyle brand that reaches our consumer through multiple product channels and with growing product categories and pillars.