Lubov Azria: Starting from the Bottom

A vision of her creative principles, Lubov Azria is strong, sophisticated and self-aware, clad in contemporary chicness.

“The idea of passion is what I’m interested in,” says Lubov.

And it’s that passion that drove a career at BCBGMAXAZRIA where she began as a design assistant in 1991 and now reigns as Chief Creative Officer. Since her arrival, BCBG has become an international fashion powerhouse with 570 retail stores worldwide. Under Lubov’s creative direction, the label has expanded from one line to four, not including forays into footwear, jewelry, handbags and everything in between. Closing out their 25th anniversary year, Lubov talked with Dress for Success about being your own inspiration, checking egos at the door and the constant evolution she embraced to become the creative leader of a global brand.

As CCO, Lubov holds the weight of almost 200 designers on her shoulders. In addition to her role at the office, she is also the better half of founder and designer Max Azria, with whom she has three young children and three step children. In order to keep her professional and personal life balanced, not to mention her sanity, she finds ways to be inspired every single day.

Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, Lubov was raised modestly and remembers the feelings she got while staring in store windows—where fashion always sat behind glass and beyond her reach. As the woman who now spearheads the creation these objects of desire, Lubov vows to make all her garments affordable, contemporary and most importantly inclusive.

“I am designing for every woman. It changes over time, but at the end of the day the BCBG woman does it all and needs chic, easy options that match her dynamic lifestyle,” she says.

The concepts behind BCBG’s designs are also influenced by Lubov’s lifelong dedication to the arts. A former ballet dancer, she was lured into fashion after realizing her appreciation for costume design outweighed her dedication to the physical art. But Lubov doesn’t see the transition as that drastic.

“To this day, I don’t think I work in fashion. I think it’s more about art, creativity and working with an incredibly talented team. To me, fashion has a different connotation. We create everything here and it doesn’t have to be fashion, it can be anything,” says Lubov.

This open interpretation of art and design, along with an integrity of character that is true to her roots, is Lubov’s creative vision that keeps the BCBG brand modern and unique, but also extremely wearable.

Investing more than two decades with the company, Lubov has climbed from an entry level assistant position to the top, and has the wherewithal to prove it. She now navigates her career path just as she does the creative process. When looking for new hires, she says it’s those who can stow away pride, knowing there’s always going to be several drafts, and recognize each step (no matter how small) is necessary to reach final product.

“Along the way, I have learned that nothing is below you. Do windows, floors and bring coffee if you have to, make it happen,” Lubov says.

Armed with experience, Lubov believes that starting from the bottom was necessary to understand every aspect of the international brand she now spearheads. She constantly passes what she’s learned to her team explaining, “Compassion and leading by example can set you apart–you cannot lead without showing people how to lead.”

Her career is proof that if every step, even the minor ones, if taken with conviction, will always lead forward.

Overseeing multiple departments at a time, Lubov has adjusted herself to a macro view, but kept her eye for detail.  Incidentally this is why Max hired her in the first place. The two complement each other; Lubov is meticulous and he has always been a global thinker (think the first American designer to acquire a French fashion house under his label). As CCO, Lubov sees the collections go from concept to final sale, a process which totals around six to nine months. Despite her crazed schedule, she prides herself in fitting every garment and interacting directly with her customers as much as possible. She works off her M.O. that to reach every woman, she must be in touch with every woman.

Whether she’s looking back on her decades in the fashion industry or wrapping up one long day at the office, Lubov’s growth and longevity lies in her ability to embrace evolution and adapt to the inevitable changes that occur in any profession. She attributes BCBG’s constant expansion to investing in a team that helps spur new vision and supports the company’s forward motion.

“Everyone in our company is a member of our extended family. My peers, designers and incredibly creative team inspire me with their own personal style.”Surrounded by those who keep her burgeoning vision sharp, Lubov’s influence weaves like a solid thread through the company.  Each collection marks an evolution of the previous season. Her progression and a commitment to that lifestyle is evident in this year’s 25th anniversary collections, which were based on reinventing pieces from their archives. The garments were built on solid fundamentals and juxtapose the old with new; echoing the model that has earned Lubov her dream career and the contemporary edge to constantly bring it new life.

June Ambrose: The Career Change Conqueror

It was a time of cobalt blues, bright yellows, parachute pants and LL Cool J wore a hat that put FUBU on the map.  Music and fashion were just beginning to fuse in the early 90s and product placement was exploding all over the clothing industry– that’s when June Ambrose first placed herself in the market. As celebrity stylist, designer, author, television personality and all around fashion guru, you’ve more than likely encountered June’s work somewhere in the media. Best known as the woman who put rapper Sean Combs in his signature sleek suit back when he was simply known as “Puff Daddy,” June is now the “style architect of the music industry.” But it wasn’t long ago that you would have found her chained to a desk, knee deep in finance stock and portfolios. Without a degree or even experience in the fashion industry, June not only made a career switch, she crafted a whole new one.  This month, June sat down with Dress for Success to explain just how she did it.

Fresh out of high school, June secured a lucrative position at an investment banking firm. After 2 ½ years buried in the research department, she carried out every parent’s nightmare, quitting her 9-5 for an internship at a record label. With no frame of reference, June’s only direction was her intuition and unwavering self-confidence.

“I needed something that made me want to get up every day. I didn’t have a plan, I just knew I was willing. I was willing to take the risk of saying I can do it, even when I didn’t know how I was going to do it and that was the sales pitch,” June explains.

Little did she know, she’d soon be on the other end of the sales pitch and sought after by numerous celebrities including her original muse, Sean Combs. Starting behind the scenes as a talent director at Uptown MCA Records, Combs searched for ways to brand himself to the public. Here, June watched as he flipped through French Vogue, for inspiration to elevate his image.  Recognizing the desire for high fashion in this rising urban music scene, she quickly and strategically inserted herself.

“It was really about finding that space. There are voids everywhere, but the window of opportunity is just becoming smaller, so you have to be more creative,” she says.

And creative she is. Working with everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Mariah Carey and Dave Matthews; June recognized the space for herself and her future clients, seeing both the music and fashion markets as one artistic platform.  “At the time, the designers didn’t see the opportunity,” she says. “Why should they put their clothes on these kids that they thought couldn’t afford it?”

June not only saw the opportunity, she made her own. “What do you need? What do I have? How can we help each other?” June recites for us the voice in her head guiding her from intern to entrepreneur.

Although the transition from investment banking to celebrity fashion mogul may appear seamless now, every career switch comes with its own set of challenges and June’s experience was no different. Before she became the go-to celebrity stylist, June was costume designer for music videos. Constantly pushing the boundaries from a very young age, she remembers cutting up her grandmother’s curtains to create her own looks. She never realized her childhood hobby could become an actual skill until she faced breaking into an industry without any contacts or credibility in her back pocket. Forced to be resourceful, June explains bluntly, “When the designer’s wouldn’t let me in, I designed the clothes myself.”

June’s first big break came when she styled rising hip-hop artist at the time, Missy Elliott, in an inflatable black patent leather suit for her hit single video, “The Rain.” A full-figured woman with an un-conventional style, June explains, “Missy Elliott was coming into the most provocative time for women in hip hop where it was all about sex and rock and roll, and I had to design a look for her that was obtainable and provocative in her way.”

The outfit broke down barriers to a whole new demographic for designers—elevating hip hop culture with a little haute couture.

In addition to navigating a new market, June also struggled with her personal finances. Shortly after quitting her position at the firm and taking on a few freelance styling jobs, June quickly lost track of her spending. “Imagine getting $1,500 for two days and you’re thinking ‘oh my god, this is more than I made for the week,’” she says.  But as the money rolled in, so did the credit card bills and eventually the bank seized her account. “You think it’s always going to come and so you’re spending and spending—that was a change of pace in life that I wasn’t prepared for,” June tells us.

Determined to get back on track and pursue her new passion, June looked to her mother who raised her to struggle and persevere gracefully. A single parent in Antigua, June was 3 years-old when her mother immigrated the family to the Bronx, NY. In the Caribbean, June’s mother was a costume designer and owned a store where she produced clothing for various carnival celebrations across the islands. When they arrived in New York City, she no longer had the market or resources to support her business and took a position in retail.  Later, she also made a drastic change–switching from fashion to nursing, desiring a steadier income and flexible schedule to spend time with her kids.

“In the midst of all the struggling, she would always take us out of our environment. We’d take weekend trips to other boroughs, Coney Island, Midtown and visit places like CBS Studios and the United Nations,” says June. “Every weekend it was an adventure and because of that, I was able to see what else was out there. “

June recalls living paycheck-to-paycheck, watching her mother budget, old-school style, writing down rent and living expenses on a piece of paper, and putting money away in jar.  “There were times she was worried, but she would never let us see that and that stayed with me,” says June.

Like mother, like daughter. To this day, June’s best marketing tool is still her consistent, positive self-image, which also comes from her mother’s belief that good faith will always open opportunities. “It was almost like osmosis—watching her be good to others and herself allowed us to want to be good to her,” she says.

Carrying that advice into both her professional and personal life, June is now able to balance a high- powered career in the spotlight with raising her three kids. June has even created online support community based around this philosophy, calling it her “Rock Mom Chronicles.” Here she posts candid photos of herself and her family, as well as inspirational quotes and muses that she shares with a circular community of moms who simultaneously give and receive support.

The same principles apply when June works with clients, it all comes back to what you’re projecting. Whether it’s being a model for other moms, her clients or her children, June is in the business of role playing— knowing that the power to elevate herself allows her to elevate others.

Michael Michele’s Design for Success

Don’t underestimate Michael Michele. The actress, designer, philanthropist, and single mother is more than your average Hollywood beauty.

Michael Michele has been playing strong, capable women on television and film since the early 1990s. You’ve probably seen her on “ER” as the skillfully trained Dr. Cleo Finch with a scalpel in one hand and the perfect shade of red lipstick in the other. Or, maybe you’ve watched her on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as the hard-hitting Detective Rene Sheppard who solved murders without the help of her macho male coworkers.  You most likely saw her shining on the silver screen in “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” giving Matthew McConaughey a run for his money as advertising exec Judy Spears. And, we all watched her enter the drama-filled, rumor-ridden world of “Gossip Girl” as Serena’s no-nonsense boss, Jane.

Saving lives, catching criminals, and running companies is all in a day’s work for Michael Michele. It’s a wonder she somehow found the time to speak with Dress for Success about following her dreams and how sticking to her values is what truly led her to success, but we’re so happy she did and we hope that you can find something in her story to apply to yours!

For Michael, upholding her values as an actress meant breathing new life into characters she could admire and respect. From the get-go, Michael was on a mission to portray women as intelligent, talented and ambitious individuals. “It’s always been extraordinarily important to me that I represent women well. I can’t say that enough. Representing women well, especially women of color, is to represent the best that we can be.”

Hollywood wasn’t exactly on the same page. As a stunning young woman, casting directors expected Michael to play the birdbrained bimbo who liked to schmooze, booze, and cruise by in life on the arm of a well-to-do man. What other kind of role could a biracial woman possibly play? Michael had bigger plans. She set out to prove that she could be more than an alluring accessory to her male costars.

“It was a really turning point in my career when my representative said to me, ‘you will never play cops, docs, or lawyers. Get it out of your head, put on your heels, be sexy, be beautiful, and sell that. You’ll make money and have a great career.’ I thought, ‘since you told me no cops, docs, or lawyers, now I am going to pursue cops, docs, or lawyers.’”

But, not everyone was ready for a trailblazing woman like Michael Michele. “People did not want to hire me to play cops, docs, or lawyers. When I started in the early 90’s, it just wasn’t as common for a casting person to want me to play those types of roles.” Then again, Michael was never really too concerned with what other people thought, as long as she was sticking to what she knew was right.

When one door slammed in her face, Michael broke down another. Bent on playing women in powerful positions, Michael was gearing up to shatter the glass ceiling for women of color on television and film. “I had overtaken my obstacle and really pursued my dream, which was to do the very thing I was told I could never do.”

When Michael joined the hit show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” she stood by her commitment to playing women with nerve, and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to do it. Michael was Detective Rene Sheppard, a tough cop with an intense story line. When Sheppard was facing a serious on-camera beat down, the show’s producer let Michael turn her pretty face black and blue because she wanted to accurately represent the unfortunate reality of the many women who become victims of violence throughout their lives.

“Normally, they would want to protect your face even though you’ve been beaten, but he said, ‘we are going to beat you down badly, allow the damage to remain for weeks on television, and heal for as long as it would normally take to heal.’”

Off screen, Michael strived to stay true to herself as much a she stayed true to her characters. So when she teamed up with Harvard University to promote mentoring in America, Michael decided to do things her way. Jumping at the chance to make a difference in her community, Michael asked Harvard to help her create a mentoring program of her own. She called it The Roundtable ChitChat, hoping to help the girls of New York City’s Washington Irving High School find their own set of core values to live by.

“I started working with my girls when they were 15. Our first mentoring session, they all sat around the table, looked at me, and said nothing. I moved the tables around in a circle so that we were all facing each other, and I said, ‘okay, we are going to chit chat.’

Living up to your values also means dressing the part. Fifteen years later, Michael is kicking things up a notch with M. Michele Designs, a clothing line that allows every woman to create a sophisticated style on the outside that expresses the success-bound superstar she is on the inside. Michael knows style is more than just the latest fashion fad. “It has less to do with who’s stylish, what’s on trend, who’s wearing what, and how much it costs. It’s really about what reflection comes back to you when you see yourself.”

Today, more than ever, Michael wants to help other women who are reaching for the stars while staying down-to-earth. “I know that the journey that I have been on professionally, and the navigation of my life and my son’s life, is meant to share at some point.”

Like the women of Dress for Success, Michael’s journey began as a quest for economic independence, but she soon learned that the greatest freedom comes from being true to yourself. Now, she’s at the top of her game and she wants every woman to know that they, too, can find success in their career– and life– by standing up for what they believe.

Success starts with a plan! Here are Michael’s three tips to keep you Going Places. Going Strong.

1. Have faith in yourself. There will be times, especially if you’re looking for employment, when you only have yourself.

2. Be prepared. If you want something, you have to give one hundred percent.

3. Find a way to relieve stress. Working, providing, and pursuing our dreams can become very stressful. 

 

Keeping it Moving with Kimora Lee Simmons

Catch Kimora Lee Simmons in “House of Fab,” on the Style Network!

Kimora.

Her name rings through the halls of fashion greats all over the world and reverberates against the jagged sidewalks of name-your-city, USA. Like many other icons of our time, she operates on a first-name basis and her business savvy has catapulted her beyond what others in her field have been able to achieve. On television, she’s a glamorous, fearless, fierce business woman and mother. But when the cameras are gone, the world will learn, as I did, that Kimora’s life parallels many of our own. The K.I.M. (Keep It Moving) method has proven that forward movement for Kimora has been her key to success and the unstoppable pursuit to do what hasn’t been done is what makes Kimora, Kimora.

In 2010, the media world was abuzz with news of Kimora leaving Baby Phat and while many speculated on the reason, the process of the transition was much more than a business transaction.

 “Leaving Baby Phat, as it may have seemed, was a business matter – it happens everyday in business. However, for me, it was more than that. It was about closing a chapter in my life, moving on, and evolving. It was about the new possibilities and believing in myself to use what I had learned to achieve more.”

Fashion immediately consumed Kimora’s life when she was discovered at the young age of 10 years old and set the foundation for pure, unadulterated hard work. “I’ve never done anything risqué or outlandish to propel me to this place. It was simply hard work and understanding my passions. You see my love for fashion in everything I do: my television show, my books, my beauty brands, everything. When a woman can find her true passion, she can create and recreate herself and her life any way she wants.”

Overcoming hurdles and obstacles reminds us of the parallels in Kimora’s life to our very own, parallels that may not be so apparent on the TV screen or in magazines.  “This was something I was going to do in spite of myself – when people told me ‘you cannot have this, you cannot be a woman of color in fashion, or a woman this young as an executive’, I did it anyway. We all have to find that passion and overcome ourselves to achieve our goals.”

Many women find themselves in a place where they’re not sure of what move to make next. I can certainly relate – after years of struggling, trying to find my own place in the world, I finally figured out what made me happy, what gave me the will to press forward. Kimora knows the same feeling. “You know you’re in the right place when you can feel it,” she explains. Finding your purpose is about growth, change and intentionally seeking positively charged environments. Women have a sixth sense about these things. When you’re on the right path, you just know.”

But a change towards a new path can cause fear to rear its pesky little head: sweaty palms and tear-filled internal battles seem to wage inside of you. But fear, as Kimora suggests, can be a good thing. “We all live with some element of fear – but when you embrace it, you find that fear no longer becomes something you run away from, but something you run towards. It’s beyond the fear that you find your heart’s passion. It’s beyond the fear that life really begins.”

Dress for Success has helped propel thousands of women towards new lives and, as our inaugural Dress for Success Power Woman, Kimora exudes what the organization is all about: empowering women. “In everything I do, I want to show the power of a woman – and I want to do it in a way that is contrary to what society says is ‘empowering’. I met a woman at a Dress for Success affiliate that stood in front of me and showed me [drug] tracks in her arms. She told me it had been three months since she last did drugs. Do you know how empowering that was for her? Moments like that remind me that while our stories may all be different, they all have the power to change lives. I’ve learned so much from their stories; it uplifts me so much.”

Kimora has carved out her own path in the fab lane and has experienced one success after the next: a model, a mogul, a mother, executive producer, best selling author of Fabulosity: What It Is and How to Get It, president and creative director of JustFab.com, and founder of Shinto Clinical, a skincare line whose name means “of the Gods.” Kimora’s power extends beyond the boardrooms and cat walks. Kimora understands the ebbs and flows of womanhood, and in that, she is a piece of our lives that make us proud to know her.

“When you begin to think of yourself as one and as a whole, you understand the global impact we can all have. You are a unit of a bigger picture – I find pride in seeing women overcome things. To be able to stand in front of someone and say, ‘this is who I used to be’, shows the brilliance and balance of being a woman.”

Follow Kimora on Twitter at @OfficialKimora and visit her site www.KLS.com

Kimora’s K.I.M. (Keep it Moving!)
When life tries to stop you, you have to learn to keep it moving! Here are some tips from Kimora on how to propel yourself forward!

1. Reinvent yourself, as many times as necessary. Never become complacent!

2. Believe in yourself: you were built for this!

3. Set goals, plan them out, and execute. You have to work hard!

-Alisha L. Gordon is a Masters of Divinity student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She is the author of Pieces: Finding the Missing Piece is Easier than You Think, an avid writer, teacher, public speaker and social media maven who has an affection for faith and culture. Follow Alisha on Twitter @AlishaLGordon.