The MBA Designer

Fashion designer Julie Chaiken earned an MBA from NYU and uses those skills to succeed at the money part of a celebrity business

It's easy for women to get into a suit-and-blouse rut in the business world. But it doesn't have to be that way, according to Julie Chaiken, founder and designer of Chaiken clothing. Chaiken, who earned her MBA at New York University's Stern School of Business, has been operating her company since 1994, a year after graduating from B-school.

Chaiken's clothing is all about wearable pieces that make a woman feel confident—without being overly sexy. The spring 2007 collection, shown at New York's Olympus Fashion Week in September, was a mixture of simple yet sharp pieces in subdued tones and unbelievably bright colors (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/15/06, "New York Fashion Week: Undressed").

  
Julie ChaikenFounder and DesignerChaiken ClothingNew York University's Stern School of Business, Class of '93
Chaiken, 38, recently spoke to BusinessWeek.com reporter Julie Gordon. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

When did you know you wanted to be in the business world?

I went to business school and I came out and I was ready to go out in the big wide world. And I've always wanted to run my own company. The opportunity came up over time to do this. It was kind of being in the right place at the right time.

How so?

Years ago, I had a business partner, and for years she had wanted to start her own design thing. So we started talking about it. Right when I got out of business school, she said, "What do you think? Is this something you think you would want to do?" And I said, "Actually, this could be perfect for what I want to do." So I started doing some market research and talking to people and going to trade shows and looking at opportunities that were out there, and it all ended up falling into place and it just made sense. It was just the right thing to do.

You always knew you wanted your own business, but did you know it would be related to fashion?

No. When I was younger, I thought I was going to end up working in television or film.

Did you have an interest in fashion growing up?

As a teenager, I was always scouring the magazines. I was the one who tried to be first on a trend. When you live in the suburbs, that's actually harder than you would think. So there was always an interest. When the opportunity presented itself, it was a natural fit. It was like something hit me over the head and said, "Why didn't you think of this before?"

Why did you get your MBA?

I've always been interested in business and there was no question. I took the GMATs even before I did my senior year undergrad. I just knew that's where I was headed.

How was—or wasn't—your degree helpful in starting Chaiken?

Even though we all get caught up in the fashion aspect and the front end of the product and the beauty of it, the core is still a business. I need to be able to meet with a banker and different people within the industry. To be able to sit down with confidence and be able to speak the same language with regard to business gives me a huge advantage.

For example, seven or eight years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to do a Japanese deal for distribution and licensing. And I was able to really evaluate the deal from the numbers and the analysis perspective, and not get caught up in the dream of it, [in order to] decide it wasn't for me.

When you were starting out, what were the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges was getting a lot of the fabric reps to take us seriously.

I walked in and said, "Hi, I'd like to buy fabric from you. We're starting a clothing business. No, I haven't been in this business before and you've never heard of me, and I'm 26 years old." So getting over that hurdle was interesting.

How do you go into a business not having that background?

You ask a lot of questions and make a few mistakes a long the way.

Would your company have been any different if you hadn't earned your MBA?

I think it would've been different in the sense that I run it as a very clean business and very by-the-books. I really look at the numbers and do the analysis on a regular basis. A lot of designers leave that to somebody else. And again, it's a business.

What characteristics do you need to start your own business?

You have to be able to be fearless. You have to really be passionate. You need to be very confident in what you're doing. You have to really believe in what you do. When I started this, I was absolutely sure that there was a place in the market for what I was doing.

What was that?

Great clothes for young women that would take them from day into evening, things that you could really wear in your life, and go to work without having to wear a blue suit. When I started this, there was no Rebecca Taylor, Cynthia Steffe didn't have her own line, Theory didn't exist, Marc didn't exist, all of these denim companies didn't exist. Barney's Co-op was relatively new at the time. I was kind of trailblazing to some extent. It was a new concept on the market.

Is that how you differentiated yourself from the competition?

Yes. And the silhouettes that we do and the attention to detail that we use make sure that it fits a woman's body. That was very unusual in the market. The reality is that you can be sexy and step out with confidence in what you're wearing without showing tons of skin. They're not contradictory.

What can women wear to work that's not a typical blue suit?

How about a gorgeous cashmere sweater over a pencil skirt that has great details to it? How about a blazer that wraps or has great details instead of trying to look like you're wearing your dad's beat-up suit? (See BusinessWeek.com, 8/23/06, "You Can't Wear That to an Interview!")

When you had a business partner, how did you divide business and design aspects?

It started out that I handled all of the business pieces and she handled the design pieces. I did all the pieces surrounding that, including standing at the trade shows, knowing all the stores, selling the clothes, and understanding the customer so I could bring back information and say, "Hey, this is the feedback we're getting." And over the years, I've gotten more involved in different pieces of it and I work very closely with my creative director as the collections come together.

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