Anthony Casalena, Founder of Squarespace,
in Conversation with
FIT Alumna Dalia Strum, FMM ’05
FIT alumni and students, known for their creativity and outside-the-box thinking, gathered at FIT to hear from Anthony Casalena, Founder and CEO of Squarespace, who spoke about entrepreneurship and how to turn great ideas into thriving businesses. As a college student, Casalena recognized a need to make website building more efficient, appealing and accessible to anyone. As a result, Squarespace was born out of his dorm room. Squarespace is an all-in-one website publishing platform, offering a framework for those great, big ideas. In our technology-driven world, being able to create a custom website that best reflects a brand’s identity is of utmost importance to any business owner, from fashion designers, to photographers, to fine artists.
With clients such as Michael Kors and Rodarte, Casalena continues to grow the company–most recently reaching 50 million viewers with a Superbowl commercial this past January. The talk starts off with the highly entertaining commercial and leads into a lively discussion moderated by FIT alumna Dalia Strum (FMM ’05). Watch below and be sure to join us at a future Faces & Places in Fashion lecture!
Earlier this month, we were delighted to meet Nicole Howard, a 2005 graduate of FIT’s Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management (CFMM) master’s program, who has taken on the role of Executive Director of Global Corporate Innovation at The Estée Lauder Companies. We caught up with her at a recent reception that celebrated the flourishing careers of CFMM alumni who are working across various brands, regions and functions at The Estée Lauder Companies. Read what she had to say about the long-lasting partnership between FIT and the company, the valuable connections that have helped her succeed in the industry, and some of her must-have beauty products!
Tell us about your academic background.
I attended Vassar College for undergraduate school, Class of 2000, Major in Economics/Minor in French. I then received an MPS in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management from FIT in 2005. I also completed my MBA at Columbia University, Class of 2011.
That’s a very interesting and diverse education. Why did you choose FIT?
I specifically chose FIT because the MPS in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management was the perfect program to complement my career and pave the way for future growth and long term success in the beauty industry. It was the perfect environment to grow my understanding and knowledge of the industry beyond just the world of Product Development, where I first started my career.
Did the CFMM program fit your work schedule?
Yes, it was designed as a part-time, evening degree which allowed me to still have a full time job and immediately put my classroom learnings to use at my company.
What would you consider most valuable about your FIT experience?
The incredible network of students and alumni. I have contacts and both personal and professional relationships across the industry that enrich my work and broaden my knowledge of the industry being able to tap into resources and insights from other students.
Those connections and resources seem to have played an important role in your career, working for such companies as Origins, Bumble and bumble, MAC, and now Estee Lauder Companies—just to name a few! What inspired you to begin working in the beauty and cosmetics industry?
During my undergraduate years, I had the opportunity to intern for The Estee Lauder Companies Corporate Retreat at Vassar College. It allowed me to learn about many aspects of the company and the industry, see first hand this was an industry and company that highly support women and also exposed me to products that I love. I have always been a beauty junkie and it is amazing how I leveraged a personal passion into a professional career.
It was wonderful to meet you and all the graduates from the program who are working at Estée Lauder at the alumni reception. Talk about the company and the importance of this alumni group.
The ELC FIT alumni group is an internal organization that helps to foster continued learning and networking amongst alumni in order to leverage our strengths, experience with the program and to stay connected as part of the FIT community. It offers special events and access to Senior Leadership as well as other opportunities to instill the ELC culture across the organization.
What does your new role at Estée Lauder entail?
I am presently the Executive Director of Global Corporate Innovation. We are the team who focused on the long term innovation pipeline for the organization to ensure we have breakthrough technology and concepts that can support company growth over the long term. We then leverage technology and conceptual platforms across multiple brands and categories such as skin care and color for large-scale success versus just one product.
Tell us about a mentor in your life who has had a lasting influence on you.
Mrs. Jeanette Wager, Chairman Emeritas of The Estée Lauder Companies. She is offers best in class insight and has great perspective on both how the company has grown and opportunities for the future. I always seek her insight on any next steps in my career and have stayed in touch with her since she was confirmed as my mentor over ten years ago.
What advice would you give to someone interested in applying to the CFMM master’s program at FIT?
Go for it! It will be a life changing experience from an academic and professional perspective. Also the network and friendships that you will build will be a very valuable tool for the future.
Do you have any exciting ventures in the works?
I have a personal passion for travel and determined to see and visit new countries as often as I can. I also volunteer with Project Sunshine.
As a self-proclaimed “beauty junkie,” what are your top three can’t-live-without products on your shelf?
That’s tough! I would say MAC Mineralize Foundation, Bumble and bumble Spray de Mode, and Jo Malone Peony and Blush Suede fragrance.
What advice would you like to share with peers and current students as they pursue their dreams?
Don’t get overwhelmed and focus on your goals. Prioritize one or two projects that are important to you and don’t spread yourself too thin. Also, have the confidence to believe that in spite of overloaded schedules, school work and personal tasks, it will all come together and work out. Believe that you will be a success.
Faces & Places in Fashion Lecture Series Presents Tae Smith, Costume & Production Design Researcher on The Great Gatsby
As part of FIT’s Faces & Places in Fashion lecture series, we were pleased to welcome FIT alumna Tae Smith (MA, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice), who served as Costume & Production Design Researcher on the feature film The Great Gatsby. Alumni, students and friends of FIT got a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at Smith’s work, from bringing literary characters and scenes to life to working closely with Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann.
Smith discussed the intersection of fashion, history, literature and film, and some of the challenges that arose in the research process: historical fact versus fictional writing, aesthetic vision versus artifacts of the time period, 1920s fashions versus interpretation of characters’ styles. The filmmakers raised questions such as Can we put a phone on a pedestal in Buchanan’s hallway? What did a room at The Plaza look like in 1922? Which hat is more historically accurate? Can we find an example of this contemporary shoe in the 1920s? Smith supplied the answers to questions in 1-2 page “cheat sheets” for the production and costume designers. She relied heavily on excerpts from the book and also credited invaluable resources like the Cooper Hewitt Library, New York Historical Society, and our very own Special Collections & FIT Archives.
The end product was a beautiful, visually captivating film, composed of so many details in which Tae’s research played an important role. Not long after Smith’s talk, we were thrilled to learn that the The Great Gatsby film won the Oscar for Best Production Design! Watch the video of Tae Smith’s talk here:
Social Media Week, which was launched in 2008, is an event that takes place in eight cities worldwide and explores the social, cultural and economic impact of social media. This year, the theme was “Always On, Always Connected: The Future of Now,” which brought focus to our hyper connected world and the power social media has to engage people. As one who uses social media as a vital tool to connect with the FIT alumni community, I was excited to attend this year and hear insight on a vast range of new media topics.
Panels, skill workshops, networking receptions, exhibitions, vendors, great food, and even morning yoga sessions — what could possibly make Social Media Week NYC any better? Human connection, as one yoga teacher at SMW explained, in the midst of ubiquitous screens is what matters. That is true and it is also true that social media can help facilitate these connections in meaningful ways.
To me, SMW presented the perfect opportunity to meet FIT alumni, many of whom were attending as professionals working in branding, design, blogging, audience engagement, entrepreneurship and other related areas. In the spirit of being “always on, always connected,” I leveraged our social media platforms to connect virtually and in-person.No surprise, I was able to meet alumni every day during the course of the week by simply using panels’ hashtags as well as #SMWNYC and #FITAlumni in my posts. It was amazing to see everyone’s posts broadcast on massive screens, amplifying so many diverse voices and facilitating endless new connections. So, how does online activity on a bright, flickering screen transform into real-life connections?
These efficient social media platforms, this super connected hub that is Social Media Week, made several interesting connections possible: Melissa, who recruits emerging designers to FIT’s DENYC, and I live-tweeted with each other while we were at different panel discussions; Damien, an Advertising Marketing & Communications alumnus, sat in front of me at Connecting the Dots Between the Virtual and Real Worlds and told me about his fast-growing Instagram following and ad clients; Joshua, a photography alumnus, and I met in the elevator line and he told me about an FIT professor in the 80s who lectured about the radical notion of digital cameras; Barbara, a Fashion Design alumna who is a veteran in the retail industry, and I enjoyed watching the Wearable Tech Fashion Show side by side; and I met Irene, a Fashion Design 1968 alumna, who told me how she uses social media to help women in developing countries market their artisan bracelets. It was very fitting and special to meet each of these alumni in this context. And, naturally, these unique stories were shared with the wider alumni community on various social media platforms so as to broaden the conversation and enable more network connections.
More and more, I realize that those who study at FIT go on to lead extraordinary and innovative careers in the both creative and business fields. They are forward-thinking, creative, bold individuals. It was gratifying to meet some of them at SMW and to learn about their inspiring work. Whether we were learning about the future of mobile and retail or how Vine, Instagram, and hashtags take your message to the next level, SMW stimulated fresh ideas and new human connections. We hope to continue getting to know many more alumni on- and offline!
We love to follow alumni businesses, too! Let us know you’re out there and connect with us on any/all of our social media communities below–take your pick!
Last Monday, Jamie Espertin (Direct Marketing ’09) was the alumni guest speaker at FIT’s Faces and Places in Fashion. As a Production Management student, I found her talk very inspiring and insightful! Jamie is currently General Manager of MAYVIEN, an innovative website that provides “full-service solution for fashion wholesale and PR management.” I got a chance to speak with her after the event to dive deeper into how MAYVIEN is changing the fashion industry and what her role is in this exciting company.
I’d like to comment and say that you’re so young and well accomplished, how did you start working with Mayvien?
I connected with MAYVIEN unexpectedly through another business opportunity I was working on during my consulting days in Public Relations. It was a business deal that fell through purposely, unbeknownst to me, because my CEO wanted me on his team instead. I was then introduced to MAYVIEN and thought, “Wow! This is a great application!”Questions and conversations began developing and I became strikingly intrigued in the potential and planned evolution of MAYVIEN. So it was easy for me to decide that I wanted to be a part of this because in that initial moment, I immediately knew that this application is revolutionary (to the fashion industry) and AMAZING.
So you were asked to join the team while the application was still transitioning into a start up?
Well the application for PR professionals had been fully developed, but it was at a standstill. There were significantly fewer clients then, and almost no new functionality features since it was first launched a few years back. Together my CEO and I were able to assemble the right team and acquire the resources that we would need to expand on the existing PR application and completely create (from scratch) a new tool for the fashion wholesale business. The two applications would easily integrate offering efficiency and depth to fashion organizations managing both PR and Sales together or solely. Both applications are a stellar hit for all our clients, because they’re easily able to pull up valuable information, such as media coverage reports with up to date placement values from leading and well known publications, sales reports figures, MAYVIEN tells our clients which are their strongest editorial relationships, and can easily identity your bestselling pieces. This extensive information is taxing and otherwise difficult to find when it’s done manually. It’s literally click and search and then beautiful results below.
I definitely feel that companies would be able to take advantage of much needed time spent doing tedious work by upgrading to MAYVIEN because of how efficient it is. So exactly what is an average day at MAYVIEN like for you? What are some of your daily responsibilities?
It’s my job to make sure that all operations are running smoothly and at their max capacity. I start my day by going through all my bookmarked articles from my favorite publications such as WWD or Advertising Age. During my commute to work, I highlight topics or articles that grab my interest to make sure I’m up to date on industry news and the latest in advertising and marketing across all industries. It’s my personal brainstorming session!
After that, the day is a whirlwind! My assistants schedule international calls or out of office meetings early on so I’m either out of the office on a call with London, I have power lunches with my CEO or other exciting industry professionals and then I end the day with full sales brief from our NY based team.
Wow! Your days sound busy yet very exciting. You have accomplished a lot and seem to be very happy with your career–what advice would you give to current FIT students who are trying to find their place in the fashion industry?
Some advice for FIT students would be to make sure you take something away from every opportunity your given. Whether it’s a boring part time job or an internship where all you feel you’re doing is making copies and running coffee errands. Be keen to your surroundings and always listen to what’s going on. I mean when else are you going to get to sit in on meetings with top executives making million deals? Listen and learn from everything. It may not be the job that you dreamed of in the beginning, but that completely depends on you and what you make of it.
Why did you choose FIT?
It was my dream. Ever since I was a young girl, I envisioned myself walking down Fashion Avenue, through the glamorous doors of FIT. I was completely in love with fashion and knew FIT would give me the best education and connections in the industry.
What drew you to study Fashion Merchandising Management?
I have always exceled in art and business. I decided to major in FMM because it was the perfect combination of both. FMM allowed me to tap into my creative side while learning the business fundamentals needed to succeed in every industry.
Looking back, what was most valuable to you at FIT?
The specialized classes at FIT are one-of-a-kind. Students are able to focus on specific topics within the industry, which prepare you for the real world and keep your passion alive. All of my friends who attended other universities were impressed by the amount of group projects and fashion brands I created within class; FIT made hard work and learning fun.
Tell us the story behind Karma for a Cure.
I was inspired by my father’s battle with cancer to create a lifestyle brand that was fashion-forward and philanthropic. “Every design tells a story, every story supports a cause.” Each product in my collection is a piece of art; it has a deeper meaning than what meets the eye. Karma for a Cure meshes fashion and philanthropy on a daily basis, and creates awareness for over 13 causes.
We recently met at Henri Bendel, where you were invited to sell your products. How did that opportunity come about?
I went to Henri Bendel’s “open-see” in October. This event is held twice a year and allows designers from around the world to showcase their collection to HB buyers for a chance to be featured in their flagship store. I was chosen out of 1200 designers, on the spot, to feature my new “Healing Halo” Hair Collection during a Trunk Show at their 5th Avenue location. I would have never known this open-see existed, had I not found out years ago through my studies at FIT.
What are your thoughts on social media? Any platforms in particular that have significantly helped in branding?
Social media allows brands to be exposed to thousands of potential customers on a daily basis. Specifically, Instragram has helped me gain my client base through the use of product photos and relevant hashtags. Instagram gives customers a behind-the-scenes view of the brand and allows open communication between the brand team and the customer.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
There are so many things I love about my work: designing, helping others (charities), following my inner passion, and being my own boss. I can work 24 hours straight for 7 days and it still doesn’t feel like work. When you find the right fit for yourself, it’s like the perfect relationship; it’s passionate and rewarding.
What does it mean to you to be able to use your creativity as a way to give back?
It honestly means the world. I have the opportunity to do what I love and make a difference in the lives of others. It’s very rewarding and motivates me every day to keep learning, growing and creating.
What is your favorite item in your workspace?
My vision board. A personal collage of my goals and vision for the future that keeps me motivated, focused and happy!
What advice would you like to share with peers and current students?
Follow your passions now. You don’t want to be the person to look back and say “what if”. Surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams. Most of all, believe in yourself…YOU can make anything happen if you have a dream, a plan, and major work ethic.
I love to collaborate! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.karmaforacure.com for more information.
We were thrilled to welcome alumni to a private tour of the Museum at FIT’s newest exhibition, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. The tour was led by Patricia Mears (MA `92), Deputy Director of The Museum at FIT, along with co-curator and leading menswear historian Bruce Boyers. Guests took great joy in returning to campus and hearing fantastic insight from the curators themselves. Following the tour, alumni mingled at the reception at Moda Espresso Bar. If you are interested in attending an upcoming alumni event, be sure to sign up here.
Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s celebrates the most innovative and beautifully designed clothing made in the 20th century. This is the first exhibition to concurrently examine both men’s and women’s fashion of the 1930s, specifically objects made by the era’s finest dressmakers and men’s clothiers. Haute couture and bespoke tailoring are equally represented by the approximately 80 ensembles and 30 accessories that are arranged thematically in an exhibition environment designed to evoke the restrained style of the era. The exhibition opened on February 7, 2014 and runs through April 19, 2014. Learn more about Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.
Why did you choose FIT?
I always knew I wanted to go to college in a big city, coming from the small town of Erie, Pennsylvania. After talking to a close girlfriend who was set on applying to school there, I figured it was worth taking a look myself. My Mom and I flew to New York and I fell in love with not only the city, but the school. There was no turning back.
What would you consider an FIT gem?
I would say FIT’s gem is definitely 27th Street. It’s so refreshing sitting outside watching the students and faculty express their style right before your eyes! The street transforms into a runway show during the day.
Since graduating in 2009, you co-founded Bobo Buddy which is quickly growing! Tell us about the business.
We founded Bobo Buddy in 2012 with the mission to fill a void in the marketplace and provide parents and babies with the highest quality plush toy that also has a purposeful function.
What are some of the product features?
Bobo Buddy is a small plush animal attachment that fits virtually any pacifier on the market. Babies can easily locate and maneuver the pacifiers into their mouths without assistance, thus feeling comforted by the soft and gentle texture of the animal. As the child develops, they become attached to the toy and not the pacifier so the transition down the line becomes easier. For parents, middle of the night searching for lost pacifiers is completely eliminated. The pacifier and the attachment can both be thoroughly washed separately.
How did the idea for this kind of product come about?
My sister-in-law had triplet girls in 2008. All three babies were born premature, so she relied heavily on pacifiers to soothe and comfort them until it was time for the next feeding. From the beginning there were constant issues with lost pacifiers; the girls would spit them out and not be able to put them back in their mouths. We were aware of a product on the market that had a hospital pacifier permanently attached to a plush animal, but there were several problems with that product. It was not machine washable and all her girls had severe reflux, it was expensive, and it was only available online. We decided to create a product that would meet the needs of both parents and children alike.
Talk a bit about the recognition and awards Bobo Buddy has received and some of the causes you’re involved in.
This year Bobo Buddy has won the PAL Award for inspiring kids and caregivers to engage in rich communication and interaction, the Creative Child Award and most recently the PTPA Award. At Bobo Buddy we realize that everyday in this country children are going to bed with empty bellies. For that, we are very dedicated to fighting childhood hunger here in America. A portion of the profits from every Bobo Buddy sold is donated to help end childhood hunger.
The product was recently picked up by Walmart and is sold nationwide. What has that experience been like and what does this kind of reach means for your company?
We had been working with Walmart for about nine months or so before the product hit stores this past January. We were beyond excited for its debut. The Walmart team has been really exceptional to work with so we were very lucky. When I saw our product on Walmart’s shelf for the first time, I instantly became emotional and thought about my classes at FIT. I vividly remember Professor Johnson’s product development class and learning about all of this. It was a full circle moment to say the least.
That must’ve been a very gratifying moment, especially in this competitive marketplace for baby products. How has being a women-owned company factored in?
It’s very important to find a niche and unique ways to set your business apart within that niche. We view our status as a minority and women-owned company as a positive, an empowering plus providing us with endless opportunity. One of the great things Walmart and Women In Toys (WIT) has committed to doing is partnering with women-owned businesses in all parts of the world, giving women a platform to make a difference in their communities. Many of the top Fortune 500 companies are run by powerful women. As female business owners, this fills us with pride.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
For the longest time, I would say I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve had many, many ideas from a men’s suit rental company to an event planning business to owning a home decorating/baby store. Only time will tell what will unfold, but I know one thing for sure: You have to do what makes you happy!
Do you have any exciting ventures in the works?
To say 2014 will be filled with exciting adventures would be an understatement. For one, I am getting married in May to my love and best friend! That certainly takes the cake, but as for the business, we are reaching for the stars. We will be attending 2014’s Toy Fair as Keynote Speakers for the Walmart and Women In Toy’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative. In March we will be in LA for Big City Mom’s Biggest Baby Shower, the ABC show in October and much, much more in between. As we look ahead, store expansion and line extensions are on the horizon!
We are excited to see it all unfold! What advice would you like to share with peers and current students?
I think what I’ve learned the most is that there is never a perfect time to start something new. Bobo Buddy came about at the most unassuming time while I was juggling a full time job and planning my wedding. If you want something badly be willing to seize the opportunity when it’s presented to you, even when you least expect it.
For more information about Bobo Buddy, email Kelly Deimel at email@example.com
Donna Distefano (Jewelry Design ’82) recently returned to campus as a guest speaker for a class taught by her former FIT classmate and longtime friend, Frank Fraley (Jewelry Design ’82). Distefano offered students invaluable insight and advice about her career as a jewelry designer and owner of Donna Distefano LTD. We caught up with her about her FIT experience, landing in New York Magazine’s ”Best of New York” piece, and much more.
Why did you choose FIT?
During high school, I took college-level courses in art history, sculpture, music appreciation, music theory, drawing, and jewelry making. When I graduated, I had no idea what my career would be. I had been accepted to Southampton College as an Art Therapy major. I even had my dorm room picked out with my best friend. At the 11th hour my mother showed me the catalog from FIT. She knew I loved creating and working with my hands. I went on an interview with the late great Mel Strump and was accepted on the spot. That September, after graduating high school, I moved into Nagler Hall – room 703.
What was most valuable to you about FIT?
The greatest takeaway was working with individuals and teachers who were professionals in the industry. They offered something from the real world of design and fashion. At the time, 1980, punk rock was very much alive in New York City. I had jet black spiky hair, pointy leather boots and a motorcycle jacket. I was not embraced by all of my professors. However, I was taken under the wing of Coty Award winner, the late Bill Smith. He taught a great design class, had a fabulous loft that I felt privileged to be invited to, and he introduced me to what life as a designer really meant. Another professor who had a big influence on me was the late Chairman Samuel Beizer. During my years as his student, Professor Beizer showed me the many avenues that were available in the world of jewelry and that anything was possible in my career. He had a notorious reputation for being standoffish. He liked me and I took this as a sign that being a misfit might be ok after all.
Speaking of professors, you’ve stayed in touch with former FIT classmate, Frank Fraley, who’s now teaching at FIT!
Yes, we’ve remained friends since school and I love him like a brother. What’s most inspiring about Frank is his generosity and enthusiasm as a teacher. He works from the heart — for the students.
Have you stayed in touch with others and how important are the relationship you make as a student?
I have stayed in touch with two or three other students from class. But none stand out more to me then Joseph Murray. We arrived at FIT practically the same day and age. He jokingly admits that he thought I was a weirdo. But we were drawn to each other and our friendship continued over the decades. Our jewelry career paths were completely different however dynamically parallel. I learned so much from him decade to decade. I am to this day in awe of his talent and achievements. Our friendship is certainly one of the most important in my life. We have supported each other with advice and critiques on common ground. The best thing about our friendship is that when we get together we still laugh uncontrollably over our own bad, juvenile jokes. — In 2013 we were featured in the same book called Jewelry’s Shining Stars. This “alignment of the stars” was a meaningful reminder of our paralleled perseverance, success and bond.
Tell us a bit about how you started out as a jewelry designer.
My first jewelry job was during college. I worked for jewelry designer Tulla Booth. She was one smart business woman. I watched her design collections, run a business, put herself into magazines and sell to department stores with grace and style. I started working as a bead stringer. One day she realized I could solder and she moved me to the bench. At 18 I was producing a great deal of her product that she was selling nationwide. Talk about a great role model! She was also very kind and offered me advice when I really needed it at such a young age.
How did working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art come about?
In 1990, I was working for a firm as a designer and production manager. One of the partners was a skilled designer and a pleasure to work for. His partner was a good businesswoman but horrible to work with. She would generally humiliate the people that worked for her. She left me alone. One day when she took a tone of disrespect toward me, I calmly thanked them for the employment opportunity and I left. The gracious partner followed me into the elevator and pleaded with me to stay but I declined. As I stepped out onto the street alone I realized I had no job, no money and plenty of bills. I walked over to FIT and looked at the Alumni Job Board. On an index card there was a post from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they were looking for a goldsmith. I applied and after a couple of interviews I got the job. I became the senior goldsmith in the reproduction studio. It was a blissful position working with extremely talented people for four years. The museum is like a small city and I met my husband there who worked in a different department. Looking back I always remember the day I quit the production manager job. I chose self preservation over allowing someone to disrespect me. Stepping out onto the street into unchartered territories made all the difference.
Tell us about the decision to start your own jewelry business.
I started two businesses. One was called Spark and it was in the early 80s. Shortly after FIT I decided to open a jewelry studio and gallery, a similar business template to what I have today. I sold jewelry to Patricia Field, Saks Fifth Avenue, and many hip boutiques in Manhattan. I was in my early 20s, on a shoestring budget and very rebellious. In 1989 after wearing too many hats and burning out, I moved into my aunt’s house in the Italian countryside. I studied at the University of Ubino, traveled Europe and put my head back on straight. When I returned to New York, I worked various jewelry jobs and then for the Metropolitan Museum until 1994 when I founded Donna Distefano LTD. I always had a business plan and followed it. There were times when I had to take jobs in order to stay afloat but I was always fixated on my vision. That vision has not changed since I was 18.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Long before my Metropolitan Museum job, I was designing pieces and incorporating hieroglyphics and other ancient themes into my work. I am strongly influenced by history, poetry, paintings, literature and music. All of these art forms play a part in the creation of my collections. Portrait of a Lady is a good example of that, and my ring called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” is a completely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. My aesthetic is beauty, rich color and antiquity.
You mentioned during your talk with students that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Explain how this applied to your business.
My grand opening in my current Flatiron location was October 1, 2008. That ominous date played a big part in the years to come. We had moved into the new space because things were looking up and the business plan was working. After the crash, I was stuck with a high rent, lenders were nonexistent and bankers were systematically sinking small businesses and homeowners. I persevered. Only one aspect of my business continued to rise during the recession: Bridal. Patrons that had seen my work in InStyle Weddings would fly across the country or drive from Boston or Baltimore with my InStyle page stuffed in their wallet. In 2009, I launched a more official bridal collection and kept the emphasis on wedding bands, engagement rings and jewelry for the bride on her wedding day. As a result of the market crash, I became a pretty well-known wedding ring designer. I have to admit it’s one of my favorite things that I do. My greatest pleasure is working with so many happy couples during the greatest time of their lives.
Publicity from magazines like InStyle have a great impact. Tell us about being listed in New York Magazine’s “Best of New York” for Best Jewelry Repair. New York Magazine is gold. It seems to put New Yorkers under a hypnotic spell. I have been in many magazines before but once I received “Best of New York” it was a game changer. When the editor called me to interview me about best jewelry repair, I cringed and tried to sway her toward best jeweler or best designer. After many years of working so hard, I didn’t want to be labeled a repair jeweler. I quickly surmised that she wasn’t going to budge because she had heard about my successful repair work for many editors and clients. I put great care into all pieces and consider myself a guardian of every jewel that’s handed to me–whether it’s worth $5 or $50,000. When “Best of New York 2010″ came out, New York came out of the woodwork. A famous playwright, a world famous composer, actors, producers, publicists, socialites all needed their treasures repaired. I created a Venus flytrap of sorts. Once they walked into my atelier I introduced them to my jewelry collection and they became collectors. Had I received Best Jeweler, I don’t think they would have walked through the door during a recession when everyone was holding on to their money so tightly. This is another example of “necessity is the mother of
invention”. These individuals are still my clients today because of Best of New York. The repair clients built up my couture collection.
Do you have any exciting future ventures?
I will continue to make crowns and tiaras in solid gold. Visions for the future: Jeweled objects such as boxes, perfume bottles, desk accessories all with ancient metalsmithing techniques with the aesthetic from antiquity. I want to give my client the feeling of slowness. Slowness is lost in a society of gadgets. When you look at a piece that is meticulously handcrafted your mind is forced to slow down and think. — Oh, I have a billboard going up in Time Square for the holiday season! The plan is to get people to slow down in Times Square!
What’s one favorite item in your workspace?
Nestled on my bookshelf is a copy of The Leopard: A historical novel about a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman that lived a grand life and desperately clung to the past. Written by a great man who never knew his success and died before his book was published, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily. Tomasi was a cousin to the great jeweler Fulco di Verdura who I am deeply inspired by. Both were from the province of Palermo where my Italian citizenship is from. The Leopard reminds me of the grandeur that life has to offer, creative genius, the unpleasantness and necessity of change, art for art sake, and the beauty of Sicily. Somehow these topics manage to weave their way through my mind every day.
What’s your most treasured possession?
My wedding band represents 21 years with the man of my dreams Sean Younger Thomas. Together we travel many countries, cook great meals, discover new things about our own hometown New York City, laugh at silly people on the street, enjoy family gatherings, and visualize our common goals and dreams. Together we built Donna Distefano Ltd with talent, sweat equity and perseverance. All of that is melted and forged into my 22 karat gold wedding band.
What advice would you like to share with peers and current students?
You are the expert of your dreams. Persevere.
When you read biographies of famous people and success stories, it may feel impossible for you to imagine yourself at the top. This is where you are wrong. It is important for you to visualize yourself already there. Use some common sense: create a business plan or career plan and follow it. You can adjust your plan every six months. That plan together with your dreams are very powerful tools.
Faces & Places in Fashion Lecture Series – Spring 2014
Mondays, 4:15 – 5:15 pm
Fashion Institute of Technology
Fred P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center
Katie Murphy Amphitheatre
Seventh Avenue and 27th Street
Please join us for the Faces and Places in Fashion lecture series, which is led by FIT alumnus Joshua Williams (MPS Global Fashion Management ’07), and takes place every Monday. The lecture series is a forum for prominent fashion professionals, including executives, designers and marketers to discuss their trade, their experience and their perspective on the business. Select lectures will be followed by networking receptions open to alumni, students and industry professionals. Reservation is required. We hope to see you there!
February 3rd – CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER CONDITIONS Mitria di Giacomo (Adv & Comm ’95), NexusPlexus, Consultant
February 10th – Andy Golub, Body Artist
February 24th – Tae Smith (MA, Museum Studies), Costume & Production Design Researcher, The Great Gatsby RSVP for Talk & Reception
March 3rd – Jamie Espertin (Direct Marketing ’09), Mayvien
March 10th – Ceci Johnson, Founder/President, Ceci New York
March 17th – Marcie Cooperman, author, “Color and How to Use It”, Owner of Fresh Interiors