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Interview with Fashion Designer Josie Natori

Aired March 8, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It's the usual New York Fashion Week frenzy. And the young and the stylish gather to see the latest ready-to-wear collection by luxury designer, Josie Natori.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Josie's style is always very classic. Very feminine, yet there's always something very modern to it.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And this is the woman behind it.

JOSIE NATORI, FOUNDER AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, THE NATORI COMPANY: To me, that's the most important thing. That the consumers come and they like it and they buy it.

RAJPAL (voiceover): With a clear vision and straight direction, not to mention her elegant demeanor, Natori is a natural in the fashion world. Hard to believe that this was not her first career choice.

The Philippines native first broke ground on Wall Street as the first female vice president in investment banking at Merrill Lynch. But her entrepreneurial urge would steer her away from suits and into the world of lingerie.

NATORI: This will be even more dramatic.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Now, after more than 30 years in the fashion industry, her pieces sell for anywhere from $18 to more than $2,000. Making Josie Natori a multi-million dollar lifestyle label now spanning clothing, home wear, fragrances, and even eyewear.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we follow Josie Natori from the High Street in New York to her factory in the Philippines.

NATORI: Welcome to the factory.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And discover how her Asian roots inspired her to become an international fashion force.


RAJPAL: Welcome to "Talk Asia", Josie. It's a pleasure to meet you. And I have to say that great minds think alike.

NATORI: First, thank you for having me here. And I'm so glad we're in the color of the season.

RAJPAL: It is the color of the season. It's good to know that the Natori brand, as well - I'm in line - in synch with the Natori brand.

Describe, for me, what Natori means to you.

NATORI: You know, Natori has been, really, for 35 years, bringing art into life. With an East-West sensibility. I've been fortunate enough to be able to build a brand that, you know, I can relate with bringing beautiful things for every day and making women feel good about themselves. What they wear and what they surround themselves with. It's been a great journey.

RAJPAL: How do you keep it alive after 35 years? Keep it fresh?

NATORI: You know, it's very - that's a really good question. I am a pianist at heart. I've been, since four years old. I think that's the artist in me, that I feel like it's never finished. You're always trying to create - make the note better each time. You don't every play it the same. So always looking for the next new tone and the next new creation and the next evolvement. So it's been a journey. And the brand has evolved. Where it started in lingerie, today it's a whole lifestyle from ready-to-wear to accessories, to home.

RAJPAL: A lot of people - a lot of women - have bought Natori. I mean, I believe that in 2011, your retail sales were reaching $150 million on, I think, average.


RAJPAL: How did it all begin?

NATORI: How did it all begin? You know, I never imagined, Monita, that I would ever land in the right trade. I always knew I'd be in a business. But I thought it'd be in Wall Street. So I was in Wall Street, actually, for nine years. Then I got bored. By accident, really, I landed in this business. I was really trying to buy and sell and looking at things in the Philippines of what I could make a business in.

And lo and behold, a friend sent me this embroidered blouse. And I thought, "Wow, this is interesting". Let me see if there's an interest in this. And, by accident, met a buyer at Bloomingdale's who said, "Well, why don't you make this into a nightshirt"? And I had no idea what a nightshirt was. So that was the beginning of Natori lingerie.

RAJPAL: See, that's really interesting, because you said you were in finance.


RAJPAL: You were the VP at Merrill Lynch. The first female VP at Merrill Lynch. There is a sense of security, somewhat, some would say. Especially at that time. To have a well-paid job - and you did have a well-paid job at the time.


RAJPAL: And yet you took a risk to say, "It's not enough. I'm bored". Where do you think that confidence came from?

NATORI: You know, I think that, coming from a very strong family and strong role models - my grandmother was an amazing entrepreneur. And, you know, you could be whatever you want to be. And when that joy or the challenge was gone from Wall Street, even though I was the first - and made a lot of money at. There was something missing. And I knew that, you know, when you wake up and you're not really excited about what you're going to do. I wasn't going to accept that. And I think that's really the artist in me.

RAJPAL: So yes, talk to me about that search.

NATORI: So I decided that I would like to look at all kinds of businesses from McDonald's franchise to car wash. You know, my husband and I were speculating. But when I realized, "I can't relate to that" --


NATORI: I decided I want to go back to my roots in the Philippines. And that's really how it began - that I wanted to go back and have something to do with where I come from.

RAJPAL: the idea of the Eastern aesthetic -


RAJPAL: At the time, in the 1970 and early 80s - how widely accepted was it, do you think?

NATORI: I think we brought in an idea that was very unique at the time. It was the beginning - because it really wasn't your typical lingerie. It really was a blouse. And that's why Natori, all these years, has always been about inner wear - outerwear. You know, they're really clothes you can just happen to sleep in it if you want to.

RAJPAL: The fact that you've got stores like Bloomingdale's - you've got stores like -

NATORI: Yes, Sax.

RAJPAL: -- like Sax.

NATORI: Sax was the first one to buy.

RAJPAL: Yes. These are massive department stores that any young business or designer would dream of having interest in. How do you think you got that?

NATORI: You know, I was very fortunate. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It certainly was so much easier then, than today. I really had no connections. I knew nobody. I just cold-call. I think -

RAJPAL: Through the cold-call?

NATORI: Everything was cold-call. And I think my Merrill Lynch card that says "Vice President" -


NATORI: -- maybe gave me a little creditability in the beginning. Because I would just cold call and say I'd like to make an appointment. And, you know, at the end, they all came. I was showing the first collection in our apartment. Well, I had a baby in the crib -

RAJPAL: Baby in the bassinet.

NATORI: Right. Next door, with a telex machine. Remember, this was before you were born - telex machine. And, you know, it was so easy. Because I got orders like that. In a week.


NATORI: Welcome to the factory.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, Josie gives us a rare look into how her designs become reality.




NATORI: Hi, I'm Josie Natori. I'm excited to show you my first fashion boutique in Asia. Right here in sunny (ph) Manila.

Very excited about this boutique. It's the second in the world. The first one, Sax Fifth Avenue in New York. We opened it, literally seven months ago, here.

The entire season is just an explosion of amazing prints that is very much inspired from patterns in the Philippines and from the e-cards and the boutiques and just happy colors - special (ph) colors. As you can see, in the Philippines from the Egyptians (ph) and all of that. I mean, I do want to show one amazing color - look at that.

You know, we've spent so much time with prints, we'll have no idea what it takes to gauge (ph) some better colors, but to me this is such an amazing example of happy Philippines.


RAJPAL: Tell me about the journey where you go from design to store. How difficult is that journey?

NATORI: People have no idea what it takes to create the collection. I mean, you know, honestly, the amount of work that goes by the time you see it in the stores - it's really hours and hours - I mean, days, weeks, months. And then you see what's done in the factory. You know, it's worth every penny.

But it's a fun process. Because then, when you see it in the end - whether you have your show or it's in the stores - to me, the most rewarding thing is when it sells. That, to me, at the end, is the ultimate gratification. And I devour looking at selling reports every week. That, to me, is the real estimate whether your concept a year ago worked.

RAJPAL: When it comes to the female silhouette - what do you think makes a woman sexy? Because you deal with that part of the female form.


RAJPAL: The lingerie is probably one of the most -

NATORI: Personal.

RAJPAL: Personal - intimate parts.

NATORI: Yes. You know, I think that I was lucky enough to start in a category which is very personal to put them in lingerie. And I always marveled and, you know, I go to a cocktail party and, you know, men will say, "Oh, I sleep with you every day".


NATORI: Or women say, "Oh my god, I still have that gown that I had from 20 years ago". I say, "Will you please throw it away?" You know, but there is a more emotional connection to lingerie. I mean, I - you know, because it's the closest thing that you wear and it's the foundation and it makes you feel like a woman.

But when you say "sexy", you know, I think that when something feels good and you feel glamorous - it's being sexy. I don't have a judgment of sexiness. Doesn't mean you have to show everything. I used to think sexy was dirty. You know, being with the upbringing - Asian, right?

RAJPAL: Asian, yes, yes.

NATORI: But not, you know, to be, I say, essential -

RAJPAL: It wasn't an accepted word for a long time.

NATORI: No, no. It took me a long time to even say the word "sexy". I said - now say "sensual". I could say the word, "sensual". But today, we realize, no, it's about being feminine.


NATORI: So this is our underwear - little boutique, here. Here you can just see, yes, we have the black and beige, but it's also about, you know, colors.

This is the number one. This bra, which is the feathers bra. It's the number one selling bra in Nordstrom. Hold the bra. Quite amazing.


RAJPAL: You blog a lot. I've been reading some of your blogs. And you mention your family - your father, in particular, as well. You just celebrated his 90th birthday, was that it?

NATORI: Actually, 92. He'll be 93, can you imagine.



RAJPAL: 93. How important is that relationship and that kind of influence on you?

NATORI: Oh, so important. I think my family has been the rock, you know. My father is a self-made man. Just amazing and totally inspiring. And my mother built the business with him. So, his example of building something - he's the only one who graduated from his family - went to college and proceeded to help his entire family. So, I think I've got great genes.

RAJPAL: You, the oldest of six children.


RAJPAL: How much pressure do you think there was in you to set an example - to really forge your own way?

NATORI: I was not only just the oldest of six children, I was the oldest of 33 grandchildren. So, I actually grew up -- I don't ever think I owned a doll. So I grew up always with adults. And spent time with my grandmother who was really, probably - she was a feminist in her time and entrepreneur. And I would go around with her from five a.m. to nine p.m. in the evening during the summers and watch her conduct her businesses. So I think, from an early age, I was exposed to driven women and working and having a career.

RAJPAL: The interesting thing about the Philippines and the culture that comes from the Philippines is that it's a very matriarchal society, isn't it?

NATORI: I always say my first asset is being a woman. Second is being a Filipina - being Asian. Particularly being Filipina, specifically. And I think that this genes of a matriarchal society - strong women very much has been an asset for me. If you think about it, I never was afraid. I never had - it never occurred to me that I couldn't succeed in Wall Street. And it never occurred to me that whatever business I would go into, that I wouldn't be successful. So I think it was just that having that - I wouldn't say I never had fear, but you know, it's some fearlessness - you just go for it.


NATORI: Welcome to the factory.

Well, this is our sample room here, in the factory, where it all begins. Working with our New York team. This is where, really, the craftsmanship that is a signature of Natori - this is where it begins. We're actually here, in the Philippines, to me, is like nowhere else.

So they finish one of these in one to two weeks. Finish all of the - you see how you have different layers - there's a technique. It's quite amazing, the labor. But it's a labor of love, you know? And it's an art form that the women in this country - I think it's in our blood and they enjoy it. They love it.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, Josie reveals what it takes to survive in the design industry.

NATORI: It's a really tough business - really tough business. I had no idea what business I got into.




NATORI: Look at that hair. Wow.

Pretty. Look very good (ph) in that slip.

I think our ready-to-wear collection is very young. It's the youngest of all our different collections. I would say, my baby.

You look so serious.

I think the whole thing for fall - we've always been about the best of the East and the West, the powerful and the feminine. And so inspired by Shanghai and Paris in the 30s. You know, after recently (ph) the real environment of the woman today.


RAJPAL: The industry, as you say, is extremely tough. How important is it for you - or had it been for you - to feel a sense of acceptance from the powers that be that are within this industry? Whether it's the magazine editors or whether it's the buyers.

NATORI: It's about the product. It's not about me. It's really about the product. And as long as you keep evolving the product, believe me, they're going to very accepting. But, to me, it's a two-way street. You know, as long as, to me - you know, I wouldn't be here today if I didn't listen. And I think it's that whether you listen to the, you know, the editors - what they think, you know, in terms of trends - whether you listen to the retailers - this is what the customer wants - I feel like you never can stop listening and learning. And we're still learning.

RAJPAL: Do you still get nervous when you show collections?

NATORI: You know, it's like opening Broadway.

RAJPAL: That's pretty nerve wracking.


NATORI: You know, you could show the collection and say, "I don't like it" or "I don't like the colors".


NATORI: By the way, that's happened.

RAJPAL: Really?

NATORI: Where they'll say, "It's not good" you know. And then you just scramble and you say, "OK". You adjust things and all of that.

RAJPAL: What kind of experience, that you acquired while you were on Wall Street, helped you and continues to help you today?

NATORI: I don't think that I could have survived this business if I did not have the foundation of Wall Street. Because, in the end, it's really about a business. I have never really, you know, lost in the mire of just fashion, fashion. To me, fashion is a business.

RAJPAL: What kind of skills do you think are required in order to run a business like yours?

NATORI: At first, it's a really tough business. Really tough business. I had no idea what business I got into. But, you know, I love it, so I think it's OK. In terms of the skill sets, there's a creative side and there's a business side. You know, I think you have to understand where your strengths are. I've been fortunate to have a little from each one.

RAJPAL: Which do you prefer? The creative side? Or the business side?

NATORI: You know, that's a hard question. I would say I enjoy very much being on the creative side. But I wouldn't be happy with the creative side if I can't accomplish the business side. I have to say that I have sacrificed the business side, or making money, for the sake of - to build the brand. You know, through the years, we've probably spent an inordinate amount of money in terms of our product development and design that most other companies probably would not have that kind of patience. But, to me, for the sake of building a brand, it is OK. So it's not always about just making the bottom line. It is for the long term.

RAJPAL: What kind of challenges did you find? The fact that your company is also - you work with your husband and you work with your son now. What challenges does that present?

NATORI: Well, let's start first with Ken. I convinced him to leave Wall Street after 18 years to kind of - after the company had been about eight years old. Because I felt like I just kind of needed some support. And so he, at the time, really courageously, left and amazing, amazing career and really came as an investor and was involved in other things. So there was never a conflict. And one thing I will say, for Ken and I, it was always clear that if something ever had to give between business or marriage, the business would have to give.

RAJPAL: And also, your son is involved as well with the business?

NATORI: Kenneth, who, of course -

RAJPAL: I mean, he was there from the get-go.


NATORI: From the crib. He was reading a telex machine. But we always wanted him to be a banker, too. He was a banker. So he actually was in Wall Street and never thought he would want to join us. And, you know, it's been the best thing. Because I don't need an exit strategy now. He's the exit.

RAJPAL: Where do you see your brand going? How big do you want it to be?

NATORI: I feel like we still have ways to go. The last 10 years was spent in really crystallizing the brand. You know, it has an international reach. It's not an American feeling or Philippine thing. You know, really, I think that all our products really has a great potential for, you know, global - and we are in more countries than the U.S. today. And so I'm pretty excited about, actually, the growth in Asia.


NATORI: You know, it's like really coming home. You know, the Natori is the best of the East and the West. And I really would love to be able to build it. Make this an important brand in Asia.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure to meet you.

NATORI: Thank you. You were wonderful.

RAJPAL: Thank you.