Executive Designer

Meet Nina McLemore: Designer who dresses America's most powerful female executives opens Houston store

Designer who dresses America's top female execs opens Houston store

Nina McLemore pink embroidered jacket
Nina McLemore pink embroidered jacket. Photo courtesy of Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore printed tunic
Nina McLemore printed tunic. Photo courtesy of Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore Courtesy of Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore jacket
Nina McLemore red jacket. Photo courtesy of Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore white tunic
Nina McLemore white tunic. Photo courtesy of Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore pink embroidered jacket
Nina McLemore printed tunic
Nina McLemore
Nina McLemore jacket
Nina McLemore white tunic

Nina McLemore is getting the last laugh. Unlike most fashion houses that concentrate on trendy styles for younger women, the Mississippi-born designer has carved out a thriving business with colorful, well-cut clothing for the rich and powerful at the height of their careers. Hillary Clinton, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and just about every female CEO in a top job wears her classic designs.

"The fashion industry thinks if you are over 50 you are dying. They don’t want to design for you because they think they will go out of business. They want to be contemporary, they want to be young, they want to do fun things, and they just don’t see this as fun," McLemore says. "This is great fun."

In Houston to open a new store in the River Oaks Shopping Center — her 16th store in the nation and the first in Texas — McLemore talked about the secrets of her success, why just about every woman looks better in bright colors, how she keeps the prices of her clothing down and why it's important for female executives to stand out. (She will meet with Houston customers Monday through Wednesday — March 21-23 — at the store.)

"If you want to be the CEO of the company or you are in the running for a board seat for a major corporation or you’re a lawyer or your part of wealth management or whatever, when you walk in the room the people need to believe that you're credible. They need to believe that you’re successful and that you are confident and they can look to you as a position of authority," she says.

One way to do that is to wear clothing that is appropriate but stands out.

"Men have a uniform and its really simple; they go to Nordstrom or Neiman's or someplace and buy the jacket and they put you on the box and they tailor you and that’s easy. Women don’t have a uniform and so I think women just have to understand that how they dress is going to be a topic of conversation," she says.

So you live with it and work it, she explains.

"For example when I travel I always dress up. I always wear something positive, something bright and I have a necklace that has polka dots. It’s hand-made glass beads and it always gets a response. I know that I get treated better on the airplane, getting through security. I carry much more luggage, no one stops me because I smile and I look like I’m a positive person," she says.

One of the first thing one notices upon entering McLemore's store is how colorful everything is, with jackets, slacks, tunics and tops in primary colors — bright blues, bold reds, deep turquoises and various shades of hot pink that go well with jewelry.

"Most women actually look better in color," she says. "Black is a somber color and in fact an unhappy color. It’s very chic and its fine for San Francisco or Paris, where it’s gray at lot but for not someplace where it’s sunny and warm. Most women actually don’t look good in black. It’s not a good color against the skin."

She chose Houston for the new store because of the city's size and its residents' attention to looking good. "On a per capita basis, Houstonians care more about their clothes, not to be prejudiced, than women in Illinois. Dressing well is part of the culture in the South," she says. "And we have a store in Aspen and quite a few of my customers are from Houston, so I’ve developed some very strong friendships with some of our customers from Houston and I really like them."

"I spent the first seven years of my career in New Orleans, so the climate is essentially the same. If you live in New York or Paris, you don’t really understand  the heat and the humidity here. I do understand that and also the way women in the South dress."

McLemore has been involved with the fashion world for most of her life. She grew up making her own clothes in the small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, worked her way up through the fashion ranks at the May Company department chain and founded Liz Claiborne Accessories in 1980. She launched her namesake brand in 2003 because she found that professionals like herself couldn't find attractive clothes with a good fit that were appropriate for work, formal evening activities or daytime casual events at the country club.

Her collection generally ranges in price from $235 for a wash-and-dry nylon knit top to $895 for an embroidered evening jacket made of fabric from Italian mills that supply much higher priced European designers.

She never had a doubt she would be a success."I thought I would be even more successful," she says. "The apparel industry is not an easy industry: it takes a lot of time getting the fabrics absolutely perfect."