Kay Unger thrives with colorful designs for the real woman
When I first met Kay Unger, I didn’t know she was a designer at all. “Aunt Kay” had invited her niece, Julie, and Julie’s college friends to New York to stay with her and ‘go out’ in “the city."
I immediately recognized that Aunt Kay was fabulous. Her amazing Upper East Side apartment was impeccably decorated, her independence, humor and insight were apparent by looking at the comical magnets on her fridge, and well, she had great snacks. Her pantry looked like Citerella (a smaller NYC version of Whole Foods/Central Market type gourmet market).
“So what does Aunt Kay do?” I inquired, assuming the answer would be an explanation of what her husband does, or that she had divorced well.
“Kay’s a fashion designer,” was the response in a tone reminiscent of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, ‘What, like its hard?’
Ten years later, upon entering the “real world” post-college, and having imagined by now I would be a superwoman like “Aunt Kay," I realize...yes, it’s very hard.
But "Aunt Kay" makes it look easy.
The 65-year-old designer has been successful because she listens to her customer and taps into what "real women" want and need for their wardrobes. She offers a classic design aesthetic with beautiful prints, colors and feminine detailing at an affordable price ($200-$500).
Designing on her own since 1972, her line began with functional yet feminine suits and dresses. In 2007, she added Phoebe Couture, a collection of edgy day and evening dresses with a more youthful body type in mind (and a lower price, $100-$300). Last year, she created a plus line with larger sizes.
When I discovered that the designer would be in Houston for a St Luke’s Hospital fundraising luncheon and appearance at Tootsies, I decided to go to the source herself and ask for answers.
CultureMap: How did even know what you wanted to do with your life? You were a little ahead of your time as a woman entrepreneur.
Kay Unger: The thing that makes someone an entrepreneur is that you see an opportunity and you just grasp it. Without thinking, without stopping, without worrying that you might not be educated or qualified enough….you just go for it. That’s how I got into design.
As young as 8 years old, I would cut up bedspreads and make my own designs. When I graduated from Parsons School of Design in NYC, I jumped into the design industry working as an assistant for couture designer Goeffrey Beene (Issey Miyake was his other assistant).
My father, (well-known Chicago investment banker) Julius Epstein, had just passed away and left me $25,000. I spent all of it on fabric from the Liberty of London fabric shop and had it shipped to my living room in NYC. I kept my day job, and started designing at night. Within a year, I was designing full time. It was hard at first because I had no business education; I was just following my gut. I would wrap up the clothes in garment bags, and take them on my bicycle to Bloomingdales to sell.
A year later, I brought in my two partners. At that time, there were a lot of women’s names in my industry, but not a lot of women business owners.
CM: How would you describe your style?
KU: We are known for our femininity and fit. I like simple designs, but I always add a touch of something feminine (ie: ruffles), and focus on strategic fit and draping with real women’s bodies in mind. Phoebe Couture, our more youthful line, is cut a little shorter, but always with a signature three-inch hem that can be easily altered.
CM: How did you decide to move into plus sizes?
KU: We’ve done plus sizes on and off through the years. The issue is that stores in the past didn’t quite appreciate how [the plus size customer] wants to look. However, now I am seeing a trend that retailers are starting to notice. When press and sales went nuts, all of our stores started calling and asking to sell the plus size line. We took our main collection up to a size 18 missy (0-18). Then we have another line that is plus size (16W-24W) that is cut a bit differently for a curvier woman, and consists mostly of print and solid separates—flattering and feminine. Latino and More magazines encourage us to advertise our larger sizes with plus size models in ads for their publication.
CM: Do you ever get creatively stuck? Where do you turn for new ideas and inspirations?
KU: I do pilates every morning at 6 a.m. for mental balance. I refer to my trainer as my expensive alarm clock. When I spend time freethinking, I feel my mind naturally solve problems.
Now that I live in Soho, for inspiration I can just walk outside. I go to art museums, such as the New Museum downtown. I look at books and through my own vintage designs (from 1968 onward). When I get stuck on a color story, I find inspiration in Rothko. For print moods, I like to look at home design.
CM: Your assistant Emily tells me “[you] make [her] want to be a better person”. She says “[you are] an incredible multi-taster” who models how a woman can “do it all." What do you think will be your legacy?
KU: Celebrity as a designer has given me a wonderful platform from which to give back. I am most proud of my mentoring abilities, both to my children and over 3000 young people over the years. I’ve always believed in having interns and interns-for-hire. I’m involved in the Committee of 200 (a network of women business owners that Unger co-founded) and the Women’s Campaign Forum (a nonpartisan organization that promotes women in politics).
I also enjoyed being involved with a UJA Federation ((United Jewish Appeal) ) mission to Israel, where we focused on educating Israeli women on how to export to the United States (I had a business in Tel Aviv for several years).
CM: You seem a little too perfect. Do you have any vices?
KU: Yes. Hotel mini bars.