By  on November 12, 2008

Josie Natori, Chief Executive Officer of Natori Co. Inc., has her own approach to keeping her 31-year-old lingerie company viable during tough times: Stay focused on creativity and innovative product, be ready to adapt 24/7 and keep the faith.

“Designing for an innerwear company, there’s an opportunity there right now,” Natori said. “You have to make the most of it, and you just have to believe that God is on your side. This [diffi cult economic] time gives brands an opportunity to evaluate what’s working, what’s not, and turn the brands on their ear, inside out. If we do that, we can survive.”

In her presentation, “Envisioning Success From the Inside Out,” Natori described how she cofounded her $80 million company in 1977 with her husband, Ken Natori, a former managing director of Shearson Lehman. He joined his wife as a business partner in 1985 and oversees the
company’s finance, licensing and partnerships. Despite the economic squeeze, the company projects sales increases of 30 to 40 percent by 2012.

The couple’s only child, Kenneth Cruz Natori, 32, joined the family business in April 2007 as vice president of fi nance, and among other responsibilities, created and launched the e-commerce site last May. He was previously an associate in international equities at Lehman Brothers.

“Our son, Kenneth, had the brilliant idea to leave Lehman Bros. last year,” Josie Natori said. “We don’t even have an exit strategy. There’s no end in sight , and that’s how I like it.”

Natori, who admits to wearing stilettos even in the snow, had a wealth of experience in the financial field where she served as the first woman vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. Despite her success as an investment banker, she said she wanted to branch out into an entrepreneurial business, and even considered “a chain of car wash businesses or Big Mac franchises as an option.”

“But I really didn’t want to go to Queens,” quipped Natori. “When I left Wall Street 31 years ago to go into the rag trade, people told me I was crazy, because I left a six-figure salary. But given what’s happened over the past two months on Wall Street, maybe I wasn’t too crazy after all. It’s been rewarding to me in ways that have nothing to do with money. It was about building a brand that lives beyond me. Back then, all there was were granny gowns or Frederick’s of Hollywood. The idea of lifestyle brands did not exist at all.”

Natori added, “I got into the schmatta business with no business plan — I don’t even have a lingerie fetish. But I love business, and when I got my foot in the door, I saw the potential of Natori becoming a lifestyle brand. My father [Felipe Francisco Cruz] would always say, ‘Look at it as a tragedy or an opportunity.”

Her resilience, tenacity and expertise in closing a deal didn’t just come from Wall Street, it was ingrained during her childhood. “It’s in my blood. My father, who is 89 and works 18-hour days, is a self-made man. My grandmother [Josefa Almeda] was called the supreme commander in chief, and my mother [Angelita Almeda Cruz] is the commander in chief. But I could not have done this without Ken. He left Wall Street and he prefers to stay in the background.”

Natori followed her father’s pragmatic advice, saying that, as a concert pianist [she performed a solo at Carnegie Hall in 1997 for an audience of 2,800], she approaches business in the same disciplined manner as playing a concerto.

“Thank God for the piano. On one level, there’s a discipline, patience and perseverance,” said Natori. “It’s a creative process. I play by ear. I even memorize my pieces backwards, starting with the finish.”

Regarding how business is conducted at Natori Co., she said: “There’s no need to have a board meeting. We have a board meeting in bed.”

Natori, whose closets are fi lled with couture pieces by Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and other top fashion names, said the cachet and allure of lingerie seduced her into a new career, even though she said she was “clueless” about intimate apparel. She started her family-owned company in her living room with a couple of lingerie-looking blouses.

True to her take-charge, energetic manner, Natori developed a collection of peasant-inspired blouses embroidered in her native Philippines with handmade appliqués, and went cold calling at Bloomingdale’s, where she landed her first sale with the late Lee Fabris, who later became the flagship’s fashion director. Her creative tops were also an instant hit with other top merchants, including Sally Frame Kasaks, who was at Saks Fifth Avenue and is now chief executive officer of Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.

“At Bloomingdale’s, a blouse buyer asked me if I could turn the blouses into nightshirts,” Natori recalled. “I didn’t even know what a nightshirt was. I entered the category through the back door. Both Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus bought my first collection. The first season I discovered I was in a category that got very little attention. Then, Saks bought a full-page ad in The New York Times. But it was the first and last ad I ever got for free. I remember asking, ‘What is markdown money?’ And then came the answer: ‘Honey, you don’t want to know.’”

Since then, Natori has pushed, nudged, campaigned and charmed her way into American boudoirs, and has received the largesse of major merchants, including four top retailers who were sitting at her table on Oct. 28: Burt Tansky, Neiman Marcus Group chairman and ceo; Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc.; Saks Inc.’s president and chief marketing officer, Ron Frasch, and Lord & Taylor’s new ceo, Brendan Hoffman.

Addressing her innerwear-outerwear credo, Natori said: “Our retail partners have been invaluable, and as we grew, I kept pushing the envelope. My bustiers were in lingerie departments long before Madonna [during her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990] made bustiers fashionable. By the mid-Eighties, I realized the importance of branding and headed to Paris, where there is the most beautiful lingerie in the world, and opened a Natori boutique on the Place Vendôme. I wanted retailers to see the world of Natori. It lost money for 12 years.” The boutique closed in 1998.

Reflecting on the Nineties, Natori stated: “I couldn’t do anything right. We used an eveningwear aesthetic with embroideries, embellishments, prints and colors. We had no such thing as a basic. But nothing was right. I did eveningwear at Bergdorf Goodman, private label for Victoria’s Secret, fragrance at Avon. But ‘Dynasty’ was out and minimalism was in.

“But timing is everything and I was disheartened,” continued Natori. “I think it was Burt Tansky who told me, ‘Josie, focus, focus… and today, our portfolio includes four [branded] collections: Josie Natori Collection, Josie, Cruz and Josie Natori Couture, all with viewpoints and price points diverse enough for Bergdorf Goodman or Dillard’s. I’ve been careful all along to not dilute the brand.”

The company has weathered the ups and downs of consolidations at retail and within the industry. Despite obstacles, whether a recession, a dismal retail climate, or changing trends and consumer buying patterns, Natori has created a winning formula that is reflected in the company’s name — Natori in Japanese means the highest form of art. In addition to the launch of Natori’s luxe Josie Natori Couture collection of one-of-a-kind silk caftans and kimonos last year, the house of Natori extended its reach as a lifestyle brand with several ambitious initiatives:

• A lifestyle-oriented line of home accessories licensed to JLA Home in 2006.

• A licensing deal with Dana-co to produce a collection of bras and coordinating undies bearing the Josie name for spring 2008, a further extension of Natori’s licensing pact with Dana-co to produce and merchandise bras by Natori and Josie Natori. Dana-co also does the Natori Underneath seamless line of underwear.

• The introduction in January of Natori’s first full ready-to-wear collection produced in-house, Natorious.

• Natori’s first book, ‘The Art of Natori” (Glitterati), in October.

• The opening of the first Josie Natori in-store shop at the Saks flagship in June.

• The launch of Natori fragrance with licensor Parlux next year.

• Two licenses bearing the Natori name next year: Towels with Loffex, and optical eyewear and sunglasses with Zyloware.

So, how does Natori feel about her accomplishments? “After countless years of being influenced  by lifestyle brands such as Ralph Lauren and Armani, I dare to dream that big. It’s how we evolve the brand and make some noise,” she said.

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