By  on December 5, 2011

Prepare seasonal consumer catalogues. Prepare in-depth trend reports for the merchants. Work with the internal visual team. Plan and negotiate for windows. Seek out and identify new talent. Check fearfulness at the door. It all falls under the watch of Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale’s operating vice president/fashion director for ready-to-wear, and the women’s fashion office she oversees. “It differs day to day,” Solomon offered simply of the far-flung responsibilities. “Which is why I love my job.”

For all her varied tasks, Solomon has a clear and singular goal: to further Bloomingdale’s position as “a unique leader” of fashion’s global landscape. That mandate, she maintains, has not changed “an iota” in the 27 years since she joined the fashion office, then headed by the legendary Kal Ruttenstein. “The Bloomingdale’s brand as a place to fantasize, have fun, escape has stayed the same. Everything else may have changed, but the excitement, the energy level, have not. There’s always a feeling of exhilaration when you walk into Bloomingdale’s.”

Similarly, Solomon argued that the role of fashion director has changed little since she started at the store, back in what many consider the heyday of the fashion director, when Ruttenstein counterparts at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus were Ellin Saltzman and Joan Kaner, respectively. “The responsibility,” Solomon said, “is ultimately the same: to maintain the fashion leadership of the Bloomingdale’s brand.”

Which is not to say methodology hasn’t evolved. Internet? “Twenty years ago, we didn’t even have fax machines,” she recalled. “The dot-com influence has radically changed the position. We need to be faster in delivering the trend messages. There’s a lot more information to dissect and process and regurgitate. It’s always been a part of our job, but we just need to do it in a nanosecond, not in a month.”

One of the glories of fashion is that so much is not black and white, including the route to discovering that next great thing. One element she maintains,“something that Mike [Gould] instills in you: no fear of failing.” Solomon heaped unsolicited praise upon the ceo. “I think of Mike Gould as the ultimate nurturer of his people. He makes us feel that he cares about us more than the bottom line at Bloomingdale’s. When Kal died, [Gould] stopped everything and ran to our office and took us in his arms, me physically, and just said ‘I know you’re sad.’ You don’t find that kind of compassion very often.”

Gould’s personality radiates more than feel-good impact. His interest in fashion is strong enough for Solomon to offer that it’s difficult for her to separate her own “excitement about merchandise from the feeling that I’m encouraged to stay excited about merchandise. That’s something that Mike Gould enjoys and nurtures — that love of fashion.”

As for Gould’s credo that one learns more from mistakes than successes, Solomon agreed, yet with the caveat that said lessons are not always easy. She recalled several years ago, around the time of the Marc Jacobs Mouse shoe introduction, pushing the trend of mid-heel, ladylike pumps — she called them teacups — on the buyers. The shoes didn’t perform. “The next season I had lost credibility so I had to regain it, which is a humbling experience.” The mistrust came not from upper management, from Ruttenstein or Gould, but from her peers among buyers and merchants. She understood the need to rebuild the merchants’ trust in her judgment. Such mistakes go both ways, and Solomon would never call out a buyer on passing on an item that proved to be hot. First, it’s not nice. Secondly, she said wryly, “I have authority, but I don’t have a pen.”

While Ruttenstein nurtured Solomon’s eye and passion for fashion, their relationship proved complex. She called him “the toughest man I’ve ever worked with, and the most complicated. And the biggest genius.” Ruttenstein, she said, “pushed you until you were able to overcome that fear of failure. ‘Make it happen Stephanie, make it happen.’ And sometimes you thought, ‘It’s impossible for me to make this happen.’ But you’d keep going until you finally realized, ‘wow, I did it.’”

Like Ruttenstein, Solomon engages in exhaustive scouting of new talent. Hardly a week goes by when she doesn’t welcome design hopefuls to her office or accept their appointments on the road. “I’m wise enough at this point to be very honest,” she said of her evaluations. “If there’s something lacking in the collection, they really need to hear the truth. Hopefully, they take it as constructive advice. It’s easy when the product is astounding from the very beginning, but that is so rare.” (She mentioned Zac Posen as one designer who astounded her from the start.) “The hardest part of my job is when you don’t see any glimmer of hope. You want to say, ‘Go back to school. Study accounting.’”

Happening upon the rare, brilliant neophyte talent isn’t the only surprise fashion offers. At times, the fashion office looks out upon a budding cultural shift. Solomon sees one emerging in the increasing embrace of colorful accessories, a phenomenon she insisted will prove far more significant than a mere trend. She attributed the phenomenon in part to the Internet, where a black handbag reads as a bore on screen while a red one elicits excitement. She predicted a reversal of what’s happened since the Fifties, “when no one would ever be caught dead wearing black during the day. So this moment in fashion is very profound — [the start of] a major shift in the way women dress. That’s the most exciting part of my job, to feel that shift happening in my lifetime.”

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