Before she was president of Vera Wang, before she worked at firms like Michael Kors and Donna Karan, and before her 22 years at Calvin Klein, Susan Sokol was a model — a showroom model, to be exact, at a Seventh Avenue concern called Cuddlecoat. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

The rest, of course, is history. At a Fashion Institute of Technology panel on Thursday, called “Women Rule Fashion,” audience members learned what it takes to enter the fashion game. Sokol traced her career, beginning with that first job — one she acquired by brashly walking into the coat company offices and asking for an opening — right up to her current gig at Vera Wang, helping “to really move the needle beyond bridal and to build the brand into a whole empire.”

But Sokol wasn’t the only panelist who had taken an unusual route into the industry. Photographer and MCV Photo agency founder Maria Chandoha Valentino had studied linguistics. Vogue’s fashion news and features director Sally Singer was on track to become an academic historian “dealing with issues of race and class” before she became a book editor, working for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Of this group, it was only Catherine Malandrino who took a conventional route: She went to fashion school in France, the Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode.

One thing that all the panel members had in common, however, was an early childhood affinity for matters of the cloth. Singer, for instance, said that she grew up sewing her own clothes: “I would buy the Vogue patterns and do my versions. I would go into seventh grade wearing my Calvin Klein or Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé adaptations. I knew so much about how clothes were made.” So later, when she was a writer at the London Review of Books and British Vogue asked her to become its culture editor, Singer noted, “This whole weird drive of information that I’d never been asked to use came into play.”

Another common denominator here: These four are high-profile, respected female figures in an industry in which, despite its target consumer, most of the top players are male. The notion that women rule was the basis of the discussion, which was also an introduction to an upcoming show at The Museum at FIT called “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion.” The exhibition, which is to feature about 70 looks, will focus on clients, designers, executives and editors who have shaped the course of fashion history, from Empress Josephine and Jeanne Lanvin to Claire McCardell and Rose Marie Bravo.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the event turned out to be more than a talk about the subject at hand. The second half consisted of the panel’s responses to audience questions, one of which concerned licensing and how much is too much. “We stop at toasters,” joked Sokol when asked about Vera Wang’s collaboration with Serta.

“Many questions were raised,” Sokol continued. “But we are in the bridal business, and one of the first things a couple buys is a mattress. There was some logical brand extension there.” She also noted that the partnership generates “close to $100 million at wholesale.” Moreover, Sokol added, these licensing deals — including the Simply Vera Vera Wang venture with Kohl’s — don’t just give the brand greater visibility and accessibility, they provide the company with increased resources to invest at the upper end.

The ladies also touched upon the effects of the Internet and blogs on fashion. “The work of my predecessor,” Singer said, “was often just to say what had happened on the runway. Almost overnight, that changed entirely. We have to make fashion that much more interesting when we present it.” The “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion” exhibition opens on May 21 and runs through Nov. 8 at The Museum at FIT.

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