“I have no fetish for lingerie,” Josie Natori says with exaggerated exasperation. “To me, it’s clothes. I don’t get all this categorization.”
Natori has long had a thing for business. “I knew as a child, I’d have my own,” she says.
Her professional inevitability is now marking its 40th anniversary. Given the boundless energy that manifests in rapid-fire conversation, she seems good for another 40 years (or more). She might get close; her father worked until he was 93; her mother, at 92, still clocks in every day at the family construction business in the Philippines, and writes every outgoing check.
Natori holds the post of chief executive officer while her son, Kenneth Natori, who joined the company after stints as a reporter for Bloomberg and on Wall Street, is president. Completing the family triptych, her husband Ken Sr., is chairman. Market sources put the volume of Natori’s core business at upward of $50 million; $125 million total including licensees.
Natori’s path to fashion came seamlessly as a consumer but circuitously as an entrepreneur. Her mother was, and remains, a voracious participant in the world of style and as a child, Natori followed her lead, her penchant for coordination indicative of her eye for detail today. “If I had a pink dress, I had pink shoes, a pink hair bow,” she says.
When it came to establishing her company, however, fashion was initially not even a thought. In the Philippines of her youth, or at least, within her extended family circle, “You are either a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or you’re in business. There is no such thing as, ‘you’re going to be an artist; you’re going to be [a designer]. That’s like, ‘What are you, crazy?’”
Josie Cruz left Manila to attend Manhattanville College, a Catholic institution handpicked by her father. “At least I got to New York,” she says. Immediately after graduation and armed with a degree in economics, she embarked on a rapid upward trajectory on Wall Street, achieving the rank of vice president at Merrill Lynch while still in her twenties.
Yet consciously or otherwise, she considered it training for whatever she would ultimately launch on her own. “I guess I realized that the creative part was missing. That’s why I wasn’t happy on Wall Street, because it was deals. It wasn’t something tangible, it’s not something aesthetic,” she says. “Going to Wall Street was training, a foundation.”
A friend introduced her to Ken Natori, then a young banker at Smith Barney. Fifteen months later, they were married and almost immediately started plotting for their own business. They mulled all kinds of possibilities: brokerage house, children’s store, car washes, even fast food, both Bun & Burger and a McDonald’s franchise, though that particular opportunity was not geographically feasible. “It was in Queens,” Natori says. “I didn’t want to be in Queens.”
During their research, they came to a conclusion: Ken didn’t share her passion for moving on. “He was perfectly happy with what he was doing and in a really great position. I was the one who was not fulfilled. So, I decided, ‘he’s staying; it’s going be me. It has to be something I can relate to.’” So hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, in favor of a more glamorous endeavor.
Natori thought about the Philippines and various manufacturing possibilities there. Her first thought: furniture — “very English” — copied from finds discovered during her regular weekend forays through the city’s antiques and flea market. “My first dining room set came because I was experimenting with Chippendale furniture. But it’s kind of hard to schlep.”
Next came artisanal baskets. And then a friend sent her an embroidered blouse. It had a peasant look, not insignificant in the heyday of Yves Saint Laurent. “I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’” She approached Bloomingdale’s, where it was suggested that she turn the blouse into a nightshirt. Voila! “That’s how it all started,” Natori says. “I hate that whole [segmentation]. I always look at this as clothes. Some people just happen to sleep in them.”
Production in the Philippines gave her “point of differentiation” — and a happy shot of pragmatic nepotism. After a year or two of struggling with production issues, her father built her a factory. Today, the company has two factories equaling 100,000 square feet, accounting for the lion’s share of production.
“I never take it for granted but it was so easy in the beginning,” Natori says. Her first order came from Hudson’s Bay, 100 units — before her company had a name and label. “I always remind Richard Baker,” she says. Her first “official” order, post-label launch: Saks Fifth Avenue.
That came in August 1977, her first month in business, along with orders from Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, I. Magnin and Bonwit Teller. They all viewed the line and wrote their orders in her apartment; she had cold-called them. “Nobody introduced me to anybody, I promise you,” Natori recalls. As for the possible intimidation factor, “I was used to cold calls. I was from Wall Street.”
The first collections were all-cotton pieces with a loungewear vibe. “I got orders from everyone,” she muses. “I think [the collection] was very different because at that time, lingerie was I guess, tacky.”
The business thrived during the boom years of the Eighties, as buyers and consumers responded to the sweet spot at which Natori excelled — the at-home/ready-to-wear border. “I was pushing the envelope on lifestyle. I did everything, bustiers that were eveningwear, all this stuff. But people took risks then.”
The Nineties brought recession, the Gulf War and a casualization of lifestyle that presaged today’s larger parallel sartorial shift. “I wasn’t prepared,” she says. She closed the Paris office she’d opened in 1986, and eventually, her boutique on Place Vendôme. She opened outlet stores, “stupidly,” she laments. “It was a disaster.”
Yet Natori kept at it. “I have a lot of faith that whatever happens, you make it work. I never lost faith.”
She self-corrected and rebuilt in part by nurturing her retail relationships, along the way working with many of the iconic names of the American sphere. About Martha Phillips and her daughter Lynn Manulis of the famed Martha on Park Avenue, Natori says, “I would spend three-and-a-half hours with Martha, having dinner at Cipriani. I was totally exhilarated — the scarf, the shawl, the passion. She’s kept encouraging me. Lynn was the one who said to me, ‘Josie, slipdresses, you should do the slipdresses.’”
Bloomingdale’s Marvin Traub was the first to do an in-store Natori boutique: “He duplicated whatever I had in the boutique on Place Vendôme.” Ira Neimark housed her line on Bergdorf Goodman’s sixth floor “the innerwear-outerwear.” He encouraged her to have her first show, at the French Consulate, no less. “He encouraged me. I loved that they took a chance.”
Ron Frasch became a dear friend. “We’re like soulmates,” Natori says. He and his wife Georgia got married at the Natoris’ house in Pound Ridge, N.Y.; she is godmother to his young twins.
Today, Natori’s business remains department-store based. She recognizes the inherent challenges, and the necessity of building e-commerce via department stores and other outlets including her brand’s own online retail. Between wholesale accounts and vertical, about 35 percent of sales are now online. “Clearly, that’s where the growth is,” Natori says. “You have to look at other kinds of distribution. The structure of the business is changing so fast. If we can figure out how to increase our direct-to-consumer business — that’s really our goal.
“However you do it, whether it’s in catalogues, your e-commerce, you have to explore,” she continues. “You must do what’s convenient for the customer. They want it when they want it, at the price they want it and etc., etc. — and they have so many choices. It’s really an interesting time.” As for global, she considers the brand severely under-exposed, but says success depends upon strong partners, such as those she has in the Philippines and Japan. “It’s step by step,” she muses.
Natori is in for the long walk. While she feels fortunate to have Kenneth running the business with her, she has no intention of retiring. “My mother said to me, ‘What are you going to do [if you retire]? At the end of the day, if you can keep working, and as long as you’re loving it…Even as hard as this is, I love the challenge.”