Susan Sokol is one of those rare people who knew what she was passionate about from a young age. That passion was fashion, and it has led her to some of the most recognizable labels in the world—Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, and Vera Wang.
Today, she is the President and COO of J. Mendel, a brand that she has transformed since she took the helm in 2008. Not only is Sokol one of the most successful women in the fashion industry, she is also a mother, and an inspiration to aspiring fashionistas. From organizing prom parties to mentoring this writer on how to follow your passions, Sokol is an indefatigable role model for women. In recognition of her multifarious achievements–including and especially her efforts in the fight against women’s cancers–she will be awarded City of Hope’s Spirit of Life Award this May. We were lucky enough to sit down with her to discuss the evolution of her astounding career, and what she’s learned on her ascent to the top of her industry.
You have four decades of experience in the fashion world. I wonder how you got started?
I started right after college at Calvin Klein, in the early 1970s. At the time, it was a start-up business. I ended up spending 23 years there. It was such an incredible experience because I learned every aspect of running a fashion brand, from product development, to merchandising, to sourcing, to marketing and public relations, to sales. I learned how to expand a business globally.
Eventually, I grew to be the president of the Calvin Klein Collection, which was and still is the umbrella for the entire brand. It set the tone and direction for everything the company did, and because of my role, I was an integral part of every expansion. Through it all, I worked very closely with Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz, who were mentors to me.
Why did you decide to leave the brand in the mid-1990s?
I hadn’t taken time off since a very young age, and I was really burned out. I had a family, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Even when my son was born, after four weeks, I went right back to work.
How long did you stay out of the workforce?
I took about a year off. During the time, I pursued a lot of personal interests, which was a lot of fun. When I came back to work, I had a lot more perspective on life, and what I wanted to do.
After returning to the workforce, you held very influential positions with several other design houses, including Michael Kors and Vera Wang. How did you end up at J. Mendel in 2008?
A friend who is a stylist introduced me to Gilles Mendel, the heir of the line, and we really hit it off.
After all of your years working in fashion, how is J. Mendel different?
It’s such an incredible brand, with such a pristine and luxury positioning. Although its heritage stems from fur, the company introduced ready-to-wear in 2002. It was a natural transition from unapologetic luxury to beautiful evening gowns. We’ve really been evolving in these challenging economic times, and have adapted by expanding our product offering and the price range of our lines yet still remaining luxury. More than anything, J. Mendel is a house of emotions. You sense the women in the clothing.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in the fashion world?
I’m a native New Yorker—I grew up on Central Park West and 86th—and from a young age, I was surrounded by retail. My father was a textile merchant, and some of his best friends were garment center people. I was always surrounded by fashion at home, but I also had a real love for clothing. I was glued to fashion magazines, and I loved to dress up. When I went to school, I studied English, and I thought that I was going to be a teacher. But fashion was my first love, and it’s where I ended up.
How has it been balancing such an amazing career with being a mother?
I started my career a long time ago. My son is 29, and I have a stepson who was 13 at the time when I got married. When I became President of the Calvin Klein Collection, I was a brand new mother. I found myself really conflicted about it, because I’m the type of person who gives 1,000 percent to everything I do. I was so torn for so many years trying to balance work and my family to my standards.
But I’m so grateful I kept my career. I have an incredible partner in my husband, who is so supportive, and helps me to balance my life. I eventually learned to prioritize quality over length of time. If I came home at 7pm, I would spend the two hours with my son before he went to bed really focusing on him. We would do a project together, or just spend time reading.
Have you had to give up a lot to be so successful?
It’s funny, but I find that I have to give up a lot more now, later in my career. I have to attend more events and spend more time at work. I’ve never been busier. But when I was a young mother, my priorities were very clear, so in some ways, it made it easier to manage my time. And having a child never felt like giving anything up.
What would you have done differently?
In retrospect, it might have been easier to have a second child. Then my son would have had a companion to spend time with. But I actually wasn’t able to get pregnant after my son was born, so we had to accept the situation for what it was. I feel very lucky to have the life I’ve led, and I don’t think that my son lacked for anything. We were always the type of parents who made sure that all of his friends felt welcome at our home. We had the senior prom party at our house in the Hamptons, for example. However, even though it’s been tough at times, if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.
Do you think your career has helped you to be a better mother?
My career has definitely defined me as a person. When I was a new mother, I struggled with that. I wanted to be the good stay-at-home mommy that all of my friends were. But my husband would always tell me that so much of who I am is what I have done with my career. And it has defined what kind of mother I am as well. It got me involved with my son’s school, whether it was being the class mom, or organizing a bake sale, or fundraising. I knew how to do all of this because I knew how to run a business, so I could apply my skills to mothering as well.
If nothing else, it’s made me a really good role model for him, because through me, he saw what it meant to have a great career with a balanced life. He also learned how to really respect women, which is an important gift that women of my generation gave to the sons that we raised.
Was there anyone who has mentored you along the way, and in turn, have you mentored many people?
Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz were probably my greatest mentors, because I was with them for so many years. They taught me everything I know about running a business. Today, I absolutely try to mentor as many women as possible. Not only do I speak to people outside of my field, but I also try to create a work environment where other women—and men—feel comfortable approaching me with problems and questions. It’s not who you are as an individual that makes you successful. It’s how you work within a group. It’s the people whom you decide to surround yourself with. I try to hire people who have strengths that I don’t have. I want them to be comfortable, and happy. I want them to be able to ask me for advice. I try to be understanding, and to give them the best advice I can based on my years of experience.
Being that you’re such a successful woman, have you always been proactive about your own financial well-being?
Absolutely. I have always been involved in the decision making about our investments, our estate planning, how we control our destiny as a family. I’m the kind of person who learns along the way. If I need to figure it out, I teach myself, on my own terms.
What advice would you give to women trying to learn more about financial literacy?
What I would say to other women is—ask the questions. Don’t be afraid. If you don’t understand something around finance, figure out how to navigate the road map.
When I first got started at Calvin Klein, it was a start-up, so I learned from the bottom up. But I got so far ahead because I really made sure I understood how the finances of the company worked and I asked questions when I didn’t understand something. I didn’t want to just sit back, and wait for someone else to answer the question. Women need to take the initiative, and be proactive about their own financial well being.
What advice do you have for young women?
I’ve always been passionate about what I was doing in fashion, ever since a young age. But more than anything, no matter what industry you’re in, if you want to be successful, you have to work hard. Work ethic is so important. If you work hard and feel passionately about what you’re doing, you’ll work it out.