Famed Fashion Designer Discusses How (and How Not) to Become an Entrepreneur

Kukin Lecture Series Presents Kay Unger: Designer, Business Creator, Philanthropist

What makes for successful entrepreneurs? The ability to see a white space. They see something that needs filling, and they fill it. Intrigued by the answer? So, too, were students from the Sy Syms School of Business students who gathered at Yagoda Commons on Friday, May 10, 2019, to hear Kay Unger share her experiences as a fashion designer and entrepreneur at the academic year’s closing talk of the Doris and Dr. Ira Kukin Entrepreneurial and Executive Lecture Series. Debra Pine, assistant administrative dean at the Sy Syms School of Business, is the series coordinator.

In her welcoming remarks, Marcy Syms, president of the Sy Syms Foundation and fellow entrepreneur, offered a brief summary of her friend’s many accomplishments, among them founder and manager of four global fashion companies: the Gillian Group, Kay Unger New York, Kay J’s Pajama and Phoebe Couture. In 2012, she expanded her design efforts beyond the category of women’s clothing when she launched Kay Unger Design. Presently, she is a trustee of the New School and chairwoman of the board of governors at Parsons School of Design.

Unger began her career in fashion as an apprentice to couture designer Geoffrey Beene in the early 1970s. (Issey Miyake, the Japanese fashion designer known for his technology-driven clothing designs, was Beene’s other assistant). A few years later, she decided to design her own clothes on the side. She would take her bicycle to Bloomingdale’s, one of her first customers, and drop off dress orders before she rode off to her “day job.”  But her career unofficially started much earlier than that. At the age of eight, she received the gift of a sewing machine and wasted no time in creating unique skirts from bedcovers she managed to steal from her family’s linen closet.

“The thing that makes someone an entrepreneur is that you see an opportunity and you just grasp it. Without thinking, without stopping, without worrying that you might not be educated or qualified enough,” said Unger. “You just go for it. That’s how I got into design.”

But the creativity and enthusiasm of the entrepreneurial spirit needs to be balanced by the reality of finance. Her first established company, the Gillian Group, quickly became one of the largest suppliers of women’s apparel in America, growing to a $125 million company. Unger recounted how her superficial understanding of financial fundamentals led to a series of missteps with her partners, resulting in the company filing for bankruptcy. It was a difficult lesson but one from which she recovered.

Cautioning the audience of budding entrepreneurs, Unger remarked that regardless of how unique or niche-filling a product is, “you must be willing to understand finance and business plans. One of the biggest mistakes people make is growing their companies too quickly.”  She also added that “when choosing a business partner, judge them as if they were to be your future spouse.”

Throughout the lecture, she underscored the importance of working for someone else at the start of a career. “Entrepreneurs have to begin somewhere. If your goal is to create your own business, it’s best to work at an established company first,” Unger advised. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s big or small. Learn on someone’s else dime. Find out what you don’t like and understand why.”

In her closing comments, she talked about the challenges of sustainability and how several companies were addressing it in innovative ways, such as Ikea’s give back program, which takes back “gently used furniture” for resale, and The RealReal’s unique approach to luxury consignment sales.  “For entrepreneurs, there are plenty of business opportunities in sustainability,” said Unger.  “Look at the white space that needs to be filled and see how to fill it.”