When I moved to Chicago after college to break into the fashion industry (I know, I know – I didn’t have the budget to move to New York), my first boss in the apparel industry was truly an inspiration to me. She was originally a New Yorker, full of amazing life and industry experience. And most of all, she was truly passionate about fashion and her career in it. She lived it, and she breathed it. And I could tell. To this day, she really inspires me. Prior to doing this interview with designer Christina Makowsky, I had never spoken with someone else and felt such passion and knowledge come through about their industry experience. Christina really struck a chord with me. And it was exciting. I encourage you to read carefully, wisdom and true knowledge of the fashion business like hers doesn’t come along often.
Her designs are the definition of luxury and favorites of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but there is much more to her story and the message behind her line. Her words are truly an inspiration to women, mothers and anyone who has that deep passion for fashion, or anything that they’re doing. Or even anyone who has had an extremely embarrassing moment with their child.
Christina, your resume boasts a top tier fashion design education and 28 years of running your own high end boutiques in New York, two major accomplishments. Tell us how you started on the design path and ended up in retail.
I was educated as a designer (at FIT) and right after I graduated I went to the Pret-a-Porter and Milan tradeshows. You won’t believe it, but at that time there weren’t a lot of European designers in New York. It wasn’t easy to get these designers. When I went there I said “Oh my god, these are the most gorgeous clothes and I haven’t seen them. I would much rather bring back these clothes and sell them (then design)”. So I went and I got them and it just evolved from there.
Fast forward 28 years. You decide to close the doors of your high end boutiques after an extremely successful run. What happened?
I think I had the best ride in retail, designer, luxury fashion. I was there at the moment, I grabbed it and it was just the most fabulous career. I loved every second of it. But as the years progressed things evolved and all of the designers came here. They started to be in all of the department stores and then they started being in free standing stores. It just got to a point where I said “What is the reason I am doing this?” You could get all of the clothes wherever you wanted.
When I used to come back from my buying trips my clients couldn’t wait for me to get home to tell them what was there. You couldn’t see a fashion show; you didn’t know what was going on. I always loved to find the next big designer. It was just fantastic. I was on a high for 22 years. But little by little it started not becoming luxury to me anymore because I was just so spoiled. To me luxury is exclusivity, its precious, and you can’t find it (everywhere). That is luxury to me.
You then decided to start your own label. That’s a bold move. What inspired you to take the leap from retail to design after already having such a successful career?
I started designing my own pieces (while my stores were still open). My clients would say “Christina, can I get that?” And then my girlfriend who had 5 children had her last son getting bar mitzvah’d. She said “Chris, I just want a dress. I want it to be all sequins, it’s my last child, this is it, and I just want a gorgeous dress.” I said “I’m embarrassed to tell you that that dress is going to be $15,000.” She said “Chris I know you can do it just make me the dress”. I went and researched and I made her the most gorgeous dress for $5000. She was thrilled out of her mind. And I was excited again. I came home that night and said “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not doing it,” and my husband said “Okay, great! Retire!” I said “Retire? Are you kidding me!? It’s in my blood, it’s in my veins”. I love making women happy. I love giving them something they feel special and good about.
So then you took the leap to designing your own line…
I closed the stores which was really sad because it was so much a part of my life. But I knew that it just didn’t feel right anymore. And I started pursuing this (design) and I just love it! Every day I get up and I am just as excited as when I got into the business. So it evolved backwards.
And now I do feel like I am my client. The way I travel, the way I dress. I have five children and I have a very global life. I know what women need in their lives. I’m not a designer who sits in their ivory tower and does these sketches; I’m not in a dream world.
Lisa Vanderpump in Christina Makowsky
I didn’t know you are a mom of five. How you even begin to manage such a successful career with 5 kids?
Well the business came before the children. I was 22 so I didn’t have any children when I started this. And it’s really hard. But I say all the time if you give a busy person something to do they get it done. If you have the passion you make it work. You fit it in. And their (my children’s) lives were very organized.
I’m a delegator. You have to be and you have to have key people that you can depend on that can pick up the ball. I was very fortunate to have help in my home. I was fortunate to come from a large family and to come from the greatest mom on the planet. I had my mom move in; I had my housekeeper there to take care of my mom so she could take care of the kids. If you want something you make it work.
That’s very useful advice for moms with careers. Or even stay-at-home moms.
Yes. My kids went to all the shows with me when they were tiny. I’ll tell you the funniest story. My son Christian was 8 days old and I had committed to doing this cover shoot for a fashion magazine and he came to the park (where the shoot was) with me. Now it would probably be child abuse, but the shoot took 12 hours. He came in his basket, he had all his little bottles lined up and he was in the photo shoot with me. But you know, you do whatever you have to do.
That is probably a good story for him to tell now.
That’s why he says he’s crazy! He also fell and he cracked his chin in the middle of a Lagerfeld show at the Plaza Hotel once. I wanted to kill myself. He was 4 years old and everyone is all in linen and white because it’s in June and he steps on the toilet to wash his hands because he can’t reach the sink, he slips and he hits his chin on the marble. All of a sudden in the middle of the show you hear this hysterical screaming. And you know when you hit your chin, there was all this blood! It was good thing that he was cute!
Thank you. Next time I am having a “moment” with my son I will remember that it could be at a Lagerfeld show.
Thank goodness I was one of their biggest clients at the time.
Speaking of Lagerfeld, not everyone has the huge budget to spend on wardrobe designed by him and his counterparts. Can you suggest key staples that you’ve learned are worth the splurge for women?
I’ve said it my whole career and I will always say it, it’s all about the jacket. You can buy a t-shirt from the Gap and leggings from Topshop, I don’t care. You have the right jacket on and you can make it work a multitude of different ways and you always look like you are dressed.
And then there are those that do have the budget for more than a jacket, which brings me to Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. How did your relationship with the Housewives begin and how did they start wearing your designs?
I travel a lot and I knew Lisa when she lived in Monaco, so I’ve known her for about 10 years. And when she came here we remained friends and she always loved my styles, so it was very natural for her to love the collection when I started doing my own pieces. They look great on her and they fit her lifestyle. Then I met Kyle when they came to New York for the Kelsey Grammer opening last year. Lisa was in a panic, she needed something to wear, so she came up to my studio. She came with Kyle and she just fell in love with that lace bustier and jacket.
Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards in Christina Makowsky
I read that a portion of your trunk show sales go towards benefiting people in need. Tell me about that.
It goes back to trying to put something into the clothes that is meaningful, especially when we hit with the recession. My clients are pretty affluent and because of that they’re philanthropic and a lot of people got really hurt, so the first thing that goes is charity. This was a way for them to feel good about buying something. If I have a client that does a trunk show with my collection, part of the proceeds goes in her name to the charity she supports. So she and her friends can feel good about something going back to what they believe in. Even if they can’t write out that check the way they used to this a way to supplement that.
That’s a great idea.
Fashion is so frivolous and when disposable income shrinks but you still really feel like you want to buy something new it’s so nice to feel like “Okay, I’m buying this but something is going back”.
Christina Makowsky pieces are custom made or produced in limited quantities. What made you go in this direction as opposed to mass producing your styles?
They’re beautiful clothes and they’re incredibly made and the value is amazing. They’re not the crazy, crazy (designer) prices. I do custom for special clients but basically my collection is online at ChristinaMakowsky.com. All of the jackets and dresses are only limited edition. And they’re all made here in New York. Made in America.
Lisa Vanderpump in Christina Makowsky
BBHB: What designers have inspired you the most?
Every single designer, I adore all of them. I think they all have their own point of view. My favorite of all time is Karl Lagerfeld. I think he is genius, genius, genius. He’s just constantly evolving. He is just impeccable. Another one I think is gold is Azzedine Alaia because he’s kept his collection exclusive, and that to me is luxury. I still think Louis Vuitton is luxury and I think Hermes is luxury.
What can we expect out of your Spring 2012 collection?
If you follow my collection you’ll see that there is always a thread and it’s always pretty consistent. It’s all about very simple pieces done with the best fabrics in a very edgy way to make it a little younger and a little cooler. You’ll never see drastic changes. You’ll never say “What’s that collection? Who did it?”. I want my clients to always continue to add to that Christina collection and continue to mix it. I’m not trendy, you don’t buy my clothes for a season and then you can’t wear it at all because it looks dated. It’s for an intelligent client that wants to build an intelligent wardrobe. It’s about integrity and luxury not priced in designer price point
My 26 year old is in finance and she even wears my clothes. And all her friends, they all want my clothes. It’s just the way you put it together. You put it with leggings and you put a look blazer on and riding boots and you dress it up and down.
And it’s as simple as that.
I’d live to give a special thank you Christina Makowsky for taking the time out of her busy schedule to chat with me. It was truly a pleasure.
Shop Christina Makowsky’s Collection at ChristinaMakowsky.com