A Conversation With Rebecca Minkoff

If you haven't already, meet Rebecca Minkoff: American fashion designer, activist, and, now, champion of female-founded businesses.
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Rebecca Minkoff Headshot_Photography by Paul Maffi

Our friend and fashion editor, stylist, and consultant, Georgia Alexia Benjou, sat down with the incomparable Rebecca Minkoff to discuss her fashion-filled life and new business venture. 

Rebecca Minkoff is a busy woman. Between running a successful fashion company, expanding her boutique business, involving herself in activist causes, and being a mom to three children under the age of ten, Minkoff — like most women — has a full family, career, and personal life. Yet Minkoff, an earthy beauty in her late 30s, seems completely calm. In person she is unaffected and relaxed (in fact, when I meet her, she was swathed in a nursing cover pumping breast milk for her third child, who was born last February). 

I chatted with Minkoff during her brief break from staging her Spring 2019 fashion show for the Guild of the Children’s Diabetes Foundation and the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes to discuss how she approaches designing a new collection, diversity in fashion, and her latest passion project, the Female Founder Collective.

I watched your Spring 2019 runway show on your website. It's beautiful! What was your inspiration for the season?

It started out with Ibiza. There’s this really incredible book titled Ibiza. I was attracted to it originally because it has a neon pink cover. It has photographs from the late 1960s and early 70s, when Ibiza had become an enclave for artists and musicians. There was a sense of optimism and a celebration of love, so the collection was really rooted in that. It also celebrates the strength of women, so strong shouldered silhouettes, nipped in waists — playing with proportion to showcase the many dimensions of women. And then we used print on several different fabrics and layered them to show depth. But in no way does this look like a 70s collection, it’s very modern.

You’re well-known for your design work with accessories, especially handbags. What are your must-have bags for Spring 2019?

These would be my go-to bags for the season:
— The Kate bucket bag, which I really love; we also do it in two-tone, so one side is white and one side is black.
— The Kate circle bag, which we do in a white faux croc and a yellow. I think it’s really great; you can wear it crossbody, but also hand-held.
— Our Carly Chain Hobo, over your shoulder or handheld.
— I love this “Love” sling; all of our bags like this you don’t have to wear as a fanny pack – we’re showing all of them crossbody.
— And then for a tote — especially for the beach – I love the translucent trend. This big oversized tote comes in clear and cream, but we also have it in black.

What’s your starting point when designing a new collection?

I have two starting off points: One is usually images or books (like the one I mentioned above). But because I travel so much, I always try and visit a good vintage shop or market, so a collection can also start from found items. Plus, I do a lot of research into a certain time period or movement. And it’s not just me – it’s a team. So it’s really a group effort, where I’ll start it off, but then once my team knows my words, they bring their own magic to it.

I love hearing you acknowledge that it’s a team effort. 

Yeah, I don’t know why people pretend that it’s just them. There are a whole lot of people who are working really hard behind the scenes so I like to acknowledge them — I’m sitting here because they’re there (in New York) making sure stuff is being done.

With so many influential women either running their own label or designing for a major house, do you think women are able to bring a certain combination of intelligence and functionality to fashion?

I think that women design for women with a sense of what happens every month or what happens after a child. I think there’s less glamazon and sex – it’s not about sex for female designers or looking sexy or the kind of sexy we’re used to seeing in advertisements. I sometimes think if you look at a lot of male designers it’s about that typical feminine silhouette, and I think women explore differences or are more inclusive because we’ve all been through different phases.

I believe it was Tom Ford who once said in an interview the reason why he thinks men can always maintain one point of view of a woman is because men don’t go through menopause, childbirth, and their period. For me, that’s pretty much why I only buy from female designers — because there’s more of an understanding of the female body. There’s a certain male designer where I go into his shop and I feel fat every time I come out of it. No matter what I try on, I just feel fat. He’s designing for a hanger.

What's exciting to you in fashion right now?

I think that because it’s so democratic it’s an exciting time to chart your own path versus the prescribed route that had to be taken before. And that’s good and bad, when there was a prescribed path, you knew what to do to make things work and now everyone can go their own way. But what works – in terms of marketing and PR – that whole landscape has changed; you have to be a brand that’s testing and reacting a lot. Even five years ago, I could just get my stuff into a magazine and that product would sell. Or you used to just have to be on Oprah and it would be fine — and now that doesn’t exist. So it’s just different now, product has to be on the right few influencers and then in a magazine — there are a lot of different things you need to have happen.

One thing I noticed about your runway show was the diversity of models – from skin tone to body shape – and that’s still really rare in this industry. Is that important to you to show all types of women on your runway?

There was always a really diverse group of models because I felt like my customer base is diverse. If I’m not showing my customer different versions (of women) then what am I doing? Plus, as we’ve increased our sizing I think we’ve been able to have more size inclusivity on the runway and when working with influencers. So it’s been important to me from day one and I feel like, sadly, it’s just now becoming trendy. It’s a little weird, there’s a lot of us who’ve been doing this for a long time but we weren’t promoting it and now it’s like did we check that box?

I’m so glad you said that because I don’t care what color a model’s skin is or what her background is – if she’s right for the project I’m working on, then she’s perfect.

Right. And I think that companies have to not just put that on the runway and then when you look inside the company, all you see is a white company, right?

Which we’ve seen a few incidents of recently…

Yeah, we’re in a really transparent age so if you’re going to talk this talk you’ve got to be able to walk it. I’m proud that we’ve got the entire shade range in my company. You have to be sure that it’s not just something that makes you cool or relevant.

One of the reasons we’re meeting is because you’re staging the fashion show portion of the Brass Ring Luncheon in Denver benefitting the Children’s Diabetes Foundation. What made you want to take your show on the road and come to Denver for this event?

I had gestational diabetes with two out of my three kids, so I know what it’s like to live with that for nine months of my life. There was a lot of fear, because there are obviously a lot of scary things that can happen. I can’t imagine being the parent of a child (with diabetes) and it’s not just for nine months — it’s for their whole life. That’s devastating. So I think when Dana called [Dana Davis, the Executive Director of the Children’s Diabetes Foundation] — we have a mutual friend from the fashion industry — and asked me to do this fashion show, I was like I’m happy to do what I can and raise a lot of money. We got a tour of the lab today and it was just fascinating to see how close — like maybe in this lifetime — we are to a cure.

Dana is a really inspiring woman. And speaking of inspiring women, you’ve been really active in women’s empowerment over the last few years, from highlighting inspiring women’s stories on your website to your social media accounts. What made you want to focus on women’s empowerment besides – obviously – being a woman?

Around 2013 or 2014 I started noticing people asking me you’re a female founder – what’s that like? To me, and to most women who start companies, you don’t think oh, I’m a woman and I’m starting a company – you just start the company. And then as I began to talk to more and more women and people in C-level positions, there’s this huge gap of quality of pay, of rights, etc., and I just thought, this is fucked up. So for me, it was out of hearing about it, because I didn’t necessarily encounter it being in fashion. It was a shock to me that this could exist. So, I thought, I have a mouth – I can change things and make them better. Hopefully, more examples of strong women will give girls more women to look up to and know I can be that, I can do that or I can have those rights or I can be equal. I think that was just important to me.

What’s shocking to me is – having just been in Asia – they haven’t realized it. There’s not even the awareness that something’s wrong. There’s a sense that the status quo should just remain. One woman was like, I know you’re really into feminism, but could you not say the word feminism because here that means angry women that go up and slice people. And I was like, That’s not my kind of feminism. I just want you to get paid equally and have a good maternity leave and have the right to a good position. It’s like a dirty word there because of these women who are violent. So it’s just a very weird thing that I feel some of us take for granted here.

In September of 2018, you went one step further and established the Female Founder Collective. Can you tell our audience a little about the collective and the goals you’ve set out to achieve with it?

The Female Founder Collective launched in September of last year with the idea being we as consumers have a lot of power with the choices we make whether it’s buying non-GMO or organic or whatever you feel like you need in your life. I came across a study that found 80% of women were more likely to support female-founded companies if they knew how. The idea was: Could we first and foremost develop a symbol that would change consumer-shopping behavior? Whether that symbol is on a storefront or on the back of a package or on your website, would you be more likely to buy from a woman? And then, could we connect a network of women with different, hard-won knowledge and expertise to share with each other and help each other’s companies advance that much faster?

So when I launched it (FFC) I hoped people would care about this, and the response was incredible — we have over 4,000 companies that have signed on and now they’re all connected. We’re building a directory so, for example, if someone wants to buy kamboucha, it’s from Healthaid or if they want to buy clothing, it’s from Rebecca Minkoff – whatever it is, all categories will be there and it’ll be a one stop shop for women-owned businesses.

What’s next on the horizon for you, whether in fashion or with the Female Founder Collective? You’re a busy lady with your business, the FFC, three kids…

Yes, I am a busy lady! What’s next? Well, the reason I was just in Asia is because we opened up a store in South Korea and two pop up shops in Japan. So I think Asia is our next big area of expansion, and I’ve been focusing on that. That’s all I got.

Well, that’s a lot! I don’t think people know just how much it takes to open a new store.

Well, we’re lucky – we have great partners there. And as for the busy lady stuff, again I have a great team. It’s not just me. I couldn’t do this without the 65 people – 60 women and 5 men – who make all of the different parts happen. 

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