It’s hard to say when exactly I knew I’d be friends with Sondra. If I had to bet it was somewhere between us laughing over a moment in Bridget Jones’ Diary and us then taking it 10 steps further by actually reenacting an entire scene in person, WITH accents (as you do). Let’s just say even with thousands of miles between us and limited opportunity to actually connect on a regular basis I feel incredibly close to this sassy and fiery lady and therefore immensely grateful. She’s the kind of person that would fight for you if anyone so much as looked at you sideways and she has such an immense heart. Last month I ventured back east for some visits and my first stop was to see Sondra in NYC. We’re always commiserating on life, love, work, and general ponderings and this trip was no exception. Sondra is a Director of Technical Design at Ann Taylor LOFT and LOFT Outlets. She has been there 18 years! Given that so many of us seem to job-hop a lot these days (myself included) I wanted to dig in a bit more. I think it’s invaluable to learn from one another’s experiences whenever we can so I asked her if I could interview her to learn a bit more about her career in fashion, living in New York (after years in New Jersey, she’s a new-ish resident of Brooklyn), shopping trends (just in time for the holidays) and how she continues to look for ways to stay relevant in an ever-changing industry and workplace.
Can you describe your career path? Did it follow a specific trajectory from childhood or did it evolve a lot?
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in fashion. From eight on, I was doodling designs in a sketch book on a character named Martha Martle that I invented. I decided to go to Syracuse University because it offered a full liberal arts education. I wanted this just in case I was 100% sold on my new career. When I graduated I had a hard time finding a job as a designer. While SU focused on construction and pattern-making skills, they did not push portfolio. Other schools like FIT and Parsons work with students all four years on portfolio, so once they are interviewing they have projects to show employers. My portfolio skills were not strong enough to land me a job in design. I started freelancing at Ann Taylor in the Technical Design department. My boss, who is still a mentor of mine, Renee Bavineau, really took a chance on me. I was a 21 year old kid out of school, and I had zero experience. It wasn’t like today where everyone has 3 or 4 internships before they start working. The interesting thing is I fell into Tech Design, but it’s what I’m best suited for. I never had the most interesting or creative design at school, but I was really good at helping others to make their pattern better. I sort of lucked out that I’m in a position that I’m well suited for. I am responsible for maintaining fit integrity while also making sure the factory understands the aesthetic of the merchant and design team. I’ve been with Ann Taylor/LOFT 18 years. I’m a definite anomaly in that business. I’m also constantly open to evolving how I work and trying to pay attention to the industry, so that I have skills that will carry me into the future.
What is your favorite thing about working in the fashion industry and even more specifically working in product?
My favorite thing is the creativity and the constant change of the industry and business. I love working on product and figuring out how to make it better. It’s really easy to work on expensive product, because there are no limitations. In my work, we have to continually find ways to move the product forward in a way that is appropriate for who we dress, while still staying within a certain cost and price structure. I manage a range of products at work, but my favorite is dresses because they are challenging to fit, but also so beautiful to work on. Dresses are emotional and feminine. I just love them!
You’re located in NYC, one of the most inspirational cities in the world. What do you find most invigorating about it? Is there anything about it that you find challenging?
I love the energy of New York City. I grew up outside of Buffalo in a small little town. I wasn’t exposed to many people who were that different from me–lots of working class Roman Catholic Italian and Polish families. I love that New York has exposed me to all different types of people. It really forces you to go outside yourself and to be open in a way that was not possible for me if I stayed close to home. The constant go of the city is this energy that just feeds me and keeps me moving, learning, growing and challenging myself. When I leave New York for too long I go through withdrawal. I get really anxious and I just can’t wait to get ‘home.’ The things I sometimes find challenging–the cost of living, especially real estate and getting to an age where I am considering buying my own home. And also dating. With so many people it should be easy, but I haven’t found it to be.
You recently moved to Brooklyn, arguably one of the hottest boroughs in New York. Do you have any insider favorite things to do or places to go eat in your new hood?
I love Brooklyn! I wish I moved here five years ago. I moved to South Park Slope from Hoboken, NJ in May of this year. I still have so many places to explore but some of my local favorites are Laconda Mariella, a great Italian spot with good wine. And I also love Piccoli Trattoria another great Italian place a block away from my apartment. Also in Downtown Brooklyn Dekalb Food Market recently opened. That is a great spot–all different local food vendors from around NYC and Brooklyn.
People seem to be making more purchases these days with littler known companies that are more mission-driven to make a difference in the world. Do you have any favorite brands that you’re loving right now who are being innovative on that front?
Yes! I love what Everlane is doing with their total transparency. I also really like Rachel Craven Textiles based out of LA. The shoe company Coclico is all about sustainability, and accessories designer Clare Vivier uses more natural dyeing processes on her leather goods. My newest love is a local store in my neighborhood called Bhoomki. The only sell ethically made goods and they have their own label, which is made in an all women factory. And they are all about sustainability and employing factory workers in an ethical, fair way.
You’ve had a very successful career to date, What advice would you give to someone just entering the work force?
Be kind and be willing to work hard. I would rather employ someone with gusto, drive, and willingness than someone who on paper has the ‘best’ skill set. Dress professionally for your interview–I don’t necessarily mean a suit, but look put together. It does matter how you show up and present yourself. And try to have fun with what you do. Try to create a work environment that is pleasant. You spends hours a day there, so you might as well enjoy it.