Women in Business Q&A: Dara Lamb
03/04/2015 09:42am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
In 1982, Dara Lamb founded her company because she couldn’t find anything to wear. She was working with her two brothers in their engineering firm at the time. “I thought, ‘This can’t be right. And I can’t be the only woman who feels this way.’ So I started making clothes for us.”
She studied multi-media then engineering, but textiles have always been her real passion. Her school was her stepfather’s upholstery workroom where she mastered tailoring and dressmaking, picking up skills from “old, crotchety tailors,” she says.
Dara’s tailored collection has been influenced by Italian and French styling and workmanship and she travels to Paris and Milan twice a year to work with European mills and select fabrics for her collections. She has been featured in Business Week, Departures Magazine, New York Magazine,. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and has spoken on her philosophy of clothing and entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, Brooklyn Law School and Baruch College.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
There’s no question that my mother, a single working mom, had the greatest influence on me growing up.
She was a single parent in the early sixties, a time when that was rare. Her exceptional strength while raising four children on her own taught me perseverance, resilience and the importance of keeping a positive attitude. It is the source of one of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up”.
My mother taught us to be thankful for what we had because if we just raised our eyes, we could see others who had less. She took pains to keep us together and treat us equally, and to this day we remain a very close family.
Growing up a “latch key kid” helped me become self-reliant. I think it also makes me feel comfortable working with the millennial generation, many of whom grew up in families where either both parents worked, or where there was only one parent available. Growing up in a family that was “different” (we were one of only three families of divorce in our elementary school), made me unafraid to pursue my passion and not conform.
My mother was the sole breadwinner at a time when women had few opportunities. I didn’t get an allowance and started working early on. I saw first hand how difficult it was for my mother to manage a job with little opportunity for advancement while caring for the family with no outside help. This is why my commitment to helping women succeed is so deeply rooted and continues to be a powerful motivator.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Dara Lamb Couture?
Before I started my company, I worked in a startup founded by my two brothers, both talented engineers who were passionate about reducing energy waste in the HVAC systems of large commercial and residential buildings. They competed with the biggest multinational players and beat them with straightforward competitive bidding and superior energy savings. They cared about their clients on a personal level and their “cause” on a professional level.
I became so passionate about what they were doing and how they used cutting edge technology to do it, that I left art school to join their small, fast-moving company. The entrepreneurial bug bit and I quickly started to see challenges as opportunities that could be solved with new business concepts.
One of the first problems I encountered as a freshly-minted business woman was the lack of stylish, well-made clothing options for women like me and I decided to do something about it. The eponymous Dara Lamb label was born 25 years ago with the goal of offering female executives the finest hand-tailored custom clothing available.
What began as a traditional retail store evolved into a “new fashioned” atelier where I work individually with clients to create wardrobes to convey their signature style for every situation. Never satisfied with the quality and value of clothing offered women at any price point, I started doing my own production to achieve the best cut and construction without cutting corners. I work with in partnership with clients to customize and create each garment one at a time, to their measurements, then it is custom fitted and finished right here in our West 57th street studio.
To this day, my background as an artist informs every aspect of my designs, but my engineering, systems and computer skills were what enabled me to build a business whose products depend on so many custom details.
Decades later, my mission remains the same: empower women by sharpening their image then use it as a strategic tool to communicate their ideas, develop their personal brand and accomplish their professional goals.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Dara Lamb Couture?
My clients are the highlight of almost every day. They are incredible women doing amazing things, and I help them stand out with custom clothing and an impeccable fit that gives them their own signature style. It is incredibly gratifying. I have made many outfits for meetings with the President and other heads of state, and have dressed women behind the microphone at Senate and Supreme Court hearings that have changed lives. I’m also thrilled to play a part in joyous family celebrations by dressing a proud mother of the bride or groom.
Then there are the two clients who stand out for reasons altogether different. Both were paralyzed from the neck down, one by MS and the other by a skiing accident. My pattern makers and I rose to the challenges and devised special fittings and closures to meet the women’s needs and fit comfortably. At her final fitting, one of the women looked in the mirror and said, “oh, my god - I look normal.” I’ll never forget her. She looked beautiful.
For challenges - I’d narrow it to three.
From a pure economic standpoint, the two greatest were 9/11 and the recession. Both forced me to reassess everything. 9/11 was so sudden - you just had to react, scramble and do the best you could. 9/11 in some ways prepared me for 2008/09.
The severity of the downturn in 2008 and the number of clients I had in the banking sector forced me to reconstruct everything. In 2009 I shrunk my footprint in real estate and product offerings -moves that seemed drastic at the time but turned out to be some of the best business decisions I’ve made. I repositioned my business as one of the only women’s clothing companies to work in the “true couture method” in the US, with hand-made, individual production at the point of sale.
The third challenge was staying true to my design vision and philosophy, without being distracted by the cacophony of the fashion industry and the media who, by and large, still don’t understand the lives and needs of businesswomen when it comes to their wardrobes. Trends may come and go, but timeless fashion is just that - timeless.
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Try not to get to caught up in “flavor of the month” thinking because much of the business news we see is generated by the financial community (whose job it is to generate the highest return for their clients by jumping from one investment to the next) and financial media (whose job is to generate news).) Both trade on price movement not long-term business models.
There’s certainly merit to jumping on trends and profiting from them, but, things don’t always work out as planned. Remember, a business is a long term and time consuming commitment. Passion will get you through some tough times but if you don’t like what you have to do day in and day out your commitment will be hard to maintain.
I had three concepts in mind when I launched the Dara Lamb label, each with a mission that excited me. But I started this one because I knew that I would be happy surrounded by fine fabrics every day and using my design and fitting skills, and working with the clients. The icing on the cake is having clients whose excellence in their fields drives me to meet them at their level.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
How to communicate. Being a good communicator is one of the most important things a leader can master. It helps you deliver bad news and foster trust in tough times.
Remember to take the time to recognize everyone who put their best effort into a project. Sometimes you get so busy, it’s hard to take the time, but doing this is not only critical to your clients and the morale of the team, but it gives you the opportunity to own your success and boost your own confidence as you reach for the next rung.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The concept of balance is a new idea with little historic precedent. I think the issue puts yet another burden us women, one more thing to take on, one more thing to achieve. It’s something else on the to-do list of people who already do their best to prioritize and meet the needs of work and family.
It also negates the value of true passion for one’s work and what that brings to relationships. Enthusiasm is contagious - especially to young people - and can inspire them to accomplish great things themselves.
That said, I always make time to unplug - everything, devices included. I find reconnecting with nature incredibly restorative and that’s the first thing I try to do. A walk on the beach, a hike in the fall to see the leaves, and my absolute favorite, kayaking on the Long Island Sound with friends. Priceless pleasures, absolutely free.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It’s very hard to narrow that down to just one.
External challenges aside, internal challenges are more insidious because they make it that much harder to overcome the external ones. Most women over the age of thirty today have been raised to devalue their career over their family and marital responsibilities. Younger women are being blasted by a pop culture that teaches them to value themselves by their ability to present to men as sexual objects. Young men, on the other hand, even in pop lyrics, are valued by their ability to earn. Result? Most women grow up in conflict over their careers and men don’t.
Women have to recognize those messages for exactly what they are: other people’s ideas of who they should be and what they deserve. They have to allow themselves the freedom to pursue their careers and thrive, to tell themselves over and over “I deserve”. Sheryl Sandberg had it right when she advised young women to choose a partner who will support their career and stop those tired old messages from continuing to dominate every choice they make.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Every independent business owner needs external sounding boards. I’m lucky to count among my clients and associates some of the most brilliant women in business and most active and caring women in philanthropy whose ears I can bend and shoulders I can lean on.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I feel like every day I find another fabulous woman leader to admire and I am very lucky to count many of these women as clients and see them shine from up close. It is so exciting to see them attain more and much higher levels of power and influence than ever before.
Some are in incredibly challenging roles, like being the CEO of a struggling multinational and turning it around. More and more women in politics and law are raising their voices and being heard on issues that will change the lives of millions around the world. Women in philanthropy are creating foundations and projects that will truly change our landscape and improve the world in ways impossible to calculate. Then there are the mothers who are doing their best to raise the next generation of women and men who will be caring and fair.
What do you want Dara Lamb Couture to accomplish in the next year?
I would like to help more women leaders in industry, politics, law and philanthropy make their message more effective by creating signature pieces that communicate their authority, confidence and leadership. I’ll help them and grow my business.
For younger women professionals: I’m starting a speaking series on “strategic dressing” to help them use the principles I’ve developed over the years working with high level women. I’ll be expanding my more accessibly priced DARA line so they will have customizable clothing within their reach.
My philanthropic goals grow with my business. I am involved in and donate to many of the charities and foundations my clients are involved in. One of the newest on my horizon (and I think it should be on everyone’s) is the Restore the Earth Foundation whose mission is reforesting one million acres of land along the Mississippi River (North America’s Amazon). I’ve designed a scarf to help spread the word, proceeds from which will benefit the organization behind this campaign.