As rain pours outside on an empty Lincoln Square plaza, a group of senior high schoolers are nestled into the womenswear section of Brooks Brothers for a tutorial.
It’s not similar to any tutorial they will receive in their final year of school however, or in their future collegiate careers. In fact, this tutorial is about as rare as they come, and that’s why it’s so important. The girls wait tentatively for the guest speaker, and the delivery of a speech that will most likely stick with them for their collegiate years and into their first jobs.
"Clothing is your armor, it's your protection, but it's also a business tool."
The Principal Women's stylist of the 200 year-old company, Stacy Wallace-Albert is here to deliver the talk, dressed immaculately of course, and busying herself with the preparation of her props: a rail of Brooks Brothers fall collection.
The talk has been organized by Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, who began an initiative last year to encourage girls into STEM fields at an age when many begin to fall off that wagon, between age 16-18. Adding an element to the programme this year, the school organized this talk with stylist Wallace-Albert of Brooks Brothers in order to advise how to dress professionally, appropriately, and to impress. There’s a big difference between the woman and the man who can dress well for work, and Wallace-Albert stresses this throughout her talk. Men have a formula for success: tailoring, ties, trousers. Women on the other hand, very rarely get tailoring, have a wild array of accessories for an outfit rather than just the singular tie, and have to choose between different bottoms on different occasions because society has dictated this for years. The choices for women can be overwhelming, and hence the difficulty presented: when there is so much available, what to choose for your professional wardrobe?
Stacy Wallace-Albert. Photo courtesy of The Fashion Editor
One of the first things Albert says - “clothing: it can enhance who you are, but it can also distract what you do,” becomes a running narrative for the duration of the talk. Women, because of a multitude of factors; sexism, history, social standing - have to earn everything in business. They’ve to earn the right to a silent boardroom, a seat at the table, attention paid while delivering a presentation. And what’s the biggest excuse for distraction? Well, their looks, of course.
Photo courtesy of Brooks Brothers
Wallace-Albert went on to provide bullet points fr the girls to follow into their professional years. Get a staple white blouse. Invest in good, solid pieces. Don’t wear a skirt that will ride up under the table. Don’t wear a blouse with your bra popping out at the chest. Don’t give anyone an excuse to forget what you had to say because they were too busy looking at a stray thread or a bulging button.
"If something wrinkles (when you squeeze it) walk past it. You're sitting, you're commuting on subways, an you want to look good all day," says Wallace-Albert, who advocates heavily for the importance of investment pieces. When choice is so overwhelming for women - perhaps the best thing to do is to step back and remind yourself that if you buy this one expensive thing this one time, it will outlive all the lesser quality, less expensive items. It's a life decision, and a lesson every woman needs to learn, no matter what age.
But why is it particularly important for girls looking to approach the very heavily male-dominant fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
"People's eyes go elsewhere," she says, continuing, "Listen to what I have to say! You want to walk into a room and feel powerful." There's more ways than one to command attention in a room, but looking polished and comfortable is perhaps the most powerful. Tammy Berentson, the Associate Dean of External Affairs for the college, agrees wholeheartedly with Wallace Albert's approach. "Girls in STEM partnering with Brooks Brothers has been very special because we realized that for some of the girls, it's intimidating walking into a corporate environment for the first time."
Having launched their inaugural year of the Girls in STEM initiative in 2016, Columbia plan to continue with the programme and continue with these alternative methods of getting girls throughout the country excited about STEM and about entering these fields with confidence.
SWAAY talked to a few of the girls in attendance about the importance of a professional wardrobe for girls hoping to get into and succeed in male-dominated STEM fields. Of this, Jasmine, 16, had to say "I think dressing well, especially in STEM, is very important because it's all about power, and being a presence - a dominant presence in the field, even if you might not be the dominant gender."
Beside her, Athena, 17, hoping to become a chemical engineer, posits that "when you dress in a way that makes you confident, you become more comfortable in your abilities. As a woman in STEM, it's important that you understand you're meant to be there and how powerful you are as an individual."
"Your clothes tell a story, and you can use your clothes to show your identity to the world,"
This type of seminar, a meeting of minds all hoping to succeed, all aspiring for great careers and a seat the table, was a real eye-opener. Not only were the girls engaged with the clothes but they were engaged with the clothes and their purpose, and their ability to change a perspective or opinion about the person wearing them. This type of information is invaluable and absolutely necessary for the rising generation of female leaders in order for them to further the professional possibilities for women everywhere. Props to Brooks Brothers and Columbia for the collaboration.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.