It’s not every day that you return to your alma mater. It’s definitely not every day that you return to your alma mater to give a commencement address in front of hundreds of people.
On Saturday, May 19, however, Josie Natori will do exactly that. The founder and CEO of The Natori Company, a top global fashion brand that includes ready-to-wear, lingerie, home, bedding, and fragrance collections, will impart her words of wisdom upon the Manhattanville College class of 2018 exactly 50 years after her graduation in 1968. We spoke with her in advance of the big day to learn her secrets to success.
You’re one of the top names in the fashion industry today. How has your Filipino heritage influenced your brand?
A great deal! My biggest assets are: number one, being a woman, and number two, being Asian specifically. Everything I’ve done in the fashion industry is woman-centric. With my Filipino background, it’s a very matriarchal society. There are a lot of strong women.
You got your start in the world of business and finance. Was the transition into fashion difficult?
It was 40 years ago in 1977. It was a very different environment then. I had a very easy time during the first couple of days, since the concept was very unique. I was bringing a novel idea to a very staid industry. It was all tired, frumpy stuff or very lewd stuff. Because I had such a different idea, because I had no background in this, every store signed up from day one.
And as you built the brand?
Nobody taught me about the business. I learned on the job. On Wall Street, your word is as good as gold. When one of my fashion orders canceled after I had already made the pieces, I realized it was very different. You could sign a contract in blood and it didn’t mean anything. There were growing pains, but I liked the challenge. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
From lingerie and ready-to-wear to perfume and home goods, you’ve done it all. What’s next on the horizon?
The best is yet to come. We have different price points but the same design DNA. We’re not all over the place. We have been very selective. It’s very important that the brand will live beyond me. I think expanding globally is where we are now.
So why did you choose Manhattanville?
I grew up in the Philippines and went to a school run by Maryknoll nuns. I wanted to come to school in the States. [Manhattanville] was one of the schools recommended by the nuns.
Did you like it?
It was very formative and exposed me to much more global thinking. It gave me the courage to be what I wanted to be. It was an amazing institution and still is.
You have a weekend home in Westchester. What do you think of the area?
My husband and I have had a home in Pound Ridge since 1984. We love it. My husband built a golf course (GlenArbor Golf Club) in Bedford. We love our home there. When I’m there I just detox. I go to retreat.
What advice do you have for this year’s graduating class?
They should feel the education they got at Manhattanville is a special one. It will prepare them for a world that is frankly – holy smokes! – moving so fast. To me, it’s always important to have a vision of what you want with your life. Go for it. Instead of being scared, be excited. The possibilities are endless today.