Susan Kelly has always loved fashion. In fact, she remembers what she wore to the first day of her first co-op at Strawbridge & Clothier at 8th and Market in 1980: a Lilly Pulitzer patchwork wrap skirt with a lime green cardigan and espadrilles.
“From a young age, I knew I wanted to go into fashion and become a buyer,” the Fort Washington, Pa., native, whose maiden name is Mariotz, says. “It stemmed from a desire to turn shopping and my love of clothes into a job.”
More retail co-ops with Strawbridge’s followed, and by the time she graduated from Drexel’s business school, she had five job offers.
Of course, one offer was from Strawbridge’s. “That was the hardest one to say no to,” Kelly says. “But I really, really wanted to give it my best shot in the industry, and if I was going to do that I had to be in New York, Milan or Paris. So I went to New York.”
There, she took a job at Lord & Taylor as an assistant buyer, in the Ralph Lauren department. “I thought I died and went to heaven,” she says. A couple years later she was an account representative at White Stag, and then it was on to Anne Klein, where she worked for the next 11 years. As an account executive at Anne Klein, she was responsible for selling the line to Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and other luxury retailers.
A buyer at Neiman Marcus learned of an opening with Armani, the Italian luxury brand based in Milan, and urged Armani to hire Kelly immediately. She started there as an account representative in 2001 and within a few years, worked her way up to senior vice president, managing an annual sales volume in excess of $150 million.
“I swam with sharks every day,” she says of the intensity of the position. She had married an attorney who worked for the United Nations and whose work was equally demanding and says they recognized that “the idea that professionals can ‘have it all’ — big jobs, children, endless vacations, loads of time for personal endeavors — is just unrealistic.”
At Armani Collezioni, Kelly earned the ability to grow and says, “it was tremendous. I built a team and structure that I was very proud of in the States. My work took me to Milan with great frequency, all the while running the Armani Collezioni operation in New York.”
At one point, too many hours on airplanes led her to develop not one, but three blood clots in her leg simultaneously. There was no glamor in that particular and dangerous situation — the gravity of which seems to weigh on her to this day.
In 2012, yet another new president took over at Giorgio Armani Corp. and he chose to bring in his own team at all levels. Kelly was let go, along with many others. After a short hiatus, she was approached by the French luxury brand Paule Ka, which was looking to establish a presence in the States. Kelly was brought on as vice president and an officer of the company, in charge of the new U.S. subsidiary of that brand. She soon found that her life was just as crazy, if not crazier, at Paule Ka than it was at Armani. Monthly trips to Paris became the norm.
“I worked literally 24/7. After a long day of work in New York, I took my laptop to bed with me and fielded phone calls from Europe in the middle of the night,” she says. She successfully got the U.S. subsidiary up and running, but when the parent company declined to hire more staff at the appropriate time, she saw that she had to leave. “Burned out is an understatement,” she deadpans.
These days, her life is much more calm with travel between Manhattan and Shelter Island (off the East End of Long Island) taking the place of an endless stream of transatlantic flights. Choosing consulting as her next path, she is working with her best friend, the well-established interior designer Marshall Watson, to help him promote his brand — Marshall Watson Interiors. He is writing, and the pair are working together to produce a book that will serve as a retrospective of Watson’s work around the world. It will be published by Rizzoli and launch in March 2017.
*Photo by Ben Weldon *