Styling The NYC Skyline: A Candid Dialogue With Elyce Arons of Frances Valentine and Kate Spade

Elyce Arons, CEO of Frances Valentine
Elyce Arons, CEO of Frances Valentine. PHOTO: COURTESY ELYCE ARONS

Welcome to the vibrant world of fashion, where every thread weaves a story, and every accessory tells a tale. 

Meet Elyce Arons, the visionary CEO of Frances Valentine and co-founder of Kate Spade, a beacon of luxury fashion in New York City. From the farms of rural Kansas to the bustling streets of New York City, her legacy is a testament to more than just style—it's a narrative spun through iconic apparel and accessories.

Embarking on an enlightening journey, we took a close look at the ins and outs of running a business in the heart of New York City with Elyce. 

Discovering the mindset that propels her success, we followed her remarkable path to becoming the driving force behind not one but two top-tier fashion brands. Here are some highlights of our delightful conversation:

Could you share a glimpse of your background and career path? What sparked your entry into the world of fashion?

Well, I grew up on a farm in Kansas and was the youngest of four daughters. My mother, being a design student, worked on all the costumes for the community theater events. So, we had a really great costume closet in our house, and we played around with that stuff all the time.

But I think I really fell in love with fashion when Elle magazine came out for the first time in the early 80s. I was one of the first subscribers. I've always been interested in fashion. 

As a freshman in college, I went to the University of Kansas and met Katy Brosnahan who was my next-door neighbor. We quickly became best friends and were sort of inseparable from that point on. We met Andy and David Spade along the way and moved to New York after graduation. We all worked in our own industries: Andy in advertising, Katy at Mademoiselle magazine, and I had several different jobs in the fashion industry in marketing. Fast forward a few years, Andy Spade and Kate called me and said, “Let's start a company together.” 

Elyce Arons and Kate Spade
Kate Spade and Elyce Arons. PHOTO: COURTESY ELYCE ARONS

I guess it was 1993. It's something we always talked about in college, but we never had the resources, experience, or knowledge. We certainly didn't know what we wanted to do. Andy said, “Well, how about handbags” because Katy really knows the accessories business. So, we started Kate Spade, an accessory company, out of their apartment. It was quite a success, in 2006, we sold the company to Neiman Marcus. 

Katy and I got involved in our schools. I did all these things that I'd never done before, but I really missed work a lot. And as did Katy. Finally, in 2016, we decided to start a new business, and Frances Valentine was that company. In the beginning, it was just handbags. But after we lost Katy in 2018, we added apparel that was really just sort of a tribute to her. It was a homage to Katy and they sold out immediately. Then they sold out again and again. So, cut to today, we have a full apparel line and of course our shoes, handbags, and jewelry.

What does a typical day in the office look like for the CEO of Frances Valentine?

Well, it's different every single day. I'm an early riser; I get up at about 5:30 in the morning, and with my coffee, I read Women's Wear Daily, Business of Fashion, and the Wall Street Journal, and then I try to walk to work every day. If I can't, I take the subway. 

Once I get here, it's usually checking emails, and then I've got meetings generally with our business units. In the afternoons, we all either have creative or design, and occasionally, there might be press interviews or an investor meeting sprinkled in there. 

Some days are completely blocked out because we have photoshoots. We put out a catalog every few months, but the website also has to show every single view, so each of those has to be styled. So I'm on set for all of the photoshoots, too, but it's busy as there's a lot going on at all times. It's fun.

Can you walk us through the differences you've experienced building Kate Spade vs. Frances Valentine?

When the four of us launched Kate Spade, we were all so young. I think we remained frugal with expenditures all the way through. However, as we expanded with Kate Spade and subsequently launched Frances Valentine, I believe we had the luxury of not needing to be quite as scrappy this time.

We actually got to put a staff in place before we launched Frances Valentine. 

Elyce Aron's Store Frances Valentine in Atlanta

Versus when we launched Kate Spade, it was just sort of like we needed five more people to help stuff and steam bags today. I would give this agency a call and arrange for five people to assist us that day. Then, you know, we ended up with several hundred people working at our corporate office, and many of them started with us through an agency, in our shipping department, but eventually, everybody got to move up in the business. 

What qualities and skills do you believe are necessary to succeed in your industry?

I think being a really hard worker is one. Getting to work early, staying late, and dressing the part is really important. Figuring out what you're good at and doing it exceedingly well.

Moreover, I think the whole college experience helps you go from an 18-year-old who's just graduated from high school to a full adult. You really grow so much in college because of all the different things you're exposed to, the experiences, and the classes that you're sort of like: I don't know why I'm taking this class. But you really learned so much from that class, either a history course or a course about a different culture that you know nothing about. 

Overall college does so many good things for us as far as making us more well-rounded. 

If you could start your career over, what advice would you give yourself?

All the things I just told you because I felt like I had to learn those things. [Looking for a career] is just like going to Europe for the first time. You don't even know what it's like until you're steeped in all the culture there. And I felt that way in my 20s. I didn’t know where I would be best suited to work, and it may not be the thing I'm most passionate about…You can work in a business that you're passionate about but actually do a job that you're really good at.

I would also advise myself and others going into this career path to take as many interesting classes as you can because your time gets so swept up when you are out in the workforce that it's hard to make time to do those things anymore and to keep learning, even after you graduate. I think it's really important to expose yourself to as much as possible out there.

Elyce Arons, CEO of Frances Valentine.
Elyce Arons, CEO of Frances Valentine. PHOTO: COURTESY ELYCE ARONS

How did you discover your passion for your career?

I think passion is one thing, and I think what you're good at is really what you want to go and do every day. Because you can really succeed in that. You can make a lot of money. And then, you can spend all that money to do all the things you're passionate about. Like I love to cook and I love to play tennis, but I'm not going to go into [as a career]. I'm not going to go into any of those things because I'm not very good at them. I love them. But I'm better at doing this [running a fashion brand].

What are some common misconceptions about the fashion industry, and how would you address them to inspire students who may have doubts about pursuing it as a career?

I think my misconception when I started was that Calvin Klein went to a design school and then became Calvin Klein. But he didn't, you know? He worked for other people before that—he designed for other companies. Essentially, it's a long road to get to that spot.

And it's why we try to offer college students tours whenever we can. Because, you know, when I was starting out, I did not know where my skill set might be best used. We actually have 20 students coming in next week just to show them the education that every single person here had, their jobs, what they do every day, and how they got here. So that we could inspire fashion enthusiasts from all majors or backgrounds to follow their passion career paths.

Self-doubt is common among young adults. How can we overcome self-limiting beliefs and gain confidence in our abilities?

I remember Kate and our other Kate Spade partner, Pamela Bell, were having coffee once. They were trying to figure out how much we could do in the first couple of years. And I said, “Well, you know, I think we can be a $50 million company in five years.” They both looked at me like I had two heads. But we really succeeded in doing that. 

If you believe it can happen and you really work towards your goals, then it can.

Business partners Pamela Bell, Kate Spade and Elyce Arons in the mid ’90s.
Business partners Pamela Bell, Kate Spade and Elyce Arons in the mid ’90s.

I think one of the keys to that is to work for a lot of other people and companies that interest you. Even if there are jobs within that company that you don't even know about until you start working there. Learn as much as you can and work as hard as you can. Be the first one in the morning and the last one to leave at the end of the day, and dress for the job that you want.

 What piece of advice would you offer to other entrepreneurial-minded students or young professionals?

The advice I would give is to get as much experience working for other people as you can. Because the more you know, the more confidence you will have in starting your own business. You’ll see the pitfalls while you're working for someone else. And hopefully, you won't make those mistakes. You'll know what those challenges are and what the pitfalls are before you start your own business.

What are three books or podcasts that you would recommend, and why?

I just finished this book. It has nothing to do with business or careers, but it's called Trust by Hernan Diaz. I just finished it two days ago. It's excellent. It's fiction about capitalism. It's really really good.

There is this really, really old, wasn't even called a podcast that I actually used to listen to. It was on cassette tapes, but it's called The Secret of Success. And it was narrated by a guy named Earl Nightingale, and he's long gone by now. But he basically ascribed to the philosophy that “as you think, you become.” So if you think about things all the time…what you want to do and what you want to be—you will become it.

It's really interesting, and I listened to it when I was probably a college freshman, and it's never left me.

That was a very interesting look at Elyce Arons's work! If you're eager to dive deeper into her world, check out her website at Frances Valentine.

And for those looking to be a part of the magic, Frances Valentine is on the lookout for passionate individuals to join their team. Explore exciting opportunities here and step into the world of luxury fashion.

Stay tuned to our website to discover which outspoken visionaries I'll be interviewing next. The world of inspiring stories is just a click away!

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