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Fashion Journalist Kate Betts on Style and Leadership

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As much of a thrill as it is for me to chat with women of great character and influence, my interview with author and TIME Magazine editor Kate Betts left me feeling both thrilled and inspired. As soon as she got on the phone with me, I knew that I was going to get more than an interview -- I was going to receive an education in style and leadership.

Dori Hartley: Presently, what takes up your time? What makes up your day?

Kate Betts: Right now I'm working on my second book (the first being Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama, The Power of Style, so I'm still speaking about that a lot. In fact, I was going to be speaking about it on the Today Show, but my appearance was cancelled because of the storm). Anyway, my new book is kind of a memoir, though I don't like the word, "memoir"; it's so heavy. I prefer to call it a journal, and it's about what it took to break into the fashion business in Paris during the late eighties and early nineties, which is when I lived there, for about five years. It's a coming of age story; it's really about being an outsider in a business and a culture and becoming an insider.

DH: What part of your life right now is the most rewarding?

KB: Being a mother, because I now have a much more flexible schedule than I've had in the past and I'm able to spend a lot more time with my kids. I'm able to mix that in with writing. It's nice to govern my own schedule, and the real reward is more time with my kids.


DH: We like to think of women who "do it all" as superwomen. You are one of these women. In fact, the Lifetime documentary, Putting Baby to Bed: Wife, Mother, and Editor in Chief, was a testimony to your ability to do just that -- and with much success at a very young age. What is it that we women need to do to achieve this kind of success in all aspects of our lives -- the home front, at the workplace?

KB: I think focus is really the biggest tool. I was very focused at a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was very lucky to have great mentors who taught me a lot -- John Fairchild, Anna Wintour -- but I was also really focused, I worked hard. I think women are hard workers, I think it's in our nature. We know how to multitask and we know how to cut out time for certain jobs. I find that even though I had a very demanding job running a magazine [while] having my first child, I really had to focus on the time allotment that I was to assign tasks, events, children -- it's hard. You have to be incredibly focused on your schedule, on your time.


DH: Right, so organization skills, time management... this is the key?

KB: Time management is key. Being able to carve out three hours, 15 minutes... dinnertime with your kids, or knowing that you're going to be out every night of the week [so you] set aside the weekend for your kids. It's not just for your kids, it's for you too. Successful women know this.


DH: Tell me, what does it take in this day and age to make for a great female leader?

KB: Focus, empathy and vision. I was talking in the last conference in Austin about how one of the mistakes that taught me the most was that you really have to stick to your own vision. As a reporter at heart, I was in the habit of listening to people and their opinions and ideas, but you have to have your own vision and you have to stick to it. I think sticking to your own vision and idea, whatever it may be, whatever creative field -- it's really hard to do, but it's really important for success.

DH: In your expert opinion, what do clothes say about the female worker? Why does style matter?

KB: Style is an expression of who we are. It's how we represent ourselves, because historically, we've been led to believe it's frivolous and that paying attention to our style negates our substance and intellectual capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Style and substance are one in the same. If you look at European women and men, they use style as part of their self-expression, as part of who they are. They don't disregard it, and they actually think if you disregard your style you are at a disadvantage. Americans, on the other hand, have this idea that paying too much attention to how you look is frivolous. I think that's a disadvantage, especially for women in the workplace. I think that if you have a uniform, something that really empowers you, makes you feel confident, it's such a plus. And if you dress inappropriately or if there's an aspect of your appearance that you don't feel so good about, it becomes a distraction.

DH: That's sort of like a personal Feng Shui.

KB: (laughs) Yes. That's it.


DH: Who do you feel is a great leader among women, right now, today?

KB: That's a good question. We are all looking at Hillary Clinton and how she is leading and expressing herself in leadership. And also how hard she's working and how incredibly confident she is. To me, she's a great example of somebody's who's a great leader.

DH: I agree.


DH: As a fashion person, you know a statement when you see one, literally. Women assert themselves by wearing clothes that suggest confidence, sex appeal, intelligence... and some of these gorgeous styles cost a fortune. As we all know, not everyone is made of money these days. How does the average women approach the idea of looking great and making a statement, while on a budget?

KB: First, I'd like to say that there are so many great styles available now at great prices. Everyday it seems we hear about a new collaboration between a high-end designer and an accessibly price point. Kohl's just launched a collection with Narciso Rodriguez. H&M is launching a Martin Margiela collaboration. You have designer style at every price point now. Style really isn't about price. It's how you put it together and how you wear it. I think if you stay basic and classic, you can't go wrong.... [a] great classic jacket or a great pair of pants... are available at any price point. You can wear statement jewelry, necklaces, bangles... add a scarf, wear great shoes. You don't have to invest in a whole new wardrobe every season anymore.


DH: When I told my mother that I was going to be interviewing you, she asked me to pass along this question: When will women ever be able to find and wear comfortable shoes?

KB: (laughs) I think that's the number one question that always comes up. This is really a white space in the market. Apparently, comfortable stylish shoes are really missing. There are so many companies that actually address that, but there's a certain stigma about comfortable shoes -- there's a French company called Arche, there's Cole Haan which used to be owned by Nike, and has Nike Air technology built into it. So there are a lot of options, but for some reason, people, the minute they see something advertised as "comfortable shoes," they automatically think it has to be ugly.


DH: So, at some point, will the "beauty is pain" motto be overcome?

KB: Well, people are looking for comfort in every category, and I think between fabrication and technology, they're allowing more comfort in now.


DH: Not everybody follows the same fashion trends... and personal style may fly in the face of all that is acceptable fashion-wise -- is there such a thing as a serious no-no in the world of fashion, and what would that be, considering there is someone out there right now willing to take that no-no and make it into their own personal yes-yes?

KB: Once upon a time, wearing athletic clothes and workout clothes as regular clothes used to be [gauche], but now you see that more and more. Even denim was once seen that way, now it's what all the young people wear, even in the workplace, it has become a uniform for the workplace. It's a generational thing. There are no real rules in fashion. Look at Michelle Obama, who broke the so-called rules of fashion by wearing a sleeveless dress in the Senate. And shorts coming off of Air Force One? The rules do change and style will change accordingly. There's no such thing as a no-no anymore. If you think about it, fashion is about taking the no-no and making it into a yes, basically.

DH: Like Gaga. And her meat dress. I know it's old news, but what did you think of that?

KB: I didn't really get it. It was out of my league, style-wise.


DH: Right now, there are millions of teenage girls who are being fed many different and sometimes impossible concepts of what beauty should look like. As if it isn't hard enough just being a teen, these girls are constantly put in this comparison trap, where they have to look at Photoshopped models, impossibly thin bodies -- even in their early teens, they consider asking their parents for breast implants. Being that these young women are the female leaders of the future, what needs to be done now in order to shape their future leadership into something that inspires confidence, as opposed to neurosis?

KB: It's easy to blame the media for this, and I can agree with this as for the Photoshopping and the abnormal expectations, but I think that having a daughter myself, I think that that kind of expectation starts at home. As parents, we have to set an example.

DH: So, in other words, we need to take personal responsibility for how our young girls interpret this stuff, it's not just about passing the buck and blaming the media.

KB: Exactly. It's true that adolescents will find inspiration outside the home, but as parents, we're the ones who allow it.


DH: How old is your daughter?

KB: She's 7.

DH. Ah. So you've haven't ridden the hormonal train with her yet. I'll check in with you in seven years. (laughs)


DH: People are saying things like "the political clock is being set back to the 1950s." What on earth happened here with this bizarre political step backwards? We're suddenly discussing topics that were considered done and shelved ages ago. Topics like abortion, contraception -- women's rights. It seems so archaic that we're even having this conversation. Where did this come from and what do you personally think we should be doing about it?

KB: We should be voting for Obama. That's the first step. I don't understand why any of this is happening, it doesn't make any sense and I don't think women should tolerate it, frankly.


DH: Do you think that anything good can come out of this backwards thinking?

KB: I don't think turning the clock backwards or looking back can ever be associated with progress, no.

Kate is one of the Breakout Session Speakers at the upcoming Massachusetts Conference for Women, where she's going to be speaking on the subjects of how women lead as well as style at the workplace and why it matters. For more information, click here.

Kate Betts has written about the worlds of style and design since 2003. Betts is also a columnist at The Daily Beast. Until this year, she was also the editor of TIME Style & Design. Previously, Betts was the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar from June 1999 to June 2001, where she completely redesigned the 134-year-old fashion title. She moved to Bazaar from Vogue, where she was the fashion news director from 1991 to 1999. Betts was also a reporter for and later the bureau chief of the Paris office of Fairchild Publications from 1988 to 1991. In Paris, she managed daily trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily and W and M magazines. She also helped to conceive and launch W Europe. Betts was recently named one of the top 10 fashion editors by Forbes magazine. She has appeared on network and cable television regularly since 1993 including shows such as "The Charlie Rose Show," "The View," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "Power Lunch" and NPR's "Marketplace." She was the subject of a Lifetime documentary, "Putting Baby to Bed: Wife, Mother, and Editor in Chief," about her experience as the youngest editor ever to take over a fashion magazine. A graduate of Princeton University, she resides in New York with her husband and two children.

Follow her on Twitter: @katebetts