Donna Ballin is the Design Director of leading line of men's accessories brand, HOOK & ALBERT. Formerly, Donna served as an associate design manager of jewelry and watches for the North America Fashion & Home division of Avon Products Inc. Donna joined HOOK & ALBERT in 2012, where she oversees the design department ensuring quality product selection and construction as well as trend forecasting. Known for their modern and bold collection of premium dress socks, lapel flowers, colored laces, pocket squares, tie bars, ties and their recently launched leather collection including belts, wallets, garment weekender bags and accessories dopp kit the HOOK & ALBERT line is always designed with style in mind while never sacrificing quality or function.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As a kid, I was curious, imaginative and fearless. I believe these qualities established the foundation for my success in the fashion industry. Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to have a position with great autonomy, along with the opportunity to work with the leadership team of a major international firm. This experience gave me the confidence to hit the ground running when I started with HOOK & ALBERT. Today, I work hand-in-hand with the company founders, and I am responsible for all of our design efforts.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at HOOK & ALBERT?
During my time as a Freelancer I had the opportunity to explore and design products ranging from high-end "one of a kind" pieces, to low-end mass-produced products. This is when I realized how much I prefer to work with high-end markets as this allows me to fully exploit my creative side.
While working with Avon, I had the opportunity to travel around the world exploring fashion trends as well as visiting our key factories. These visits allowed me to gain a strong understanding of the manufacturing process, which has been very valuable as I now have insight into how I can design products that are easier to produce. I have also cultivated key relationships in these factories, which has been critical in bringing our products to life and ultimately into the consumer's hands.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at HOOK & ALBERT?
Working in a fast paced start-up that is experiencing rapid growth and notoriety is very cool. It is a very rewarding experience for a designer to step into such a creative roll and work along side a team of incredible founders. Our designs have been picked up by all of the major luxury department stores and have been worn by athletes and celebrities. For our company to be responsible for these designs is an incredibly gratifying experience.
Working in a start-up certainly presents itself with a handful of challenges. Because we don't have a design team infrastructure similar to more established brands, we are forced to do things outside of our core competencies. While this has been a challenge, it has also made me grow as a designer exponentially.
It has also been an interesting challenge designing men's fashion as a woman. I try to bring things to the table that resonates well with me personally. However, not everything translates properly into the men's market. Thankfully, I have great partners, Adam and Cory, who are always willing to collaborate in order to ensure our product line is the best it can possibly be.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in design?
A renowned jeweler once told me "to break the rules, you must first master them." At this point in my career I have found that in order to do this, you must surround yourself with people who inspire and push you to do your thing and explore your crazy ideas. It's all about a balance of crazy ideas and the right manufacturers to help bring those ideas to life.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career to date?
In the beginning of my career I always thought I would be focused on women's accessories. However, my path has led me to be the design director of a very exciting men's line, allowing me to influence some of the biggest trends in the accessories space. This has shown me that you can still end up doing something that you love in a completely different facet than you ever thought. Remember: "Always keep an open mind."
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
As a designer it is super important to take time away from the office to gain inspiration, as this directly influences creativity. Although it may be difficult at times, it is essential to have a life outside of the office and expose yourself to new adventures. In the creative world there is not always a definitive line between work and life, as some of my best ideas have come while walking the streets of New York City, or traveling to places such as Paris, Istanbul or Hong Kong.
While in the office, my method is to prioritize projects and attack them as efficiently as possible to allow as much time as I need to explore.
"The most important thing is to enjoy your life - to be happy - it's all that matters." - Audrey Hepburn - This quote always reminds me of how important it is to maintain that work/life balance.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Although I have witnessed some of my prior colleagues experience equality issues I have been very fortunate not have those issues impact me. People have always looked at my talent as a designer, rather than focusing on my gender.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been very lucky to surround myself with a group of people in my industry that are some of the most talented people I know. Having the freedom to bounce ideas off of each other or share the stressful times is essential. When one of us launches a new project or gets an amazing job, we are all there to congratulate and support each other.
Who are some female leaders you admire and why?
Jenna Lyons - From creating category disruptions to running one of the biggest businesses in fashion, Ms. Lyons is an incredible woman.
Sheryl Sandberg - More than a female leader, she is an activist and all around rock star. She has proven that you can lean in, all while running a business and being a mother. What an incredible person.
My mom - My mom leads my family. She inspires me to be the best person I can be. Everything I do I owe to her. She allowed me to follow my dream first and worry about making a career out of it second.
What do you want HOOK & ALBERT to accomplish in the next year?
As a small innovative company, we are on a very exciting path. In 2015 HOOK & ALBERT is launching retail locations in China. This endeavor will also bring us new production partners, allowing us to get into new categories that I am extremely excited to oversee. Truthfully, I feel very lucky to be able to inspire and work around people who inspire me every day. While we have already had a positive impact on the men's accessories world, I am excited to continue shocking the category with accessories that radically disrupt the industry.
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