Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss is doing what fashion designers often don't do: making women feel good about their bodies.
"I love fashion but it can be frustrating. Yes, clothes look great on tall, thin models but who really looks like that? We're women. We have hips, butts, things that move and things that change and it's hard to dress and look appropriate and feminine but at the same time feel comfortable and powerful."
Shoshanna understands this frustration well. As we sat in her sunlit offices surrounded by jewel-toned shift dresses and handcrafted bodices, she described "going from being a girl to a woman in 0 to 60" and how agonizing it became to find clothes that fit her properly.
"Shopping was like going to a museum, you could look but you couldn't take it home."
Sensing a vacant niche, Shoshanna launched her first line when she was 21 years old with a goal of making fashion more inclusive. It took about two years to get off the ground, but her idea hit a nerve. In addition to apparel, by 2000 she had launched a wildly popular swimwear line--you may remember the iconic cherry design-- that sold tops and bottoms as separates because "no one is the same size on the top and bottom." By then Shoshanna's designs were being sold in over 150 stores nationwide.
"That was a proud moment. But what really keeps me going is when women, especially younger girls, tell me that because of my clothes they were able to feel beautiful at prom or on the beach."
Nestled in a row of ethnically-flavored fabric stores, abound with beaded leopard print swaths and bright polka dots poking out of windowsills, Shoshanna's headquarters in Midtown Manhattan is hip yet unassuming, very much like the raven-haired designer herself. There's a low-key, estrogen-laden vibe in Shoshanna's offices. Women of all ages, colors, shapes and sizes bustle around in flats and flattering tops, smiling as they pass with "look books" in-hand.
I arrived on the day of a "go-see"--fashion lingo for interviewing new models to represent a line-- and was heartened to see the potential new faces of Shoshanna were not emaciated Amazons but energetic and healthy-looking women.
Shoshanna greeted me warmly at the door. Wearing a light, flowing emerald top and skinny jeans, she exuded a California girl meets SoHo sophisticate flair. After grabbing glasses of water, I began asking her questions ranging from how she balances work and family to how she became such a self-possessed businesswoman. Below is a condensed version of our 45-minute conversation.
Natalia Brzezinski: How would you describe your designs in one word?
Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss: Celebratory.
What is the inspiration behind your concepts?
I'm my own customer, and a great deal of my inspiration comes from things my mom and I did to make my clothes fit better growing up.
For my sweet sixteen, we found this gorgeous gown but it had an open back. Instead of panicking about not being able to wear a bra, my mom went out and bought rows of gold beads and sewed them on my bra making it look like part of the dress. We'd do that a lot; sew beads on things, or sew my bra into a dress so the straps wouldn't slip. In my line, I have snaps alongside the bra-line in every dress. We were one of the first to put couture boning in our strapless dresses and manufacture separate bustiers. Just little things that make a big difference and can accommodate many more body types.
What's frustrating about the fashion world?
Recently someone told me that boobs are "in", and asked me how I felt about that. Boobs are always in for me, that's how I roll! I think it's damaging when the fashion industry and magazines dub hips or boobs or any other body part "in" because they should always be in. That's what makes women beautiful.
What's the most important piece of style advice you have for women?
Ignore trends unless you see something you can adopt and bring into your cycle of fashion. I don't have a trendy body. I know what works on my body and I have hundreds of that same shape. Trends are fun and you can put little bits into your wardrobe using accessories, but women should generally have a uniform. It makes life easier, and you're not going to waste time trying on things that aren't going to work.
You just celebrated your 8th wedding anniversary and you have a young daughter. Is it difficult to balance work and family?
Whenever I'm faced with a decision to spend more time at work or spend it with my daughter, I always choose her.
I have an incredible support system at work and the flexibility to leave early if it's parents night at ballet. I take my daughter to school every single morning. Whether we laugh the whole way there or whether we're grumpy because we've had an argument, it's still my favorite time of day. Our weekends are also sacred. We have no babysitter and my husband and I never go out, it's just the three of us. Having three full days with just my family is the only way I can have a career without the guilt.
Do you think women have finally achieved equal status in the business world?
The world is opening up to women in every way. But female professionals still work ten times harder than men. We're still proving ourselves. When I started my business, I encountered lots of men who discouraged me or tried to push me around.
But women are so strong. They want to be the mother, the wife and have the career. We're allowed to have that professional aspect too. It makes us better wives, friends and mothers to have fulfillment outside of the home. I feel so blessed to have this place to come to every day, there's something about it that really fills me up. Yes, it's a struggle but life is hard. Women are always going to have these battles to find balance and we just have to remember that no one's perfect.
How will you teach your daughter to be a strong woman?
I grew up going to an all-girls school and it had a huge impact on me. Being part of a place where the smartest person is a girl, the president is a girl and all of the sports stars are girls was empowering. You see women in every role capable of doing everything, and I assumed that women ran the world! I want to teach that confidence to my daughter.
What is the most important thing your parents taught you growing up?
I have a beautiful relationship with my parents. My father is my role model. We talk 3-4 times a day! Growing up, I always knew I had them to fall back on as a support system. Even if I did something wrong, I knew they'd be there to guide me into a better space. I never felt nervous or unstable. I want my daughter to feel that for the rest of her life she has her father and me to count on, that we will give her all the love and support she ever needs because she's my greatest gift.
Follow Natalia Brzezinski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@natalbrz