HOW A MATH MAJOR FROM NY ENDED UP RUNNING ONE OF THE MOST LUXURY CURATED FASHION BUSINESSES IN THE GALAXY
ELYSE WALKER: BOUTIQUE OWNER
She’s established key relationships with many of the most respected fashion houses in the industry and as a result has spent decades owning and operating her wildly successful, high-end boutique: Elyse Walker. She may be selling luxury items but her business advice is completely relatable and ultimately quite refreshing. After learning that she never goes to sleep with more than ten emails in her inbox and spends most mornings from 5am to 7am responding to even more, I left inspired. Oh, and wanting a Fendi bag.
I like starting from the beginning, Elyse. You are clearly successful at what you do and what you’ve built as we sit here in your flagship store in the Palisades, but is it true that your first boutique was on Madison Avenue in New York back in the 80’s?
My first store was 1100 Madison Avenue. I was in college studying mathematics going back and forth from 114th Street to my store on Madison and 82nd Street. I lived on the fifth floor in my building.
So wait. You’re in school studying math but you had a store already? How did you get to the point to even birth a store? I mean that’s a huge deal.
I’m actually calmer and more relaxed and more low key today but back then, I was like 12 going on 72! I’ve kind of been like Benjamin Button. I’m going the other way now! (*laughs*) Maybe not physically but mentally.
I was just super hungry to work. I saw an opportunity. I still to this day like to challenge myself personally on how much I can handle. I actually realized that sometimes I’m going through the motions, so I better enjoy the ride. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that, you know, every woman can speak that language. You need that sensation of always having your plate full. But at that point in my life, I’m like “How much can I handle?” I graduated college in three years, I opened a store, I got married, I had a baby. It was a crazy crazy time in my life but it all worked out. I don’t recommend it for others. It worked for me but it could have backfired on me and I was lucky that it didn’t. When I talk to my kids, I tell them the opposite “Don’t finish college in three years! Why? What’s the rush?”
I have to ask, was studying math helpful to your business? Or was that just something you felt you had to do and fashion was on the side?
I never thought I was going to be a fashion designer. I wanted to work on Wall Street. I am competitive by nature - interestingly enough not with women at all. I want to build women up. I mean I still have my friends from literally kindergarten on, but I wanted to work on Wall Street. It was definitely a man’s world. I’m good with numbers. I’m terrible with words, comprehension, writing, and I thought that would be a great place for me. I studied math because I like it and it’s easy for me. In terms of fashion, my friends will tell you I was always fashionable and pushing the envelope. I never read Vogue magazine or anything, but I did have a sort of confidence to not care about what everyone else was wearing. I just wore what Madonna wore. If she cut the fingers off her gloves, then I did it. That’s what I wore too. I did identify myself as hardworking, though. I did really well in school, I was very motivated, I was very thorough, I knew I was good at math so I just majored in math because I knew I would be successful at it so I could get through college as fast as possible. I was ready for my first work experience. So the only reason for math was to get out of college.
So here we are decades later, we’re sitting in your flagship store Elyse Walker. You now have two stores, a third in the works, and maybe a fourth on the way. But you are known globally because of FWRD which you launched in 2012. Tell me how that’s been, the balance, because you’re clearly still thriving from the brick and mortar store and you also have a booming internet business.
Everyone who says brick and mortar stores have died have another thing coming. There’s going to be a balance. There’s so many choices right? The world is turning into Amazon. Me and you can go home and choose from like 2500 olive oils. And I’m saying that because I literally needed to go home and find my olive oil and I couldn’t find it because there were so many choices. So that’s what’s going on in the world, which is great. We have access to everything at our fingertips. But, people still want curation. People want personal styling. People want personal relationships. It’s actually a great opportune time for stores like us. And even our website is curated and smaller than others, and we have a really sharp point of view. I think it’s going to be our finest moment. Every time I read one of those articles that brick and mortar is dead, I don’t get mad, I just giggle... like that is absolutely not the case.
I mean, you’re buzzing. Your store is so busy. You have such a dedicated loyal clientele. So, kudos!
We meet new people every single day. It still blows my mind. We are going to be 19 years old here and everyday someone walks in and they're like, “Oh I live here and I’ve never been in before,” and we’re like, “That’s amazing!” And now we have a great expansion development going on across the street so we are going to get more people to the Palisades. But the truth is, with more than half of our business, the customer never comes in. They live in New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Marin County, San Diego, Greenwich and we deliver to you. We deliver. We send memo boxes out, and that's how more than fifty percent of our business works. It goes right to your house, it’s curated, it’s styled, it’s photographed. Look A, Look B, Look C, Look D, and it’s all sent on approval then it comes back and we build relationships.
Regarding FWRD, I launched my own dot com and very quickly was like, “Whoa, we’re gonna need a bigger ship.” Is that the saying? We’re gonna need a bigger boat. I have a rule, I will not go to sleep at night unless there’s ten or less things in my inbox. We have 50 employees here, we have 500 employees at FWRD. Now the answer might be “Hi Catt, I’m going to read this message later…” but I will respond.
Because you have worked your ass off, you have built this, you are successful - you’ve traveled the world. You’ve been to Ibiza and Paris and you’re front row at fashion week. You’re seeing the world obviously through your hard work and are enjoying the fruits of your labor now. What do you attribute that to? Do you look around and say wow this is because of my hard work, this is the return I’m getting, this is the universe?
I still think I’m just warming up. I know I can do better. I know I can have a more cohesive team. I know I can buy better. I know I can be a better boss. I know I can be a better mentor. So I feel like I’m still just warming up. And I also know all of us make mistakes every day. The only thing I want to do is, tomorrow I want to make new mistakes. Just don’t repeat the same mistakes you’ve always made. Those are my goals.
So you want to make a new mistake tomorrow, just not the same mistake twice?
Yeah, when there’s a big issue at work, I’m like okay we had a big fuck up and I will tell that sales associate or buyer or general manager, “Okay we are going to figure this out. Tomorrow we are going to make a different mistake together”. I just don’t want that same thing happening tomorrow. That’s all I ask of you.
What I love about you, what I know about you in addition to your business pedigree is that you are a champion of women. I know this for a fact. I know that you have taken girls under your wings, you are relentlessly loyal to your team and you have this whole little army of women that are so loyal to you in return because of what you’ve done for them. So how important has that been to your life?
Well It goes back to playing sports. You cannot win the Super Bowl by yourself. To be a star athlete you need a team. I love building teams. I’m sure you’ve mentored people, and people still mentor me, too. That’s just the best part of my job.
What do you love about that kind of sisterhood of women? Why do you think the world needs it?
I don’t know any other way. You’re either a girls girl or you’re not. I don’t think there’s a grey area. I had my family rooting for me my whole life. Not everybody has that security. And I have the same childhood girlfriends and we also are still all rooting for each other. We never ganged up on each other. It’s pretty unusual. I don’t know that I was born with any gift. I think I was lucky enough to be the receiver of my parents affection and my parents support. I never felt that if I failed I would go home and my family would be disappointed in me. So when people say how are you so brave to do this or that, it’s not because I’m so smart or fabulous, it's because I have support behind me that I'm not afraid to fail. I don't like failing, I don't wake up in the morning and say I can’t wait to fail today, no. It’s I can’t wait to succeed today, to create today. But not everyday is going to be that day. I’m not going to be afraid to go home to my husband. I’m not going to be embarrassed to call my dad and say you wouldn’t believe what happened and that’s a gift. I hope I can give a little bit of that gift to people.
In addition to all of your business accomplishments, you have made it part of your life’s work to raise millions and millions of dollars over the years for cancer research via your Pink Party - Eleven point seven million dollars to be exact for Cedars. You’ve had A-list celebrities like Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, and Rachel Zoe aligning with you and your cause. What’s it like to see the power of passion take shape and be supported in that way? And to ultimately see the change you’ve made?
Well, that was probably the most exhilarating thing I’ve done. Again, I did it for ten years. I retired because I knew I was going to open more stores. There’s only so many hours in the day, in the year. Besides my children, that is the thing I’m the most proud of. That started off in my store on a Sunday with Jennifer Garner, whose first husband’s mom died of ovarian cancer, and we had a bond. My mom died of ovarian cancer. And we had a little tiny event Sunday morning before the store was opened. EW made a necklace with a little symbol, and we raised ten thousand dollars by donating a portion of the proceeds that day. I was hooked! After that I started the Pink Party and the first year we raised five-hundred thousand and then we raised two mil a year after that. But it came from Jennifer and I talking about ovarian cancer, and that was the catalyst.
Ideas! Aren’t ideas amazing? I just love when you can go from thinking about something, having an idea, igniting it and seeing it come alive.
For anyone wanting to break into the fashion business, what advice would you give them?
No experience is a bad experience. Do not be afraid to fail. I guarantee you 100% you will fail. People say why would you say that to such a young person? You cannot have any successes without some failures. Best baseball player in the whole world has a 300 batting average. That means he strikes out seven out of ten times and that’s the best in the world. So don’t say oh I have a terrible boss. Then you’ll know when you’re the boss, you’ll know how not to treat your team. There is no bad experience. Looking at it now after doing it for a few decades, some of my worst, worst, worst experiences are not the mess ups in the middle of the day and not the fuck ups, but the biggies have forced me down another avenue that I would have never ever on my own gotten to. So just plow through, do the best job you can do, keep a smile on your face and guess what? You’re not doing it for me. You’re doing it for you. How you treat this job today isn’t about me and my store, it’s the respect you’re going to give your parents, how you’re going to treat your kids, it’s all one. Nice people aren’t nice at their day job and mean at the night job. They’re just nice people. Just do the best best best you can do. Nothing’s easy. We've all been through challenges. And just know it’s just a chapter. Just make it the best chapter it can be, whether it’s short or long.
If you could trade lives with one person for a day, who would it be and why?
Oh my god someone tall and skinny with the best legs ever, Rosie Huntington! I’ve been living in short stubbies my whole life. Thank you, Dad.
What advice did you receive that really stuck with you?
My father told me it’s not what you make, it’s what you save.
What is success?
Success is waking up with a smile on your face and going to sleep with a smile on your face.
What do you do for yourself?
Everything everything. I have the best girlfriends, I have the best life, I love to eat, I love to travel, I have a great husband, I love music, my kids are musicians, everything. I always use the hashtag #EveryDayisARunway and I say every day is a holiday! Make today a party!
Who is the last celebrity who texted you?
Maybe Kate Capshaw or Molly Sims.
Most used curse word.
Fuck. Easy one.
What purchase do you regret?
A Chanel sweater that was a fortune and I still look at it in my closet every single day. It’s beautiful but it was just, I don’t know why I did that.
The last gift you gave someone?
Last night I gave my friend a red YSL card holder for her birthday. We met when our kids were in kindergarten and now they’re 27 years old, best friends and live together.
And the last gift you received?
My friend Linda walked in and gave me a green Chanel travel bag. And I started screaming in the middle of the store and ripped it open like a lunatic.
Are we loving this Fendi moment? Do I need to buy a Fendi bag before I leave the store?
Yes! And not only that but it’s classic and it’s a good investment. Any Fendi you saw 10, 20 years ago, it’s still in style.
… and with that, I swiped.