Every year we vow to find a new coat to update our look – something classic, chic, and will stand the test of time. And then, every year, we search high and low only to come up short. Why is finding the perfect coat so hard? Well mamas, it’s about to get a whole lot easier because Michelle Waugh has saved the day. As the Founder and Creative Director of her self-titled line of luxurious outerwear, Michelle has reimagined the classics. Her coats are on point and refreshingly hand-crafted in New York.
Your career took a lot of twists and turns from an incredible starting job at Dior, to the finance world, before you launched your own label four years ago. Can you tell us about that journey and how it prepared you for the dream role you’re in now?
It’s true! I’ve been really lucky in my career, but my defining moments have come through travel. So far, I’ve traveled to over 60 countries, and these trips have influenced me and opened me up to a world of possibilities. I’m a very restless person, so naturally, when it was time to settle down, New York felt like the perfect place for me to call home. I enrolled in Fordham University and simultaneously accepted a full-time position at Christian Dior’s New York headquarters. It was such an invaluable experience because I was exposed to PR, wholesale, product development and branding. From here, I was offered a job at the Singaporean-based fashion brand Raoul, with the huge task of creating their first launch into the US market. It was a challenge because while Raoul was established in Southeast Asia, in New York, we were starting from scratch. I loved the startup atmosphere, and it was here that I started to think about starting my own line. Luckily, everything happened rather organically, with some strategic planning on my end. I saw that in order to become stronger in business, I needed a deeper understanding of finance. So, I left my fashion career behind and joined Phoenix Partners Group to learn everything I could, knowing that it was merely a stepping stone to round out my skills. It was here, upon realizing that the men I worked with had little time to shop for a wardrobe that matched their lifestyles that I started my own business. Over the next three years, my business partner Amy Johnson and I, created a highly curated collection of clothing from the best designers around the world to make online shopping easier for men. We would frequently take trips overseas to find the perfect menswear, and I noticed that women looked incredible in a man’s borrowed coat, and my own label was born. I reimagined outerwear for the modern woman.
Your commitment to designing and manufacturing your coats in New York is admirable to say the least. Why is this important to you and do you hope other companies would rethink their own manufacturing practices?
Thank you! We have accessibility to such incredible craftsmanship and expertise in the United States and I will do everything on my end to support and create opportunities locally. To think about wearing a garment that was made explicitly to be inexpensive to the consumer, but yet the person who made it was ill-treated in the process, is inconceivable to me. It saddens me that when people ask me where my coats are made, and I tell them New York, they are surprised. I have found ways as a small business to not only support local manufacturing processes, but actually make it beneficial for my business. For example, being made in New York allows me to fulfill my orders while maintaining a much leaner inventory because I can produce quickly. In addition, the speed at which I can manufacture in New York is ten times quicker than partnering with an overseas supply chain. And remember, when you support small local businesses an actual person does a happy dance!
After working with so many other companies what was your biggest takeaway from becoming your own boss? What does being a good boss mean to you?
I hate the word “boss”. For me, it conveys such unenthusiastic associations. Having worked for several companies within the finance and fashion industries, I would always end up dividing my superiors into two groups; the bosses and the leaders. The bosses were micromanagers; colorless when it came to instigate or activate people’s talents and abilities – their “secret sauce”. Bosses think about output and operate with a rewards vs. punishment mentality. Leaders on the other hand, not only think about output, but they spotlight the importance of input. Leaders have the ability to read people’s emotions accurately and I believe it is the single most important, and rarest, quality of a strong leader. Leaders think of management as mentorship, support, guidance and motivation. It’s a priority for me to act like a leader, and not like a boss. Thankfully, I am intuitive, empathetic and sensitive, which I think helps people on my team to succeed. In return, my team feels empowered which inspires them to work from their place of genius. When I hire new people or partner with vendors, I try to assess if the person is a “giver” or a “taker”. This, for me, determines their values and their intentions towards others. When you eliminate takers from your team, and you are left with givers, you create an environment where constructive criticism and hard-hitting conversations aren’t threatening but rather productive, and fruitful.
What is your most popular piece from the Michelle Waugh collection? Why do you think it so popular?
Our clients’ current obsession is the Chloe duster coat – we can’t keep it in stock! This is the forever piece that is easy and effortless, yet has enough star power to make you feel special. Personally, it has been a game changer in my Fall/Winter wardrobe. The duster has no hardware and no closure so you can wear it informally over your active wear, and feel so well suited, or you can truly dress it up for maximum impact. The coat also compliments my more muted wardrobe staples. Living in New York I walk everywhere, therefore layering is so important. This coat offers an effortless approach to layering.
Coats are definitely an investment piece. What are some ways that we can style your favorite coat to maximize our wardrobe?
Just like my clients, my favorite coat is also the Chloe duster. I’m a mother of two, and I will throw on the duster over boyfriend jeans and a tee to head to the park, making me feel effortlessly elegant. It looks so great over active wear and runners as well if you are headed to the gym and running around town doing errands. On the other hand, I can also throw the same coat over a slip dress and a pair of heels, and I feel like I own this town!
Some people question the impact for a brand on social media. How has social media helped your brand grow? Do you think that it’s been really impactful?
I was initially doubtful about devoting time and resources to social media. I didn’t appreciate the power these platforms would have when it came to selling a luxury product. Eva Chen, the head of fashion partnerships at Instagram, invited me to attend a Master Class at their headquarters in New York. I met dozens of influencers and designers, and we brainstormed how everyone was utilizing their social media platforms. The experience was such an education, and I began to organically work with influencers and it generated a buzz around my brand. To my pleasant surprise, the impact enhanced overall growth of my label and followers became clients. It still surprises me to hear stores sell coats to clients who found us on Instagram. I see the influencers I work with as incredibly smart businesswomen, a brand in their own right, and vital to companies like mine. Social media has furthermore given me the chance to work with remarkable buyers and stylists globally that I otherwise would not have been able to connect with.
Any fashion pinch me moment when someone major was wearing your coat? Who was it and where were you when you saw it?
My fashion pinch me moment was having Meredith Koop (stylist to Michelle Obama) reach out to me to customize a coat for Mrs. Obama herself. I made her the Chloe duster in black. I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to work with stylist Erin Walsh on fittings for Uma Thurman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kerry Washington. Those are all “pinch me” moments for sure.
How many coats do you think a woman should own?
Ha! You are talking to the coat lady! In my book, you can never own too many coats and I see them as investment pieces, the way shoes and bags are. If I were to curate what the necessities are, I would say at a minimum, you need four coats. Use one coat to pull together the color palettes you gravitate towards in your wardrobe which acts as a neutral. The Vienne is the most wearable coat and will elevate any outfit, in black or putty cashmere. Second, you need that statement piece coat. This coat is playful, fun and can be loud to bring out the spirited side of you. For me this is our Chloe duster coat. The dramatic back slit can make it incredibly sexy and noticeable. Your third piece should be a killer leather bomber, and last, everyone needs the good ol’ puffer jacket to save us from all these polar vortexes!
Do you have plans to expand your line beyond outerwear? What can we look forward to next Fall?
I love outerwear and it will always play an important role in my collections. Inspired by my love for travel, eventually I plan to expand the line to be able to create a collection of a dozen impactful pieces that the smart, modern woman could pack into her suitcase and be set for any occasion. The assorted pieces would have distinctive textures, shades and silhouettes, while complimenting each other and can be effortlessly paired and layered. Next fall, we are sticking to our classic pieces but introducing some fun staples that I am really excited about. I can’t give away too much, but stay tuned!
You have a 2 year old and a 4 month old, congratulations! How has motherhood changed your approach to your career?
For me, it is not so much motherhood that has changed me, but it’s simply caring for children. Being around these joy crazed, wide-eyed, wobbly-footed creatures shows you the grace of love and forgiveness. If you follow their lead, you catch yourself thinking bigger, creating a better self and learning to never touch anything with half of your heart. Motherhood has taught me that every new day is filled with wonder and curiosity and within every obstacle is the opportunity to improve you. There is always a lesson; learn them, implement them and keep your feet moving, girl!
What are your 3 pearls of motherhood wisdom?
Self-care, self-care and self-care! I can’t say it enough. I hear you on the mom guilt, but know that it is not selfish to think about you. In fact, it is necessary. Self-care for me, is as necessary for my health as food and exercise. My dad once told me that there is a reason that on the airplane they tell you that if the oxygen masks were to drop from the ceiling, place the mask on yourself first before assisting your child. My life as a mother is so rewarding, but rewards worth having come with great challenges. By allowing myself some self-care, I don’t lose myself while mothering and it makes me a happier person, wife and mother. I become the best version of me, and truly feel I’m setting a valuable example for my girls. Trust me, everyone loves a happy, rested, fulfilled mama, because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Find time to celebrate you no matter how small the act, and make it a priority. It takes planning, but you are worth this sacred time of recharging so you can get back to a whole lot of mothering!