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Photo credit Inma Varandela
Interview

Catherine Lerer Anderson

07.06.17

Having closely followed the wicked smart, incredibly stylish, and knitwear-obsessed Catherine Lerer Anderson on Instagram for years, I was able to track her career moves from Barneys to Bird to Saks Fifth Avenue; to say I was a fan may have been an understatement. I pride myself on knowing the unknown; the up and coming designers and artists not quite on everyone else’s radar yet, but Catherine does this for a living. It was rare I would open her page and not learn a new name or design technique applied at an old house on a pair of vintage something-or-others in her closet. Raised in Atlanta, Catherine made her way to the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she studied textiles and later worked under the influential Ikram. When she came to New York, armed with Ikram’s wisdom, any retailer would have been lucky to have her. The industry got to know her, largely through her work as a buyer at Bird, and now she’s influencing a new audience in her role as digital market editor at Saks.com.

Interview

You have had the pleasure of working alongside many industry visionaries: Ikram, Judy Collinson, and Jen Mankins. What have you learned from each that you apply to your professional life?

I owe so much to these hard-working, passionate women. My experience working with Ikram was formative and wildly inspiring. I always say I got my BFA from SAIC (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and my second degree in what brilliant women really want in fashion from Ikram. Her strength of vision and highest of standards taught me to never settle for anything but the best, including in your own efforts. Go all in and then keep going. One of her practices mirrors my mother’s favorite saying: “Don’t save your silver,” meaning wear your Margiela disco ball leggings to the grocery store and ride the bus in your Comme. I try to channel her fierce passion when making tough decisions—why play it safe? Life is short; show up and celebrate the crazy.

When I was at Barneys, keeping all Judy’s plates spinning in the women’s buying office near the end of her twenty-year tenure and was a nonstop thrill, but her quiet mastery and kind confidence was a constant reminder that the personal is just as important as professional, no matter the scale of your business. Her and Julie [Gilhart]’s genuine support of new talent inspires me when I work with up-and-coming designers. Also her dedication to family has never left me and I hope to emulate that priority. Since my art director husband and I both work in digitally-focused worlds, we carve out precious time together after long, screen-filled days.

Jen has run her Bird boutiques on serving a strong Brooklyn community (and now LA!) and never taking fashion too seriously—it should be fun! She was studying for med school when she found her retail calling and still can run circles around most with her appetite for numbers. I learned to bolster my aesthetic strengths with the analytics of the business under her and Jenny Lee.

Years ago when I emailed Judy to tell her I was joining the Bird buying team, she said, “Do great things.” At every opportunity, I try to channel these great women’s contributions and honor their legacy.

Fashion seems really fun for you. Have you always felt this way toward getting dressed?

[Laughs] Really? Thank you, I’m glad it translates that way! I do love the challenge. One outfit has to magically carry you from the two-borough subway commute to the cross-team presentation, a showroom appointment in the afternoon, then to a consulting coffee uptown or catch-up drinks with the girls—hello, my typical Tuesday! To eliminate some of the guess work, I try to play a little, shop my closet during the weekend, or reference trusted combinations for easier mornings. I usually check the weather, then start with a favorite shoe or sweater and go from there. Fashion nirvana is achieved when you strike a perfect chord and feel that wave of confidence, readying you to accomplish and enjoy whatever comes.

And yes, I’ve always loved styling. When I was young, I’d dress up a few of my dolls and take their photos as I posed them together around the house. Later in middle and high school, my friends and I would organize themed photoshoots so we could add new, fun pages to our very serious scrapbooking portfolios.

What I find most satisfying is the curation. Composing and contextualizing the story has always been the passion rather than creating any one thing from scratch (do not ask me to bake). Compiling a client’s seasonal wardrobe, styling the fall campaign, and editing down a tradeshow’s worth of product into zipcode-specific store assortments has always been a natural joy.

Do you have a favorite fashion moment, personal or something you observed?

There are so many from season to season! My first Dries Van Noten show in Paris was pretty emotional and memorable with its confetti finale, and the few times I was graced with the late Bill Cunningham’s unmatched love for the fashion circus were pretty priceless.

Another one of the bests was in Chicago, working with a walk-in celebrity client in one fitting room across from another top-secret client in the next, and the inevitable moment they got a peek at each other. These two women had known of each other for years but had never met, and each kept saying “Oh my god, I’m your biggest fan,” and then “No, I’m YOUR biggest fan. I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now.” Seeing their shared gratitude, humility, and respect was so powerful, supporting each other from different industries, generations, cultures, and being brought together in the sanctuary of fashion and beauty and couture finishings…what a dream. I hope to see more of these celebrations that encourage women to support each other and understand that we really can move mountains together.

What is the most beloved fashion item you have ever bought?

Oh wow, I think I loved them all didn’t I? But as most beloved things, they tend not to be simply bought, but inherited, found, fixed, or divinely acquired. My great-grandmother’s weighty gold band ranks extremely high, as does my wedding dress I found at my first Barneys Warehouse Sale (just seven months after meeting my now-husband, no ring in sight), and my beaten-up, clear plastic Margiela Tabi boots which are now filled with vintage tinsel and sit ceremoniously on a stool in the shoe corner…

Clothing can always be an opportunity for meaningful expression or communication, but it wasn’t until after my uniformed high school days that I fully appreciated dress as an individual privilege. Any excuse to not wear a plaid skirt was a thrill and on a rare out-of-uniform day, I was moved to alter a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch (yes low-rise, flare-leg, non-stretch) jeans for the occasion. I laid out the fabric store scraps my mom had saved and took them with a drawing of where I wanted them sewn on to our local tailor. The results were everything. It wasn’t so much that the now zebra printed velvet-lined pockets and chinoiserie- and silk ribbon-trimmed hems were the next hot thing, it was the fact that these jeans were now mine. It felt so important to have a physical flag officiate my naive-yet-necessary quest for uniqueness as a twelve-year-old girl in the suburbs of Atlanta. Yet the contradiction was so perfect: the jeans themselves still had to be on-brand and in-season. That sense of self found in a hem treatment or lip color never really left me and was something I would go on to investigate in my fine arts practice and fiber studies.

[Editors note: she still has the jeans, brought them to a Rachel Comey x Worn Stories event and has promised to write their full story for Emily Spivaks’s blog someday when the courage strikes.]

As a trained textile artist and longtime knitter, you must know a good knit when you see one. Who’s doing it right these days?

With so much great work out there, I’m never not going down knitwear rabbit holes! Stalwarts like Prada, Hermès, and Dries Van Noten are always runway favorites, but my love for independents runs deeeep for Ryan Roche, Joseph by Louise Trotter, Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran, and Rosetta Getty. Right now, I’m dying over this Loewe cable-knit logo statement sweater with matching scarf. A few friends have already volunteered to time-share it with me if we meet our goal on gofundme.

New-on-the-scene Hesperios designed by Autumn Hruby has some of the best warm-weather knit options right now; and I could not be more thrilled for Maria Dora after watching her LA-made line of bespoke film costume knits quickly mature into a cohesive ready-to-wear collection.

In the European market, Antwerp’s Stephan Schneider and Slovakia’s Nehera designed by Samuel Drira always have the most exquisite textiles and equally magnificent styling.

As for cashmere, I’m very excited by the developments from Lauren Manoogian and Kate Wendelborn who are using the most luscious double plies and silks for Fall ’17 respectively. And finally, always a pioneer in eco-focused global fashion initiatives, Stella McCartney has switched her knitwear production from virgin cashmere to Italian-based Re.Verso™ regenerated cashmere since 2016, for a 92% reduction in environmental impact. All the sustainably-motivated fibers in my being are tickled Millennial pink.

It must have been hard to leave Bird after almost five years. How has your role—and life—changed now that you’re at Saks Fifth Avenue?

Going from being an expert to a newcomer anywhere is always a big change, but I am driven by newness and enjoy every opportunity to experience another industry facet. In some ways, it’s a 180, but then surprisingly parallel in others. You just can’t compare a precious hand-knit sweater made by a master artisan to a machine-knit, mass-produced cardigan with the latest technology—conceived by the entire Chanel design team!

At Bird, I bought for all categories, but also styled and managed editorial content. Now as a digital market editor, I still exercise a lot of the same merchant muscles, but I’m focused on optimizing the online assortment and curating the buy for editorial content—specifically for women’s shoes. I love that I can continue applying my passion for product and metrics towards a much larger creative retail vision, merchandising practice, and digital marketing strategy. In short, if you see a fancy shoe on Saks.com or in our emails, I helped put it there! And because we often represent a brand’s head-to-toe runway look, I work closely with the ready-to-wear and other category teams, so that 360 view feels very natural after Bird as well.

The calendar’s whirlwind pace is comparable, but with countless more moving parts. The life cycle begins when we go to showroom appointments and see the upcoming collections. Together with the buyers and trend office, we’ll decide on digital-specific needs and often customize product right there with the designer. Then after we negotiate site strategy with marketing, pitch seasonal stories, and call in the best product for editorial content from vendors worldwide, we’ll finally watch the seeds we planted in showrooms months ago blossom on site with the aid of our magical creative, design, and development teams. I’m constantly in awe of the prolific work that is realized in one week alone and am so grateful for my supportive and talented coworkers.

While it’s a very exciting time to be in digital, I sometimes miss the hands-on aspects and make sure to savor the IRL moments when they present themselves. Just the other week, I had to run some super late pieces to a Gucci photoshoot and of course had to try them on. Being the sample shoe size does have its perks!

I love your Instagram. Is there any specific strategy or do you just post what you love?

Thank you, I really do enjoy it! After stepping away from running a social strategy for work, I’ve been happy to slow down a little and keep things more personal and playful. We’ll see how long that lasts though; I think I’m an over-sharer by nature and have always been a compulsive documenter. After growing up immersed in everything from Xanga to Friendster, online journaling and then Facebook, I was delighted with Instagram and to finally have a visually focused social platform. I joined very early and never looked back.

I’ve always approached it as a natural extension of the business with a long lean on my personal practice. So while there is certainly a strong showing of shoefies and showroom snaps, I’m most excited about the chance to educate, inspire and share with a like-minded community, as with my #womensworkwednesday posts that I’ve shared for about two years now, spotlighting fiber-based artwork along our long history of making. The beauty of the new, algorithmic beast it is that you receive immediate feedback from what you put out there and can shift those learnings quickly towards your next move. It’s a lot like retail in that you can change your assortment all you want to try to make everyone happy, but the numbers don’t lie: going with your gut and what you believe in always works best.

Any fashion designers currently under the radar you’re keeping an eye on?

Scouting and collaborating with new talent is something I’ll always love. Emerging designers still reach out to me, so not being in RTW market all the time has given me the freedom to support them in a new way.

After seeing a private preview of his collection a couple years ago, I’ve been thrilled to watch Creative Director Sander Lak of Sies Marjan bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to NYFW. We’re thrilled to launch the Central Saint Martins graduate and his playfully bold shoes exclusively online at Saks for fall.

I’m also curious to see the development of Venetian designer and Viktor & Rolf and Raf Simons vet Petar Petrov who is integrating Carl Aubock’s brass work into his handbags. Right here in Brooklyn, Christina DeSmet’s year-old eponymous line of perennial, perfect pieces has me wanting it all, and Olivia Wendel’s scarves are truly works of her art. I’d love to see her illustrations tossed into a Rachel Comey event dress or wrapped up in Maryam Nassir Zadeh skirt some day. I’m also selfishly awaiting the resurgence of masterminds Kostas Murkudis, Lutz Huelle, and the Midwest’s own Matthew Ames.

Besides Saks, where are your favorite places to shop in New York?

It’s tough ruling out the beautiful new Saks Downtown at Brookfield Place and my favorite sites I troll for new drops and saved searched (The RealReal, eBay, Desert Vintage…), but I truly love shopping as a practice at any retail outlet: there’s always some fixture I’ve never considered or an interesting signage solution.

Of the New York bricks, I enjoy the ceremony of visiting Dover Street Market for inspiration, going to The Apartment by The Line for home goals, and swinging by Maryam Nassir Zadeh for a refresher course in color theory. I haven’t been yet, but I’m so excited for Kindred Black’s first pop-up in Canal Street Market since I covet all of Alice’s antique finds online. I also scan De Vera, Top Hat, Nepenthes, and ABC for gifting inspo.

Honestly, my most fruitful, recent shopping experiences have proved to be my friends’ closets after a few clothing swaps and sales. There is nothing like shopping from and with people you know and love. And A Détacher’s store forever. We had our New York wedding ceremony in their original space with the disco ball wall as our backdrop. I’m an unapologetic disciple of fashion’s brilliant beauty.

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