Meet Stacey Bendet, A Female Founder In Fashion

Stacey Bendet is in top form.

At this moment, the summer sun is setting on a churchyard in West Chelsea where massive beach balls bounce around 700 guests at the prom-themed anniversary party for Alice & Olivia, the brand Bendet dreamed up 20 years ago. The beach balls are printed with an oversize, round-sunglass-clad, red-lipped, cartoon face which is on everything this night from the cookies to the video confessional’s walls. The image is called Staceface and it’s the trademarked avatar version of Bendet.

She’s pulling out all the stops for the extravaganza, a chock full-of-color party in collaboration with the multimedia-slash-hybrid, cool-kid artist Kid Super replete with pom-poms, bleachers and sparkly booths for photo opps. Holding court in the center of it all (within a re-creation of a high school locker room had it dosed on LSD) stands the column-esque Bendet. She’s draped in a sleek gown constructed of colorful tiers of geometric sequined panels. One after the other, she gracefully greets friends with boldface names such as Busy Phillips, Lea Michele, Gracie Abrams, and Dylan Lauren.

As she does today, and everyday, Bendet represents herself as a master of excellence. What is Staceface, after all, but physical evidence of the sheer power of Bendet’s identity? She’s the founder of one of the biggest women’s clothing brands of this era. She’s a devoted wife and mother of three, one of which, Eloise, is an accomplished competitive equestrian athlete. Her epic–and this word is not chosen loosely–ashtanga yoga abilities are astonishing. She graduated The University of Pennsylvania at the age of 21, and today she is an Advisory Board member at her alma mater’s Baker Retailing Center within its Wharton School of Business. Her squad runs so strong even Taylor Swift’s gang could take notes. Stacey Bendet is a true 2000’s era renaissance woman and being unable to pinpoint where she starts and where she ends makes her feel, very seemingly…limitless.

Although, as we chat during an interview, Bendet sets the record straight: Limitless, she is not. A hard-ass worker, she is.

“No company becomes successful overnight, and fashion is not an industry for the lazy,Bendet makes very clear. “I worked my butt off for 20 years, every single day, because when I set my mind to something, I’m all in. People see the Instagram version, or the party version, or the press version of you and they think one thing, but I’m at home 6 nights a week spending time with my children and the rest of the time I’m working on my business.”

While she earned her formal education in the Ivy League, her fashion business education comes via the school of Andrew Rosen. Rosen was the Godfather of American fashion in the late nineties and early aughts and played a massive role in shaping US fashion of the era. He was the architect behind Theory, the brand of contemporary staples that defined the everyday sleek sophistication of the times (Rosen co-founded Theory with Elie Tahari).

Through the lessons of Theory’s success, he hedged his bets on the niche of fashionable brands which, much like his own, were defining American style in the same contemporary way–wearable, accessible, relatable, cool. Rosen invested in Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler, and eventually took on Bendet and her Alice & Olivia.

“I put on my first fashion show at the Russian Tea Room,” Bendet recalls as she explains how Rosen entered her life. “We were the young, cool kids and it was the party of the week and I put on a show of my crazy pants. At the time I only made these pants, not even tops, so the fashion show was topless, and Andrew was there. We met that day and we’ve been partners ever since.” Over the course of their decades-long partnership, they’ve evolved into many things–mentor and mentee, trusted confidantes, and even best friends.

While her most meaningful professional relationship may be with a male, Bendet’s always been a woman’s woman, even a girl’s girl, if you will. If it isn’t obvious from the female-empowered aesthetic of her line, knowing her–even a little bit–means knowing she genuinely walks the girl-power walk. “Empowered women, empower women,” she says during the interview, quoting the famed female sisterhood mantra. Even in my own industry encounters with her, she consistently exudes respect, accessibility, and support.

In the words of her close friend, the former Deputy Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, “Stacey is an enormously successful entrepreneur and businesswoman, but she has never forgotten who she is, where she came from and what she wants to project to the world.” Abedin continues, “She is a collaborator, always looking for a new project or foundation to support, and as a friend, she is always there. The first call when you need help, or advice, or a sympathetic ear. Or even just a laugh.”

Bendet’s female empowered attitude has played an influential role in defining modern womanhood both at home and in the fashion industry, so it’s hardly a surprise that when asked what 20 years in the business has meant to her, she responds, “Being able to celebrate how far women have come in the industry.”

“When I started my company there were very few female CEOs of fashion brands,” she continues. “There were great designers, but they didn’t necessarily own and run their companies, and in truth most brands were men designing for women, versus women designing for women.”

She goes on, quite proudly, to state that she has a 96% retention rate of female staff at Alice & Olivia due to the flexibility towards family life that’s built into her workplace. This flexibility is something that always sounds simple to do on paper, to create that balance for a working mother. Although working women are a more recent phenomenon having only significantly entered the workforce in the early-to-mid 1900s, and how career-oriented women actually function in society is an ever-evolving scenario.

As more is learned about women in the workforce, the research shows that when women pursue careers the burden of invisible labor still looms large over them. Invisible labor is sociologist Arlene Daniel’s term that defined the unnoticed and unpaid labor which becomes a mental load for those responsible. Most invisible labor still falls upon women according to The United Nations, who state that women complete three out of every four hours of invisible labor. In short, not only do working women work, they simply work more.

Bendet gets this.

“I love being a mom but let’s face it, the years of having small children and toddlers are super hard especially when you work. I encourage women to take that maternity leave and to figure out how to accomplish all the things they want, which usually means sharing home responsibilities with their spouses. So if a woman wants a career, we encourage her to foster an environment for success at home, and we do our part in accommodating this lifestyle so our employees can have both.”

“It’s really about flexibility,” she continues. “We don’t expect people to do things at crazy hours or to be at events. We know that moms have to drop kids off before getting to work, or need to prioritize school conferences, or may have to work from home if a child is sick. We hold meetings between 9-to-5 only so we provide an environment where kids get their time. We encourage parents to support other parents within the company with open platforms for questions and advice. It’s not stuff that’s complicated, it’s just being thoughtful.”

Thoughtfulness, along with her drive and clarity, are part and parcel of why her squad runs so deep.

“I always tell Stacey she is like superwoman. There is nothing she can’t do,” says Nicky Hilton Rothschild, a close friend of Bendet, when asked to describe her friend. “She has her beautiful family, her thriving businesses, many charity initiatives and hobbies and yet still makes time for all of her friends. On top of that, she is always my first e-mail or text around 4:30 am. I don’t know when she sleeps.”

Today, Bendet is preparing for her New York Fashion Week presentation which will take place in less than 24 hours. She was one of the first brands to fully embrace the presentation format as opposed to the runway shows for which Fashion Week is known, because she knew from early on her brand was about creating a vibe, generating energy, and to truly tell a story. While fashion shows, with their hierarchies and seating policies, silently define people’s perceived worth in the industry, the presentation allows people to engage with the brand, its founder, and other attendees. It’s a format which supports Bendet’s values regarding inclusivity.

“I never want a women to leave my stores or presentations feeling intimidated,” she says. “Clothes are meant to uplift and inspire, and meant to make you feel like the best version of yourself, and that’s what I want. I want women to feel like the best versions of themselves wearing my clothes.”

What started out as a pants-only brand now includes ready-to-wear, shoes, cashmere, evening wear, denim, and accessories. She started Alice & Olivia as a whole brand which has now expanded into over 800 retailers worldwide. It was in 2005 when she opened her first brick-and-mortar store which has now grown to include 20 more around the world. She also sees a healthy e-commerce business. While Alice & Olivia is made for the everyday woman, the brand is adored by notables such as Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gigi Hadid, Meghan Markle and more.

Bendet has not simply used her influence to the advancement of her business. She has activated her substantial social networks, both real and digital (Alice & Olivia has nearly 2 million followers on Instagram), to create projects such Share the Mic, which she founded alongside respected C-suite Executive, Bozoma Saint John, among others, to share the stories of Black women by amplifying their voices via Instagram takeovers of high-profile white women. In an extension of this project, Bendet will soon announce the launch of EveryWomanRise which encourages women to come together to share their social media platforms to magnify the voices of those in need globally.

As for the future, Bendet strives to continue to democratize fashion through her business and her initiatives. She engages consistently with students and advises them on how to create and sustain brands. In her work with Wharton, she advises what sorts of classes and concepts should be included in the curriculum, which include ideas on how to build brands while also building a family. Bendet has also founded Creatively, a platform which democratizes the way people find work in the fashion industry. It’s open to creatives of all disciplines so they may find opportunities while simultaneously interacting with the constant stream of information Creatively produces to support the hunt for work.

To think, this fashion empire started from an over-the-top, topless fashion show at the Russian Tea Room. In a way, Alice & Olivia hasn’t strayed very far from that core ethos of feminine strength that showed up on the runway that night at the 57th street institution.

“At this time in my career it’s wonderful to give access and exposure to people, whether it’s an up and coming artist or someone whose voice needs to be heard,” Bendet concludes. “It’s all in the spirit of our brand–strength, empowerment, and empowering, which has always been what we’re about at Alice & Olivia.”

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