Wonder Women: Susan Feldman

This week, we speak to Susan Feldman, one of Naja's mentors. A retail veteran having scaled to success at Macy's, Ralph Lauren Swimwear, C&C California and countless others, embarked on her own venture, One Kings Lane. Turning a deep passion for design and fostering culture into a celebrated company.

Hi Susan, tell us about your origin story!

I usually have to start with the fact that I moved 8 different times before I graduated high school. I grew up all over the country. Born in the South, I’ve lived in the East, the MidWest and then my parents ultimately ended up in Northern California before my senior year in high school so it was interesting. My dad was a retailer and worked his way up the corporate ladder which meant that we had to move a lot.

So being in retail runs in the family?

Exactly. Retail is in my genes, for sure. I‘ve always been interested in retail. I worked at Macy’s in high school and throughout college. When I graduated, I ended up in a management training program with a department store in Los Angeles and did very well. I moved along very quickly but there was something inside of me that said maybe there’s something else I should be doing. I’d only ever experienced retail but maybe I could be an investment banker - I don’t even know! I’ve never been exposed to it so i ended up leaving. I was a buyer at the time and I went back to business school at UCLA with a pretty open mind about where I might end up coming out of the program. Lo and behold, after graduation I ended up in New York as a buyer at Macy’s.

Right back to where you started!

It’s funny because my dad started out in Macy’s executive training program many years ago and ended his retail career at Macy’s in Northern California. They had a program for MBAs and I really wanted to be in New York. I went to undergrad at Stanford and I was living in Los Angeles and as much as I liked California at the time, every time I went to New York I just felt like the city was calling me “You should come here!” It was so exciting. There was so much going on so going to work at Macy’s in New York felt like the right thing.

I was only there for a year when somebody on the manufacturing side offered me a position to head up regional sales for them. It seemed like a great opportunity so I jumped from retail to wholesale. I spent the majority of my career running sales and marketing organizations for different manufacturers up until I started One King’s Lane which is a whole other story!

Where did the idea come from for One Kings Lane?

My love for design. I realised that I’d go to the airport and instead of buying Elle, I’d buy Elle Decor and I kept gravitating to things for the home and design. I loved interiors and it just kept getting more and more intense.

About 10 years ago, my husband had an opportunity out here in Los Angeles. I had basically lived my entire adult life a New York apartment. It was a nice apartment but when we moved out here, we bought a house in West Hollywood and I went crazy. It was like somebody let me loose. I had more space, I had rooms i could decorate, a back yard. I could entertain all year round. I just could not get enough of design, interiors, or decorating. As much as I loved clothing, I just realised I was at a point of my career where I really felt like I wanted to do something different. The industry had been changing a lot and it wasn’t as much fun as I wanted it to be.

I was becoming much more interested in what was happening in the design and interior scene and at the time there wasn’t any great place to shop for unique and fabulous products online. The usual suspects and big box stores had websites like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and Restoration Hardware. There just wasn’t anything unique in my opinion, and it was also at the time of what I call ‘E-commerce 1.0’. If you knew what you were looking for you could type it in Amazon, find it, click and get out but there was npthing really experiential. There were no curated websites and it just felt like there was a a huge white space.  That’s when I had the idea for One Kings Lane back in 2008.

I spoke to people asking “What do you think? Would you be interested in this?” They would say “I’d love that! That would be great. You could talk about how you entertain and decorate.” I finally decided what took the leap and decided to start the business.

You’ve accomplished so much in your career in wholesale, launching swimwear for Ralph Lauren, consulting for C&C California to founding One Kings Lane. Is there something in particular that you’re proud of having achieved?

Besides the team and the people that work at One Kings Lane, I would say that I’m incredibly proud of the brand that we’ve built over the last 7 years. When I look back and actually take a moment to reflect it’s really kind of remarkable. I feel like we’ve built a brand within a very quick time that people really love and are excited by.

Was there ever a moment where you were a bit discouraged and drew strength from something to help you power ahead?

In starting a business and being an entrepreneur, you deal with that every single day. There are a lot of naysayers and you’re constantly bumping into roadblocks in order to be able to execute your vision.

I think people might have said to me “Are you crazy? You’re leaving this great job to go start a business. It’s the height of the recession. You’ve lost your mind.” That sort of thing.

What you have to do is have a vision. If you see something you want to do, put blinders on and keep ploughing ahead. It takes a lot of perseverance. I think if you’re clear on your vision, it makes it a lot easier.

When we started One Kings Lane with my partner, Ali Pincus, we took the time in the beginning to really be clear about exactly what it was that we wanted to do, what we wanted the brand to be, and who the customer was. Every time we bumped into walls or had to make decision - which is multiple times every single day - it made it a lot easier having the clarity around what our vision was. It sounds very simple, but it’s not. Getting to the point where you’re super focused and clear about what you’re doing is hard because you always want to do more.

Is there was a piece of advice or superpower you could give to all women, what would it be and why?

I would love to be able to give women the ability to be in more than one place at the same time! I think women typically tremendous multitaskers and always take on so much. Having the ability to be in more than one place at the same time would be very helpful.

How would you encourage other women to break the mold or status quo without the ability to be in multiple places?

What I’ve realised the most from creating One Kings Lane is that there is always the opportunity to re-invent yourself. I had a lot of success and growth in my career prior to that and I probably could have stayed on that track. I think I’d encourage women to be open to other opportunities or things that you’re interested in, maybe a passion that develops over time.

You can do anything.

I learned that from my dad, he was somebody who had reinvented himself 3 times. He had this great retail career and went on to have an incredibly successful career in commercial real estate. Then at 80 years old, he went back to graduate school to get his MFA and became a painter. He painted prolifically for the next 8 years until he passed away.

I think that it’s super important to be open to other opportunities and to keep learning. Especially in this world. The world is changing so fast every single day that you have to be willing to embrace it and learn whatever is happening. Identify what those opportunities are and go after them. I don’t think anything should stop people today, not age nor experience.

If you see it, go get it!

I loved that your father who followed his passions in painting later in life, what are some other passions of yours?

I love to travel. One Kings Lane has afforded me the ability over the last 7 years to go to places that I could have never dreamed about going. It’s absolutely incredible. Be careful what you wish for - it will come true!

As we were starting the business, we kept adding new initiatives to what we were doing and I was asked what I wanted to do next.

“I would love to travel all around the world and go find incredible products to bring back to the One Kings Lane customer.”

“Well where would you like to go?”

“i would love to go to India. I’ve never been to India before.”

An interior designer, Nathan Turner, was one of the first designers we worked with. He looked at me said “If you can figure it out, I’ll go with you and we could go shopping together.”

In less than 6 weeks, I called him up. “Ok! I got it figured out. I found somebody who could take us around there. Can you make it on this date?”

We got on a plane flew to Delhi at the beginning of July which is the worst time to go because it’s so hot, 120 degrees. We shopped for 10 days and brought back this container full of fabulous, one-of-a-kind things.

We launched a whole new initiative that was called the ‘Container Sale’. I ended up doing this more than 10 times with different designers to India, Morocco, Paris, London, Brussels, Peru, China and more. I’m always really curious to explore other cultures and see how we can bring those back to what we’re doing at One Kings Lane it’s just been so much fun.

Getting outside of where you live is always so fascinating to me because we’re all so consumed with what’s going on in our world. When you go to a place that’s a little bit more exotic or out of your comfort zone, it’s super fascinating. The culture and the people in general are so fantastic. Travel is a great passion of mine.

If there’s something that you’d like to remind yourself what would it be?

Always keep a sense of humor!

If you’re going to do this and work as hard as we all do, if you can’t have fun then forget about it. At the end of the day, it’s gotta be fun. It just has to be.

It’s a culture. When we started One Kings Lane I said to Ali when we started, I don’t care what we do, but I want to make sure that this is an amazing place to work. That people love working here and are passionate about what we’re doing. I also wanted to make sure the vendor community loves us just as much. It makes a difference. You have to set the culture at the beginning.

Find Susan on:

One Kings Lane
Instagram: @susankfeldman
Twitter: @susankfeldman