MICHELE RUTHERFORD, NORDSTROM
FIELD: PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT OCCUPATION: EXECUTIVE MANAGER
A. | How do you define yourself?
I am someone who has an appreciation for beautiful things who enjoys working in fashion...I also have a beautiful family, a wonderful son, a husband who has always given me the green light no matter what I wanted to do in my life. He has always been encouraging to me and that is very important...I am a giving person—I give 100% no matter what I am doing.
A. | How did you become interested in your field?
I have been involved in fashion my entire life starting back when I was in Junior High when my girlfriend taught me how to sew and I used to read her Vogue magazines from cover to cover. She would bring me all the fashion magazines and I would read them cover to cover because I just loved it. So when I went to college I already knew what I wanted to do, unlike most people at that age. I ended up at the University of Washington (UW) where they had a really great clothing and textile design program in the early 70’s. In those days, UW was the glue that held the fashion community together in Seattle because there were a lot of really talented people coming out of that program. It was really important for me to have a career in fashion and I knew that the best place that I was going to get that was at Nordstrom. I ended up going to work for them and worked my way up through the business and had a very successful career with them for 25 years.
A. | What are you most proud of in your career?
I was the early pioneer who started the product development business at Nordstrom back in the days when we just weren’t doing product development. I was a one woman game where I did everything from developing the product to working with the buyers and the merchandisers to shop the market whether it be here in the states or overseas—I spent many many many many many a day working with our manufacturing agent in Hong Kong and built the business from scratch which ended up being a 500 million dollar business.
What happened after that was an interesting story. I had been watching a French company for many years and they were described as the ‘Ralph Lauren’ of Europe; we would show up in Paris and just drop off our bags at the hotel before going straight to their boutique. We just loved it...though we couldn’t really buy it in a meaningful way because we could never really tell a good story with it. One day a couple of us were standing in this beautiful tent at the base of the base of the Eiffel Tower and we thought what if we approached them about being the exclusive licensee for the brand in the American market. It was this big idea that we started trying to communicate with them that day. We couldn't get them to respond to our letters, to our faxes, to anything and we got really frustrated and thought what are we doing wrong? So I thought, ok I am going to get together an assortment box of beautiful products and send it to them, and that finally worked because they saw that we were serious about beautiful products and quality. So, we made arrangements for them to come a see the store, and they finally agreed to give us the license—that was a big day for us. Then I can remember discussing the project with store managers and general managers around the company and they just looked at me and said, are you crazy? You want us to invest 1 million dollars per store in a French company that we’ve never heard of? We started off on a bit of a rough footing but we eventually got there and became enormously successful. Between 1989 when we first launched it and 1999, we built a business that was a 200 million dollar business—the most profitable business.
A. | What are the biggest challenges you have faced?
Working with the French Company was so hard that I was extremely motivated to do my best to learn French when I came back after that first trip. I can remember sitting down with my boss and saying this is not going to work unless I can speak French. So I went to classes five days a week, three hours a day, every week from 7am to 10am before work for nine months. I also had the opportunity to travel to France regularly so I learned to speak French fluently and work side by side with the company for 15 years!” There were always challenges. When I first became a buyer and of course didn’t know what I was doing...I thought something was just so beautiful, high quality and I would wear but it was just a dog! Others would ask ‘what were you thinking when you bought this?’ and really no one wanted to buy it. I have had a lot of failures like this...the list of failures is long.
A. | What is your vision for the future?
Several women who have a great deal of experience in fashion are working on a very big project around the local, young, talented designer community in Seattle and it involves mentoring them, helping them, getting them the advice that they need, the tools that they need and the services that they need to succeed here in Seattle. We would really like to keep our designers here in Seattle; we would really like to build a really tidy fashion community here in Seattle. We are looking at starting this as a non-profit and moving this to be a for profit as well. That is all that can be revealed on this project at this time. It is time for me to get back to the fashion world, I am really dedicated to it and I think I have a lot to offer to the young fashion community and that is what is important to me in this stage of my life.
A. | What are your strengths?
My strength has always been creating—beginning a new project and seeing it expanded in a beautiful way to the point where it is successful! Building something from the ground up is something that I have always loved and been really good at. I was always passionate, I was very determined and I was very driven in my career.
Recently a really good friend gave me list of skills and said to go through this list and just check all of the skills that you have, so I went through the list and checked pretty much all of them. It was such an awakening for me because I had never really looked at my life that way in terms of what my skills are. It was surprising to realize this.
A. | From where do you get inspiration?
I have always had a fascination for traveling around the world. I was a foreign exchange student when I was in high school living in Germany for a year where I went to school and learned to speak German. So that world travel bug was something that I had from a very young age; I was always fascinated with other countries and other languages.
A. | How do you define success?
Bringing something to the world that is meaningful. Giving people in our world something special, something that they can believe in and hold onto—something that brings them joy.
A. | Where do you feel at home?
I love Seattle and it is interesting because I have traveled all over the world for many years and yet every time I come here I am always really happy to be home and happy to be an American. In some ways I have a greater appreciation for how lucky we are to be Americans. I love nature but I also really love the city. I need to be near a city.
A. | What would you recommend to yourself 20 years ago?
Slow down, take it all in and be yourself—don’t try to be something that other people want you to be. When we are young we have a tendency to have things happen ‘now,’ and that is not how life works! It is easy to get ahead of ourselves...if we just take things more slowly and appreciate what we have.
EDUCATION | UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SKILLS | BUYING, MERCHANDISING, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, APPAREL DESIGN, MARKETING, INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS, PUBLIC RELATIONS, TEACHING, FLUENT IN GERMAN, ENGLISH AND FRENCH
FIELD | BUSINESS, BUYING, MERCHANDISING, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, MARKETING
FAVORITE ANIMAL | PENGUIN
ZODIAC | TAURUS