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2011 June 8

The Executive Files, Vol. 13: Wendy Svarre, Hunter Boots

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Wendy Svarre, CEO of Hunter Boot Wendy Svarre, CEO of Hunter Boot
Photo courtesy Linda Gaunt Communications
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(NEW YORK) Whether or not you know her name, chances are you know her handiwork. Since childhood, Wendy Svarre has been emersed in the accessories world, climbing her way out of her mother's shadow to become VP of accessories and shoes for two of the most buzzed-about brands. Thanks to Svarre, what was once one pair of heels at the house of Chanel...is now hundreds. Ditto for Armani. These days, the exec has set her sights on another prestigious brand--Hunter--which, like Chanel, started with a single wellie and now offers leather selections and a new line of Fall 2011 outerwear to boot. We met our CEO of the week at her midtown office to find out her secrets to building an accessories line from the ground up. MARIA DENARDO 

What was your first fashion job?
Trying on handbags and shoes in my mother's closet. She was fashion director of accessories for Bloomingdale's--a legend in the accessories world. She worked there for 25 years and created the shop-in-shop, which was called "Cul de Sac" back in the day. It had Bottega and Fendi. During Christmas, my brother and I would have to polish the jewelry. That’s how we earned money for our Christmas presents.

What did you do after you graduated FIT?
I was going to start right away at the training program at Bloomingdale's, but my mom suggested I spend a year in Italy. I said, ‘By myself? Are you crazy?’ A friend of hers owned a store there, so I worked part-time and travelled on the weekends. I was working in the shopping service for Judy Kroll in college, but when I started in the program around Christmas, I was moved to the Shetland sweater department on the second floor. I was folding sweaters all day long. About a month into it, Judy spotted me and asked me what I was doing. Two weeks later, I got a call that I was moved to designer. She couldn’t believe that I was folding sweaters! Even though she wasn’t a buyer, she was going to Paris and buying the high-end salon designers like Nina Ricci and Chanel. I was the assistant, so I got to travel with her and help her do the buys. I sort or became the assistant buyer at Chanel. I worked in that area for a year. I was approached by Barbara Bass to go into Bridge—that’s when Calvin Klein Classifications, Klein 2 and Perry Ellis Portfolio were launching.

Why did you leave Bloomingdale's?
At the time, I felt like I had to move away from the store--and my mother. Kal Ruttenstein would call me Grant Jr.—that was my mother’s maiden name. Literally, my mother would call me every morning to ask me if I was on plan. I’d say, ‘Mom, I have a boss that asks me that question every Monday morning!’ Barneys approached me when they were opening up their women’s store. I was called by Barbara Warner and Gene Pressman, who hired me as a junior buyer to do all the private label buying. When my boss left, I took over for the private label for the Italian floor there. I worked with Mr. Pressman at the time. We would go out to fabric shows and buy our own fabrics. I’d be in my hotel room in the middle of the night in Italy figuring out the cut, make, and trim, and how much yardage we needed to buy.

How would you compare Bloomingdale's and Barneys at the time?

Bloomingdale's was much more about the numbers; Barneys was more about the aesthetic.

Why did you decide to move on?

It was 24/7, and I felt it was time to step out of retail. I was getting married, and I had been approached by GFT Valentino. My mother had a heart attack when she heard I was going into wholesale. She basically said, ‘Wendy, you have to hold the pencil! You can’t sit on the other end of the table.’ I told her, ‘Mom, I don’t need to wear white gloves anymore. The world has changed.’ I was at Valentino for nine months when I got a call from Barbara Cirkva about overseeing accessories at Chanel. I said, ‘Barbara, I have no accessories experience.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes you do. Your mother is coveted by everyone, Wendy.’ I joined Chanel around the same time as Karl. 

What was your experience like at Chanel?

In my first few days, we were preparing for market and samples were arriving. I was putting together style books. Barbara had to explain the different types of leathers. I loved it there. Almost every day I wore Chanel…except when I wore my Hunter boots. Everyone thought they were Chanel. I was like a kid in a candy store, and I felt like I had found my home. Barbara Cirkva was a great mentor. When I started, there was one shoe in the collection. When I left, Chanel shoes were huge. I was there for almost ten years, and it was very difficult for me to leave. I was adopting a son at the time, and I had worked so hard for so long, I wanted time to share with my baby.

Did you ever meet Karl?

Yes, only in the elevator. I introduced myself. ‘Hi, I’m Wendy Svarre. I work in America. I do accessories.’ I was so young at the time and so nervous.

What brought you back to the industry?

I didn’t do anything for a few years, but I was getting bored. A friend of mine told me, ‘You’re no June Cleaver. You have to do something!’ I didn’t want to go into the corporate world at the time, so I thought I might design handbags. I hired a sketcher, and ran into a friend of mine, who I worked with at Chanel; we formed a partnership. We had three successful seasons, but we were getting killed by the Euro. At one point, the Neiman buyer was standing in my living room telling me I had to go to China. I wouldn’t do it. As we closed things down, I got a call from Armani. They were looking for someone to expand the accessories business.

What was it like to work for Mr. Armani?
He’s amazing. Everyone was nervous, because I can be very direct. He said, ‘Look, Wendy. We’re not Chanel.’ I told him that when I started at Chanel, it was like his business. We had to build, establish, and create the right product. He let me in the design room, and we successfully launched shoes at Neiman’s and Saks. I left Armani after a year and a half for personal reasons.

What made you decide to go to Hunter?
I remember when I bought my first pair of Hunter boots fifteen years ago at the Hampton Classic—I used to compete. It was pouring rain, and I needed a pair of rubber boots. I went into Dover Saddlery. I saw these amazing canvas and rubber boots, bought them, and wore them all week when I wasn’t riding. Then I wore them to work, and that’s when people asked me if they were the new Chanel boots. When I was approached with the Hunter job, there was one boot, but I could see Hunter handbags and Hunter coats. I could see it as a lifestyle brand. I flew to the UK, met with the chairman and a couple board members, and joined shortly after.

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