Kate Spade’s CEO: What it Takes to Make a Brand Sparkle

By Business Leaders FOXBusiness

Kate Spade's CEO on what women want

Before he landed the job as head honcho at Kate Spade New York, Craig Leavitt thought he wanted a career in politics...now he's predicting women's every want and need.

It’s a power many men wish they had, but one Craig Leavitt has perfected.

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He knows exactly what women want.

At least, he knows what they want when their desires come down to handbags, clothing, and lifestyle goods.

Leavitt is the chief executive for Kate Spade New York, living colorfully in his fifth year with the iconic luxury brand.

Where Politics Meets Fashion

The impeccably dressed and coordinated Leavitt makes it seem as though a career in the fashion industry was one he was destined for. 

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But it wasn’t where he originally set his sights.

A lifetime of politics is what he thought he wanted out of his career, and he was well on his way with a major in history and government.

But fashion crept in before Leavitt’s career in politics ever really got started when he was recruited for Bloomingdale’s executive training program. And the rest, for him, was history.

And looking back on his career, he says he's not at all sad he left behind a life in politics.

“I do think there are a lot of parallels (between politics and fashion) because in the end, being in our industry, it’s about understanding what the consumer wants, and hopefully, in politics, it’s about understanding what your constituents want,” he said. “In the end, it’s so much about working and understanding people and what they’re trying to accomplish.”

In for the Long Haul

If it’s a sign of just how dedicated he is to his industry, Leavitt has only held four jobs throughout his career. Before landing at Kate Spade, Leavitt joined Diesel as an executive vice president of retail and sales after a 16-year run at Ralph Lauren (RL). And it was at Lauren where he says he learned everything he needed to know to prepare him for a career in the C-suite.

During his more than a decade and a half with the company, at one point, Leavitt was in charge of moving extra European merchandise to duty free shops like those found in airports. In addition to the perk of living in the Caribbean, Leavitt said it was there he had some of his most valuable career experiences.

“Looking back, it was probably the most important job of my career in terms of setting me up for the ability to lead an organization because, at a young age, I was able to have my hand in almost every aspect of a retail fashion business.”

Leavitt was able to master the art of identifying real estate for the business, work with outside partners, carryout merchandise buys, merchandise stores, and had a little bit of a hand in store design.

“I really had a microcosm of a business to run…it was probably a five to seven million dollar business, but at 24 or 25, whatever I was, to be able to have my hand in all those aspects of the business, really, really set me up for the ability to expand my portfolio of areas of responsibility when I went back to corporate at the end of that job stint,” he said.

The experience served him well. Leavitt climbed the Ralph Lauren corporate ladder making it from an outlet store manager in El Paso, Texas, to eventually executive vice president of New York retail concepts.

Leavitt eventually left Lauren after its debut on the public market, and found his way to Diesel – a night-and-day difference from Ralph Lauren.

But if anything, he says the shift in retail and product dynamics did wonders for his career.

“It really taught me that what lives beyond who the consumer is and what products you’re trying to sell, is to understand the brand,” Leavitt said. 

“Whether it’s a brand that’s appealing to young consumers buying denim and casual wear for the weekends or going to the club, or a consumer that’s buying suits and ties in a Polo Ralph Lauren shop, in the end, it’s about making sure you’re true to the brand, you have clarity around the aspiration you’re trying to deliver to the consumer, and making sure that you’re delivering on that. And that’s served me through every company I’ve worked with.”

Putting the Sparkle Back in KSNY

Leavitt took over at the helm of Kate Spade New York in 2008, shortly after Kate Brosnahn Spade, the brand’s namesake and founder sold the company to Fifth & Pacific Companies (FNP).

For Leavitt and the brand’s new president, Deborah Lloyd, the mission was about restoring luster to the once sparkling brand…essentially, they were on a mission to make it cool again.

“One of the things we’re very fortunate is that we inherited a brand that had a really rich history and DNA, and so we like to say that it wasn’t about throwing that out and writing a new book. It was about turning to the next chapter in that book,” Leavitt said.

And that’s exactly what the duo has done through frequent online sample sales, better advertising, the launch of Kate Spade Saturday -- a more affordable line to the Kate Spade brand – and an effort to appeal to a broader audience that includes older teens and 20-somethings.

“Still reflecting on the good foundation that was built by the founders of that business and relevancy is what keeps the brand exciting and evolving,” Leavitt said. “Because I think a brand that doesn’t evolve and that doesn’t find new ways to excite and delight a customer is bound to fail regardless of how they do in particular moment.”

Surprise and delight they have. Kate Spade New York boasted sales in 2014 of nearly half-a-billion dollars. And on his biography page of the brand’s site, he says it’s “on its way to $4 billion.”

Despite the success he’s seen not only at Kate Spade, but with his entire career in an industry, he never expected to be a part of, Leavitt said there have been roadblocks and hardships he’s had to overcome – and he’s honest with himself, identifying ways he can improve his own leadership style to, as a result, improve the brand he’s worked so hard to bring back from the brink.

“The challenge that I always think is most critical for myself is prioritization. I like to have lots of plates spinning in the air, and I think it keeps not only myself, but a team, and ultimately a brand excited and passionate and evolving,” he said. “But it’s important that you’re prioritizing the things that aren’t really going to move the needle and the things that are going to lead to great successes as you move forward.”

He said if you can do that, as a brand manager, you can accelerate growth vehicles for the business – and yourself – and allow for long-term successes.

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