What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disruptors, there seems to be a formula of attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, Womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new Womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit, persistence, grace, and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the Womaneer is now.
There's one word that comes to mind during my interview with Katherine Power: tenacity. In 2006, when brands were still figuring out what the internet was, and MySpace was the height of cool, Power was on the front line of a digital revolution. With just a newsletter, she, along with her co-founder Hillary Kerr, turned what many considered a pipe dream into a multimillion dollar company. In fact, she tells me, "People thought we were nuts." Of course, in true Power spirit, this just made her dig her designer shoes deeper, and now 11 years later, she has officially proved them wrong.
As the CEO of Clique Brands, Power oversees an impressive media portfolio that includes Who What Wear, Byrdie, MyDomaine, THE/THIRTY, and College Fashionista along with a hugely successful Who What Wear clothing collection and an athleisure line called JoyLab at Target. She's also working on the launch of the company's first-ever beauty line later this year, with more products in the works. Perhaps more startling than the success is the fact that she and Kerr have achieved all of this without the usual seed money you'd expect from a startup, or in Power's case, a college degree.
It's all hustle, ambition, drive, and grit.
In fact, it's these very qualities that compelled me to apply for a job at Clique many years before I moved to the U.S. from Australia. Now four years into my career here, I'm still in deep admiration for this formidable leader and, yes, still privy to the sweaty-palmed and heart-racing reaction you'd expect from a newcomer in her presence. Power pursues excellence; therefore, she inadvertently commands it from others. At least in my case, I want to aspire to that level of greatness.
This October, Power and Kerr will co-host our inaugural Womaneer lunch in Los Angeles, where we will honor 10 female pioneers (including one community nomination) and put a spotlight on their groundbreaking work. First up, watch Power in the video above and read our interview below to learn more about how she dared to disrupt an industry with little more than vision and persistence.
Talk us through what you were doing before you started at Clique. What are some of the roles you held?
Before I started Clique, I was at Elle and Elle Girl as the West Coast editor. I wanted to work for a teen fashion publication because I just thought that generation was really interesting. It allowed for mixed price points, and it was very street style inspired by young celebrities. I found this to be a fascinating thing to study because we were going through an evolution of fashion. Initially, it was the big design houses and Anna Wintour who would say what was cool. Then it went to movie stars who wearing things on the red carpet, being on the cover of magazines, doing endorsements, and all of a sudden they were telling you what was cool.
At a certain point, I think it was 2004 or 2005 when John Galliano was designing for Dior, he sent down a bunch of girls on the runway dressed like the Olsen twins. At that point, fashion had officially flipped, and now celebrities in their street style were inspiring the big fashion houses. I thought that evolution was really interesting, and I was fascinated by these new young tastemakers who weren't much younger than I was at the time. That's why I went to Elle. I was the only editor in L.A.; it was just me and two or three ad sales people in an office.
It was a super quiet, very corporate, and sterile environment.
What was the initial concept/movement behind Who What Wear? When did you first discover that this idea could be a business and a successful career? Take us back to that lightbulb moment.
"I met Hillary (Kerr) on the set of Project Runway. I was judging the first episode of the second or third season when all of the designers come in and give their pitch to become contestants on the show. Hillary had just been at Elle in New York for four years, but she was leaving to go freelance and moving back to Southern California. I had no co-workers out here, so it was really exciting for me.
She gave me the download on the office politics, who was who, and became my first work friend even though she was, at that point, leaving the magazine. I thought she was really funny and entertaining. We were friends for about a year as she started to build her freelance career. Then, one day, Jack Kliger, who was the president of Hachette Filipacchi Media (which owned Elle at the time) called up everybody on the Elle Girl team and said, "You know what? We've decided to fold Elle Girl and turn it into a website because I don't think this generation is going to read print," which was honestly, very forward-thinking of him because digital was nonexistent.
Magazine websites were basically a splash page to collect print subscription orders. There was no content. The only content you could get online around celebrity was gossip, so it was Perez Hilton, X17, and all these paparazzi photos. No one was really talking about what people are wearing yet. We found ourselves going to those sites just to see the photos or opening up the weeklies, and that was really interesting to me.
Here I was, in my early 20s, and I was spending all my time on the computer. I was going to all the gossip blogs, I was reading the weekly magazines, I was on Myspace, I was on Friendster. (I wasn't on Facebook because Facebook had just launched and it was exclusive to college students.) At the same time, I was also contemplating getting into trend forecasting. I would put together these trend reports on PowerPoint because no one was really taking celebrity or runway fashion and showing you how it could be worn in real life or recognizing patterns of trends.
That didn't happen in content, but I started to see those patterns.
There also was no approachable voice in fashion. It was Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, but they're all very exclusive and everything was very expensive. You had to live in a big city to be able to buy anything that was in the magazines. Then a friend saw my trend reports and she said, "Why don't you just make this into a blog on the internet?" So I started thinking about my own behavior as a consumer. I wanted to shop online, and I wanted to see things on the computer. I was not looking at magazines as much anymore.
The only real digital business that existed for women at that point was the DailyCandy newsletter, which was phenomenal. It could draw crowds, and it had the power to make something an instant hit. I thought, maybe I create these daily trend reports and basically, send them out as an email. It was fresh. There was nothing else like it. The only problem was, I wasn't a writer. I was a good curator of trends and of imagery, fashion, and taste, but I thought Who is going to write this?
So I asked Hillary if she wanted to do it. She was with a new boyfriend at the time, but she said yes. Then she kind of went off the map with him for a few weeks. I finally called her and I said, "You know, I'm really serious about starting this. So if you don't want to do it, it's all good. Don't worry about it. But if you do, I just want to tell you, I'm serious. So it's a commitment." So she said, "Sure, I'll do it." And I said, "Are you sure?" And she said, "Yeah." And that's how we became partners.
A lot of people thought we were crazy. The internet was looked down upon. People didn't understand it.
Did you find being a woman was tricky in those early stages?
To be honest, no. I think I have been very lucky that I either don't have an awareness of it or it doesn't bother me. I don't know. We talked a little bit about this in the College Fashionista interview that we did. For me, I only thought about being great. I never thought about being a woman. So I think if anything, maybe it worked to our advantage sometimes, but honestly, I think deep down the right people who are going to make an investment buy something from you; they know when something is good.
I think there are now enough examples of, and hopefully we'll see even more in the next few years, women-led companies that make people a lot of money. So hopefully that continues to break down.
Now you are the CEO of Clique Brands—what has that transition been like for you?
I think I've had to develop these skills while growing our company, but I also think some people are just born with an innate sense of how to lead or coach better than others. You also have to have a real love of it. Long ago, I gave away the idea of fashion. It's really more about the people (in a company) and helping them each be successful so that the whole company rises. It becomes a very different job, and I think a lot of people don't realize that, but luckily, I like it.
What can we do to encourage more women to become pioneers?
Lead by example. I try to go out and speak as much as I can to consumers or even in business press to inspire other young women to do this. I have no college education. Forget about being a woman. That was more of my insecurity than being a woman. I had no formal training, even in business. This was my business school, so if I can build a multimillion dollar company, then I think anybody should be able to.
I think it's about trying to expose the other generations to the possibility. I want to let people know that the opportunity's there for you to seize.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your job?
I think there's certainly a misconception that I know everything about trends, and I'm sitting at every runway show. I get direct messages from people asking me, "What's the biggest trend right now?" or, "Where can I buy this?" And I could tell you how to finance your receivables line, or how to get out of a legal dispute at this point, but it's not glamorous. I mean I am so thankful that we have projects like the ready-to-wear Who What Wear for Target collections that I'm so tied to, and one of the beauty lines we're developing, I'm super close to, so I have that as an outlet.
But being a CEO is a very different job at this point.
It's operational, and it's thinking ahead, asking what the next five years of this business look like and the overall strategy. We have other amazing people here at Clique Brands that are thinking about nothing else but trends.
What mistakes have you learned from and even benefited from in your career?
I don't know that there have been any mistakes, but I don't see a failure; I see a change in direction. I think that part of being a start-up is you kind of proceed very adaptively; you have to. Because we've been very conservatively funded, we've always tested everything we do in small increments, and while I would say we are very risky with our ideas, we're not with our money. So before going too deeply into something, we test it, and if it's not going to pay off, that's okay, let's use these resources over here instead.
I think that strategy has allowed us to avoid a lot of mistakes as far as losing money or wasting too much time.
What is your message for other young women who look up to you and aspire to own their own business one day?
I think now more than ever, the saying, "You can be anything or do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it" is 100% true today.