MOJEH meets Stacey Bendet the brains and beauty behind Alice + Olivia
She was the girl on a mission to create the perfect pair of pants when she launched Alice + Olivia back in 2002. Almost 18 years later, not only has Stacey Bendet smashed her original quest countless times over, but the New York native has also built a Dhs720 million brand founded on the principles of inspiration, empowerment and equal opportunities – all while creating clothes that make women look and feel beautiful.
An industry pioneer in myriad ways, the 41-year-old creative director and CEO’s dedication to her beliefs has set her apart as one of the original female fashion leaders. “I come from a long line of strong women,” says Stacey Bendet on the phone from her office in the Big Apple’s Meatpacking District.
“My parents raised my sister and I to believe we could be – and do – anything. Everyday, my dad told us that we were smart, strong and could achieve anything we set our minds to. I really believed that, so when I had the idea to start Alice + Olivia, I just decided to go for it. It’s become my philosophy for everything in my life.”
The daughter of a teacher and a lace-maker, Stacey was raised in Chappaqua, a small town in Westchester, New York, and spent much of her childhood creating clothes for her dolls from fabric remnants her father brought home for her to play with.
“I always loved making things,” recalls Stacey. “It gave me so much satisfaction knowing I was part of making something come to life. I’m still that way today. I love the creative process of bringing an idea to fruition – whether it’s a dress, a store or a photoshoot.”
A graduate of International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania, the typically amboyantly-dressed Stacey began her foray into the fashion industry – not what she studied, incidentally – when she saw a gap in the market for frivolous, fashionable trousers.
“Everyone had a million pairs of jeans, but they also wanted crazy, fun pants with stripes and colours, or a really bold print,” said Stacey, who created her first designs using upholstery fabrics.
“I was making boot and bell-bottom style jeans made from novelty fabrics. It was just the beginning of the contemporary fashion world, and Andrew Rosen (former CEO of Theory) saw my designs in a small fashion show I did at The Russian Tea Room and offered to help me expand. Needless to say, he was the best partner I could ever ask for!”
Despite having no formal training, Stacey Bende’s love of fashion pushed her to turn what was more of a hobby into what has become a business with a multi-million dirham turnover. “I have always lived by the philosophy that you start with the positive, you never say ‘I can’t’,” reveals Stacey.
“You focus on what you do well, and you make it even better. That is still my ethos today: Be the hardest worker, be the best you can, make a beautiful product and share it with the world!”
Nicknamed “The A-Plusser” by her husband, film producer Eric Eisner, on account of her formidable work ethic, it seems Stacey’s encounter with Andrew Rosen was a true meeting of kindred spirits.
Owning major stakes in several of New York’s coolest fashion brands, including Proenza Schouler, Rag & Bone snd Helmut Lang, Andrew is known not only as one of the most successful men in the fashion business, but also one of the most a able, with a warmth, energy and enthusiastic optimism matched only by Stacey herself.
“After he saw my little show, he said, ‘I want to be your partner,’ and I was 24, and I’m like, ‘Um, I’m just making my fun pants,’” says Stacey. Seventeen years on, she and Andrew talk every morning.
“He’s never tried to change anything I’ve done — he just makes it more efficient. He’s on his way to the acupuncturist, and it’s like — boom! — ‘Stacey, I passed this store on 65th and Madison and it’s perfect for Alice + Olivia!’ And I’m like, ‘Andrew, I’m having a C-section at the moment,’ and he says, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we can get it opened by the end of the month.’”
Stacey and Andrew’s enduring business partnership is infamous within the industry. “Andrew is absolutely and undoubtedly my ultimate business icon,” says Stacey. “He’s a gentleman, a leader, and he has the best retail instincts of anyone I’ve ever met.”
Opening their first store in East Hampton, which Stacey credits as the most defining moment of her career, the dream of building a global brand that empowered women to look and feel their best whilst offering progressive career choices and equal employment opportunities set Alice + Olivia apart from its fashion contemporaries when it was founded, and is today recognised as a trailblazing business model.
“We were dedicated both to making beautiful clothing and also being a platform for inspiration and empowerment,” says Stacey, who now has three daughters of her own.
“I like to practice what I preach. I am proud of the community of women we have created globally. I am proud of my company of 400 women and the values and environment we create to allow for them to have children and careers. It’s amazing to see the opportunities that have changed for women in the industry, and the world in the past two years alone.”
And while wanting her kids to be inspired by her actions, Stacey Bendet also wants to be seen as a role model for the women who work at Alice + Olivia. “As a female CEO, I want to create an environment where women can be mom and president or vice president. They can have a career that they are proud of and fulfilled by, and it makes them better mums.”
With an insatiable desire to make a greater impact in the world, Stacey reminds herself on a daily basis to step back and reflect on the company’s long-term goals. “Your decision-making has to be focused on your future and how you are setting yourself up to get there,” she says. “We are constantly asking: Where are we thriving and where can we improve? What are we doing today to make every part of the company stronger?”
With a plan to build upon their existing global footprint, expand their denim business and eventually launch an organic cosmetics line, Stacey’s long-term goal of becoming a global lifestyle brand for women is well on it’s way. And just as the business grows, Alice + Olivia’s founding principles continue to move the company forwards.
Combining her love of beautiful design with a belief in fashion’s transformative powers and its inherent ability to inspire union, start conversations and catalyse change, Stacey believes it’s every brand’s duty to to use their products and store fronts to help advance important causes.
“There is a remarkable shift of perspective happening right now, and fashion can be a megaphone for change,” she says. “This isn’t just important for brands, and it’s not just about politics, it’s about what’s important in the world right now, and how we can use our influence to help,” she affirms.
“Topics like equal pay aren’t political. Equal pay is an equal right. As a brand that is designed for women and run by a team of 400 women, we have a responsibility to advocate for equality.”
Fulfilling the brand’s social responsibilities through a variety of initiatives, there are campaigns, full collections and #aocommuniT, an ongoing Alice + Olivia T-shirt line emblazoned with messages designed to inspire the wearer to take action. Created in partnership with organisations like the Global Fund for Women and donating 10 per cent of the proceeds, the T-shirts encourage conversations.
“People unite over fashion because it makes them feel good,” says Stacey, “so it’s our job to make it stand for something.” With the fashion world in a massive state of influx, as one of the original purveyors of industry change, Stacey is excited about what the future holds.
“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this industry. I love that there is so much more attention focused towards diversity, towards improving opportunities for women in the corporate world, and the fact that fashion is finally becoming more sustainable. The fashion world is dominated by women, so we must stand together on the frontline and champion all of these issues.”
- Words by Lucy Wildman