This story is the six in a series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.
We’re in the depths of a Canadian winter but Andrea Lenczner already has her head tied around the coming spring season.
It’s not cherry blossoms that have her preoccupied. Her thoughts run more in the direction of gingham and stripes in shades of red, white and blue.
As half of the design duo behind Smythe Les Vestes, the Canadian fashion brand that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, made internationally famous when she wore one of the label’s tailored jackets on her first official tour of Canada in 2011, Ms. Lenczner is always several months ahead in dreaming of what to wear.
It’s just part of the job in a career she’s fashioned since giving up a lucrative job in investment banking.
The daughter of prominent litigation lawyer Alan Lenczner, she attended McGill University in the 1990s with fellow designer and business partner, Christie Smythe, her friend since her days at Branksome Hall private school in Toronto. When not studying at McGill, they shopped the clothing stores on Montreal’s Rue Sainte-Catherine, creating outfits to feed their shared fashion addiction.
She didn’t think she was prepping for a career in the fashion industry, though. “It was just fun,” says Ms. Lenczner, who graduated from McGill in 1994 with a bachelor of arts in North American studies, a multidisciplinary program combining courses in political thought, literature and history. “I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
After working for two years for an advertising agency on its Procter & Gamble account, Ms. Lenczner enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“I didn’t think I’d go far at Procter & Gamble and everybody there had an MBA, pretty much. I just followed along,” she says. “But I still hadn’t figured out a career plan.”
With no business background, Ms. Lenczner initially felt out of place in her new classroom.
“I was with a lot of people who had their BCom [bachelor of commerce] and who found what they were doing rather repetitive. But for me it was all new,” continues the 44-year-old married mother of three.
“I was learning how to balance a financial statement for the first time. I felt disadvantaged but I got a tutor and I worked. I had to do my homework more than the others and then I got sucked into the whole recruiting thing that happens at business schools, and before I knew it I was working in investment banking.”
Her first job out of the MBA program admittedly paid well – “a starting salary that was well over $100,000, plus bonuses,” she allows. But she wasn’t happy. “I was making all this money but I knew I didn’t want to be like my bosses – rain makers and executives focused on bagging the elephant. The whole idea filled me with dread.”
To cheer herself up, she met one day with Ms. Smythe, who was then living in New York in product development at U.S. retailer The Gap. After McGill, the granddaughter of legendary Canadian businessman and sports figure Conn Smythe had taken a second degree in fashion and merchandising at Parsons School of Design in New York.
When they reunited over glasses of wine, the pair reminisced about their mutual fashion obsession and teased each other about joining forces to start their own clothing line. Except they weren’t really joking.
“We had been talking about it for years,” says Ms. Lenczner.
“When I thought about it again I realized that fashion is what makes me tick. I mean, look at what I was reading when in banking. Not The Wall Street Journal, but Vogue. That’s what I wanted, and that’s when it hit me. We are in our working lives a long time so we may as well like what we are doing. I didn’t want dread to keep hitting me every Sunday night in anticipation of Monday morning, and so I quit, and never looked back.”
Working briefly as a buyer for Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew in 2003, Ms. Lenczner soon after joined forces with Ms. Smythe to launch their own brand. Smythe Les Vestes concentrated exclusively on women’s jackets as a way of carving a niche for itself in the highly competitive fashion business.
Their shared office space in Toronto’s west end has walls papered with colourful images torn from the pages of fashion magazines. Bolts of fabric litter the floor and in the cutting room, patterns cut from brown paper hang from the ceiling in rows like cuts of meat in a butcher’s window.
The industrial space looks just as it should – like a fashion artiste’s atelier. And while a love of fashion and a flair for creativity keep the ideas flowing, the business is as successful as it is largely as a result of Ms. Lencnzer’s MBA training, they say.
Where other Canadian fashion businesses have closed shop for financial reasons – including independent designers such as Jeremy Laing and Lida Baday, in addition to retail chains such as Jacob and Suzy Shier – Smythe Les Vestes has grown in strength. From just jackets, Smythe has recently expanded into other fashion categories such as pants and dresses.
“In our industry it’s not easy,” Ms. Lenczner says. “You have to understand cash flow, know retail math, be aware of the external forces shaping your pricing – for example, wool, linen and other commodities. It’s simple business stuff that a lot of fashion creators don’t really have, but which I learned doing the MBA. I’ve never once regretted taking it.”
“And neither have I,” pipes in Ms. Smythe from behind a nearby work table. “It has helped us a lot.”Report Typo/Error