Friday, September 24, 2010

Profile of a philanthropist: Bill Rondina

Bill Rondina in his office at the Carlisle penthouse showroom on East 52nd Street.
Profile of a philanthropist

I’d heard of Bill Rondina long before I met him, and saw him a number of times (enough to remember the face) before that at various benefits. That’s where New York can take on the quality of a small town. It turned out that we had mutual friends and acquaintances.

People who knew him talked enthusiastically about him. Always praises and amazes. When you hear that about a person in this city of the ambitious and creative, you can’t help wondering about the “why.”

They were impressed by two things: his business success and his generosity. Were they one and the same, as it so often is? This is a city rife with both, and they are often interrelated. Or was it the real McCoy? I learned he was a big supporter of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the Met, of the New York Botanical Garden, of Literacy Partners. That’s generous, definitely.
Eventually I met him one weekend a few years ago up in Litchfield County when I was visiting my friend Peter Rogers. He came to dinner one night with his partner Giovanni LoFaro and our mutual friend Brooke Hayward who knows him as a neighbor also.

In person the Knight in Shining Armor tycoon is a friendly, warm but unassuming fellow. He just likes people. Laughter often enters into the conversation. He holds up his end of any but he’s a curious fellow, a listener, always interested in learning. When people referred to his generosity, they were referring to his tendency to share his largesse frequently and abundantly with his friends, as well as others. I know, this is beginning to sound like an angel.

A few months ago, he and I discussed his interest in advertising his products on the NYSD. It was then that I got to know about that fabled generosity and its source. Having been in the business of retailing before I launched a career as a writer (as I’ve written here somewhere), I was very curious to see what it was that Bill Rondina did that made him so successful. I soon learned just from mentioning the name of Carlisle to a lot of women friends, that his clothing lines are very, very popular.
The day JH and I first went to his office to discuss the matter, we ran into a prominent New York businesswoman, leaving the building. I told her where we were going. It so happened she’d just come from there. I asked her how she learned about it. She said she shopped there all the time and just picked up some resortwear for a trip she and her husband were taking in the Caribbean. Then she put her right index finger to her lip and said: Shhhh! As in don’t tell anybody my secret. Women often keep these secrets when they’ve found a good thing.

Since then I’ve come to know Bill Rondina better. The generosity is just his nature. It goes with the territory that is Rondina. The sense of humor and zest for life is intact and the business is his project, his baby. And he looks after it and his employees as if it were brand new and he was doing his damnedest to keep them liking their jobs. The business itself is two things: Common Sense and Genius. The Genius part is following one’s Common Sense. Common Sense as we know, is not in abundant quality these days and hasn’t been for quite some time. (Maybe never? Not sure.)

Then I obtained the following interview with him about his life and his business. This is one of those interviews where you know the person quite well but you don’t really know much if anything about what his daily life is like, or how he goes about making his living, or how he conducts himself out in the world. This interview explains it. It also explains the generosity part and how it naturally transforms into philanthropy. Carlisle, for example, has a partnership with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure that has raised $2 million for the charity through their customers (who are referred to as clients).

Bill Rondina and Peter Rogers at the New York Landmarks Conservancy's annual “Living Landmarks ‘Sweet Sixteen’ Celebration 2009.
Where did you grow up?

In a beautiful suburb of Seattle.

What influences did you have growing up that made you go into the fashion business?

My mother and father were very good friends with a man named John Doyle Bishop. He was the owner of the Carriage Trade Shop, which was “the store” that dressed all of Seattle’s wealthy elite at the time. The quality of every item, not to mention the store’s interior design and customer service were out of this world. As a young boy, I would go in there just to visit and soak it all in. I knew that this was something I could do just as well. if not better!

Did you study fashion? Where?

I attended the University of Washington and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before honing my skills at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. John Doyle Bishop was in Manhattan at the time and he helped me get my first job as a design assistant at the prestigious Seventh Avenue firm of Ben Zuckerman. After that, I went to work at Christian Dior NY, which was still owned by Dior Paris at that time.

After 8 years of paying my dues and learning my craft, I was ready to do something fresh that reflected both my own design aesthetic and commitment to personalized client service. To this end, I operated my design studio from 1973 until 1980, when I founded the Carlisle Collection. In the past year, I built upon this line with the introduction of our expanded Per Se Collection. We are now offering both lines nationwide through showrooms and trunk shows.

How long have you been in the fashion business?

By 1965, I was fully immersed in the fashion business and working away in New York City.

Tell us a bit about the Connaught Group

We are a company all about women and for women from what we provide to what we give back.

I would describe us as the ultimate marriage between high-end women’s couture clothing and a personalized wardrobing service.

Bill Rondina and Giovanni LoFaro at the Fete de Swifty, 9/28/05.
I created The Connaught Group to be the parent company to our clothing lines for women, which now include the Carlisle Collection, Per Se and Etcetera. Because of our extensive reach and relationships around the world, we can put the very best into creating our designs without eliminating even the smallest detail. Our customized service is designed to please each of our clients and ensure that they have a wardrobe that truly works with their lifestyle. I am very proud of this combination and the effort we make to delight each client.

We’re also about giving back. To date, we have raised almost $2 million for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. We wanted our philanthropic efforts to be something we all felt proud of. So in 1997 we polled all of our sellers to determine which organization we should give to. Across the board, women said they wanted to do something for breast cancer and that remains true today. Now, each year, our designers create a signature Carlisle scarf that is given to our clients when they donate $125 to the Susan B. Komen Foundation through our Fabric of Hope program. 100% of the donation goes directly to the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

What would you consider The Connaught Group’s design aesthetic?

For us, it starts with sending our designers all over the world to explore design ideas and trends – because, in the end, it’s the fabrics they find or create that inspire us most! We are unabashed “fabric snobs” and, to this end, we seek out the very best textiles from fabric mills in Italy, France and England. Each of our collections is stylistically distinct. This enables us to offer a variety of styles that meet the needs of many women while allowing them to diversify their wardrobes.

True elegance is all about being stylish with staying power – that’s our design mantra.

Who is your typical customer?

Our clients are stylish women who appreciate beautiful clothing and customized service. We are not for sport shoppers – we’re really helping to style people, they get a service that is tempered to them uniquely. In their 1 ½ hour visit at our showroom, they are the only person that matters. It’s all about helping that one woman find her style and a wardrobe she call pull from with absolutely confidence.

BIll Rondina and Elizabeth Peabody at Lincoln Center Literacy Partners' 26th annual Gala Evening of Readings.
What can clients expect from their showroom experience with you – why is it so appealing?

Women can expect to have a private appointment with a personal stylist that is 100% focused on them, their lifestyle, what they need for daytime events and night, and everything in-between. Our showroom is filled with beautiful clothing and is a peaceful haven that allows women to let go of all of the distractions so they can focus on making wise wardrobe decisions. As one client put it – “I cherish my appointments with you because they ensure I’m looking beautiful, feeling confident and they free me up to have time to spend on other things!”

Please tell us some “must haves” that women should have available to them in their closets.

Regardless of trends, they need to invest in column dressing so that they have the flexibility of adding in whatever they want. When I say “column” dressing I mean pants, skirts, and a blouse/sweater/knit that are all one color – ideally, either black, charcoal grey, off-white or navy blue.

Different jackets, accessories can be added to be the star of the show but the column will take you everywhere.

Know which colors look great on you and work them! Women need to step outside of their comfort zone of wearing all black. Whether it’s a bright red jacket that gives you a shot of color at a dressy event or a well-placed scarf to liven up last season’s trench coat, color is something, which many women still need to embrace. After all, isn’t it always the woman who dares to dazzle by wearing color who gets all of the attention? I was at an event the other night where everyone was wearing black and I said, “Who died?” We’re coming out of a recession, let’s celebrate!
Bill Rondina, Micky Ateyeh, Richard Clifford, and Sir Derek Jacobi at Michael's, 6/15/10.
Who are some designers that have influenced your work, and how?

The Carlisle and Per Se design teams come up with their own looks based on a variety of inspirations each season.

Each of our designers has experience working at the top design houses, including: Christian Dior, Burberry, Albert Nipon, Mary Ann Restivo, Carmelo Pomodoro, Episode, Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein and Tahari. When you are designer, you learn the basics and then build upon that foundation with each collection you create.
Ultimately, our designers work collaboratively to create each collection, offering clients the best of their collective talents!

On a personal front, the other design houses I truly admire and appreciate are:

At Jazz at Lincoln Center's Fall 2008 Gala, “A Celebration of the Music of Nat ‘King’ Cole.”
Chanel because they are able to reach women at so many levels. And they do it so well – from their accessories and clothes to their shoes.

However, for me personally -- when I think of which designer is a true standout as having most influenced my work and focus on quality, I say Oscar de la Renta.

What are some trends we should look out for in clothing design? Any particular colors or styles?

Every season, we forecast the top trends and styles for our clients and reflect these in the collections we create. For example, with the Per Se Holiday collection, we are all about glamour. Those that get it right this season will have an air of off-the-cuff elegance. You can see our Per Se Holiday Fashion Forecast here.

However, we view our clients as individuals with their own distinct style. We help them be the very best that they can be – from the colors that look fantastic on them, to the fit of a casual outfit to a formal ensemble. We are helping them build wardrobes that will last.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Product, product, product – I am so proud of what we put together every season and the price point we are able to offer women. At the end of the day, I am a product person and I am involved in the review and approval of every collection because it’s what I love.

Our clients get glowing remarks about what they wear from our collections and it keeps them coming back.

What’s more, seamstresses across America tell our clients that they can’t believe how well our clothes are made. And that is one of the best compliments of all!
Gregory Long, Mrs. Karl Wamsler, Mai Harrison, Ann Johnson, Jeanne Jones, Pamela Fiori, Friederike Biggs, and Bill Rondina at The New York Botanical Garden held its 28th annual spring gala, 6/9/03.
Who is your dream client and why?

We are dressing our dream clients every day – from politicians and celebrities to the career women and stay-at-home mom who have no time to shop. My dream client is the woman who needs beautiful clothing, needs to look a certain way and appreciates quality and style.

Carlisle Collection
New York City Showroom Details:
Address: 16 east 52nd Street, 16th Floor
Phone: 212.751.6490

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