…one old love she can imagine going back to and one who reminds her how far she has come
…enough money within her control to move out and rent a place of her own even if she never wants to or needs to
…something perfect to wear if her date of her dreams wants to see her in an hour
…a youth she’s content to leave behind
…a past juicy enough that she’s looking forward to retelling it in her old age
…a set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill, and a black lace bra…
~ Author Unknown ~
Once upon a time in 1977, there lived a Filipina in New York who saw her Asian heritage and womanhood to be the best assets she ever had. With samples of Philippine-made cotton-embroidered shirts on her hands and a pocketful of guts, she knocked on the snobbish doors of Bloomingdales, where an interested buyer suggested that she consider turning them into nightshirts.
Such one magical suggestion was all it took for Josie Cruz Natori to begin The Natori Company, a multi-million dollar empire built around the creation of exquisitely designed lingerie, selling in over 40 countries and employing a thousand people.
Twenty-four years after, the phenomenal founder and CEO who found her global niche in intimate apparel is now a celebrated face gracing hundreds of success-story books, fashion cum lifestyle magazines, and newspapers all over the world. The Natori Couture has a track record of clever ad campaigns. No wonder you would most likely see a Natori ad along the fashion pages where Versace, DKNY, Yves St. Laurent, among others in the similar category also appear.
These days, Natori has every good reason to pursue her favorite pastimes, which include shopping, sleeping, shiatsu massage, and most of all, playing the piano (she is a concert-level classical pianist) – a passion that her family and close friends are most aware of, especially when some 2,500 of them once saw her perform a private recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall, together with an 85-member Orchestra of St. Luke’s on her 50th birthday in 1997.
That year also marked her 25th wedding anniversary and 20 years since founding The Natori Company in East 34th Street in Manhattan. Such lifelong dream allegedly cost some US$500,000 to come true, and should we add “only” after citing that The Natori Company earns an estimated US$50 million annually? Moreover, the year 1998 was likewise remarkable as Natori ranked #11th in Crain’s New York Business Top lists after achieving US$80 million in revenues.
Such overall achievements landed Natori in the ranks of the most widely recognized and awarded internationally. An inspiring symbol of success to women in the Philippines, former President Corazon Aquino presented her with a Galleon Award in 1998, the same year that Natori was also chosen as the New York City Partnership’s Business Woman of the Year and when she also served as a Delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business during US President Bill Clinton’s administration. Most recently, she received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. The honors have continued to accumulate.
And as she continues to live happily ever after with her family in her homes in New York and Paris, Launch Asia grabs this rare opportunity to catch Natori in Manila for a visit to the annual Manila F.A.M.E. International, a cross-cultural gathering and showcase of a large pool of designers’ talents from various product categories.
This time, it looks like her sights are set on home furnishings. “I’ve been asked by a couple of friends here (in Manila) to do things for the home furnishings,” she hints. “It interests me a lot and I think the Philippines has a great advantage in that so I just might consider. I’m also trying to see what materials we can use for accessories although they’re (Natori accessories) being made in Italy. I’m bringing my design team from Italy so they would see it.”
In this exclusive interview, Natori shows up in a chic designer suit whose color matches her well-polished fingernails. Her signature look – sleek and sharply angled bob hair – complements her Filipina features as her favorite photograph would show. Every inch a fashion icon, firing up a conversation becomes fairly easy as the petite lady flashes a friendly smile that enhanced her bright red lipstick. It is apparent, as you listen to her, that her breathtaking urbane sophistication has not been able to erase her genuine warmth and pleasant demeanor that is distinctly Filipina.
To her management team and staff in Manila, Natori is still the same “hands-on” and “motherly-kind-of-workaholic” Mrs. Natori who remains fluent in speaking Tagalog. “I like to be very hands-on,” she confirms. “I started by doing everything myself from the very beginning. I’m probably not the best in delegating although I’m getting better. I have a president now and she really runs the day-to-day stuff, but I still can’t get my hands off.” When it comes to decision-making, the self-confessed classic entrepreneur trusts her funny bone, although she also listens to her staff’s suggestions. “I think that’s in my nature. I like how my husband calls it – work is a vacation. I choose to make (what I do) hectic. I don’t like to sit still.”
Unlike most success stories we usually hear, however, Natori’s resume has always been one of the best one could ever see to begin with. A fast-paced climber at Wall Street’s corporate ladder, she was the first woman vice president of Merrill Lynch in the 1970s. She’s married to Ken Natori, a third-generation Japanese American investment banker at Smith Barney Harris Upham, who would later become The Natori Company’s chairman, and whom she met in a blind date. “I’m a gambler at heart. I take risks, ” she smiles. That’s the same explanation behind the astonishing turnaround in her odyssey from a very prestigious career in Wall Street to the exciting but uncertain world of entrepreneurship.
By 1976, the year her son Kenneth, Jr. was born, Natori began to feel unchallenged by investment banking anymore and started to adhere to her entrepreneurial calling – an inclination that’s been as natural as brushing her teeth as she used to be surrounded by entrepreneurial role models back home. “I’ve seen it from my father, my mother, and my grandmother. That’s not anything strange to me,” says the eldest of six children of Mr. and Mrs. Felipe F. Cruz, the Philippines’ noted construction magnate. Her grandmother also ran a number of businesses herself, including pharmacies, coconut and sisal plantations. “I think it’s an asset for me because not all Asian women have that cultural background. I think in the Philippines we’ve always had strong women. They always have the purse. Although the men brings the salary, it’s the women who makes the decisions.”
She knew there’s got to be something more. So after some time spent window-shopping for possibilities that included a burger joint franchise, a car wash, and even a fertilizer company, Natori concluded that if she were to run a business, it had to be one that would satisfy both her deal-making skills and aesthetic side. “I wanted something that I can relate to,” she says. The business of fashion is pretty much what she means.
Cashing in on distinguished Philippine hand-works that range from exquisite appliqués to intricate embroidery detailing to all-over beading, Natori explored not only lingerie, but also everything from moderately priced sleepwear and daywear to haute couture eveningwear and “at-home” wear. She also diversified into slippers, sachets, and evening bags. In 1993 she introduced an upscale costume jewelry collection under a worldwide licensing agreement. In 1994 she launched The Natori shoe collection and began a collection of fragrance, bath, and boudoir products licensed by Avon Products, Inc.
Natori on NATORI
What’s in a name? How does one spot a NATORI from others? Natori seeks to differentiate itself from another by transforming its name into global brands, much like Versace and DKNY probably. This lets the NATORI brand sell higher margin, private label items, protects it from price wars and gives it more leverage with its suppliers.
In her own words, Natori sees her product lines as feminine, sensual, exotic, elegant yet maintaining the ease-ness, – something you can immediately see from far away. “Visually, people can see the richness of the fabric and colors, the luxury and detail aspects. When you see the handbag we’ve just launched, it’s like a work of art. Every Natori item has an East-meets-West feeling,” she explains while showing me samples of her line-up of new designs from her 2001 catalogue. Her hallmark – embroidery and appliqué work of the Philippines, remains integral in Natori’s designs, translated into a collection that now includes three distinctive lingerie lines: Natori Black Label, Natori White Label and the contemporary and moderately priced Josie.
The idea now is to explore other product lines. “We just launched in another company a line called “Cruz” that represents the more affordable Natori line. It will start with a lingerie first and then the apparel. It will be available first in New York stores and then we’ll take it from there,” she disclosed.
For someone born and raised in a conservative country such as the Philippines until she attended college at Manhattanville College in New York at age 17, it seems odd to pair the phrases “Filipina” and “lingerie titan”.
The paradox is probably explained by the fact that Natori played a significant role in revolutionizing the concept of lingerie. Her product lines Natori, Eve Stillman, and Josie are all based on a vision that challenges pre-conceived fashion norms by offering lingerie “so beautifully functional it can be worn as regular clothing.” In that sense, you no longer see underwear as something you’d rather buy discreetly behind back-corner stalls if not a pornographic item. “I think I understand how women want to feel,” she says. “They are very independent and they want to feel feminine.”
Conquering the Globe
“Everything in life connects.” Natori’s personal philosophy that originally came from her piano teacher a long time ago has an impact in the way she does business. “It’s a philosophy for me that everything happens for a reason. Even the bad things in life – they’re meant to be. Something good comes out of something. That’s why I don’t regret things and I don’t look back.” The world is not a big planet for Natori, long before the Internet era confirmed it for her.
In the United States, Natori is sold at major retailers and specialty stores, including Bloomingdales – Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Macy’s. It also sells in Japan, in the Philippines. She’s currently looking for a partner in England. Moreover, Natori has faced ferocious battles with France, the country that supposedly defined lingerie, by also putting up her own boutique there. “I’ve got to adopt something,” she stresses. “Natori is not American. It’s not Filipino or European. It has to have a global appeal.”
” A market-smart global retailer, Natori imparts the challenge of marketing her products that depend on what markets she’s in. “You have to rely on people who know best in that country. You really have to have appropriate partners in each country. That’s really one of our strategies to find the right partners to penetrate. I do believe that the biggest market is in the States but there are also a lot of opportunities elsewhere. We’re not as penetrated in Europe ’cause its impossible to do it all by yourself in other parts of the world so you have to have partners. Rustan’s is our partner in the Philippines. They have the exclusive franchise here.”
The typical licensing deal nets Natori a royalty of between 5 to 10 percent of the retail price of the items, according to the book “Self-Made Americans” by Margery Mandell. “Natori comes up with the design, and the manufacturer takes care of the rest, including marketing,” reports Mandell.
Making a Difference
“For one thing, I don’t ever sit around to think about success,” Natori says when I asked what success has taught her. “I don’t feel a success yet. I think it depends on your definition of success. If you mean have I achieve things? Yes. Building a fashion house and all that. But success to me ultimately means something different. It’s doing what you’ve wanted to do and for me, what I really want is making a difference in people’s lives. That means the ability of making major contributions to society. So I see this business as a means to an end. I think there’s more to do to make a major impact to society.”
When she opened her first NATORI boutique in Manila in 1995, she also used the country’s premiere Filipina models like Tweety de Leon, Apples Aberin, Patty Betita, and Angel Aquino among others.
“The Philippines have such creative talents that are just not maximized,” she quips. “What we don’t see here is the ‘brand’. We need to see more from local retailers and not just the foreign brands. It’s tougher in the apparel industry ’cause we don’t have one here yet, although the talents are here. But in terms of giftware and home furnishings I think that designers have been much progressive. But I’d like to see some things made by designers themselves and not just by exporters.”
CLICKING THE RIGHT BUTTONS
Creating products that have global appeal but with a distinctive quality.
Using ‘GloCal’ strategy. NATORI standardizes certain elements while 85 percent of its production is done in the Philippines.
Marketing depends on what country and markets NATORI is in.
Finding appropriate partners who are established retailers in the US, in Europe (Paris and England), and in Asia in order to penetrate globally.
Natori seeks to differentiate itself from another by transforming its name into global brands. This lets the NATORI brand sell higher margin, private label items, protects it from price wars, and gives it more leverage with its suppliers.
“Everything in life connects.” Natori’s personal philosophy that originally came from her piano teacher a long time ago has an impact in the way she does business.
On the Cover
The Natori Company competes in the international market by transforming the Natori line into global brands.