Talking Fashion, Philanthropy & (Yes!) Party Tips With Designer Kay Unger

  Taking place Friday, November 15 at the Grand Pavilion at the Dallas Trade Mart, Fashion Group International of Dallas’ annual Fashion & Lifestyle Awards Night of Stars Gala is a can’t-miss event for area fashion fans and industry insiders. Each year, accomplished designers in all career phases are recognized throughout the evening, from rising stars to internationally renowned names. Today, DFW Style Daily is honored to present an exclusive Q&A with Kay Unger, set to receive FGI’s Lifetime Achievement Award at next month’s gala. Counting First Ladies and Hollywood stars among her loyal clients, Unger’s career spans over 40 years and multiple successful companies. She also serves on the Parsons Board of Governors, and is a dedicated supporter of and fundraiser for cancer care and research. Read on for Kay Unger’s thoughts on this upcoming honor in her own words, plus insights on building a brand, the power of philanthropy, and much more.  

  DFW Style Daily: What was your initial reaction upon learning you were to be honored by FGI Dallas with a Lifetime Achievement Award? Kay Unger: “When [FGI Dallas Regional Director elect] Chuck Steelman called me and told me of this fabulous honor I was thrilled. First of all, to be recognized for the work you love is a bonus, plus my 45 years of working so closely with Neiman Marcus and knowing Chuck through that venue, is an additional opportunity to give back for me. My Dallas friends and customers are very close to my heart. “Then there is FGI, having been past president of the entire organization. It was a ground- breaking experience for me and the organization when we began the initiative making the Night of Stars Gala a philanthropic opportunity. I am glad to be a part of it again.”   Looking back to the launch of your first company in 1970, would a 25-year-old Kay have ever guessed she would receive such an award? “No and yes. That 25-year-old Kay had no idea that she would start and run three successful apparel companies, and be the design force running these companies. I always knew of my passion to give back, but I think I was less aware that there are awards for it.”   From First Ladies to Hollywood celebrities to CEO’s, you have designed for women in many walks of life. What do they all have in common? “I know this sounds simplistic, but they are all women! They certainly have that in common, plus they trust that I will make them feel and look their best. It is about them. The clothing is not to be the focus, more like a halo.”   Do you recall a particular client or occasion that made a special impact? “Tipper Gore’s Inaugural Gala gown.”  

  Through the Kay Unger Family Foundation, you support cancer research and design scholarships. Why are these two causes closest to your heart? “Making a difference in people’s lives is what has made me tick ever since I was a child. I was taught from a very early age about philanthropy. When I was four, my seven-year-old brother drowned. My father set up an arts foundation for the Boys Club of America to reach out to boys, then eventually to boys and girls, who were talented in the arts. We started with these kids at very early ages, giving them lessons and instruments. I saw how it changed their lives. It gave them that creative confidence which made a difference in their lives. This has been a focus my whole life, and I just carried it on. “Then, when I was 16 I had cancer, and I saw how scary it was. I have this ability to care for people; it was a motherly instinct before I was ever a mom. I’ve been able to give that to others. It also made it possible for me to negotiate in my business affairs. I wouldn’t do a show unless part of the proceeds went to charity. [For example], I’ve raised money through the City of Hope Cancer Center for the last 15 years by participating in the Hike for Hope the first weekend in March. “When I was part of FGI I also did the first Night of Stars for charity. We put on a Broadway show, closing off 7th Avenue. We gave Evelyn Lauder her first check of $250,000 for her Breast Cancer Research Fund. Every October, I build my business traveling for Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, always doing shows for breast cancer. It makes the work you do and the money you make so much more meaningful.”   We’ve enjoyed exploring your website and blog, and were delighted to learn that you are quite the chef and party-thrower! Care to share a few favorite entertaining tips? “It’s a funny story, in my high school yearbook they said I would be a major entertainer!" Tips:
  • If it’s a seated event place cards are essential.
  • Mix up the crowd, and don’t sit spouses next to each other.
  • Invite new friends and different generations.
  • Always be crowded.
  • Themes are good, like a great topic to discuss during dinner.
  • Hors d’oeuvres and dessert are great, because normally that’s what people eat. And, you save the time and trouble of a fancy dinner.
  Speaking of the many aspects of a stylish life, your brand has encompassed day and evening wear, pajamas, accessories, home décor, and eyewear. Are there any design areas which excite you that you have yet to explore? “Yes, solution-based products like fun stationary and note pads, wrapping paper, and easy bags to bring gifts to people’s homes. [And], the perfect handbag. There are many out there, but I know exactly what I want. Obviously, I think they are all gorgeous, but they are too heavy. “[Also], the perfect product line, including a dress, a jacket, a pant, a coat, and a shirt that are exciting but also have a pocket somewhere to put a phone. I spend 90% of my time looking for my phone. I would like to make the perfect suitcase for travel as well, because I still haven’t found one, [and] I’ve never done shoes even though I’m passionate about them.”  

  Do you believe that offering products across a range of lifestyle categories is essential for a modern fashion designer? “No, you have to be successful at your niche first. Otherwise, it becomes too confusing. This is a huge mistake many new designers make - don’t do too much too soon. After you are first successful with your niche, then as you add products, you have to make sure that they still reach your target market.”   What is your favorite way to fill a free afternoon? “My goal in my new life was to get out and see things. So, I walk around my neighborhood because it’s so creative and interesting. [I would also] do some shopping, whether I’m actually buying or not. I just like to look at what’s new and appealing for myself and my clients.”   Finally, we’ve seen some pictures from years past, and we have to ask, are you dressing up in costume for Halloween this year? “Yes, my goal is to go trick-or-treating with my 2 ½-year-old grandson, and he knows every dinosaur known to man. So, I would love to make the coolest dinosaur costume ever.”   Click here to explore and shop the latest Kay Unger collections.    

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