This Valentine’s Day at Lincoln Center in New York City, famed designer Michael Kors put on a fall 2018 runway show featuring many classics — argyle sweaters, Aran cabled sweaters, tartans and plaids, stripes, leopards and Fairisle sweaters, all mixed and matched. Kors, who started his American sportswear design business in 1981, called the collection “a love letter to individual style.”
While fashion-forward style lovers like Zendaya watched this “feel-good” collection from the front row with a mixture of awe and envy, still others observed with a genuine vested interest. Maureen Gilligan was one of those onlookers. Gilligan, a Michael Kors Collection knitwear designer who has been with the company for five years, spent hours leading up to February 14 researching and pulling inspiration for this latest collection. “The real reward is when we are back stage at the fashion show watching models in our clothes, and the excitement of the lineup,” says Gilligan, who is 27. KWHS caught up with Gilligan recently to find out what it means to work as a designer for one of the most famous names in fashion.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Have you always been interested in fashion?
Maureen Gilligan: Since I can remember, I have always been interested in drawing, painting, creating, and so on. I took all of the art electives offered and one sewing elective class in high school. My mother also had a sewing machine, so I started buying fabrics and experimenting. I knew I wanted to be in a creative field and have always loved fashion, so it made sense.
KWHS: When did you narrow your focus to becoming a fashion designer?
Gilligan: I went to Drexel University [in Philadelphia] and majored in fashion design. I learned how to properly sew and construct garments and took many figure drawing, design and art classes along the way. It was a long and difficult four years of late nights in the sewing lab. It was not an easy major, and there were many times I wanted to quit because of how overwhelmed or sleep-deprived I was. But I knew I was meant to do this and never gave up.
KWHS: What kind of training did you have after college?
Gilligan: I interned at Michael Kors in the Women’s Collection Knitwear Design department, which is the department I actually work in now. I lived in New York City for six months, working every single day for free. My internship was a huge part of how I got to be where I am now. I learned the importance of hard work and dedication and made some great networking connections. Not to mention, I was working alongside Michael Kors. After my internship, I knew my dream was to design knitwear – and work for Michael. After multiple freelance gigs for different departments at Michael Kors (while simultaneously working retail at a mall in Cherry Hill, N.J.) and three different interviews for Michael Kors jobs I didn’t end up getting, I finally landed my first job as an assistant designer of MMK knits and sweaters. Then, after one year of working for MMK, my old supervisor from Collection Knitwear Design at Michael Kors needed a new associate designer and asked me, literally making my dreams come true.
KWHS: What specifically do you do as a designer for Michael Kors?
Gilligan: I am involved in the design process from start to finish. I work alongside my director to research and pull inspiration for each season. Then, she and I sketch the entire season together. We present each season to Michael and he decides what he likes and we go from there.
A typical day for me could include any of the following: sourcing and ordering trims, ordering all yarn, putting swatch development into work with local knitters, creating full-scale patterns/layouts for artwork or embroidery, sketching into new ideas and concepts, creating tech packs [fashion business tools that help communicate designs and specifications to sample makers and factories] for each style, and keeping all charts, boards and lists up to date.
We don’t do much knitting in-house. I handle sketching and designing and outsource my production in Hong Kong. I also buy all the yarn from Italy and manage the process of sending it to Hong Kong for knitting. We have daily communication with them to ensure everything comes in correctly.
KWHS: Do you find the work rewarding?
Gilligan: The most rewarding part of my job is seeing my work come to life. When first prototypes come in, I always joke how it feels like Christmas, and it really does! I designed something, put it into work, and I am then holding it in my hands. The absolute most rewarding is seeing your design on the cover of a magazine or in an editorial. Seeing Emma Stone on the cover of Vogue magazine wearing a sweater I designed is really mind-blowing!
KWHS: What is most challenging about what you do?
Gilligan: Long hours and working weekends. The most challenging thing about my job is keeping a work-life balance. The fashion industry is very fast-paced and always changing — keeping up with the industry and the consumer is the hardest part. We need to know what consumers want before they even know they want it!
KWHS: What is it like to work for a company that has such high-profile brand recognition?
Gilligan: I feel honored to work for Michael Kors. I have always loved the brand and how MK has turned a brand into a lifestyle. I have met Michael, and I work alongside him and the creative director, Lance, Michael’s husband. Sometimes we are in all-day meetings together. Michael always has the final say and is a great decision maker. Sometimes, we will talk through the design with him to figure out what will work best. He is hysterical and keeps everyone laughing all day, every day. The culture here is very upbeat, and Michael likes to see how each one of us puts together our clothes based on our personal style. He draws a lot of inspiration from how we all dress here.
KWHS: What is one of your favorite outfits to wear to work?
Gilligan: Bright red Nike sneakers, a red hoodie and an oversized khaki trench over an oversized black sweater, a black studded strap bag and bright red lipstick!
KWHS: What are your most memorable moments, involving both success and failure, since joining Michael Kors?
Gilligan: When Michael Kors called me by my first name for the first time, it was truly memorable! I also have a special memory from when I was an intern. It was the night before the spring 2012 show (also my birthday) and Michael opened a bottle of champagne for me and toasted to my birthday when we were wrapped for the day. I was only 21, and it stands out as a major milestone moment in my life!
My biggest mistake or learning moment was when I accidentally ordered the wrong color yarn for one of the last-minute knit jacquards. Italy closes down for August, so I couldn’t re-order the correct color yarn, since all of our yarn comes from Italy. Turned out that MK didn’t really notice and we showed the sweater for Resort 2015 anyway. Sometimes as a designer, we really scrutinize the clothes and get so involved in the original design that we need to step back and look to see that just because it wasn’t executed correctly, it can still work.
KWHS: Where do you hope your career leads?
Gilligan: I started as assistant designer, was promoted to associate designer, then promoted to designer. Next would be senior designer, which I hope to have the title of within the next two years. In 10 years, I could dream to have my own knitwear line. If that never happens, I hope that I would be working for someone I look up to and am constantly inspired by, just like Michael Kors.
KWHS: What would you like your 17-year-old self to know most about your life now to help her make informed decisions?
Gilligan: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Follow your dreams and with hard work and dedication, you can and will succeed. Also, try new things and keep learning! Fashion is ever changing, so you have to always be following what’s happening right now. Watch the runway shows, buy and read the magazines, go vintage and consignment shopping, and visit department stores to see how real designer clothes are made and the quality and workmanship that goes into them — anything to keep your mind stimulated with what you want to do with your career.
What was Maureen Gilligan’s biggest learning moment?
How did an internship help Maureen launch her career? What does her experience as an intern tell you about preparing for a career?
What is your favorite takeaway from this article? How do you think it will help you make informed decisions about your own career?