Fashion Forward

Huntington native Alex Bolen never set out to become the CEO of one of the world's leading fashion houses, but that's exactly where his journey has taken him.

By Jack Houvouras

Inside the sprawling offices on the 25th floor of the office tower located at 11 West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, people come and go at a frenetic pace. They include high-level executives, foreign vendors, runway models, seamstresses, celebrities and the occasional head of state. The space is open and airy, with cream walls bathed in ample sunlight. The décor smacks of neutrality with one exception -- the vibrant colors of countless dresses, coats and evening gowns that hang on racks in nearly every corner. This is the heart of the Oscar de la Renta fashion house.

The person charged with overseeing the iconic luxury brand that has adorned every first lady from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama is Huntington native Alex Bolen. At the age of 48, he is in his 12th year as CEO of the clothier known principally for its dazzling red carpet creations and modern, feminine apparel. In that time, he has brought a new vision to the company that he hopes will ensure its viability in the 21st century.

The story of how the West Virginia native found his way to New York City and the world of haute couture is intriguing. And while on the surface his career in the fashion industry may seem glamorous, Bolen is quick to point out that isn't always the case.

"It's an extraordinarily competitive business. We put in long hours and take tremendous pride in what we do," Bolen explains. "And we never waver from our mission, which is to make the women of the world look and feel beautiful."

Born and raised in Huntington, Alex Bolen was a typical, active kid who played football, ran track, golfed and swam. The son of Richard and Barclay Bolen, he grew up on the South Side and later in Southeast Hills with his younger sister Sarah. He attended Miller Elementary, Gallaher Elementary and Beverly Hills Junior High.

"Huntington was a great place to grow up," Bolen says. "I think the term 'idyllic childhood' is perhaps overused, but in my case, it fits. As a kid, we rode our bicycles all summer long on the streets and played in Ritter Park, and there was no worry about anyone getting into trouble. I remember going up to the Huntington Museum of Art and trips to Camden Park."

When Bolen was 15 he left Huntington to attend boarding school in Virginia, but he returned often for holidays and summer breaks.

"Huntington was always home, and in some ways, it still is," Bolen says. "Maybe this sounds a little simplistic, but I left Huntington knowing right from wrong. I am surprised to this day how many people don't seem to know that difference. That's because of my mom and dad, first and foremost, but it's also what I learned at Huntington schools and Trinity Episcopal Church."

Following boarding school Bolen enrolled at Brown University, where he majored in Russian Studies and minored in Economics. It was at Brown that he met Eliza Reed, the stepdaughter of fashion icon Oscar de la Renta.

Oscar de la Renta was born in the Dominican Republic in 1932 and left the Caribbean when he was 18 to study painting in Madrid. To earn extra money, he took a job at a fashion house sketching clothes, and thus found his true calling. The rest is history. Starting in the 1960s, his elegant eveningwear designs have been donned by every first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, and his gowns are a perennial presence on red carpets around the world.

Bolen graduated magna cum laude from Brown in 1990. With Wall Street booming and companies looking for extra hands, the ambitious 21-year-old headed to New York City. His first job was at a firm that specialized in helping troubled companies.

"It was a great way to learn how companies work," he says. "I was exposed to a lot of different industries."

Bolen spent the next 15 years on Wall Street in the world of leveraged finance. He worked hard and gained more responsibility at every stop along the way, including key positions at Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns. He also struck out on his own and co-founded, and later sold, an asset-management company.

"What I was doing was making loans to investor groups trying to buy companies -- everything from guns to butter," he explains. "It was great because I got to spend time with people who had started businesses and achieved success in their chosen field. It's interesting to understand the entrepreneurial drive."

Reflecting on his career in investment banking on Wall Street, Bolen admits that the stereotypes about long hours, competition and greed sometimes ring true.

"Like in any business, there's a little silliness. There's a little froth," he says. "But most of the people I worked with were very serious. There were a lot of long nights. That's the way that it works. After two years, you move up. You learn a lot and you're exposed to people who run very large companies. You're in the room when important decisions are being made."

In 1998, 10 years after first meeting at Brown, he and Eliza were married at her family home in Kent, Connecticut. Her wedding dress was designed by her famous stepfather. The couple would go on to have three boys -- Henry, Thomas and Philip.

By 2003 Bolen was firmly entrenched in the financial world. He had just launched a new venture with his partners at Bear Stearns. It was at that time that he was approached by his father-in-law, who was seeking some business advice.

"Oscar told me that a group, led by his current CEO, had approached him about buying his company," Bolen recalls. "He asked me to look over the proposal. I told him up front that I had little experience with fashion companies and retailers because I viewed them as extremely risky, but that I'd be happy to take a look."

After reviewing the proposal, Bolen told his father-in-law that it didn't seem like an attractive deal. When de la Renta decided to reject the offer, his CEO promptly resigned.

"So Oscar came to me and said, 'What do I do now? I'm here designing clothes and I don't have anyone to run the business. You've got to help me.' He asked me to give him a couple of hours a week to look through resumes, but ultimately, I was drafted to work full time."

In July 2004, at just 36 years old, Bolen was named CEO of the Oscar de la Renta fashion house. Although he had already mastered the complexities of high finance, this was a whole new ballgame in an industry he found untenable.

But, he says, "the opportunity to work with Oscar was something I couldn't pass up. In business, I think the most valuable lessons are learned from people who have been tested. For Oscar to have spent 50 years in this business and survived, I thought I could learn a lot from him. It's one decision that I got exactly right."

When Bolen took charge, the brand was focused primarily on licensing clothes and products. Even though the company was doing $650 million in annual sales, it had no actual stores, and 98 percent of its business was in North America. Bolen began to formulate a new vision for the future.

"I realized that the reach of the Oscar de la Renta brand very much exceeded its grasp. While licensing the name to various products was incredibly profitable, it wasn't clear to me that it would endure," Bolen says. "So, I went to Oscar and Eliza, who herself had been working at the company for 25 years, and asked them to consider some big changes. They were up for it. We moved away from licensing and decided to focus on high-end women's ready-to-wear products and accessories. We made that the core of our business. We also started opening stores in North America and around the world to build the brand internationally."

Today, Bolen's plan is working. Since he took over, 15 stores have opened worldwide, with more scheduled to open every year. The customer base is more evenly divided now -- 60 percent in North America and 40 percent from the rest of the world. Whereas sales in 2004 were 100 percent wholesale and no retail, last year they were about 50/50. And most impressive of all, annual revenues have increased sixfold.

"We've made great progress and we're on the right track, but it's a work-in-progress," Bolen says. "One of the keys to making this plan work is getting out there and telling the Oscar de la Renta story. I have an insane travel schedule, but our business isn't just in the U.S. anymore."

Last spring Bolen traveled to Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai. By the end of the summer he had added London, Paris, Milan, Naples, Athens, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Stockholm to his itinerary.

"Eliza joins me more frequently than most wives on these trips, but still not as much as I would like," he says. "As executive vice president, Eliza is a very important part of our success. She has 25 years of experience at the company. She obviously knows the business."

Bolen's approach to reimagining the direction of the brand has received a number of positive reviews, the most notable coming from the most powerful person in the fashion industry today -- Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour.

"A lot of what you're seeing with Oscar has to do with Alex coming onboard," Wintour told New York Magazine. "He's come up with some kind of master plan to expand Oscar's empire, and I think it's a correct one. Oscar deserves a bigger platform."

While de la Renta did get to see the master plan take shape, he never saw it come to fruition. On Oct. 20, 2014, he died at his home in Kent, Connecticut, following a long battle with cancer. He was 82. His passing left a large void at the institution he founded, but both Bolen and Eliza have resolved to carry on his legacy.

"Oscar was a serious person, but he tried not to take our business too seriously," Bolen explains. "He used to say, 'We design dresses. We try to make people happy. What we are selling are dreams.' And he infused that attitude into our company. Eliza and I are committed to keeping the spirit and culture he created alive."

The future of the iconic brand seems brighter than ever. Now that many of Bolen's initial changes have been implemented, he has turned his focus to new horizons. Among them is a line of accessories including shoes and handbags, and in an interview with Fashionista Magazine last February he hinted at a possible menswear line.

"After Oscar passed away, I read where he was once voted the seventh most elegant man in the world. So, we feel there's an authenticity for us to make a foray into menswear," Bolen says. "It also happens to be an important category right now because men are spending more on clothes. I think we have to find a way to make this a part of our future plans. It calls for a fairly steep investment, but if we're going to do it we're going to do it in a big way."

In addition to these changes, one of the keys to the company's recent success is understanding what it does well. In an industry where everyone is obsessed with the pursuit of younger customers, Bolen is not. The typical Oscar woman is 35 or older with discriminating taste. The clothier has never been about cheap products at a cheap price, and it never will be, says Bolen.

"We use the best fabrics that one can buy and our dresses are crafted by the most talented hands in the world," he says. "There is a certain sophistication to what we do. We want to find consumers who appreciate that level of craftsmanship and quality. At the same time, we constantly try to be more things to more people. When I started here, the opening price pointfor a dress in our line was $1,500. Today it's $800. In women's fashion, that's still damned expensive, but at that price point we've opened up a whole new universe of customers."

Bolen is also keenly aware of the recent changes in the fashion industry and has no desire to grow the brand beyond a certain point.

"When Oscar started, there were a lot of smaller companies run by the person whose name was on the door," he says. "Today you've got fashion conglomerates that have implemented an industrial logic. While they've brought an important financial discipline to the business, they don't move quickly. Fortunately for us, we aren't too big. We are a medium-sized company, and the ability to make decisions quickly creates some real advantages. At the end of the day we are still a family business."

It is because of the company's éclat that celebrities can be spotted in its midtown offices nearly every week. Bolen has met dozens of them and notes that it is always interesting to observe how differently they behave.

"There are some celebrities who are fans of fashion who come here and know their tastes. We love working with those people," he says. "Oscar had a close relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker, and she still is a good friend of ours. I've been fortunate to get to know Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. They're so incredibly accomplished. Forget about your politics; these are people who have really put in the time and care a lot about our country."

It has now been 26 years since Bolen moved to New York City, a long way from his traditional upbringing in West Virginia, but he says he sees parallels between the two.

"I love living here," Bolen says. "I think there is something addictive about the pace of New York City. There's a certain energy here, and either you like it or you don't. If you're lazy, don't come to New York City. You won't be well received. If you want to work hard and get a shot, then this is a great place. Working hard counts for a lot in New York City. I think the idea of grit, and that coming first, is something I learned in West Virginia."

When asked if his New York City friends or business associates ever needle him about his West Virginia roots, Bolen reveals a surprising answer.

"The fact of the matter is no. New York is a place that is wonderfully democratic," he says. "New York doesn't care where you came from; New York cares where you are going."

In their personal lives, he and Eliza are very active in their church and children's schools. They also support a number of different causes, including the Animal Medical Center, the Hispanic Society of America, which was founded by Collis P. Huntington's son, and cancer research.

When asked about his success to date, both on Wall Street and the runways of Milan, Bolen remains characteristically humble.

"It's much more important to be lucky than smart," he says. "We simply focus on working hard and then wait for fortune to smile on us. Nothing beats being at the right place at the right time."

For those with dreams of making it in the fashion industry, Bolen offers some sage advice: "There's no one path. You have to work hard, and you have to love what you're doing. I am extremely excited to come into the office every day. If you don't love what you're doing, then you have to move on. Try to find a way to make yourself indispensable. The person we just named our creative director started as an intern. She initially caught Oscar's eye because she made the most beautiful buttons."

As Bolen told in a recent interview, "We show up early and stay up late and it's not always glamorous. Every season we start with a white board, and we love the process of coming up with the best ideas. And as Oscar always said: 'You're only as good as your last collection.' "

While the bustling streets of New York City and the measured pace of Huntington are, in some ways, worlds apart, Alex Bolen has navigated them both successfully. He still returns to his hometown to see his parents and sister, now a doctor in nearby Fayetteville, West Virginia. And when he does, there are a few places he likes to frequent.

"The first thing I do is go to Frostop or Tudor's Biscuit World," he says. "I also love taking my kids to Camden Park."

Today, Bolen credits his success to his formative years in the small city on the banks of the Ohio River.

"I think Huntington is a place where there is a clear set of values that have certainly served me well," he says. "That stuff sticks. There's so many great things about Huntington -- Marshall University, Ritter Park, close-knit neighborhoods, good schools, strong churches -- and it's just a beautiful place. What's not to love? I owe a lot to Huntington."

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