On any given Wednesday, the Michael’s dining room is chock full of moguls (David Zaslav, David Zinczenko) and mavens largely known to faithful readers of this column, and today was no exception. Yet, every once in a while, I’m lucky enough to meet people who, despite their impressive accomplishments, have managed to keep a relatively low profile.
Today was one of those days thanks to David Thalberg, founder of The Thalberg Group, who introduced me to a fascinating woman. If you’ve never heard of Lisa Sun, founder and CEO of Project Gravitas, trust me, you will. The Taiwanese-born, Ivy League-educated entrepreneur learned the ropes working at McKinsey & Co for 11 years, advising clients in the U.S., Asia, Europe and Latin America on strategic issues for the firm’s global luxury fashion and beauty practice. And, it’s clear in talking to her, that the inspired ideas behind her new business have been percolating for a long, long time.
Armed with degrees in biology and political science from Yale and a lifelong passion for fashion, Lisa rose through the ranks to become McKinsey’s resident expert on the luxury and fashion markets. As such, Lisa gave plenty of keynote addresses at symposiums, including the American Express Luxury Summit. While living all over the world and developing her business acumen as her career progressed, she learned quickly that dressing the part was also a key strategy in building a successful career. Having been a size 22, size 8 and “now a proud size 12,” Lisa was determined to create a line of dresses that gave style-savvy women the fashion they craved and the self-assurance they needed. And that’s how Project Gravitas was born. “We are that dress,” explained Lisa. “The one you wear on the interview where you get that job, the one that inspires you to go to that party, the one that you slip on for that very important day. It’s the one you wear that makes you feel like, ‘Bring it on!'”
The collection of 10 ‘niche dresses’, available exclusively on Project Gravitas’ website, retail between $195- $295 with free shipping and returns (“By selling online, we can keep the retail price accessible”) and are manufactured exclusively in New York with fabrics from the finest Italian mills. Here’s the real secret ingredient that is sure to attract the attention of Spanx wearers everywhere: each dress is designed with built-in shapewear from high performance moisture-wicking fabric that is breathable and machine washable. Lisa told me, “I wanted to make the ‘treat me’ dress for the young executive who wants to trade up from Zara, the ‘super mom’ who wants to look good for date night. I think of these dresses as beautifully designed safety blankets.”
With a handpicked staff of six (including Deborah Norman, formerly of Net-a-Porter) working out of Lisa’s apartment at the Essex House (they’re moving into offices in September), Lisa launched Project Gravitas’ just yesterday with a downtown gallery showing. She explained that the gallery concept came from good friend, journalist Sarah Medford, who compared the dresses to canvases which can be adorned however the wearer sees fit. Lisa, who was named one of Washingtonian magazine’s best dressed women, illustrated the point beautifully today by glamming up the LBD she was wearing with a stunning necklace by Joomi Lin and a blinged-out Christian Dior costume jewelry ring.
As for how she came up with the company’s name, Lisa explained that during her first professional review in 2001 she was told she should “seek to have more gravitas.” As luck would have it, for the rest of her career the words appeared in every performance review in an increasingly positive context. “I knew I needed gravitas to be successful in life and in business, so I began my decade-long journey achieving it.” In a nod to the importance of gravitas in the life of any woman of substance, Lisa has named each dress after women she describes as having “thoughtfully, creatively or fearlessly owned her own moment in history.” The names of the women Lisa chose to honor demonstrate she means business. Besides the usual suspects like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (whose dress is named ‘Gabrielle,’ lest anyone get miffed), the other dresses are named after Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Fitzgerald, Frida Kahlo, Indira Gandhi, Katharine Graham, Simone de Beauvoir and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space, in case you didn’t know).
Project Gravitas is more than a dress company; Lisa is committed to helping empower women and has developed “The Project.” Beginning in September, a successful, inspiring woman selected by the company will wear a Project Gravitas dress for one month and tweet daily pictures of herself in that dress, expressing her own style. Ten percent of sales from the dress go to charity. Lisa has lined up Carolyn Risoli, the former president of Marc by Marc Jacobs to kick off the initiative.
Lest you think Lisa is one of those types born with a silver spoon, think again. When her family came to America from Taiwan, her father working on a loading dock and her mother had a food truck before they went into the scrap metal business. For a time, Lisa worked in their scrap metal yard and says the experience taught her a valuable lesson. “It gave me the gift of understanding what it was like to be an entrepreneur.” I was positively enthralled by Lisa recounting how her parents reacted to her decision to give up the status and security of her high-paying job and strike out on her own. Her mother listened carefully to her daughter’s plans and then responded, “So you’re betting on yourself,” before promptly askingd how much Lisa had saved. Duly impressed, she immediately transferred half that amount into a business account and has carefully monitored her daughter’s progress since.
Yesterday, when they were ready to show and sell the collection, her father imparted his own brand of wisdom, advising Lisa to have patience. “It will be slow,” he told his daughter about expecting success, “but it will turn fast at some point.” Says Lisa, “I was so glad he reminded me of that, because the culture is so much about instant gratification and some things do take time.” Still, she is planning for that first big moment: “I can’t wait to walk down the street and see a woman wearing one of our dresses looking like a million bucks.” Something tells me she won’t have to wait very long.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Eddie Pollack, presiding over a table of casually clad men
2. Herb Allen
3. ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko. The Mayor is off to spend two weeks at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camp in Ashford, Connecticut and have some fun in the sun. All the campers there have life-threatening illnesses and would not be able to attend camp were it not for the late Oscar winner’s legendary commitment to philanthropy. Go, Joe! As for David, who just can’t stay out of the news this summer, I’m told he’ll be the subject of (another) major announcement tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.
4. Leonard Lauder and W magazine’s EIC Stefano Tonchi
5. Jimmy Finkelstein, Pamela Gross and an unidentified fellow we didn’t meet
6. Ellen Delsener
7. Manolo Blahnik’s sole man, George Malkemus
8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Nan Swid.
9. Cathie Black and Bruce Paisner
10. What were they talking about? Cosmo’s ubiquitous editrix, Joanna Coles, and Michael Wolff (yes, that Michael Wolf)
11. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh and Diane Fogg — Nice to meet you!
12. PR maven Lisa Dallos with Nicole Purcell, executive director of Clio Awards, and Suzan Gursoy, Adweek‘s publisher (Love those funky eyeglasses!). The three power gals had plenty to talk about with Adweek gearing up for a full slate of events this fall to coincide with the the magazine’s 35th anniversary, including Brand Genius (September 25), the launch of the Clio Image Awards (opening entries are mid-October) and the magazine’s eagerly awaited “Hot List” which comes out in December.
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. Alexandre Chemla
16. Producer Joan Gelman with her terrific sons, Josh Gelman and Gregg Gelman
81. Penske Media vice chair Gerry Byrne and Richard Heller
17. Bob Gutowski
18. Discovery Communications’ CEO David Zaslav. I want to personally thank him for putting my favorite soap, All My Children, back on the air. Some genius at OWN (word is it wasn’t Oprah) decided to re-air the online episodes produced by Prospect Park in the iconic sudser’s old 1 pm time slot. The trick is finding OWN on your cable box before the half-hour show is over. Now that I have, the DVR is set and ready to go!
19. Stu Cantor
20. Michael J. Wolff
21. PMK*BNC Public Relations chairman and CEO Cindi Berger
22. A colorful trio: Scalamandre president Steven Stolman, resplendent in his blue blazer and Nantucket reds, with Benjamin Moore execs Ellen O’Neill and Theresa Tursellino.
23. Act one: Peter Peterson; second seating: literary lion and man about town Luke Janklow and author David Rosenthal
24. Lisa Sun, David Thalberg and yours truly
25. Lally Weymouth (I wonder if she heard my table singing the praises of her legendary mother, Katharine Graham, who is one of the icons saluted in Lisa Sun‘s dress collection) and Alan Patricof
26. David Poltrack
82. Hearst Design Group EIC Newell Turner
27. Tech guru Shelley Palmer with two pals
28. New York Post scribe Kristen Fleming
30. News Corp.’s Jorge Espinel
Please send comments and corrections to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.