Former investment banker builds empire on feel good products
In 1977, Josie Cruz Natori walked away from a ball-breaking position as Merrill-Lynch’s first female vice-president of investment banking. It startled her peers on Wall Street. It dismayed her parents Felipe F. Cruz and Angelita Almeda Cruz back in Manila.
Only Natori remained cool as a cucumber. She was simply heeding the family DNA.
Inspired by “Lola”
Blame it on her forebears from Naga City, especially her Lola Josefa – her mother’s mother – who, Natori recalls, “dabbled in everything.” And everything included pharmacies, theaters, plantations as well as the family home she kept for her physician husband. “She was very driven, working from morning till night, and yet, she ran a very beautiful and immaculate home and kept her femininity. She knew how to juggle things. She was amazing.”
As the oldest of 32 grandchildren, Natori was greatly exposed to this paragon, who dispensed sage advice that proved invaluable on her corporate journey. If there is something in life you want to do, go do it and never put yourself in a situation where you have to depend on someone were two gems from the matriarch that has informed Natori’s actions to this day.
Maternal aunts and uncles were also sources of inspiration, all professionals for whom excelling came as naturally as breathing. And there was her dad, whose brand name “FF Cruz” was tacked at one time on countless building cranes across Metro Manila. “He was a self-made man, who raised himself from nothing,” says his eldest child with undeniable pride. “He was the only one to graduate in his family.”
(By some serendipity, FF and his future competitor, David M. Consunji of DMCI Holdings, met, courted and married sisters Angelita and Fredesvinda Almeda, which must have later made for some interesting family reunions.)
“I came from a family of entrepreneurs, who never worked for any company,” Natori says, explaining her decision to leave prestige and security to strike out on her own.
Did Natori envision that one day her surname (courtesy of marriage to former Smith-Barney executive managing director Ken Natori) would be synonymous with seductive, yet stylish lingerie and in recent years, the indulgent lifestyle? Natori and her husband considered several options, including baby clothes, a car wash and even a McDonald’s franchise before her eureka moment, which came in the form of an embroidered blouse from home and a fortuitous chat with a Bloomingdale buyer. She took on the buyer’s suggestion to turn the sample into a sleep shirt, and a global empire was born.
With its exquisite embroidery – inspired by the callado technique on family tablecloths that the Manhattanville College New York alumna grew up with – a Natori (a surname just waiting to be used as a brand) redefined women’s nightwear, bringing back romance and seduction into the bedroom. Eventually, innerwear morphed into outerwear, and no one complained or professed outrage because a Natori (and a number of its successors) was just too lovely to stay concealed.
Natori’s foray into fashion in the mid-70s, which was totally unplanned, also fulfilled a long-held dream to operate a business that involved the Philippines. “That idea of promoting products from my country was attractive to me, and would be my point of differentiation,” she says. The factory in Barrio Ugong, Pasig City was set up in 1978 and has remained the company’s work hive, where the next season’s collections are efficiently and expertly assembled by 362 employees – mostly women – and shipped to eager Natori distributors in 20 countries. Natori says: “The factory has been the biggest asset for the company, really. It has allowed us to be design-driven and able to control the product from beginning to end as well as its quality, in a consistent manner.
“It’s consistent quality that has contributed to the longevity of the brand. And that’s why customers keep coming back all throughout the 40 years of this company because they know they are getting a good product. The trust is there.”
Natori maintains two design teams, one in Natori’s Madison Avenue offices, and another in Pasig. They work well together, Natori reports with a certainty born out of the fact that she is the quintessential hands-on manager, and makes no excuses for it. “I wouldn’t say managing is my greatest skill set. I don’t have the patience to teach, and I like to do things myself. But I’ve managed to learn to manage.” When BoardRoom Watch trailed after Natori on the day of our interview, weaving in and out of the sewing machine assembly lines, we noticed her sharpness at spotting some draping gone askew or a sleeve detailing that did not seem right.
When customers buy a Natori, they are assured that some 20 pairs of eyes have scanned every aspect of the garment for unacceptable flaws. Says Natori: “We have come a long way. And I can attest that our product can stand beside things made in Japan or France. I’m very proud of that.
“We may carry out production for less expensive things in other places, but for the higher quality items, it’s always the Philippines.
“The talent and craftsmanship of the Filipino is on a very high level. We are like the ‘Italy of Asia’.”
Natori’s belief in her kababayan also extends to her fellow Filipino designers. In 1991, barong specialist Barge Ramos invited the lady to grace his exhibit in the Philippine Center in New York where several of his pieces caught her attention. During the meeting at her office, Natori impressed Ramos “as a sharp businesswoman.” A striking advice she rendered, which Ramos vividly recalls is: “when designing something, design it like you’re inventing that piece of garment for the very first time.”
Designer Lulu Tan-Gan appreciates Natori’s help in enhancing local skills. “Josie’s an industry mover,” she says. “She once brought in experts from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to conduct workshops for the members of the design and retail sectors.”
While a member of the board of prestigious organizations such as the Rockerfeller-founded Asia Cultural Council and Council of Fashion Designers of America, she also treasures her participation in the Fashion and Design Council of the Philippines.
Natori admits she has no patience with “yes” people, and welcomes differences in opinion, but you had better explain the issue sensibly, if not logically. “I’m surrounded by strong women, and loyal employees, some of whom have been with me for over 35 years, both here and in New York.” Recently, Natori established a second factory in Antipolo where 82 employees are based, preparation for a future move since congestion in the Ugong neighborhood shows no sign of letting up.
The entry of her only child, Kenneth Jr., into the company a decade ago infused a welcome dimension and brought Natori into the radar of the millennial market. “Luckily, we’ve had a following all these years, but now, we have to make sure we are relevant to the next generation. We’ve had to reboot,” Natori says.
Like his parents, Kenneth Jr., whose wife Anika provides content for the blog Josie Girl, worked on Wall Street. He drives Natori’s e-commerce platform, “which has proven to be a growth vehicle for us and provided new clients like Amazon,” his mother beams.
“It’s no longer just about selling to department stores. Today’s customer has a very different mindset, and with everything so transparent, they’re able to compare prices,” Natori says.
The brand has not really catered for the male market, except for a few lounge basics and PJs in the past. “But in time, we will,” its founder promises.
As an individual, who straddles both sides of the Pacific with casual ease, she has capitalized on a fully developed East-West sensibility that marks more and more the Natori esprit. She says: “That’s our niche.”
Natori has long gone beyond her lingerie line to clothes and accessories for women of different ages and lifestyles. Through Josie Natori, Natori, Josie, N Natori and N Natori, she hopes to address their guilty pleasures and love for beautiful surroundings. “There is nothing in my collections that I would not use or enjoy. We cater to all sizes, from zero to size 20,” Natori says, adding that the average size of today’s American woman has shot up to 16.
She adds: “Today, more than ever, a new collection has to be compelling…it has to seduce you. That’s why coming up with a collection is always a challenge for me, especially since I have customers who have been collecting Natori for 40 years.
“We are making things that aren’t really necessities, but I don’t see why indulgence can’t be a necessity. It makes us feel good. We, women, work very hard. Why shouldn’t we treat ourselves…gift ourselves?
“We deserve it.”
Put that way, who wouldn’t mind splurging a bit to tickle the senses?
Are we there yet?
Natori believes that Filipino artistry can stand with the best of them on the world stage. She should know, she helped us get there.
When I started this factory in 1978, I set up standards to meet the mandate of what was expected. We’ve come a long way, but I can attest to you that our products can match things made in Japan and France.
A lot of European brands have their products made in local factories here.
The creativity of the Filipino is unique – we may not be the most efficient. Like the Italians, we love life which may explain why we tend to be inconsistent (in our work). Our craftsmanship, however, is of a superior level. Ours is the best in Southeast Asia.
I never thought of moving my production out of the Philippines, never. We do make some things in other countries, the less expensive things. The higher quality ones are all made in the Philippines. I’m very proud of what our factory has produced.