One step into the Elizabeth McKay boutique on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue and we knew we were in Matchbook paradise. Founder Elizabeth McKay Jenkins is a darling Parson’s graduate that knows how to make a woman look and feel her best. Since launching her line in 2006, Liz’s trademark has become bold, colorful prints on designs that truly fit and flatter. Her business-savvy husband, Teddy, eventually came on board and together the Upper East Side duo is expanding Liz’s dream into a full lifestyle brand. We paid the endearing, down-to-earth couple a visit at home to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the makers of our favorite modern classics.
Liz, what prompted you to dive in and create your line?
I saw a void in the market for colorful, feminine, vintage-inspired clothing. While dressing for work, I always had trouble finding outfits to wear in the office that were feminine and reflected my personality. I always found myself in vintage stores looking for silhouettes from the’50s and ’60s that had a fitted bodice and flared from the waist. I launched Elizabeth McKay with the goal of designing things that I needed myself – sophisticated, functional pieces that transitioned from “day to play.”
Were there any friends or colleagues in the industry that helped you get started?
More than anything, my time at Parsons allowed me to build a foundation for success in the different areas of design – drawing, construction, patterning, and draping. My first job out of school was an internship with Tibi. After my internship ended, I reached out to brands that I admired and started freelancing for different design houses. I really took any and every meeting I could and tried to learn as much as possible from each experience. That is still true today – in order to keep evolving as a designer, I continue to meet with new partners and learn whenever I can.
You design for women of all figures. Are there key themes that you try to keep consistent in your designs?
My goal from the outset was to create a line of clothing that celebrates the “American Look.” I make a huge effort every season to vary our styles and cuts to satisfy our diverse client base. For our older clientele, I may add a sleeve or duster to cover their arms. For our younger customers, I focus on shorter hemlines and more fitted silhouettes. The key is that we design for a girl on the go who wants something special in her wardrobe that is also functional. All of our pieces have functioning pockets and you’ll often find special touches like silk, printed linings, welted buttonholes, and even vintage buttons.
How do you hope women feel when wearing your clothes?
I want women to feel confident when they slip on a piece from Elizabeth McKay. Clothing is a person’s most intimate environment and can impact how a woman looks, acts, and feels. At the core, I try to create staple pieces that are “pretty and polished” and enable women feel beautiful, happy, and empowered.
Teddy, when did you come on board? What is it like working with your spouse?
I’m not sure if there was an “official start date.” This was my wife’s biggest passion and I wanted to learn more about it. When I went back to business school to transition from finance to consulting, working with Elizabeth wasn’t even remotely on my radar. As I went through school though, I found myself thinking about the company more, applying lessons from classes to our operating model. I realized that I didn’t need to enter the world of consulting to find an incredible entrepreneurial venture – I already had one in front of me.
Liz, what is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is total creative freedom. I get to dream up any print, design, or silhouette and see it become reality. My favorite part of the design process is creating the mood boards for an upcoming collection. Every collection has a theme or inspiration behind it. This year is the year of travel. The first half of 2013 is devoted to travel in the States while the Fall/Winter collection was inspired by travel to Europe. Once I’ve finalized my themes, I establish color stories and create prints that revolve around each theme.
And Teddy, the best part of your role?
After working in finance, it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of something so tangible. I love seeing Elizabeth’s designs come to life and helping to work through the operational and logistical challenges we face as a young, fast-growing company. More than anything, I’m just happy that my skill set can complement Elizabeth’s creative talent.
Teddy, can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with African Parks?
Elizabeth has always loved elephants. For our honeymoon, it was a given that we’d go on safari in Africa to see elephants and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Seeing thriving herds in the wild was a very powerful experience; however, we also learned about the damage being done to populations due to poaching. African Parks is an incredible organization that takes responsibility for the management and conservation of national parks in Africa. When we met Nicole, the American Director of Philanthropy and Operations, we knew we had found the right group. Going forward, we’ve pledged to donate twenty percent of all sales from our elephant print apparel directly to African Parks and partner however we can to raise awareness for their incredible organization.
Your home is decorated beautifully! How did you approach the interiors?
Thank you! Mixing our styles was a bit of a challenge in the sense that we were combining two similar yet distinct styles into one. Teddy came to the table with very traditional items – dark wood furniture, vintage books, and family heirlooms. I had a pink couch and Yves Delorme bedding when we met! Even though it was tempting, I didn’t want to subject Teddy to a pink frilly bedroom. I brought in fabrics and wall coverings that had character but were still sophisticated and spoke to both male and female.
What is your favorite room in your house?
Teddy’s favorite room in the house is the foyer. With its all-red color palette it makes a statement when you first enter the apartment and sets the tone for the rest of the home. If I had to choose one room, it would be the bedroom. I’ve always wanted a bedroom with a blue and ivory color palette – it’s so calm and serene. We added an unexpected pop of green with the bed and I think the custom, green lacquered lampshades bring it all together.
Where do you two see Elizabeth McKay in ten years?
We see Elizabeth McKay developing into a full lifestyle brand within the next ten years. The prints and colors naturally lend themselves to a number of different categories. We’re currently working through different strategies on how best to rollout into accessories, children’s, men’s, and interiors. In the interim, we’re working on some fun collaborations for the near future.