In November last year, local businesswoman Dorian Lightbown was awarded a bronze 2018 Stevie Award for Mentor or Coach of the Year. Given by the American Business Awards organization, this prestigious honor put a spotlight on the founder, designer and Chief Creative Officer of Nic+Zoe.
Lightbown’s brand, Nic+Zoe, creates quality knitwear and apparel for women that is as comfortable as it is casual-chic.
At the New York City awards dinner, Lightbown said, “The power of women coming together, some think of it as a network, but I like to think of it as knit work — each stitch builds on the next, resulting in a strong, durable fabric. Together, there’s no limit to what we might achieve.”
The power of women coming together, some think of it as a network, but I like to think of it as knit work — each stitch builds on the next, resulting in a strong, durable fabric. Together, there’s no limit to what we might achieve.
Knitting Since 2006
“Proudly rooted in Boston,” according to the company website, Nic+Zoe’s headquarters are in Natick, Massachusetts. Lightbown named her brand after her two children, Nicholas and Zoë.
“Zoë has been working with me since she was a child,” she says. “She always had an eye for style, even when she was little.” Currently, as a creative director, Zoë oversees the product’s esthetic from a design and marketing point of view.
When asked about the Nic in Nic+Zoe, Lightbown replies, “Nick is involved in art, lives in Oakland, California, and wishes we had a K in our name.”
Lightbown grew up in Massachusetts, watching her father run a letterpress company as a printer in Boston. “When I was little, I used to love to watch type being set and printing presses at work,” she recalls. “The sound of those presses are still with me. They remind me of the sound of knitting machines.”
Lightbown attended Pratt Institute and then Rhode Island School of Design. She began her career in fashion and apparel working with The Limited Stores, before moving on to Liz Claiborne, where she was Vice President of Design. Striking out on her own, though, seemed to be built into her DNA. “I always wanted to create my own clothes,” she says, simply.
And, so, in 2005, she took the plunge and began designing playful and professional dresses, skirts, tees, tops and jackets.
Since 2006, Nic+Zoe has become heralded in the fashion industry and can be found at both stand-alone boutiques and major department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom.
Vision and Success
According to Lightbown, her greatest challenge starting the business was finding support.
“My biggest concern was all my friends asking me if I was insane. ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ they kept saying,” Lightbown recalls. “Except for Zoë. I still have some of the Post-it notes she would put on my car’s steering wheel with words of encouragement.”
Ultimately, Lightbown’s “crazy” move paid off. Much of the brand’s success is due her thoughtful vision for a distinct creation.
“I was inspired by all the women working in so many positions that didn’t require formal ‘work clothes,’” she reflects. “At that point in my life, I felt most of the clothing offered to women for work were suits made out of fabric with no stretch. I really felt that women needed clothing that was polished, but not stiff.”
Performance was also a concern. “How would a piece perform when a teacher is wearing it? A doctor? An architect onsite?,” she says she asked herself. “We put so much thought into each piece.”
A quick scan through Nic+Zoe’s online catalog reveals appealing, uncomplicated dresses, jackets, slacks, leggings, shorts and skirts in hues that range from basic black and white to cobalt, plum and fuchsia, along with a variety of prints, made from materials that include linen blends and cotton knits.
“I believe most women like to have something in their closet that is colorful,” she says. “Color makes you happy.”
The Other Woman in Charge
Meanwhile, Susie Mulder, the company’s CEO, has been the more public face of Nic+Zoe. She came to the brand via a very different path.
Mulder grew up in Montreal, Canada, and then moved to Boston in the mid-1990s to attend Harvard Business School. She went to work at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company as a senior partner in retail and consumer practice. There, she worked with a number of retail and apparel brands, including Nic+Zoe.
When Lightbown and Mulder met, there was an immediate click.
“It was always my dream to build a brand. I had spent so many years helping companies grow and evolve,” Mulder admits. “I was excited to help [Dorian] bring her amazing designs to a broader audience. Everywhere I looked I saw talented, motivated people creating great product. I knew I could bring some of my business and marketing expertise to help grow the company.”
Mulder quickly took on a role. “I was thrilled to be given the chance to help shape this retail brand as its CEO. I am much more comfortable as a player than as a coach!”
Reaching Today’s Busy Woman
One thing is for sure: Mulder really understands how to reach the brand’s target audience.
Its social media hashtag #makebusylookgood speaks directly to every woman’s crazy-hectic/professional/working mother/home owner/dog owner lifestyle.
“I first added that hashtag to an Instagram post during a really busy week at work, and for me it quickly became a mantra,” says Mulder. “With a full-time job, three teenagers, several philanthropic interests, sports, friends and extended family, making busy look good is more than a hashtag: It’s my all-day, every day.”
With a full-time job, three teenagers, several philanthropic interests, sports, friends and extended family, making busy look good is more than a hashtag: It’s my all-day, every day.
“In my mind,” adds Lightbown, “it’s all connected to making clothes that move and work with you, while you look fabulous.”