Fashion designer | founder / a.l.c.
Women, community and a pioneer spirit have been the driving force of Andrea Lieberman’s 20-year career. A stylist-turned-fashion designer, Lieberman has always played by her own rules. Born and raised in New York City, she was intrigued by personal style from an early age, and spent her youth balancing fashion internships – including a stint with the late, respected designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo – with formal training at Parsons School of Design. A traveler at heart, Lieberman spent time in London and Paris before exploring Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda for two years. Inspired by the work of local African women, she began collaborating with them, eventually selling their jewelry in her New York concept store, Culture & Reality, which opened in the mid-90s. In 1997, Lieberman pioneered celebrity styling when it was still a relatively new concept, dressing musicians that included Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez. Her groundbreaking styling of Lopez at the Grammy Awards in 2000 (the watershed “Green Dress” moment) would later be cited by Google's Eric Schmidt as the inspiration behind Google Image Search. For over 10 years, Lieberman worked as a highly sought-after stylist and collaborator with women including Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. Always seeking the next challenge, Lieberman moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to launch A.L.C.
Drew Kugler: The first question that I ask everybody and I’ll remind you why after I ask you is: when you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Andrea Lieberman: Interesting.
DK: Do you have a recollection of that?
AL: I do. I have two very deep recollections of what I wanted to be.
DK: I’d love to hear them both.
AL: One of which was an artist. I always wanted to be an—I loved crafty things. I remember specifically in sixth grade there was this like, a—what do you call it—like, AP? When it's a pretty more you know advanced placement AP art class that I couldn't get into. I was devastated but eventually somehow I managed to get into it and we did a lot of—one of my favorite things that I did was this kind of loom project and we were looming these yarns, and then I loomed feathers and I figured out and way to loom my initial, and I always wanted to do something creative. But I also loved Ancient Egyptian history and then at one point I wanted to be an archaeologist with the tooth brush in the desert in Egypt and I built this massive temple of Queen Hapshetsut’s temple out of balsa wood; and I really just loved the story and the drama and the history and the culture and the all of the myths and the goddesses and gods behind Ancient Egypt. So I really was super focused in that. And then probably at about thirteen I discovered fashion, and that was it.
DK: And that was it.
DK: So as you will see as a listener to the show, you'll see who in the guide to this whether it's on iTunes or wherever you're picking this up I'm talking to Andrea Lieberman who is as you know—complete disclosure—is a client of mine. I also consider her a good friend. As most of the people so far have been so nice to to be on the show—Andrea as you can see, by going to alcltd.com, is a renowned designer of women's clothing. What I think of as cool and attractive clothing, to say the least. And I found out about her even before I met her. When I told my girls that there was a chance I was going to meet her, they were so excited. They were more excited than I was about getting possible business. They were excited that I was going to actually get to meet the person who created A.L.C. So that backstory is important as I now turn back to Andrea and talk about what happened as you found fashion. In what grade was that? When did you?
AL: I think it was eighth grade...
DK: Eighth grade.
AL: Eighth grade.
DK: But what's what's interesting about hearing the two stories about the about the Egyptian history interest and the artistry is they both involve creation, right? And creating something. I'm sure that's not stunning to you or the listener to hear that. But I'm curious if you can keep us on the story about how you took what you were initially interested in, then it turned into fashion. And somewhat fast forwarding through it, but how did you end up creating what you've created?
AL: Yeah that's a lot of years and a long story. But really interesting to look at it in that way. So I guess early in the early years, it was more about discovery. You know it's so intuitive what you become interested in as a child. You're drawn to stuff for no other reason that it speaks to you in and it speaks to your spirit, and perhaps what you see around your family, and and so I don't know any other explanation for that I really just liked it and I found quite interesting and as a child those things excited me. When I ended up getting interested in fashion why we had moved from upstate New York to New York City. It was a little bit of a crazy tumultuous time in my life because my parents were getting divorced and so I was all the sudden at this crazy age of thirteen, which is really in the best of times a unsettling age to be as a young girl/young woman. And so we moved to New York and it was really a time for me that was exciting because I was able to redefine myself and, I think that, to have the understanding of knowing… I always knew this one thing at that point. I knew that where I grew up a lot of people were interested in hanging out getting drunk. Or it was the Seventies and so people were kind of.. it was the Seventies in the in in the country, in the suburbs, and people were hanging out and they weren't really that culturally aware. But I was always interested in culture from an early age and and the differences in people and where they grew up. In religions and cultures and all matter of one. So for me, I remember being so excited. I remembered knowing that there was so much more for me than the life I was living at that point. And so for me moving to New York was a cultural eye-opener. It was, I got to go to museums. I got to go to a private school where I knew that I would have different level of focus from my teachers. It was just I was excited about the cultural shift that I was about to—this journey that I was about to embark on.
DK: So, so because the rough outline of the show is about the notion of how conversations turn and affect our lives for good or for bad, with as clear recollection is you seem to have of those times and the excitement in the energy and the opportunities did things start to change for you in how you interacted with people? Right? You came from upstate New York and you end up in the city.
DK: Did it change at all how you how you saw and interacted with others whether friends family people you met?
AL: I think it was just an odd time. I think there was so much change in my life at that time, and I think that both from moving to family divorce to new school to a whole bunch of new friends, I think for me at that point I was looking for an anchor. And I was looking for this opportunity to really connect to people and to connect to to sort of what I always consider my tribe. And I consider now my tribe people that are like-minded. That are attracted to the same thing. That... are able to share commonalities that might not just be from a religious, or a family, or a you know sort of birth place, but you know really kind of more of you know inspirational place, if you will. So I think that for me, yeah, I definitely found people that I felt connected with. And you know, in many cases they weren't in school. In many cases they were out of school. I remember part of what part of where I all the sudden became interested in fashion was—because I went to school on seventy first Street between Fifth and Madison and I would walk to school every day past all these great stores and started to go in and started to talk to sales people and started to ask them questions and that's where all the sudden I'm like, "wow this is really nice!" And and I saw people and connected with people in these stores that really were able to define their themselves and their personal style in ways that were so unique to them—especially in the Eighties, where you know it was all... it was really kind of fashions... really started there was this whole influx of fashion from Japan and this whole sort of there were just a lot of things from a fashion standpoint going on. And so I guess if you think about it from a conversational standpoint, it really was for me two things. Talking to people that I had just met in stores and being inspired by them, and seeing that there's this whole other life, as well as talking to people having more communication with people from my school and art teachers and... you know heads of school or just certain teachers that I connected with that you know saw that I was hungry for something and suggested "Hey", wanted to go to Parsons and wanted to do this and wanted to do that and maybe you want to take this extra art class, so definitely I think that was helpful to me.
DK: So let's let's talk about school for a second. So there you are at that at that school at Seventy-First between Fifth and Madison. Do you do you remember if you had to pick—which I'm going to ask you to—the most influential teacher? Because I always ask this question of people. I have this, this connection if you want to think about being a better leader, you should—it is all and we've talked about this—you really you really somewhat need to take on the mindset of a great teacher, right? Because it really isn't about you. It's about others and influencing people's thinking. So to you, is there a teacher that sticks out either then, or maybe a little past, that had those kinds of conversations with you and what was it about him or her?
AL: I mean—or be in full disclosure—I was really a bad student and I did not like school very much. But I definitely was, you know, at times there were one or two teachers I connect with. One of which was my art teacher Miss Schlossberg. Who is the sister of—
DK: The Schlossberg. The Kennedy.
AL: Yeah, but she also went to school with my mom. So it was a very, you know—she was just really supportive and I just loved her class because it was art class, so I loved that. And then I had, I kind of remember, her name—my English teacher. You know often times things came through in stories that, you know, when I had to write stories: come stories. I'm someone who had to write stuff, read or write stuff, or write personal writings. So she often times, would call me in and want to have conversation with me. I suppose I had the most conversation with her because it was really a lot of times of, you know, I look all (full disclosure) like I always got in trouble. So when I, you know, but we spoke about the troubles that I had, and we spoke about when there were things in the stories that felt troubling to her at that she thought that I obviously had some deep thoughts on my mind that we needed to talk about. And she was pretty helpful to me when I think about it.
DK: In pulling in helping you deal with those.
AL: Yeah I have to remember her name.
DK: That’s alright. Schlossberg is a hard name to forget.
DK: So what was speaking of conversations about bad things. Is there a memory that you can share about like you said you misbehaved in high school and she had talks with you what would be was it something more radical or was it just not showing up to class or
AL: I mean...
DK: What was the things that kept you out of class.
AL: I just always got in a lot of trouble. I got in trouble for not being in dress code. I'd gotten trouble for not doing my homework. I got in trouble because I used to have these like crazy hair extensions and they didn't understand what it was. And when I showed up with like basically dreadlocks and my mom's like pulling my hair, like, "you can take the wig off." I'm like, "No mom, you don’t understand. It doesn’t come off." So you know they were often times rewriting dress codes for me—that was always a big one. There was always addendum in the dress code (right?) because of me. And just really super, highly personal things about you know. Whether it was about a girl I wrote one story about, a girl who wanted to kill herself. And even though it wasn't necessarily something that I wanted to do, I was going through a lot of stuff at the time in my family with my parents divorced—which really was just heartbreaking. So at that time, my teacher suggested that I—she saw this so she's obviously thinking, you know, it was a cry for help; which in many ways it probably was. And so then she connected me to a therapist; and so then I first started going to a therapist. So then that was a conversation which was awesome. Wow! We are going deep.
DK: Well, but, but but I can't help but connect your hair extensions to where you are now right in terms of: if anyone looks at, chooses to look, or is familiar with your brand at all, it has an edge to it. It has a lot of stuff that people are—I guess you would need to rewrite a little dress code for, right? So, do you see, do you is that like it's not I'm sure an amazing insight to you but, but do you ever tie these things together? As I'm with as we're doing here.
AL: I mean, I guess in many ways if I were to dig deep I wouldn't have tied that together. But I appreciate and so love the way you see things. So yeah, I guess if I would tie it together in that way. I see a lot of things that from an early standpoint. From an early time in my life that I've gotten excited about or been drawn to that, is that I'm consistently drawn to whether it's, you know, a specific music or a specific, you know, length of dress. Or a specific color, or a specific silhouette, or a specific shoe, or sneaker, or whatever it is, I definitely feel that there is there are things that start early and become the foundation of what you relate to in many ways. But I've always been—I've always just like to do things my way. And that is very a common theme in my life—good and bad. But I just—and I've been always one... one of the core values of of the company is think how you can, and so I've just always thought that way. And I've always done things my way, basically. So yes, I did things my way then, and I still do things my way and I've always—like, if everybody is running to the right I'm going to the left. And it just is human nature to me.
DK: Yeah. So let's come to present day then and keep that in mind. How does taking things in going in the way that you want to go; how does that—I’m going to give you a two part question here, right? How does that serve you well in what you're trying to bring to the world; and how does it get in the way?
AL: Doing things my way? How does it, sort of? I think, I think doing things my way serves the world in, well, it serves my world. Because I think that, you know, I just I'm creating the path and the journey that feels authentic to both myself and, you know, as it relates to the company, the brand, and as it relates to the people around me. I think that a lot of the people in the organization are able to see things from a different point of view that they might not have seen. And I think that for a lot of the—certainly some of the younger girls and boys that work with us, you know—they find it quite inspiring. They find it inspiring that they might not have to walk the path that they thought they had to walk because it was the path that is the easiest in front of them. Or the ones that they were told to walk. But you know what you can actually go off your path; see what's around you; be inspired and make choices based upon that. And I think that it is, I think that when you do that, you touch people in a different way. I think that when you do that you're able to relate to people. You meet people that you wouldn't have necessarily met that are so... those relationships can be so inspiring and fulfilling. Mutually. It's a mutually inspiring feeling relationship and I think that you're able to just have experiences that constitute real life. And the challenges are...
DK: Yeah how does it get in your way.
AL: That you piss people off a lot because it's more work. It's more challenging. You're asking people to think in different ways, which can be, which sometimes people just don't want to do. You're asking things. You challenge people in their their thought process and you challenge people in many ways in the way that they were taught. And you challenge people in it—just it's a challenge. And I think that people just—it could be scary for them. It can be annoying. It could be more work. And it's something that some people, when they don't understand something, it it just they fight it as opposed to embrace it. As opposed to learning new things, new ways, new situations.
DK: So when you see the fight and you see the resistance to your—we’ll call it just generically vision—right?—of what you're trying to create. And you know deep down way past your heart that it's the right way to go. And it is that unique expression of you—right?—that has been following you your whole life. What do you do to try to help people understand and and keep going, rather than give up?
AL: Well I think there are times that you can have a head-on conversation in a kind way. Because I mean conversation is everything, and it's something obviously that I've learned from you that I'm so grateful for. It, you know, added so much value to my personal relationships and the business at large. I think that you need to—for me, that I go—into conversation and, and I say, "I understand this could be a tough conversation" or, I you know I just try and approach it in a way that I am engaging them to understand my point of view. To ask the questions that they need to me, and to ask them questions that will lead them down the path piece by piece. And there are some times that it just doesn't work and you need to let them you need to let them go and learn by experience. And then you know come back around and have, you know, a post-mortem as you would call it. So there are times that conversation and you know asking and offering trust between two people. I understand that this is how you think it's best and I appreciate that and let's look at it from this way. So why don't we do a little bit your way a little bit this way and work it out.
AL: Or you say OK, if that's how you, what you believe in, I believe in you. Go. And sometimes they have to learn by kind of doing it. And there's that post mortem. But most of the time, it is really in conversation and going deep and, but a very respectful conversation.
DK: Yeah. That's good. So, so you are able, do you think if as a self assessment? This notion of the respectful conversation it has treated you pretty well at your company?
AL: I think when I am able to rise to that occasion, it definitely treats me well. I think that hard conversations are hard.
AL: It’s true. I mean that hard conversations are challenging and you need to stand up and be a big person. And you know I always call it manning up. Like sometimes you just have to man up and just have that conversation. But at the outcome always feel so much better than the lack of clarity and the lack of alignment prior to. So yes those conversations treat me very well. You know obviously in any situation, in any business, there are challenges and the challenges are that life gets in the way. And so it's understanding all the time that you know there's that balance. It's, you know, not letting life get in the way not letting, "Oh my God we've got too much work! We've got deadlines. We've got this. We've got that." There's never, you know, there's never a good time. Understanding there's never a good time to have these conversations. But the conversations are important and I have had a lot of them. And sometimes things work out or sometimes you actually come to the conclusion that it might not work out between the two of you. And so that that conclusion is that that it's not the right fit.
AL: Or that you are in such disagreement in the way you see what the road ahead looks like that you actually have to take two different roads.
AL: But you have to get there because you need to be aligned with people and you need to be communicative in order to grow and do the do the work that's important.
DK: Right. And that that creates the ultimate irony in what you're saying. Because you started by saying it's about your view—right?—which you are are proud of, and have developed, and has been successful. But at the end of your story you end up with it's about connecting with others. So that becomes the grand dilemma. Is how do you stay true to your this is just more of what I'm wondering. Because I think—especially in working with people like you—it's always about the the energy behind your vision, but also the fact that you can't do it by yourself.
AL: No, I mean it is all about the team and I never say—especially as it comes to the company and A.L.C. and our work there, it's never a—I did this. It's always a we, one hundred percent. And the team is unbelievable and, and there's a lot of pressures that we face on the daily. Business is hard, you know, just it is. It's not—and of all the businesses that one could choose to go into—this is not one of the easy ones.
AL: But we all chose it and we're all here for a reason. And so, yes, we need to be aligned. And I think that as I, as I get more and more into the role of leadership within the company, and I have more of these conversations, the interesting outcome of all of these conversations that I have, that we have together, is that they are hard. But the growth is for everybody. I grow as much in a conversation and I feel so like I have gained so much from these challenging conversations, as much as the person that I’m conversing with. So it is this mutual growth experience that is uplifting and healing at the same time.
AL: And aligning. You’re more in alignment. You feel better because you finally were able to get whatever you were able to rip the Band-Aid off in whatever way shape or form you were ripping off the Band-Aid. And so you, there's like a release, there's an understanding, and there's a growth all from this conversation that is that is beneficial to whomever is in the conversation.
DK: Exactly. So one, quick, more question about conversations and then I want to ask you about an even tougher leadership challenge and we’ll begin to conclude there. One more question about hard conversations. If you had to point—think through one of those conversations.
AL: OK, I have to think.
DK: What's the hardest part of the hard conversation?
AL: Oh just getting in the room and to psyching yourself up for it.
AL: It’s the hardest part. I think that it is never easy to have a hard conversation. And I think that overcoming the initial, overcoming the initial-mental-personal-mental block, and the hesitation of wanting to just jump in the deep end is the biggest challenge. And then sometimes when you jump in and you kind of feel like you're drowning, and you’ve got to like get some air, that can be a little tricky.
AL: But when somebody is looking at you like deer in a headlight. But but I think once the conversation gets going and people feel free and open, to open up, then all of a sudden, you know, you start to get somewhere.
AL: So I think for me, the anticipation of the conversation is the biggest challenge.
DK: It’s the hardest part.
DK: And I in all the years and all the people that I've talked to about taking that leap, I've never been able to lessen the difficulty of the mental side of it. What you just described, the anticipation, is all in your head. It is not your head, anybody's head. And it is simply getting people to accept that—look it squarely in the eye and jump—that you ever ever get to what we would call the easier part. And the part, as you said, that brings so much benefit.
AL: One hundred percent. I also think that, you know, we are very were high in specifically at A.L.C. It's a highly creative company, so you've got a lot of emotion and you've got a lot of creative people that pour a lot of their, you know, we're not kind of filling out spreadsheets. We are really, giving a piece of our soul and our spirit into what we do. So you're dealing with people that are raw with this creative energy and so your—the anticipation of jumping into a tough conversation with a very emotional raw creative person is like Level Ten.
DK: It’s that much harder, right? But probably because of that raw emotion, I'm assuming from watching a little bit of what goes on on the floor in your place, and in some other places, there are therefore more opportunities created to have these hard or the necessity because of that emotion bouncing around off those walls. So you have to either get better at it or you really sink.
AL: One hundred percent. And you know the interesting thing that I find, especially with the challenge of the business in the conversations, and you know this conversation about growth—not only personal but also business growth—as the company grows, the roles change. And as the roles change, it's sort of, it's, it's it's sort of— everything is relative. So if my role changed than somebody else's role near me to need, you know, around me changes. So I'm getting used to this role, they're getting used to that role, and so the conversations also are always evolving and changing. Whereas it might have been a different conversation a year ago than it is today. And the things that we are focused on should be different than they were a year ago in many ways. So conversations are constantly changing and I think that also has been a bit of a challenge, within the concept of conversation is, well, last year. This is what we spoke about and this is what your feelings were last year. And I'm like, well, this year the business is here and this is where we're at, so maybe we should think about it from this point of view. And so that is interesting too.
DK: Makes a difference. Alright, the toughest leadership challenge: It's time for the only curveball I’ll throw you. The, the hardest—at least speaking for myself—the hardest leadership job I have is of my two daughters. All the good and all the bad. All the intensity. All the emotion. Everything you've talked about. So do you find yourself being different at work then you do— you have two children, right? Younger than than than my girls. But still, talk a little bit about conversations and kids.
AL: That is hard. I will say I'm definitely—it's something that I've been focused on. It's a different conversation. A: when you ask them a question, they don't have to answer you. I mean—right?— they're, like, you know, they're allowed to answer you in one word questions. Whereas perhaps at work, in a different environment, it's more of a conversation. It’s challenging. I mean it is really challenging and I think that especially its challenging as a working mother. I think that it's... but the same rules apply if you are able to sit down in an honest and healthy way and connect with them. Then you get more like a higher level of communication. But when you're screaming at them, or not even screaming at them but, like, put your shoes on, put your shoes on, get dressed; we have to go where late, where this, when you tell them what to do—it doesn't work. But when you are engaged with them in a different way and they're excited about it or they understand what needs to happen, then it's a little smoother. Although for my daughter, more so than my son, which we're working on.
DK: Right, right. But the description of what has to happen and engaging them in understanding their part of the journey, that's where it feels as though the emotions are different. That's where it feels very similar to leaving the company, right? So I've always believed—and I'm I'm sure as a listener thinks about this—I've always believed that you can take any parenting book and you somewhere in there, parent and leader, you can scratch your—rewrite the word—because it is a very similar sort of challenge though you are dealing with—to your point a very different audience at times.
AL: Very different, yeah.
DK: But the similarity is the asking of the question.
AL: I do often try and think back to some of our conversations and some of the practices that I have tried to live with and engage at A.L.C. And I try to bring it home one hundred percent. I mean it is a—and it —you're right, it works it works better when you engage with them than when you're telling them. Telling them what to do. Because they just don't listen.
DK: Nope. Nope. We learned that as kids. Andrea thank you for—
AL: Pleasure this was so fun.
DK: —Walking through this, and, and they'll be ways for people to find out about your brand that will all be on the website. And we've been talking to Andrea Lieberman on Tell Me What To Say.
AL: Thank you. This was so fun.