While many Wharton School graduates now walk up and down Wall Street, less common are the style gurus who strut from show to show at fashion weeks.
With an extensive career in fashion journalism and a clothing line with Nordstrom that launched in early February, 1999 Wharton graduate Caroline Issa proves that a Wharton education can even be applied to the runway.
Issa has had a decidedly “different experience from other fashion designers” and “never thought [she] would be working in fashion.” She proclaimed that, throughout her high school and college years, she was “super nerdy.”
Even her decision to leave her hometown of Montreal to attend Wharton was not part of her original plan. “I was originally going to stay in Montreal, and someone came from Wharton to my [pre-university college] and I was so intrigued," she said. "It was very last minute and the gods were with me and I got accepted.”
At Wharton, Issa was involved in the professional fraternity Delta Sigma Pi and was a Management 100 teaching assistant.
Post-graduation, Issa moved to San Francisco to work for Marakon as a management consultant, through which she had the opportunity to work on a project for Nordstrom. Issa later moved to London to do corporate strategy work for British pharmaceutical and beauty company Boots.
While in London, a friend introduced Issa to the quarterly fashion publication TANK magazine. “They were very tiny. They needed help. … I gave up my well-paying, stable job to become a fashion publisher,” Issa said.
Issa has now been CEO and fashion director of TANK magazine since 2002. Yet about one year ago, Issa was in touch with her former boss at Marakon, who is now the head of strategy at Nordstrom.
Nordstrom approached Issa about designing a new collection, and she jumped at the opportunity. Even though she did not have concrete fashion design experience prior to the venture, she has spent many years “honing a perspective and point of view in the fashion interest,” she said. Vogue dubbed her a "street style star" because of her acute fashion sense.
“I go in and work with their in-house design team … on the silhouettes, the prints … we will create four collections a year,” Issa said. She draws inspiration for her designs by assessing the gaps in her own wardrobe.
“To combine the modeling, business and now fashion — to be doing the design herself — she is just a Renaissance woman in the fashion industry,” head Management 100 professor Anne Greenhalgh said. Greenhalgh met Issa in 1996 when Issa herself was a management student.
Vestiges of Issa’s business background are still evident. Under TANK Group, Issa has her own creative agency, which directed the Mulberry advertising campaign with Georgia May Jagger, daughter of former Rolling Stones band member Mick Jagger. She also designed a prominent show during Milan Fashion Week
“[Penn] is a university with so many opportunities, yet there are some really well-worn paths,” Greenhalgh said. “[Caroline’s] self-knowledge and understanding that she wanted to pursue this particular path of fashion is quite admirable.”
Issa has stayed in touch with Greenhalgh over the years, despite having never returned to Philadelphia after graduation. Issa has also remained close with many of her old friends from Penn, particularly with her fellow brothers from DSP. “It’s always the people that get you and attract you. … You bond really quickly. The people in my pledge class and those above me and below me are still some of my closest friends," she said.
1998 Wharton graduate and fellow DSP alumna Melissa Lau said Issa loved fashion even before entering the industry. “She’s always been very talented with her fashion sensibility. It’s great that she can combine her passion for fashion and business,” Lau said. “Her favorite thing to do on the weekend was tear out pages from magazines.”
Lau, who worked in marketing at Gap for 11 years, moved to San Francisco with Issa after graduation. But Lau took a much more traditional path than Issa did. “[Caroline’s] always been more adventurous,” Lau said.
But despite Issa's success, Greenhalgh said that she has always been down-to-earth. “[Caroline] is a person of substance,” Greenhalgh said. “To have this surface beauty so that heads turn and at the same time to be really anchored and to not have your own head turn too much is to her credit. She has a loveliness, grace and authenticity. … She has maintained grace over time.”
The 25 piece Nordstrom Signature x Caroline Issa collection is now sold in 55 stores and online, and Issa is currently working with the design team at Nordstrom on the Spring 2016 collection.
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