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The Careerist: She's All Tied Up

Posted by

Vivia Chen

September 25, 2013

What kind of guy are you? Predator? Fat Cat? Wolf in Sheep's Clothing? Ponderer? Noelle Kowalczyk (right) has a tie for you. Those are just some of the names of the neckties in her collection.

In fact, she probably knows those male prototypes first hand. The founder of Squiddledee Ties, Kowalczyk is a former partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman.

Recently, the Careerist talked to her about why she gave up partnership at one of the most high powered (and lucrative) litigation boutiques in the nation for the uncertainty of the fashion field.

Are you fulfilling a secret dream career?
Yes. I wanted to be a fashion designer, not a lawyer. I had an associates degree in merchandising but I didn't think I could pursue fashion at the time.

I bet you weren't dreaming of designing ties back in college.
I had grander visions. I wanted to have my own collection, but then reality hit home.

So why did you decide on neckties?
Ties are easy to stock, and I knew I would be housing stock in my apartment for a while. Ties have not changed much in width, so [they're] not as subject to the whims of fashion.

That sounds pretty practical—but giving up being a partner at Kasowitz to go into fashion seems totally impractical. Weren't you terrified?
Absolutely. It took me two years [to leave Kasowitz in 2011]. I come from Buffalo, a working class family. I graduated from Buffalo [college and law school], and I felt lucky to get into a big law firm. [Kowalczyk's first firm job was with White & Case.] I was respected at Kasowitz. I didn't take anything for granted.

You launched your first collection of ties in 2005—the same year you made partner. You must have worked like a maniac. Did people at the firm know you had this other life?
I didn't advertise it. My legal work was my priority. . . . I started laying the groundwork [for my business] in 2004, but my priority was making partner. You don't become a litigation partner by sitting on the sidelines.

You put all that work into being a partner at Kasowitz, then six years later, you chucked it all to go into fashion.
I was at the right crossroads in my life. I was financially stable. I took a look at my lifestyle and how I spent my money. In 2009 or 2010, I started thinking I wanted to make a go of [the tie business]. To give it my all, I knew I had to leave. . . . In my last year at Kasowitz, I billed 2,900 hours.

I assume you didn't go cold turkey into fashion. You had connections in the field, right?
No. I located tie manufacturers and went out to the Garment District. No one guided me. I cold called tie manufacturers, and they took me under their wing.

That's gutsy. Did you have a business plan?.
My plan is to sell, sell, sell ties. I've grown the business conservatively. My initial investment was small—only five designs—part of "My Guy" collection inspired by guys I dated, worked with, lived next to. I gave Marc Kasowitz the pink power shark ["The Predator"] tie. I told him he was the inspiration.

How many ties in your collection now?
I now have 19 designs.

You haven't completely cut all ties—sorry for the pun!—to practice. You're affiliated with Mark Smith, another former Kasowitz partner. I assume law is still a fallback. So how long are you giving yourself to succeed in the tie business?
2014. I like deadlines because it makes me more accountable. By then, I'd like to have more stores carry us. Right now, I'm selling directly to customers through our site (click here). Maybe we'll dabble more in custom work. We'll see if the public wants us by then.

Photo credit: Gregg Zimmer

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