The following is an interview by Marlisse Silver Sweeney for Corporate Counsel on the General Counsel for Stuart Weitzman, a true pioneer of fashion law, and my mentor, Barbara Kolsun ...
In the fall of 1979, Barbara Kolsun retired her character shoes. The Sarah Lawrence graduate had spent the last eight years acting, singing, and touring the United States. From the trumpet-playing stripper Mazeppa in Gypsy, to pious Sergeant Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, she was ready for a new role: lawyer.
"Absolutely no thought went into law," she explains in an interview at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Stuart Weitzman LLC. "I knew I wasn't talented enough to go to medical school," says Kolsun, who once graced the stage of Radio City Music Hall. After 12 years in private practice, Kolsun decided to switch roles again, and she took her first in-house job at Calvin Klein Jeans. This fashion-savvy lawyer has now worked at many of the top fashion brands in the states and pioneered three legal departments, including Stuart Weitzman's, where she now wears ballet slippers once again.
CORPORATE COUNSEL: A New York Times article called you "the must-have accessory for any designer serious about protecting his or her name." What goes into protecting Stuart Weitzman?
BARBARA KOLSUN: Well, number one, of course: registration of trademarks, enforcement of trademarks. We're a global company, so that has to be done globally. Protection of the image of the brand, and we have a great chief marketing officer who is charged with all of that. I think it's very important that legal and marketing have a very strong and intimate relationship and understand priorities. And distribution—like any luxury brand, it's important to control distribution.
CC: It seems like there's a certain glamour attached to fashion law. Is that true?
BK: Glamorous is the wrong word. It's interesting to work with creative people, and it's why I think my ending up in this area is fortuitous, because I came from a creative world and I think I have a certain understanding of creative people. The problems are still the same, but I guess they're more fun because the product is so beautiful. We make beautiful, beautiful shoes. Stuart is a genius, and it's certainly fun to work for a genius.
CC: What makes Stuart Weitzman such an iconic brand?
BK: I think the fit. Everybody talks about these gorgeous shoes that fit so beautifully. It's the beauty of the product and the fit and I think the man—he lives and breathes this brand. This is his life. When anyone asks him if he's going to retire, he'll say, "Retire from what? This is my hobby." We should all be so lucky to feel that your métier, the way you make a living, is also the great love in your life. That's why he's fun to work with. He's always inventing.
CC: You've taught fashion law at numerous law schools, have coedited and written the first fashion law textbook, and you attend two pieces of theater a week. How do you manage your time?
BK: I'm exhausted. I try to relax on the weekends, but I'm on overdrive. I'm a very "Type A" personality. But theater for me is my passion, my old life. It's very relaxing. Some people go home and watch TV, some people watch sports. I like to go to the theater.
CC: From your successful career to date, it seems like you've always "leaned in." Is that true?
BK: Yes. I love that book [Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg]. I think she nails it. People have joked about the fact that it's easier to lean in when you have lots of nannies and you're that well off, but I think she makes really good points, and it's a long slog for women in this business. I think the business of fashion is very woman-friendly. You walk around this office, and it's all women, but in terms of women in law, it's still a long road.
CC: Have you always been a shoe person?
BK: I think all women are shoe people. No matter what you weigh or how you feel about yourself, shoes always make you feel good.