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Inspired: Nina McLemore

Nina McLemore, the designer of choice for the powerful elite, shares the art, music, and travel, which have inspired her.
Nina McLemore
Designer Nina McLemoreNina McLemore

Nina McLemore has dressed some of the most powerful women in the world, from Hillary Clinton to PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Her work has established her as the go-to designer for women seeking style that complements, rather than distracts, from their authority. A former executive at Liz Claiborne, McLemore grew up in Mississippi, studied economics in college, and earned an M.B.A. from Columbia University. In 2001, she launched her own self-titled label, offering timeless staples that were damage resistant, flattered all shapes and sizes, and appealed to women looking for a revamped, high-end alternative to the pantsuit. Today, McLemore has 14 stores across the country. Here, the 69 year-old designer shares her inspirations.

I AM AN AVID READER OF the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. What most interests me are articles and book reviews about the current economic, cultural, and political conflicts that are shaping our world. My personal mission is to help women achieve economic independence – without the ability to make her own choices, a woman may be forced into a life that is extremely challenging for herself and her children. In reading the statistics of women’s progress in business, academics, politics, and medicine, the rate of progress is glacially slow. Ten years ago I wrote a speech, which I titled “The not so sweet 16,” which referred to the statistic that women had achieved partner, tenured professor, C Suite, board positions, and seats in Congress at only 16% of the total. The number has barely changed.

My personal mission is to help women achieve economic independence – without the ability to make her own choices, a woman may be forced into a life that is extremely challenging for herself and her children.

THERE ARE 2 EXHIBITS THAT I have seen lately that had a great impact on my design and understanding of the importance of fashion and textiles. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris did an exhibit on “Fashioning Fashion: Two Centuries of European Style 1700 – 1915” that was fascinating – showing the interplay between the role of women and the constructions of fashion. During much of that time clothing for women was heavily corseted, very restrictive in what it allowed women to do, and very restraining. At the same time the fabrics were hand woven of extremely fine yarns and were very beautiful. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had the best textile exhibit titled “Interwoven Globe.” Again the fabrics were extraordinary. The most interesting aspect was the clear picture from tracing the trade routes for textiles to understand that the first true globalization was a result of the quest for textiles and spices.

A dress that is part of the exhibition "Fashioning Fashion" at the Arts Decoratifs museum on Dec. 12, 2012 in Paris.BERTRAND GUAY / AFP - Getty Images file

I FREQUENTLY TRAVEL TO PARIS AND LONDON – to Paris for the semiannual fabric show called “Premiere Vision” and to see the smaller French designers for inspiration – and just watch the women on the street. In London, I am inspired by menswear – as the English tweeds and silk ties are still the best. There are beautiful colors, tweeds, and high quality fabrics. There are fourteen Nina McLemore stores and I visit most of them several times a year. They are in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Palm Desert, Aspen, Vail, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chevy Chase, and New York. In each city women have a different sense of style, different climate needs, and a different approach to dressing. Much of my inspiration comes from working with individual clients, seeing how color works against the complexion, the variety of body types and how to design to fit a wide variety of body shapes, and understand the needs of women who are leading busy lives.

A view shows people walking rue Cremieux, a street lined with colorful, terraced homes, and the hotel "L'Hotel Particulier" located in the 12th district of Paris, Aug. 29, 1014.CHARLES PLATIAU / Reuters

HOW DO YOU CONSOLIDATE A LIFE INTO A FEW SENTENCES? I think two thoughts that guide me are: “You can get through anything if you just breathe deeply and keep putting one foot in front of the other” – a thought that came to me after pushing myself harder than I thought I could to climb Mount Kilimanjaro at 50. The other is a quote that I saw on a T-Shirt: “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space.” I have worked very hard, but am lucky in that I had great parents and a good education, even though I grew up in a small town in Mississippi and not wealthy. That background gave me the confidence to take risks, to get past failure, and to keep moving forward, experimenting and to be persistent until the goal is reached. While I have been successful, there is still so much more I want to do and achieve.

Fresh snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro seen at sunrise from Ambuseli game reserve in Kenya, May 04, 2008.MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP - Getty Images file

THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE WHO HAVE STRONGLY INFLUENCED my life and whom I would like to mention that I have met. There are two that have in the long run meant the most to me. One was my mother whom I describe as an artist. She made a great effort to expose us to the best education we could afford, art, music, people, the sense of responsibility to take care of our neighbors, and the love of design and textiles. We made all our own clothes when I was growing up and every day that I design I think of her and some of the things we made. The importance of our parents’ influence is best said I think by a fellow Mississippian, Hodding Carter, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning author: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One is roots, and the other is wings.”

THE OTHER PERSON IS MY HUSBAND, Don Baker, who is an antitrust attorney in Washington. I have a great respect for him, and he completely believes in me and my business, and encourages me to keep going when it is tough. I must also mention the very many smart, accomplished women I have met through the “Committee of 200” and the “International Women’s Forum” who have accomplished a great deal, sometimes from very challenging situations. They have given me the courage and inspiration, advice and information to start businesses, to keep going and to set my goals higher.

Hodding Carter II, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and publisher poses in the study of his home on the outskirts of Greenville, Miss., Dec. 5, 1957.RWT / AP file

I KEEP SEVERAL LONG DOCUMENTS OF THINGS that I have heard people say or that I have read that I want to remember and absorb the concept. I also have a need and love of music. When I am at home the Classical Music channel or the CD’s are on all the time – as I find music inspiring, calming, and relaxing. It is one of the few things that can take me out of the stress and fatigue of the day and renew my energy. While it is hard to choose only one composer – like the choice to eat only one type of food for the rest of your life, the choice I would make is Bach. The variety combined with the repetition and the absolute beauty of the Adagio portions of his work transport me into a world where there is no conflict and the beauty of music connects us to one another.

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