Josie Natori is one of the most elegant women I know. Impeccably dressed, impeccable manners. Gracious. Generous. Kind.
So, imagine my surprise when I sat down for dinner with her last week and she said things like, “I shoot from the hip” ... “I'm a gambler” ...
And this gem that almost made me spit out my water: “Lingerie [used to be] sleepy or slutty.”
That’s before Josie Natori made sleepwear a thing.
But did you know, Natori also makes furniture, bed and bath… she just launched fine jewelry… even dog clothes.
She’s 74 but looks half her age… she’s a concert pianist… sings… and shops like there’s no tomorrow.
She may be petite and soft spoken… but make no mistake, Josie Natori is a lion in fashion — a straight talker, incredibly funny and a woman who says she will never retire.
ALINA CHO: Tell me about what it was like to grow up in the Philippines.
JOSIE NATORI: First of all, I'm the oldest of six children, and the oldest of 33 grandchildren on one side.
ALINA CHO: Big family.
JOSIE NATORI: My father was a self-made man. He came from nothing. And he and my mother really built their company.
ALINA CHO: And what were they doing?
JOSIE NATORI: Construction. At the same time, I was surrounded by incredible women — my mentor, my grandmother, who was the ultimate entrepreneur and strong. I was surrounded by very strong women, and they really were a role model for me.
ALINA CHO: Women who basically showed by example that you could be whatever you wanted to be.
JOSIE NATORI: No question about it. I think my upbringing and heritage gave me the strength and the courage to come to this country at the age of 17.
ALINA CHO: So, you came very young to the United States to go to college. Like my parents did. But you saw it as a place to fulfill your dreams, too?
JOSIE NATORI: Not necessarily. I was so overprotected as a child and I thought it was the thing to do, go to college here. So, the whole idea was just to go to college and go back.
ALINA CHO: You intended to go back.
JOSIE NATORI: Oh, yeah. That was the idea. I would work for maybe a couple of years and go back. But once I got to New York, forget it. So, in short, I've been here since 1964.
ALINA CHO: Oh, my gosh.
JOSIE NATORI: I came at age 17. I'm 74. So, I’ve been here my entire life.
ALINA CHO: I didn't know you worked on Wall Street.
JOSIE NATORI: Oh, yeah. I was an investment banker for nine years.
ALINA CHO: So, how did that happen?
JOSIE NATORI: I knew I wanted to be in business because I was surrounded by women who were in business, and so I studied economics.
ALINA CHO: But you were a little bored.
JOSIE NATORI: Yeah, after nine years.
ALINA CHO: I read that you thought about opening a McDonald's franchise.
JOSIE NATORI: Oh, yeah, yeah.
ALINA CHO: You thought about…
JOSIE NATORI: … a car wash.
ALINA CHO: A car wash?
JOSIE NATORI: … antique furniture. You name it. It was really the idea of just having a business.
ALINA CHO: So, how did you land on fashion?
JOSIE NATORI: Totally by accident. So, I was looking at different businesses, and I decided I wanted something I can relate to. So, I started looking into what can I do from the Philippines. And somebody sent me these embroidered peasant blouses. During the time of Saint Laurent, 1977…
ALINA CHO: … when peasant blouses were very “in.” So, you took [your blouses] to Bloomingdale's…
JOSIE NATORI: Yeah. But the person they sent me to I didn't realize was in [the] lingerie [department] and he said to me, "Make this into a night shirt. Can you make this a night shirt?" I said, "What's that?" "So just make it longer."
ALINA CHO: That's how it happened?
JOSIE NATORI: That's how it started. That's how it happened.
JOSIE NATORI: No one taught me. I learned on the job. I cold called.
ALINA CHO: I read that you said — [when you started] in 1977 — lingerie was either Victorian or vulgar.
JOSIE NATORI: So, I approached it like fashion clothes. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know what a slip or lingerie [was supposed to be]. To me, they’re clothes. And, with the stores, I was like a breath of fresh air. Because, to them, lingerie was either sleepy or slutty.
ALINA CHO: Sleepy or slutty?
JOSIE NATORI: Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
ALINA CHO: So, essentially, what you were creating, do I have this right? You were creating clothes that you just happened to sleep in?
JOSIE NATORI: Correct. Exactly, exactly.
ALINA CHO: And that's what people responded to.
JOSIE NATORI: To this day. To this day.
ALINA CHO: That's so crazy. I never thought of it that way.
ALINA CHO: You are a shopaholic.
JOSIE NATORI: I am a shopaholic.
ALINA CHO: When Raf Simons started his career at Dior, you were at that first show, that couture show?
JOSIE NATORI: Yes, yes.
ALINA CHO: So was I. You actually bought some things…
JOSIE NATORI: Yes, which I've never worn.
ALINA CHO: Do you buy other couture?
JOSIE NATORI: Not today, then.
ALINA CHO: Then.
JOSIE NATORI: For sure, I have such love and appreciation for couture. I would rather have three couture pieces than 20 [ready-to-wear items], because it's made for you and it's forever. I still have things from the '80s from Saint Laurent.
ALINA CHO: For the person who doesn't understand, what is it like? [Instead of buying off the rack in a store], you place the order [with the fashion house], then they make it [just for you] and then there are multiple fittings, right?
JOSIE NATORI: Oh, yeah. There are fittings. Multiple fittings. And then they would deliver it here or…
ALINA CHO: … you go to Paris [to pick it up].
JOSIE NATORI: I have to say I met them all. From [Pierre] Cardin to [Christian] Lacroix…
ALINA CHO: … and you knew Saint Laurent.
JOSIE NATORI: I met him. I knew Pierre Bergé [Yves Saint Laurent’s partner]. And [Emanuel] Ungaro…
ALINA CHO: I feel like that was the golden age of fashion.
JOSIE NATORI: It really was. It's so different from what it is today. But that’s life. It was a different era.
ALINA CHO: Would you ever retire?
JOSIE NATORI: That's a dirty word. No.
ALINA CHO: That's so funny. Somebody else said that to me recently [Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the celebrity chef].
JOSIE NATORI: There was one time, people were wanting to buy the company…
ALINA CHO: … and you thought about it?
JOSIE NATORI: Well, just because it would’ve been stupid not to think about it.
ALINA CHO: Of course.
JOSIE NATORI: My mother said to me, "And what are you going to do?" Of course, I have a lot of philanthropic things I'm involved with…
ALINA CHO: … but it’s not the same.
JOSIE NATORI: It’s not the same. You have to wake up every morning and be excited about what you're doing, right? I think [the fashion] industry is constantly changing, and I think that's what I like about it. That's why I haven't been bored.
ALINA CHO: You love it. And as they say, you're only as good as your last collection.
JOSIE NATORI: Yeah. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday. The moment you think you're great you're like, over. You're really over. I think it's the musician in me. I always say, you never play the same note twice, ever. Ever. Each time, you're trying to find a new way to play the same note. So, I think it just suits me. I love the business part, too. Without the business part, forget it.
ALINA CHO: It is a business.
JOSIE NATORI: I said, this is not about fashion shows. It's about customers wanting to buy your stuff.