A Conversation with Linda Asaf
A Pattern of Community Building
IF AUSTIN HAD ITS very own dictionary – one that defined who we are, what we do and how we do it – two words would surely have the longest entries: “creative” and “entrepreneur.” And while the list of notables who exemplify our city’s “if-you-can-dream-it-you-can-build-it” attitude could fill several pages, few names would have quite as many cross-references as Linda Asaf.
A self-described “natural connector,” Asaf is primarily known as an award-winning designer of couture bridal and evening gowns, as well as ready-to-wear collections. Her client roster runs the gamut from international celebrities to Austin’s Fire Chief, Rhoda Mae Kerr. Other fashion-focused entrepreneurial ventures include the international Full Tilt fashion show which she founded and produced for four years during Formula 1 weekend and the Design Lab concept store she started in 2014 to showcase up-and-coming Texas designers.
Asaf also happens to be a seasoned commercial real estate professional, having helped birth today’s vibrant downtown as a retail development advisor for the Downtown Austin Alliance in the mid-2000s. With MBAs in Finance and Marketing from Columbia Business School, she is a realtor with Southwest Strategies Group where she specializes in the retail industry.
Between her eponymous couture business and real estate work, Asaf’s schedule has few empty slots. However, in typical make-it-count style, she fills those spaces with pursuits that both inspire and feed her soul. In addition to serving as mentor and fashion show judge for students enrolled in UT’s Division of Textiles and Apparel, she’s also been involved with the City of Austin’s Small Business Development initiative for years. Somewhere in there, Asaf races sailboats. An intense sport by nature, on Friday nights it’s all fun when she and friends from Austin Yacht Club hit Lake Travis for the club’s weekly Friday Night Beer Can Race.
After an impromptu lesson on how to tie the perfect bow at the waist of a dress (Asaf is also a natural teacher), we sat down for a visit. Amidst yards of fine Alençon lace, lush velvets, silk ribbon and every imaginable color of thread, we discovered Asaf’s creative reach extends far beyond the blush-pink walls of her West Sixth Street studio.
In 2006 you were named as a Designer to Watch by Women’s Wear Daily; since then you’ve received numerous awards and accolades. Have you been able to build what you dreamed?
I’ve had lots of dreams and I didn’t always know which ones I should pursue. I think you come to points in your life where you look at several options and say, “Ok, I’ll give that one a try.” Growing up, I was a math girl. I just loved school and was an honor student, but my favorite class was art. When I’d go shopping, I always wanted something that wasn’t in the stores, so I decided to try making clothes for myself. The first time I ever sold something I designed and made was at a garage sale when I was 15.
But you revisited those math skills in graduate school and beyond, right?
Absolutely. In the cutting room and in running a business, numbers matter and I definitely share that with the students and young designers I mentor. I worked for Fortune 500 companies in New York for 10 years before I moved back to Texas and started my design business here.
Besides paying attention to numbers, what other skills does anyone interested in working in fashion need?
You really do have to listen to your instincts, to your inner voice. I’ll never forget sitting at my desk one day and feeling as though a little inchworm had crawled up on my shoulder, whispering in my ear that no matter how great my career at an international bank in Manhattan was, I knew what I really wanted to do was work in fashion. I absolutely couldn’t ignore it any more! So, I enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. As it happens, one of my former Columbia professors introduced me to a designer and I ended up running her business.
Many people see a successful, creative entrepreneur and imagine a straight line from identifying one’s passion to a lucrative career. Did it happen like that for you?
Ha! No, it definitely did not! My own route has been filled with plenty of twists and turns. The only reason any buyers ever agreed to meet with me in the first place is because I took the time to make appointments instead of just showing up at their store with my trunk of clothes. Seriously, I tell people who are just starting out that simply respecting someone else’s time goes a long way. When I got to my next big step of visiting a national showroom in Los Angeles, I nearly didn’t make it off the elevator. The doors opened, I saw the logos in the lobby of the contemporary major labels they represented like Perry Ellis and I broke out in a cold sweat, thinking “I don’t belong here!” But that didn’t stop me.
Obviously, you got off that elevator and kept going, and you’ve been showing others how to do the same ever since.
It’s an amazing gift to be in a position of sharing what you’ve learned. A lot of entrepreneurs and designers play it really close to the vest — many successful people feel like if they share what they know, somehow they’ll lose out. I absolutely can’t operate like that. I have an open heart; I don’t let fear drive me. I’ve learned how to put on my oxygen mask first so I can help someone else. I’ve always believed that helping others come along on their path just increases the gene pool overall; it’s better for everyone. Austin’s proven that. It really is special, you can do anything here because the community is uniquely supportive. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.
Many of your interns have gone on to work for famous fashion houses such as Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Fossil and rising stars like For Love & Lemons. Do you teach job hunting along with design skills?
I teach by doing and that means when my interns see me taking out the trash, they get that doing whatever needs to be done is how you build a successful business. I love working with young people and I’ve been so lucky to have some incredibly talented and wonderful interns who want to learn. When I tell them there are no stupid questions, I really mean it — you have to ask or how will you ever know? I’m a believer that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s something for you to learn if you open your eyes to what’s around you.
Read more from the Style Issue | September 2016