by Lisa Birzen '03
Cate Mowell ‘99 dispels certain universally accepted myths, offers some good advice and has several warnings for recent and upcoming Dartmouth graduates. So, everyone, pay attention.
Staying true to the age-old adage about never saying never, after vowing to “never ever live in the state of New Hampshire again because it’s so cold," Mowell “fell in love with the school" during a weekend visit and, that, as another saying goes, “changed everything."
After attending St. Paul’s High School in Concord, NH, Mowell braced the cold for four more years at Dartmouth, majoring in English, rowing on the crew team and seeing hobbies turn into a career.
Sometimes answers to simple questions seem to provide all the clarity necessary to tackle some of life’s most difficult uncertainties.
Once, when asked, “What are you interested in?" Mowell replied, “I love clothes!" without any hesitation. Thus, sealing her future.
Making this discovery rather late in her time at Dartmouth, Mowell enrolled in a Costume Design class with Margaret Spicer in the Theater Department during the winter term of her senior year.
“It was here that I learned that I loved working with fashion," she says.
“I learned everything from stitching, pattern making to making clothes and elaborate dresses and bodices."
Due to the lack of Design courses in the spring term, Mowell and her roommate fashioned their own independent study course and built corsets from scratch for that term’s Theater Department production of Medea.
After graduation, Mowell went to work for Talbots in Boston, Massachusetts in the Public Relations department for two years. She did corporate speech writing and, while there, noticed Talbots had no product placement in magazines.
Bringing this shortfall to her supervisors’ attention, she was told, “Ok, so go and do it!"
This new assignment took her to New York City about four times a year and eventually she picked up and moved there, leaving Talbots to work for Harrison and Schriftman. A few months later, she was hired away to work at Seventeen magazine as an editorial assistant.
During Mowell's one year at the magazine, a fellow editor passed Mowell’s name along to the fashion designer, Nicole Miller.
At the time, "the company was looking for someone with diverse editorial experience," and with her expertise, Mowell proved to be a perfect match. During her interview with Bud Konheim, the company’s CEO, she was asked of her interest in the position and, consequently, was asked to "name my salary and starting date to act as the company's PR Director," Mowell retells.
Less than a year later, however, Mowell’s boyfriend had found a new job in California and the two of them packed up and relocated once again.
Arriving on the West Coast, Mowell began her job search anew and interviewed with various companies but honestly "was not impressed" with what she saw.
“Everyone said, ‘You can start a fashion division in my company,’" but Mowell recognized that she would get “no benefit, just paid a salary" for this kind of work.
“There is no ownership in business, whereas working for yourself always pays off," she explains.
“Everything was pointing in one direction: to start my own company. It doesn’t make sense to do it for someone else," she concluded at the time.
Now, her company, Cate Mowell Communications, Inc., is in its second year and Mowell couldn’t be happier.
Her job includes “everything under the sun: talking with clients, pitching out to media, accounting." All of her clients are in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle division.
Her company obtains "free product placement in the media" for the clients.
She has to “leverage and think ahead on what an editor wants to do a story on and pitch clients to get coverage," she explains.
"We must judge whether or not our products fit in with stories before we send it for consideration," she explains.
Once an editor highlights one of her client’s work, Mowell maintains "a close relationship with the editor, keeping abreast of the story."
“I can determine what the trends are once they are set and make sure my clients’ products play to these trends." She also gives her clients feedback if their work is “out in left field."
“I won’t lie and say it is not stressful. But I know that the harder I work in the beginning, the easier it will get later. In the corporate world, you work to make someone else look good. Here, the effort is rewarded so much more in the long run."
“When working with Public Relations in a corporate setting, you deal with one product every day. Everyone is a cog in the machine and that is okay for some people but I got bored," Mowell explains. “I want to choose the product I work with. Now, every day is a totally different day."
Mowell clarifies the distinction between various areas within the clothing industry.
“Firstly, there is a big difference between fashion and mass retailing," she says, alluding to her job in Boston at Talbots.
“Fashion is forward-thinking and quickly-changing whereas mass retailing is set in their ways."
“If you like fashion for the same reasons I like fashion," she comments, “then Boston is not the place for you. In New York City, on the other hand, everyone is there. Paris and Milan are no longer the centers of fashion. New York City is an exciting place and many major players are there."
“You can also get a sense of all the different aspects of the business from the very glamorous to the least."
“California is wacky," she says honestly. “There is no fashion to speak of because people wear jeans and no heels but because of the celebrities, this is the spot that drives the trends for the country and you can really make a difference in the industry from here."
Mowell’s time spent on the crew team helped prepare her well for the world outside of Dartmouth. “As a student athlete, you are away at games all weekend, you practice four hours a day, you are tired and exhausted and still have homework to do. And you know you can do it because you are conditioned to be that way," she explains.
“You manage your time well when you have little of it to spare," she adds.
“There is no self-pity: this is the task at hand and it will get done. To succeed at Dartmouth you have to be good at a lot of different areas," she continues.
“Now, I can handle accounting; it is not a total headache anymore," she cites as one example.
Mowell also advises Dartmouth students to be aware of the mileage their education offers them in the future. “St. Paul’s and Dartmouth teaches work ethics and a confidence in your ability to succeed. You don’t doubt yourself but jump in and do it."
In fact, she adds, “we are more scared that we will not have the time to do it, not that we can’t do it."
Limited only by “personal constraint and not personal doubt," the emerging Dartmouth graduate can accomplish anything, she says.
“As Dartmouth students, we are given the knowledge that if we want to achieve something, we will succeed."
With all this praise, however, also comes a warning that graduates should keep in mind.
“Dartmouth students need to be concerned about a sense of entitlement. Just because you graduated from Dartmouth does not mean that you’re better than anyone else and doesn’t mean you’ll get a better job," Mowell strongly emphasizes.
“When you graduate you are at the bottom of the barrel and you will pick up someone’s dry cleaning if that is what you are paid to do."
“During your first year out, you will not think, ‘I am really using my education. Thank god my parents paid all this money.’ In fact, you won’t feel that for five years," she admits.
“Your first year out of college is the worst year of your life but nobody tells you about it. Your work is not intellectually challenging, you are not making a lot of money, and you have a lot of bills to pay."
“Many people also want to get away and try something new but you need to have a lot of support around you," she stresses. “It’s hard to make friends out of college – you are not in such close proximity anymore," she explains.
Mowell voices her strong opposition to anyone considering graduate school prior to penetrating the fashion industry.
“Absolutely not!" she emphatically exclaims.
“There is no reason to go to graduate school for public relations work. PR is about your contacts and you’re wasting your time making contacts in the chosen field by going to graduate school," she explains.
After Dartmouth, Mowell did take some small business and advertising classes because she felt these were her weak areas. In addition, she recommends a course in professional development to anyone interested in working in the same field.
At this point, it is time to get brutally honest and Mowell does not hold anything back. Being in fashion is “not an easy job" she says straight out. “When you start in fashion you do the worse things imaginable like picking up someone’s dry cleaning."
“Many think it is so glamorous and it’s not. It’s the garment industry, after all," she stresses.
“This misconception may mislead a lot of people and ultimately lead them to failure," she cautions.
For those determined enough to persevere, however, rewarding opportunities await. In the world of fashion, possibilities are endless and one can either follow the set trends or, as in the case of Cate Mowell, design their own.
Last Updated: 6/21/12