– Cathey McClain Finlon
I didn’t think in terms of trends but more so, what edge do I have...what can I do to break through what is in front of me to differentiate myself; to make me/my business more memorable. It is not so much about setting a trend for me as much as it is about self-motivation, plus ambition.
Cathey McClain Finlon is most widely recognized as a highly successful business owner and for her tremendous contributions to the Denver community. It is difficult to encapsulate all of Cathey’s monumental achievements, but the one she is most famous for, is most intriguing in terms of painting a sartorial picture of her. After joining Kuper Advertising in 1985 as a minority partner, she purchased the agency outright in 1988 and moved it to Denver under the name McClain Finlon. Ranked among the top 50 agencies in the U.S. it was also internationally recognized as one of the few woman-owned firms.
Aside from operating a legendary business, she has continuously shared her expertise and insights on a diverse cross-section of boards from the National Repertory Orchestra to Outward Bound. The Denver Art Museum has been particularly fortunate to have had Cathey on the board of trustees for over 20 years. Cathey’s relationship with the museum started before she built McClain Finlon and deepened when she graciously stepped in as the museum’s president from 2009 to 2013.
Occupying nearly all of one platform with additional pieces spread throughout the exhibition, Cathey’s closet was one we knew we had to raid in order to pay homage to the extraordinary women who gave rise to the Japanese designers in the 80s and 90s. Cathey was kind enough to entertain our inquiries on how she made her mark on the advertising world, and what she was wearing while doing it.
Jane Burke: How would you describe your personal style?
Cathey McClain Finlon: I love clothing, fashion, and a distinctive look with a classical overlay. I also like design that allows me to look physically fit because I care about that. I love great design. Living with great design is very motivating to me, and I like it in clothing, architecture, furniture. An architected look is really attractive to me: fashion that has a sense of shape, particularly unique shapes. I like fit. I don’t think I would ever have a big gown on. Too much too much too much. I prefer a sculpted look as a definer, with the fabric giving definition to the shape.
So back to personal style, I don’t want to be shocking or sexy in my dress or even transitory. I want to be distinctive based on clothing that I can live with for a good long time. I really don’t throw anything away. I still wear wonderful things from 20 years ago that I love…and to me, these garments are very current. Well, I think so.
JB: That seems a common theme amongst women who really care about fashion. I love that about Yohji Yamamoto. He says he makes clothes to last a lifetime. He’s very intentional. It’s a good message for young people that clothing is an investment and that it can pay off over a time. It’s truly a more sustainable approach especially in our current world of fast fashion.
Florence Müller: Going back to what you said about your personal style and your taste for clothing that shapes the body—can you describe what you mean by that?
CMF: For me, it means body shaping, but I want to be covered. I want a look that is not fully exposed, maybe a little bit mysterious or provocative. For instance, to be very basic, I have a waist—I want a waist. I like my waist. I want you to see it. But I have square shoulders, so you will never see me bare shouldered. Showing my waist and covering my shoulders means I want a defined, angular shape. Like me. Angular. For instance, I like wearing a beautiful long column, which has a nice advantage of lengthening.
FM: Is there a paradox in that you like being visible and at the same time choose to totally cover your skin?
CMF: I do want to be visible and maybe that has a lot to do with being a contained and private person. I am not an overly showy person. I am more introverted. I am quiet inside. But the idea behind my wardrobe is to create visibility. I want to be visible and distinctive and unique and still hidden.
JB: In other words, if you have a statement dress than you don’t have to make the statement.
FM: The dress is making the show for you.
CMF: Yes, I don’t want to overexert. In my business of advertising, I was a female in a growth organization. As a business owner, I was pushing the envelope by myself in a way that hadn’t been done before, so having a memorable look that would create that statement was like a huge advertisement in and of itself.
I’ve never had a ton of words. I can’t stand in front of a room full of people and talk for 40 minutes and win them over. I’m going to do it one to one. Or, when I’m in a room with lots of people, I’m going to do it in 3 or 4 sentences. So to me I needed to look pulled together. In charge but unique. And there should always be a question behind it. You know like, I wish I knew more.
JB: Because your career is so unique. How has your career impacted your fashion choices? How has your wardrobe evolved as a business woman? Or had you built your fashion identity from the beginning?
CMF: Well I bought my firm in 1988 and at the same time thought of wardrobe development as a way of being memorable and I found someone amazing to work with me, Annie Brumbaugh, who completely understood what I cared about. She was one of the first wardrobe consultants. She and I would joke that I could make money in these clothes. Very mercenary and cutting edge.
JB: And how did you find each other?
CMF: I was having breakfast with a friend who used to work at the Denver Art Museum with me years ago, and she looked like a million bucks—and I said “What is happening here. I need to meet whoever told you to put that on.” We didn’t even know the word stylist at that time. So I met Annie here and in New York and she developed my wardrobe. I think both of you share this challenge: you can try anything on and it fits great. You have innate, well trained curation of your own wardrobe. Me? I will try something on, it will fit but look awful, and I might be told it looks great. But it doesn’t look great. Or it doesn’t match up with anything in my wardrobe. That is not a good idea for a lifetime wardrobe. I don’t want to wear any old stuff that fits. I want connection from one piece to the next.
Annie and I agreed that I didn’t need to buy lots of things. I needed to buy fashion that would be unified over a long period of time that would create an image, and even create an aspect of identity. And when I started working with Annie—then I began to choose. She did the search. She guided my eye. She brought me the map and I picked the path.
JB: I think it is more common place now to have a stylist, but women were not thinking of it as a business strategy per se or thinking of the longevity of an image.
FM: Was it linked to being in advertising that you had this incredible idea to basically advertise yourself?
CMF: Yes, that is what I thought. Number one, I love clothing so I would strive for nice things. I just needed more thoughtfulness and more connection, essentially for my dress to convey more information. I remember feeling that way with my friend who I saw that day at breakfast. She had a deep, rich purple knit business dress on. In 1988 no one would have been wearing that. It was just different. It was bright, fresh, original. So then when I started talking to Annie, we would think about a “wardrobe” as opposed to just “stuff.” For instance, you could never have too many pairs of black pants even if you never change an inch, which I haven’t. You would always have a look that you could go back and forth to within the realm of a wardrobe. Call it wardrobe longevity…lots of mixes and matches and having things that connect to each other.
FM: Which is why it’s interesting you describe it as a wardrobe; not fashion.
CMF: I don’t have any throw away fashion.
FM: You have built a wardrobe which has its own logic. You can imagine it has a link from season to season and from year to year.
CMF: Yes. And to think some of the designers that I love like, Yohji, Miyaki and Gaultier—some of them—with my love of fit, don’t always give that to you. There were some years I tried on Yohji and it didn’t work.
Think back to 1988, women were always wearing a skirt and blouse or a skirt suit, maybe a dress. There were not that many women in the work force, especially not in executive positions. And so to be able to convey leadership—the wardrobe was extremely helpful.
I remember the first Calvin Klein suit I wore—a beautiful grey pant suit. And I wore it to meet one of our clients who was the head of an extremely conservative and successful company. And I remember one of the women who worked there, standing and looking at me first at my face and then going all the way down to my feet. I even remember the shoes I had on. It was such a deviation—to even put on pants. And it was a very good suit. So that was where I started from, that was the base, which is very telling regarding how restrictive clothing was then.
The other interesting thing is that the style of dress that I love while it is admired, it is not necessarily what other women would wear.
FM: You mean they look at you and say, you look gorgeous, but for me never?
CMF: Yes, very never. And I always thought that was very interesting. I am within a range of here, whereas some of your collectors are in a range of there: quite avant-garde. I am in a range of here that will allow me to be visible, but I’m not that avant-garde. And yet, I could feel reactions to my clothes as if they were.
FM: Can you remember some extreme reactions?
CMF: It’s more about what someone doesn’t say about what you have on. I was always in charge and I needed to send that message that I was in charge. I had to help our creative people know that I was different. And that was important for leadership—I don’t mean in terms of domination. More specifically, to demonstrate that things were going to be good and the potential for the organization was great. I needed to convey to our young people in particular that it was going to be okay to work at my agency. And that meant if I were to wear jeans and really dress down and be super casual when I was working, then I felt that was not being the parent to the company, especially for a whole batch of young people. It is different today. But I would have never dressed that way anyway. I worked hard to make sure that I was the adult-dressed person. But cool.
FM: Was it also to say that as the manager and owner you can also be creative?
CMF: I want to say that some of the people who worked for my firm were extremely fashionable in unbelievably imaginative ways, like wearing a turban or dressing like a character. One day I was blown away by a young Japanese woman who worked with us who was so evocative in her dress; layers and layers of worlds, etc. The agency was an environment in which people cared what they wore, so I don’t mean that it was sloppy. Even a beanie on one of our creative directors was a statement.
JB: I’m sure you raised the fashion bar not just in your business but in Denver in general. I think it’s so interesting, the impact that you have even within the museum to give permission to women in positions of power to care about real fashion as part of your power. I think that there is a general fear that fashion is seen as frivolous. But clearly you have the bravery it takes to intentionally integrate fashion into your business model.
FM: Yes, if you were working in the fashion business—nobody would care because it is normal. It’s the uniform of your profession. But being a business woman it is a kind of provocation—to use the tools of frivolity—you would say it that this way? You had the feeling of being provocative?
CMF: Yes, provocative is a really good word: provoking a thought, a conversation, being different, a starting point, a refreshing way of being. Maybe this approach lends itself to being a little challenging from a business point of view. Advertising which is such a creative business—to be in possession of a style is a way of communicating. Many of the businesses we worked with were not “creative” but more serious and many had unnerving challenges. Some were very conservative, very focused from the utility company to telecommunications to tech or manufacturing business. So in their upper echelon of power, their conduct in their atmosphere of business was more formal than mine. But they would hire creativity and would consistently admire creativity. So by being in this classic and creative fashion presentation, the two worlds could come together—my creative advertising world with the business world—primarily a male-dominated business world. And so how would I own that space in that world and gain trust and also be distinctive, visible, memorable, and again, a person that could be trusted.
One of my best male business colleagues would say, “Cathey, your costume!” when I wore a particularly juicy outfit.
FM: Another very important thing I think you said was to be fitted. It’s something that is really special about you—you look like a model. You have the perfect silhouette. Tall and thin and then yes, this with very strong clothes—it’s like an apparition. Suddenly you appear like someone from the catwalk in real life. Perhaps people are shocked; looking at you like you are not real.
CMF: Well, I think that mannequin nature of what you just said, the model put together is an aspect of that. Advancing that model feel but without being over the top.
JB: It makes me think of another aspect—going back to the Japanese designers and your attraction to them—is that they downplay traditional feminine beauty and androgyny through minimalism. It is fascinating to hear about your sartorial intentions and the ability to find that within the Japanese fashion aesthetic. Have you always been attracted to the Japanese designers who emerged in the '80s and '90s?
CMF: I started right there with Yohji. I started with Dries Van Noten, Anne Demeulemeester—the Belgian designers were attractive. It’s interesting because I didn’t have any French designers or British. I was never been able to find anything.
But the androgyny thing is interesting. I was a woman in business world. It was helpful. It was very much about being in the business world and to create a slight protection. And I think those designers provided that.
FM: Can you comment on one dress that is in the exhibition? It is not exactly what you said—which everyone wants to know about, the Comme des Garçons bustier?
CMF: It is a beautiful piece and I wore it with a Jil Sander black long sleeve dress so I wore it as a bustier which it is—but the models wore it with nothing under.
FM: The whole structure is held by one hook?
CMF: I may have added another front hook or back hook. I think the whole thing may be worn completely open. But it was too hard because it would fall off. I would make my husband stand nearby to rescue me. But I wore that to the museum multiple times for more contemporary art events where people wear more unique clothing.
FM: Is there a connection between the way you collect, say, photography and the way you collect your wardrobe?
CMF: Actually in 1988, when I bought the agency, I began another collection of furniture. I worked with a curator who used to work at the DAM and we built a chair collection over 25 years which included the famous designers from the '50s on. So, we had anything ranging from Charles and Ray Eames to Philippe Starck to Robert Venturi to Andre Sornay.
This array of amazing things then became a part of my agency. It was the culture of the agency that you lived with these chairs. And living with design didn’t have to cost money—it was more about choice. That was one collection and then we had a woman’s shoe collection which was on the entry wall from the agency from 1988 on. It was always displayed the same but only with one shoe from each pair and was intended as a display of women’s shoes over time. And it conveyed again, the idea of a business owned by a female. But also conveyed a concept of unification and looking at things slowly expanding over time.
The idea of the chair collection came from the notion that even though we had these junky desks, we had these great chairs so no one would notice the junky desks. Think about it! Chairs are kind of basic. But there are an infinity of chair designs, mostly 4 legged. Then we added lamps—desk lamps by some of the famous designers. And then around 1991, '92, '93, I added the photography collection. I worked with Dianne Vanderlip, of Denver Art Museum fame, who understood my desire to pursue ideas.
I don’t know that I am a collector, but I am a connector which also relates back to how I built a wardrobe with Annie. And then, the same approach applies to the chair collection as well as my photography collection which is all about ideas.
FM: In terms of the subjects that are treated in your photography collection, do you see any connections with the Japanese minimalist aesthetic?
CMF: No, I see the photography collection much more focused on ideas: feminist ideas, female ideas that were kind of natural for me to think about. Also they are about equality and diversity, religion, privacy, isolation, loneliness, consumerism, and other ideas along those lines.
I kind of think of myself as a serious, frivolous person. I am thoughtful. I think about stuff and I am introverted and I think about ideas and I enjoy concepts.
JB: Do you consider yourself a trendsetter? I was approaching this question in the context that the Japanese designers are still a bit under the radar—although they are getting more and more traction as time goes on. This question is not limited to the realm of fashion, but also obviously applies to you as a pioneering woman in advertising. And linked to this question—after seeing Shock Wave, has it changed your perception of your own style within the overarching arch of fashion? Did it affect you in a way that you didn’t foresee?
CMF: When I looked at the exhibition, in particular, I thought “wow, look how much I missed.”
As far as trendsetting, I was on the forefront of a lot of things that were starting to happen in the country with women. I wasn’t a politically active woman. I was a working woman. I was a money-making woman. So profit was my driver. Success was my driver. Becoming was my driver. I didn’t think in terms of trends but more so, what edge do I have. But trying to frame it in the context of trendsetting, it was more about break through—what can I do to break through what is in front of me to differentiate myself; to make me/my business more memorable. It is not so much about setting a trend for me as much as it is about self-motivation, plus ambition.
JB: But through distinguishing yourself, it certainly led to your own legacy which continues to influence this next generation.
CMF: Yes, I think that my career created pathways for others. When I was working in that capacity, I was doing it all by myself. Obviously there were other women doing incredible things, but maybe not with as much bald-face hunger for success.
So I think I was different in that regard, that I had somewhat selfish ambition. Nowadays I think there are many women with ambition—hardly selfish! I think on one hand with ambition and with my style presentation—I had a lot of momentum to succeed. But my swath was cut when it was a lonely place for me.
FM: You were mentioning that you were several times on the cutting edge of something. Can you describe an example?
CMF: I was among the first advertising agencies to buy my own office building. That gave me a high degree of control and opportunities for growth. And so those were the kind of firsts, having a business that could sustain that level of ambition. You have to want to pay bills for that long and be certain that you can. And then get the next building and fill that to the brim with people and ideas.
Also, being a chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, I was not the first woman. I was maybe the second, maybe the third. But to come out of the advertising business and be Chamber chair—that was a first and to be a business woman and to be engaged in the business of Colorado, I was among the firsts as well. I remember what I wore when I went to give my Chamber speech. It was a Yohji Yamamoto. I wore the white panel wide skirt with a flat Mary Jane kind of shoe and a black turtleneck. And that was a totally new kind of look, especially from a suit or something similar to that. I felt good.
We won of tons of awards and recognition; volumes and volumes on a national and international level. We were in the top 50 nationwide. Achieving those steps from Denver were all firsts. There were other advertising businesses in Colorado, but none on the same scale and privately owned. There were of course, other very good businesses, but not woman-owned. We were the biggest privately owned advertising business. I loved that competition. I loved moving the needle for a client. Winning.
FM: Can you tell us more about your involvement with the museum?
CMF: I came to the Board of Directors in 1994. The museum, being around the art museum and art, is my life. And it’s my primary way of being. So being involved with the art museum over that period of time was really critical. And it was a vital and exciting time. We built the Hamilton B uilding.
JB: Could you also speak briefly about your personal connection to Japanese culture?
CMF: I’ve never been to Japan. I just happen to think these things are right for me.
JB: That is very interesting because you are the quintessential Yohji woman.
CMF: Yes, I am attracted to the androgyny and the black.
JB: You can see a commonality in the type of woman who is attracted to the Japanese aesthetic. Underneath you all have a need to make a statement about who you are and what you feel in a very strong yet very subtle manner.
CMF: Yes, I think the need part is true.