Officer and a Gentleman

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Fresh from seventh avenue, fashion guru John Conte is bringing a bit of the Big apple to Big D.

John Conte still remembers his neighbor’s reaction when he told her he was selling his cozy apartment on East 63rd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan and moving to Dallas. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “What happened?”

Her reaction was hardly the exception. Friends wondered if Conte and his partner, Lucas Belinkie, who’d accepted a job in private equity in Dallas, would even be safe—gulp—in a “red state.” Colleagues at Ralph Lauren, where the 30-year-old had vaulted up the corporate ladder to become the director of retail development for the company’s line of women’s wear, were dumbfounded. His boss, meanwhile, implied he’d gone soft. “To quote The Devil Wears Prada,” Conte said, “‘A million girls would kill for this job.’ To them, it’s unfathomable to leave.” But Conte did leave, giving up a well-compensated and promising career based in Times Square that saw him traveling across the country and managing a staff of 90.

g-nov-dec-2012-feature-dallas-2When he touched down in Dallas for the first time, Conte hopped in a cab and asked to be taken to the “center of the city.” The driver, unsure how to respond, dropped him off at the touristy West End in downtown Dallas. But on a weekday afternoon, there were no tourists in sight and the streets were empty. Conte thought he’d landed on the moon. Looking for familiar signs of life—the bustle of foot traffic or the chatter of a sidewalk cafe—he started walking. By the time he arrived in Uptown, a heavy backpack weighing him down, he was in tears. “I kept thinking, ‘what is this place and where is everybody?’” he said. “My apartment was on the market back in New York, I’d given notice at work and I thought I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.”

Despite his inauspicious arrival, Conte’s tears eventually dried. Four years later, the lifelong city kid, an individual who claims he’d “never even seen a firefly” before arriving in Texas, has adjusted quite nicely. Conte, now 34, is the vice president of education at Wade College, the city’s premier merchandising and design institution. The position marks another dizzying rise for the fashion guru, who, in four years, has gone from being a part-time adjunct professor teaching visual merchandising to overseeing more than 300 students and 24 staffers. In addition to managing faculty, he is primarily responsible for overseeing the college’s curriculum, which is undergoing a series of changes as the institution expands to begin offering all of its concentrations at the baccalaureate level starting in the spring of 2013.

Harry Davros, president of Wade College, believes a professor’s effectiveness is measured by the work his or her students produce. Finding professors who know how to challenge students in an engaging way is rare, he said. He attributes Conte’s quick rise to his ability to do both: challenge his students and get them to produce higher-quality work. “The first thing that stood out about John was his teaching ability,” Davros said. “He knows how to get through to students and that’s rare. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.”

Higher education might seem like an unlikely destination for someone who spent the first decade of his career navigating the pressure-filled showrooms and corporate offices in New York’s Garment District. A closer look reveals Conte has always had two loves: fashion and teaching. His first teaching job was at Berkeley College in West Paterson, New Jersey. It took Conte, who was 22 and living in Queens at the time,

2 1/2 hours by subway, bus and cab to get to the school for an evening class, where he taught merchandising to students who were often years his senior. “I was so hungry to teach at the time,” said Conte, who went on to teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology, LIM College (his alma mater) and the Katharine Gibbs School. “It’s clear to me now that teaching is actually my lifelong passion.”

It is a passion that Conte approaches with the same perfectionist streak that he honed during his early career on the showroom floor. When he says that era was “survival of the fittest” with the same intensity as a military veteran recalling his time overseas, you forget he is talking about fashion, which might as well be war by other means. Conte has a résumé that belies his age. A product of the executive training program at Bloomingdale’s, he began his career in retail buying. Before transitioning from retail to wholesale as project manager at Vanity Fair Corporation, he held a merchant position at Banana Republic Catalog. All along the way, however, he quietly longed to teach. “At the end of the day, the industry felt empty,” he said. “As an educator, you feel like you are making a difference, you are sharing your own success with other people. They look at you for what you’ve accomplished and they’re so respectful of it.”

Conte has also grown to appreciate Dallas. He and Belinkie own an elegant three-story townhome in Oak Lawn. The couple turned to interior designer Terry Dye to accent the contemporary abode with like a 200 year old old English clock and a century-old French settee. But Conte’s most-prized possessions are a pair of bug-eyed pugs who patrol his ornate living room like masters of the estate. “I have grown to love Dallas,” he said. “The quality of life is unrivaled, and to say this city is gay-friendly is an understatement. Much of Dallas is more open than the Upper East Side in Manhattan.”

In person, Conte is diminutive and tightly coiled. He speaks quickly, but with a precision that can almost seem rehearsed (though I’m certain he had no advance knowledge of my questions). It is clear that Conte—looking dapper in a double-breasted blazer and a sharp bow tie when I met him at his office—has mastered the art of presentation, not in a shallow way, but as a matter of principle. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a man whose former job was to execute Ralph Lauren’s visual directives in 1,100 retail spaces across the country. “I don’t care what I’m doing. I want it to be quality, whether it’s the outfit that I’m wearing or the caliber of our curriculum,” he said. “For me, every day is a fashion show.”

Had he signed up for the military, trading his love of merchandising for a love of country, Conte would’ve made a great officer. He is detail-oriented and fastidious, no matter if he’s making a PowerPoint presentation or shaving. And like any experienced officer, one of his most effective tools is intimidation, as Conte readily admits. “I am impatient, I talk fast, I expect people to adhere to deadlines,” he said. “I think some students find me intimidating. I think it prepares them for the industry.”

But Conte is creating more than a competitive environment for the sake of his students. Since he was promoted to vice president of education in December 2010, he has revamped Wade’s faculty, hiring staffers who are current or former industry professionals. He can recite their résumés and industry experience on the spot and is happy to do so without prompting.

If Conte has fashioned himself the hardened officer, then his staff are hand-selected vets who earned their stripes the hard way. “John runs a very tight ship,” said Jason Reynaga, a well-known Dallas artist who heads the college’s design division. “A lot has changed, and he’s brought in faculty who are at the top of their game.”

But not everyone has embraced his intensity. At a staff meeting last year, Conte was confronted by an administrator who took issue with one of his initiatives. “John, this isn’t a competition,” she said, pulling him aside after the meeting. He was so taken aback by her comment he was still mulling it over at home later that night. He’d spent his career sizing up his colleagues, watching his back and pushing his limits in a perpetual race for the next promotion, bonus, award or hint of favoritism. If work, whether it’s in an educational environment or a publically traded company, isn’t a competition, he wondered, then what is it? The realization that some people think about their careers in noncompetitive terms was a “lightbulb” moment for Conte, but if you think it led him to reevaluate his priorities, you’re wrong. “This industry is about survival of the fittest. It is about the spirit of competition,” he concluded. “These are the environments that present the biggest opportunities to learn. I am who I am because I spent a decade in them.”

Conte maintains that his goal is to re-create an approximation of those environments in the classroom. The school’s mantra is immediate employment in the fashion and related lifestyle industries, he said. With the World Trade Center a five-minute walk away, Wade has a revolving door between Wade’s academic programs and the 5-million-square-foot wholesaler, one of the few gateways into the industry for students. It also gives Conte a chance to indulge in one of his favorite activities: professional matchmaking. In his students he sees younger versions of himself, full of drive but in need of direction, he said. He also knows that, in addition to talent and training, it helps to have an in. Once his students have one, he said, his emphasis on quality pays off. “At this point, it’s personal. When I place a student, the business owner is usually my friend. When I get a student an internship or when somebody comes to critique a portfolio presentation, they’re all my friends. The fashion world is tiny.”

I asked Conte if there was anything he missed from his former life in New York. At first he looked amused by the question, but he struggled to supply an answer. “It’s not the low quality of life or a particular restaurant,” he finally said before pausing. “I miss the drive that New Yorkers have. I still have it. I walk and talk a mile a minute. It’s a cultural thing that I miss.”

“Is it safe to say that’s the culture you want to bring to Wade College?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve already started.”

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