“I have always believed there are no boundaries,” designer Josie Cruz Natori says. Exemplifying her own mantra, the Natori founder and CEO crossed continents, navigated varying careers, and surmounted countless obstacles to create her global brand.
Born Josefina Almeda Cruz, she credits her entrepreneurial nature to the matriarchal society she grew up in, along with the support of her close-knit Filipino family. “Women are encouraged to be entrepreneurs,” Natori says of her home country, the Philippines. “My grandmother always said, ‘Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to depend on anyone.’” It seemed like serendipity when the very place she grew up, the place that instilled her with the motivation to become an entrepreneur, was also the inspiration for what turned into a successful lingerie collection and the design of a hand-embroidered blouse. Using an Asian aesthetic, Natori was able to build a distinct brand, melding the aesthetics of East and West.
But Natori did not always seek to be in the fashion industry; in fact, it was never even on her radar. As a child, Natori displayed a natural affinity for the piano, performing a solo concert with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra at age 9. Born with an ear for music and an eye for art, she did not pursue a career in what came so naturally — instead, she challenged herself with a career in business.
At age 17, Natori left Manila for New York, where she studied economics at Manhattanville College. Following graduation, she ascended the corporate ladder, landing at Merrill Lynch as the first female vice president of investment banking. By 1976, the rising Wall Street star had married Ken Natori, then executive managing director of Smith Barney, and had given birth to her son, Kenneth Jr. By 1977, looking for new challenges and bored with her position, the would-be designer was eager to start something new.
Natori considered a number of entrepreneurial ventures, but none seemed to take. On a whim, she brought an embroidered blouse to a buyer at Bloomingdale’s. The buyer encouraged her to turn it into a sleep shirt; Natori took the advice, and she suddenly found herself in business.
“At the time, lingerie was either lewd or frumpy,” said Natori, who worked to fill the niche in between. More than four decades later, the company has grown into a lifestyle brand that has come to include lingerie, loungewear, ready-to-wear, shoes, accessories, fine jewelry, men’s loungewear, healthwear, and items for the home.
“I love my work, but success in fashion is not enough,” Natori says. She sits on the boards of the Asian Cultural Council, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, and the Fashion and Design Council of the Philippines. She is also a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Committee of 200. In 1988, Natori was honored for her achievements with the Galleon award, presented by Corazon Aquino, then President of the Philippines. In 2007, Natori was given the prestigious Lakandula Award from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, considered the highest honor for a Filipino citizen. She also received Fashion Group International’s prestigious Humanitarian Award. “I want to be able to give something back, to make a difference in people’s lives. To that end, she established facilities in the Philippines to handle more than 60 percent of all Natori production. In 2021, she was honored on the first series of “Living Legend: World-Renowned Filipinos” with the Philippine Postal Corporation. In 2022, she was inducted into the Accessories Council Hall of Fame at the 26th annual ACE awards.
What began with creating lingerie on her living room floor truly has evolved into a lifestyle. “Natori is a total concept, a way of life,” she explains. “I just happened to start at the back door with lingerie. Now as the company grows, we grow our sensibility too, taking our concept and making it a whole world. As we say here, Natori is ‘where life meets art.’”