Sue Sartor is no stranger to north Louisiana, and for good reason.
She has lived much of her life here nurturing her family, committing to worthy causes, painting gorgeous abstract pieces, and enjoying the “soul warming” atmosphere that life in Louisiana brings. But Sartor has done something more. At age 47, she embarked on an entirely new career in fashion design. Today, though the company she founded in 2017 is still young, SUE SARTOR Kaftans & Tunics has already caught the attention of fashion industry leaders. Because of her amazing design talent, her determination to follow her dreams, and her own personal sense of style, Susan Kelligrew Sartor is our September Bayou Icon.
article by GEORGIANN POTTS and photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Sue Sartor would surely agree with Apfel’s assessment, as it has taken years for her to discover hers. Sartor is an accomplished artist known for her exquisite large-format mixed media paintings. In 2015, Sartor returned to a career in fashion, this time as a designer of artisan luxury tunics, dresses, and kaftans. These lovely garments feature custom embroidery and hand-stamped wood block prints that reflect Sartor’s love of nature.
Sartor’s designs aren’t just beautiful, they are uncommonly versatile. These getaway-worthy pieces create statement-making moments for anybody who indulges. The garments are ready for anything, day or night, with just a simple change of footwear and accessories to suit the occasion. “I feel that each woman possesses her own distinct style,” Sartor explains. “I make clothes for women to be able to style and interpret in their own way.”
GROWING UP IN THE NORTHEAST
Sartor was born in Needham, Massachusetts, second youngest of four children of Peter and Mary Beth Kelligrew. Her parents had both grown up in Glens Falls, New York, and were high school sweethearts. Among Sartor’s fondest memories are of spending summers on Cape Cod Bay. Even today, hearing James Taylor songs takes her back to her childhood and those summers. The sunsets, the light reflecting on the dunes, salt in the air, and Rugosa roses all played a part in Sartor’s early awareness of nature’s colors that would inform her art as an adult.
Sartor’s father served in Vietnam and, when he came home, became one of the first servicemen back to get a job on Wall Street during an aggressive time in the investment banking world. “He always did everything with integrity, even when the world at times was playing by different rules,” Sartor says. “I admire my dad’s business acumen and resilience tremendously.”
Sartor’s mother worked as a high school counselor after attending Wellesley College. She encouraged each of her children to find what their “calling” was, to spread their wings, and to follow their dreams wherever they led. The Kelligrew home “. . . was one of open doors and constant support and love for us and all our friends,” Sartor remembers. “My mom is one of the most authentic people I know. She keeps it ALL very real – no sugar coating, ever!”
When Sartor was in the fourth grade, her father was transferred to New York and moved the family to Summit, New Jersey. This move meant that the family was close to the arts and culture in New York City. At Summit High School, Sartor was very active in student government throughout her four years, while playing sports (Lacrosse and basketball) and creating art.
TULANE OFFERS OPPORTUNITIES
Sartor’s siblings had gone to Michigan, Colorado, and Boston for their university educations, but Sartor wanted to go somewhere “unique to her.” Tulane University got the nod. The art, culture, depth and soul and an incredible education opportunity at Tulane made Sartor’s choice easy. She majored in Art History and minored in studio art with a concentration in painting.
At 18, Sartor met her future husband when she interviewed at Tulane. A mutual friend from her brother’s Cape Cod Sea Camps introduced Sue to his fraternity brother, Walter Sartor. It wasn’t until she was a senior at Tulane and Walter was in medical school that they started dating. “New Orleans became a magical place for me where there were no boundaries to creativity,” Sartor says. “My whole world opened up in New Orleans. This is where my love of the south and Louisiana began.”
After graduation, Sartor worked in Europe for a time. In Monte Carlo, she worked for New York City’s Marisa del Ray Gallery where she was the assistant for the Biennale de Sculpture exhibit on the grounds at the Royal Casino. Then, it was on to Paris and the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) at the Grand. After these wonderful experiences, she knew that she wanted a career in art, fashion, or both. She had “found her calling” and was ready to “follow her dream.”
After returning from Europe in the early 1990’s, Sartor interviewed for Chanel, Mark Hampton, and Calvin Klein. She was hired as an assistant to the merchandising manager, Monica Roberts, in the Calvin Klein Women’s Collection.
Sartor found herself being interviewed for the Klein position immediately after the Chanel interview. She remembers the experience with laughter. “I had no time to change between the interviews, and, in those days, these two fashion houses had very different aesthetics,” she recalls. “I had wavy curls and Chanel red lips but tried to bring it down a notch for the clean look of Calvin to no avail. Calvin saw me in the hallway and told my soon-to-be boss and president of the Women’s Collection, Susan Sokol, for me to ‘tone it down.’ I was mortified! It was brown lipstick and straight hair parted down the middle from there on out!”
Sartor learned important skills during her time there. She gained invaluable practical knowledge about textiles and garment fabric proportions from Roberts. Sartor covered many miles running back and forth from the cutting room to the show room and back again for the couture division. These halls introduced her to now-notable designer Narciso Rodriguez. Sartor got to see and dress many supermodels of the day – Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Kate Moss — who Sartor says was Calvin’s muse. She would often see Bianca Jagger and Sharon Stone getting fitted by publicist Carolyn Bessett-Kennedy for the perfect red carpet look. “I was fortunate to work with Carolyn while at Calvin Women’s Collection. Much like Jackie, she embodied style. She had her own unique look that was so timeless and beautiful. She was a genuine, kind person, and beyond talented. I consider both Jackie and Carolyn style icons.”
After two years of living and working in the fast pace of NYC, Sartor knew she needed a change. She became a Calvin Klein visual merchandiser, which put her on the road and closer to where future husband Walter was doing his surgery residency in Maryland. The two were engaged in Cape Cod in 1994 and married in their common stomping ground, New Orleans, at Holy Name Cathedral next to Tulane on St. Charles Avenue in 1995.
LOUISIANA – HOME, AT LAST
After Walter’s residency was completed, the young family moved to Lake Charles where they had their firstborn, Addie, in 1997. They then moved to their permanent home of Monroe where Lucy was born in 2000, followed by Walt in 2004. For Walter and Sue, focusing on family became their highest priority.
Sartor loves Louisiana, and not just because she studied at Tulane and met her husband there. “Louisiana has made me a more layered person. There is something about Louisiana that just captures your heart and leads you on a more soulful journey,” Sartor says. “The lushness of Louisiana, the flora and fauna – it all is a major part of my art and design.”
Although she misses being close to her own family, Sartor wouldn’t trade her home here for anything. From her earliest days in Monroe, she has given back to her community. She served as president of the board for both Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana and the Center for Children and Families, raising funding to support these worthy causes. While president of the Center’s Board, she and Janet Haedicke founded the Black and White Ball to benefit the Children’s Advocacy Center. Sartor also prioritized the Arts, becoming a founding member of the Strauss Youth Academy for the Arts as well as serving as the president of the board at the Masur Museum. Most recently, she has completed a term as president for the Monroe Garden Study League, A member of The Garden Club of America.
Sartor has not forgotten New Orleans, either. She takes part annually in a fundraiser for Café Reconcile, a group that trains at-risk inner-city youth for work in the restaurant industry. She founded the Market Collective Christmas shopping fundraiser for Café Reconcile with fellow designer and college friend Cynthia Cazort Collins. “I’m a big believer in giving back, and that good energy begets more good,” Sartor says with a smile.
A NEW CAREER OPPORTUNITY
In 2015, a dear friend of Sartor’s, Anu Lal, and Sartor founded SueAnu, a first step that led Sartor to taking the line solo under her own name and brand two years later. The two women began their company working with Lal’s family friends and tailor in Delhi, India. They started with 10-12 sample garments which they showed in a pop up in Monroe. They had fun, and lots of early success.
When Sartor established SUE SARTOR Kaftans & Tunics in 2017, she added hand-stamped prints from Jaipur. Eventually, she began working with three workshops in particular – one in Jaipur, one in Delhi, and one in Karachi. The people working for her are hardworking, talented people, and Sartor feels fortunate to have them on her team.
The textiles that she works with are either hand-loomed, hand-dyed, or hand-stamped and are natural and sustainable wherever possible. Sartor says that two of her best fabric resources found her on social media. Today nearly 100% of her business is driven by Instagram. “As an independent designer, and a young brand, it is of the upmost importance to be able to do collaborations and to gain exposure with the right demographic. Social media allows for likeminded designers to find and support each other,” Sartor explains. “Social media is just unbelievable. Its reach is incredible.”
MENTORS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Sartor learned early in her new venture just how important collaborations and mentors in the design world are to a new designer. Among those who have helped to work her way through the maze are Natalie Bloomingdale, Paloma Contreras, and Julia Amory. Each has given Sartor encouragement and sound advice along the way. “I love that I am being mentored by all of these female makers MUCH younger than me!” Sartor says. “I guess this is what happens when you ignite your dream in your late 40s! There are so many editors, creators and makers who have helped to guide me just by example. I am grateful to them all.”
When Bloomingdale, founder of The SIL (“Stuff I Like”) platform, invited Sartor to be featured as an independent designer, it offered a significant opportunity for her. The two discovered that Sartor’s designs were a “perfect fit” for Bloomingdale’s site. “The SIL has been a fantastic platform for me to gain exposure with a wonderful demographic of clientele. The taste level, the hard-to-find exclusive nature of Natalie’s selected wares, and the fact that she is championing the independent designer is fantastic!” says Sartor. “We chatted on Instagram, emailed a bit, and realized we were a perfect pairing.”
Sartor’s small batch productions don’t fit in traditional “big box” retail. Instead, her limited runs of travel-ready kaftans and tunics are better suited to the woman Sartor designs for – one who appreciates individuality, luxurious fabrics, and versatility.
THE LA DESIGN CHALLENGE
Sartor created a kaftan that she named the “Paloma” after award-winning designer and blogger, Paloma Contreras. She brought a few samples of it when she went to Los Angeles to meet Bloomingdale and her team. Sartor had been invited to participate in a design challenge of emerging designers for a curated holiday capsule line. The grand pop-up was to be in Beverly Hills at Elvis Presley’s old home, the iconic Casa Perfect in the Trousdale Estates. Sartor was thrilled to be selected, and points to this as a key validating moment in her career.
Sartor enjoys sharing a funny – and illustrative — story about the evolution of her signature kaftan for the capsule. “I sketched the Ria kaftan in the middle of the night after driving Addie to Colorado and staying up all night,” she explains. “We were exhausted. But I pushed through because I could tell this was crucial in achieving my dream. One should always keep going, no matter what.”
Julia Amory, founder of the celebrated wood block print tabletop line India Amory, sought Sartor’s expertise in 2019 to design her first dress under a collaborative label. India Amory x Sue Sartor finished 5 successful collaborations thus far, which Sartor describes as tremendously gratifying. “I’ve got to really bring my A game with India Amory X Sue Sartor because having timely deliveries in excellent quality is essential to maintain the integrities of both lines,” Sartor explains. “Our dresses and tops have been known to sell out in 12-24 hours.”
As with everyone, Sartor and her business have been impacted by the pandemic. Supply chain issues have been the most troubling, causing Sartor to put on hold plans to expand her direct-to-consumer sales to more retail. She has also had to hold her off on her plans on launching a men’s line. Sartor still sees an upside, even in these trying times. “COVID-19 actually helped the independent designer a bit,” Sartor says. “People were looking to shop from their homes and small batch garments were easier to produce than big box retail. So, it hasn’t been a horrible time to be a small brand e-commerce site.”
A bigger challenge is learning how to separate her business life from her private life. Because she runs her busines out of her home, and her artisans are working on the other side of midnight while she is supposed to be sleeping, Sartor sometimes finds herself talking with her teams well before dawn. “Letting go of the control is the scariest part, and that is what I am grappling with now,” Sartor admits. “But to grow the business, this will have to happen.”
Sartor adds that she is grateful that Walter and her children gave her their blessing when she started her business. “They all cheer me on as they witness what it takes to go after an entrepreneurial dream mid-life,” she says.
Twenty years ago, Walter and Sue made a commitment to embrace the things that fed their souls. They decided they would have no regrets. Today Walter plays in two bands (“Code Blue and the Flat Liners” – an all doctors band that he co-founded and helped name — and “Gumbo Dynamite”).
Their oldest daughter, Addie, is a Tulane psychology graduate seeking her Masters in Art Therapy and Clinical Counseling from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Lucy, their second daughter, is a junior at Tulane double majoring in Digital Media Production and English Creative Writing with a minor in Theatre Performance. Because of the pandemic, she has been home and has helped her mother with the business. Their youngest, Walt, is a junior at Neville. He loves golf and playing the guitar. He is the one who has seen his mother’s business grow firsthand, often chauffeuring her from tiring pop-ups in New Orleans.
When the COVID restrictions are finally lifted and travel is possible again, Sartor wants to travel with Walter to London, Paris, and end up in Morocco to source textiles. Their mutual appreciation for art, architecture, and history would make for an unforgettable experience.
Walter is her best friend and biggest cheerleader, according to Sartor. The marriage has been one of love and mutual support, with a healthy dose of laughter and music. “Because Walter is a surgeon – a cool hand and brilliant, he always helps me to have perspective,” Sartor says. “After all, no one is going to die if their kaftan dress has to be remade.”