Markopoulos Award 2018

By Jenny S. Rebholz

Anne Kong is fabulous, caring and creative. She is an out-of-the-box thinker, designer, businesswoman, teacher and mentor. Kong is a presence—she has been all of her life, and it is not because of her 6-ft.-plus stature. She has made a mark on the retail industry with her memorable and highly regarded visual display work, her contributions to PAVE, and her significance to the advancement of retail design education—in the classroom influencing one student at a time, impacting the program at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and co-authoring one of the premier visual merchandising and display textbooks. It is for these accomplishments and more that Kong—associate professor and program coordinator for the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design Department at FIT and co-author of the 7th edition of “Visual Merchandising and Display”—is honored as the 22nd recipient of the Markopolous Award.

The coveted Markopoulos Award represents more than recognition for distinctive career accomplishments. For its recipients, it is an honor to be acknowledged and respected by their peers—The Markopolous Circle. The award was named in honor of the late Andrew Markopolous. His tenure as senior vice president of visual merchandising and store design for the department store division of Dayton-Hudson set the bar high for achievements in store design and visual merchandising. His work elevated the field from a trade to an art form.

Each new recipient joins The Markopolous Circle. With this honor comes the tremendous responsibility of selecting future winners. Honorees are nominated by their peers and selected by The Markopolous Circle based on their lifetime achievements and overall career accomplishments, their ability to innovate and inspire, their contributions to the success of a retailer or company, their ability to nurture and mentor young talent, and their ongoing contributions and support of the retail design and visual industries. Kong’s achievements and contributions in each of these areas is more than exemplary. She has been committed to the retail industry her entire life.

Born with the Visual Bug
Kong says that her passion for display began at an early age. “I was obsessed with arranging objects and enamored by store windows, museums and great furniture design,” she recalls. A part-time job at a local New Jersey department store gave her access to the visual design world, from folding jeans to assisting the “window guy” who came in from New York, while her family fueled her creative energy.

She describes her parents as “makers” who were always talking about design, creating, sewing, making and upholstering furniture, fixing cars, etc. “It was strange and wonderful to be surrounded by that creativity when I was young and to observe all of that. That was my ‘normal’ growing up,” Kong says.

Her parents weren’t her only creative influence. She attributes her artistic sister, Mary (now deceased), for helping her find her way to FIT. Both were accepted to a women’s Catholic college, where Mary ultimately attended and excelled in the fine arts. But, they both knew this was not the right fit for Kong’s more commercial approach to art. “Thanks to my sister’s insights, I ended up at FIT,” she says.

“Miss Display”
While Kong felt more like a misfit in high school, she became a star at FIT. “I fit in like a puzzle piece,” Kong says. “I was surrounded by aspiring, energetic talent, so I flourished.”

During this time, she immersed herself in everything the school had to offer. She founded the Display Club and organized a student field trip to the opening of Bloomingdale’s Tysons Corner. She was known as “Miss Display.” She spent every possible moment in the city worshipping the windows on Fifth Avenue and getting a front-row view on opening window night.

“I watched the windows change at Bonwit Teller, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, that was how I spent my spare time,” Kong says. “Normal people were going out, dating, etc. I was dating our industry; it was my lifelong love.”

Kong loved the school’s connection to the industry and appreciated that the faculty also were working in the field. A distinct memory for her was having Candy Pratts Price come from Bloomingdale’s to speak to one of her classes. “She was so incredible, so fabulous—a tiger,” Kong reflects. “I thought, wow, this person is so inspiring. I said to myself that day, ‘I will work at Bloomingdale’s for Candy.’”

Working in the Windows
Sure enough, upon graduating from FIT, Kong’s dream was fulfilled when she landed a position at Bloomingdale’s for the infamous “first woman” display director, Candy Pratts Price. “My world blossomed as I came to know the major personalities in our industry—Gene Moore, Robert Benzio, Colin Birch, Bob Currie and, of course, Andrew Markopoulos,” Kong says. “I would do anything I could to watch them or talk with people in the industry. It was life-changing to hear their design philosophy. Those were incredible years.”

Kong’s résumé includes time at Bloomingdale’s, Bonwit Teller and Macy’s Herald Square under Joseph Cicio. “Under the direction of Joe Cicio, Macy’s was the place to be,” Kong says. “I was a junior trimmer, styling the windows on Broadway and 34th Street and shared the cubicle next to Linda Fargo (another member of The Markopolous Circle, now at Bergdorf Goodman).” This immersed her in projects such as the Flower Show, the Macy’s Day Parade and installing Christmas the night before Thanksgiving. “I learned to work with the fashion office, plan events, purchase mannequins, direct floor moves and assemble fixturing,” she notes.

As Bonwit’s prepared to make a comeback, her old boss lured her to be part of one of the most prestigious store openings with an enormous budget and multiple entrances. Her career flourished, she climbed the ladder and was working in an environment where no expense was spared. She handled main floor Christmas trims, collaborated with the White House’s holiday decorator, and one year filled the main floor with hundreds of cooing doves.

At this point in her story, she cautions professionals to “be careful what you wish for,” as one of her other career goals was to hold the title of display director. She did achieve that goal at Bonwit Teller, but when she found herself stuck behind a desk without the hands-on work, the creativity and fun of the windows and floor displays, she knew she needed to change her path. (She has kept that business card as a reminder of that achievement…and to be careful of your wishes.)

Her change in trajectory took her to London, where she worked on theater sets for the new musical, “Jean Seberg,” under the direction of Christopher Adler and Marvin Hamlish. “At this time, I consulted with Gemini Mannequin Co., numerous architects on store design and fell in love, which eventually brought me back to New York City.”

After seven years of working for big brands and organizations, it was time for another change. Kong started her own business with colleague Robert Balavender. Their complementary skill sets were the perfect fit, and she was even able to involve her sister on projects, as well as her husband, photographer David Kong. From SoHo to Madison Avenue to work with ad agencies and retailers, she was able to let her creativity soar on her own terms. She ushered the Lycra brand to fame with DuPont and collaborated with Richard Martin at the Metropolitan Costume Institute. Despite her busy schedule and travels, she reconnected with FIT to begin to bring her real-world experience to the classroom.

Her list of accomplishments, award-winning work and notable clients is extensive, and she still maintains her practice, ADKONG, today.

Back to School
While Kong was only teaching here and there, FIT loved how she was connecting students with the industry. They wanted more “Kong-style” curriculum. Her business was thriving, and she was living a life of flights to Paris shows and wonderful client accounts. She knew a commitment to the classroom would change her life dramatically; this was a big career decision. As she contemplated the future, she thought about what she could build at FIT. While she had accomplished so much, it was never really about her, and now maybe she could build something bigger and greater at FIT that would impact more people.

Joseph DeBello, director of business development for Manex/France Display, a former student of Kong’s, and a 2018 40 Under 40 recipient, says “fabulous” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Kong. “She is one of the most dedicated visual designers I know who fights hard to keep this industry alive,” he says. “When Anne sees something in you, she pushes you to your full potential. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. She has played a key role in my success.”

Since taking a full-time position at FIT in 1997, she has collaborated on the development of the Communication Design Foundation program, launched the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design BFA program and started a Special Projects Committee to mentor and encourage faculty by sharing teaching methods and techniques. She received a grant to start a department lab, and a grant for 30 glass pane windows to give students a better canvas for learning how to design windows for brands using vinyl and environmental graphics. These tools support the real-world projects that she brings to the students.

“It is truly my belief that the method in which one learns has everything to do with what one learns,” Kong says. “Students need to experiment with process and materials to empower their design thinking. I have created projects and training to apply their use in curriculum and hired technicians to assist in teaching the student’s safety and sustainable practices with all new technologies.”

“Everything she did as a teacher at FIT prepared us for what was to come after college,” says Richard Eberle, owner of Brick & Bridge and an FIT alumnus. “There were projects for real brands outside of our classes that she would bring to our attention and encourage us to take on. Having this exposure made a tremendous impact on my career.”

Kong demonstrates her commitment to her students by maintaining her own practice and a global perspective. These experiences help her to continue to bring the current reality of the industry to the classroom. Kong also is adamant about instilling a sustainable mindset in her students and teaching them the importance of giving back to the community through not-for-profit work. Her annual Harlem Holiday Windows project enables 20 students to work with clients to install displays worthy of Fifth Avenue at nine local businesses in Harlem. In addition, she has worked with students in her Point of Sale class on designing and implementing a pop-up store on the FIT campus to benefit Memorial Sloan Kettering, which has raised more than $65,000 for patient care.

One of Kong’s most recent professional accomplishments is the time and effort she has invested in revising the seventh edition of “Visual Merchandising and Display” for Fairchild Books. This massive undertaking included revising the original Martin M. Pegler 402-page text, authoring three new chapters (5, 18 and 25) and adding 400 new images. This textbook is widely used in both Europe and the United States for fashion merchandising and retail design programs.

“It is a privilege and incredibly gratifying to share my lifelong love for visual merchandising and display each day,” Kong says. She believes that her job extends beyond the classroom environment and teaching. “I am a conduit, an advocate, a lobbyist, technician, manager and salesperson,” she says. “I recruit, secure resources, procure equipment and find funding with a team of extraordinary colleagues who share the same passion and commitment in providing the best possible design education in the public sector.”

For Kong, the future is about keeping up the momentum and keeping the FIT program relevant and forward-thinking. She wants to continue the legacy of FIT being a great place to start a career. “It was a life-changing education for me, so I want to continue to bring that to each class,” she says.

There is so much more that could be said about Kong’s accomplishments and dedication to the profession, but for her, success is measured by the achievements of her students. She is so proud of the many FIT alumni who are design leaders in all aspects of the industry, ranging from museum, retail, events, corporate brands and design firms. This fuels her to continue to grow the program and maintain its relevancy by honoring the legacy of the past while staying in tune with cutting-edge advancements. “We are preparing students as global citizens and as future design leaders who care about the environment and their fellow woman and man.”

Photo by Philip Mauro


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