The future is now, and it’s female. From the board room to the, ahem, Oval Office, smart, driven, empowered women are charting new courses and making inroads into traditionally male-dominated roles in ways they’ve never been able to before. That’s why we’re thrilled to launch our new series, Breaking the Dress Code, which looks at female leaders in a variety of fields who are redefining what’s possible for the women who will follow. First up, we’re starting close to home with Barneys’ own COO, Daniella Vitale.

With a career spanning several decades and ranging across a host of fashion’s most covetable brands—Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani, and Gucci, to name but a few—Vitale has become known throughout the industry not only for her astounding intelligence and unparalleled business acumen, but also for her generous spirit and the support she offers those around her. She is a devout philanthropist, dedicating her time to UNICEF and other charitable causes. Her efforts have resulted in her being honored by a variety of organizations including the High School of Fashion Industries, the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, and most recently the UJA-Federation of New York, which honored her philanthropic efforts earlier this year.

For this first installment of Breaking The Dress Code, Vitale sat down for a candid chat with Barneys’ EVP of Marketing and Communications, Charlotte Blechman, who also happens to be both a longtime colleague and close friend of Daniella’s in addition to being a powerhouse leader in her own right, having led Barneys’ holiday campaigns for the past five years and spearheaded the company’s efforts surrounding gender equality and philanthropy. Read on for Daniella’s story of overcoming workplace sexism, how she defines ‘having it all,’ and why gender equality is such a vital issue to her.

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Barneys EVP of Marketing and Communications, Charlotte Blechman, along with COO Daniella Vitale.

Charlotte Blechman: Often, when you speak to very successful people, they start with a story about how they were brought up. How would you say your upbringing shaped you and prepared you for your career?

Daniella Vitale: I had very humble beginnings. I grew up in a middle class family in New Jersey, but my parents made sure to instill a very strong work ethic in me and my siblings. If there was something I wanted to do, I would have to earn the money to do it. That was always just understood from a very young age. So I started babysitting in fifth or sixth grade and have worked throughout my whole life—through school, after school, summers. You had to go out and do it yourself.

CB: Did your mother work?

DV: My mother always worked, and my father worked hard as well. That had a tremendous impact on me. I knew that I wanted to work, even to the point that the importance of it sometimes outweighed school—not that that’s something I’m advocating! But it was something I loved doing—earning my own money, meeting different people, having different experiences.

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Daniella’s warmth and leadership have made known throughout the industry. Here, she arrives at a show during Paris Fashion Week earlier this year.

CB: And your siblings?

DV: I have a younger brother and sister. We’re all very close in age, and they were both very much the same way. Education played a bigger role in their early lives than it did in mine—Tara has her Masters, Matthew has a law degree—but nonetheless we all reached success in different ways.

CB: In terms of success, everyone has a different definition of what that means. What does success look like to you?

DV: Overall, there’s way too much emphasis on the monetary piece of success. The only person that can define success in your life is you. It means a million different things to a million different people. I think in order to be successful, you need to be happy with what you’re doing. Success is also about looking back and feeling good about what you’ve accomplished. People say you should have no regrets, but to me, that’s ridiculous. How can you possibly have no regrets?  Looking back and saying I regret that or I wish I had done that—it’s not a bad thing. Success means getting to a place where you can admit that.

Or this idea of “having it all”—people are constantly striving to have it all, but that means very different things to different people. It’s important, particularly for women, to say that having children or a significant other doesn’t necessarily complete the picture. We need to teach young women to be happy with themselves first. What if they don’t meet the partner of their dreams? Does that mean you’re not going to be happy, or that your life is deemed incomplete? Being happy with yourself and with your choices first and foremost is very important.

CB: Well with those varying definitions, what does “having it all” mean to you personally?

DV: My family is very important to me, and I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to have a career and still have children. Looking at them and seeing how great they are, that’s having it all to me. And also having someone in my life like my husband, David, who also was very supportive of me having a career. We never asked “who’ll be taking care of the kids”—we both knew that it was something we were going to have to do together because I wasn’t going to be happy staying home. Nor was he, for that matter. Yes, I’ve made mistakes along the way, but being able to look back and say that I’ve had great experiences by and large, that’s having it all.

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Daniella and her twin sons, Daniel and Luca Biro, who introduced her when she accepted her award from the UJA-Federation of New York this spring.

CB: If you had to narrow it down to the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career—whether professionally or personally—what would it be?

DV: There have definitely been experiences where I was treated differently because I was a woman, and more specifically, a woman who had children. That seemed to be an annoying concern to some men who were my superiors in past roles—they seemed to be overly concerned about who was home taking care of my children. Or calling me “young lady” and making it clear that they didn’t view me as a peer at the table. Did it hold me back? I don’t think so. But did I wonder how it could happen in this day and age, that a man could say that to a women who was a CEO within one of his groups. What did that show my peers around the table? What does that show my male peer who’s in the same role I am?

CB: So how did that shape you?

DV: It shaped me in the sense that I made sure that every woman who has surrounded me during my career has been treated fairly and equally. Everyone needs to be treated equitably, regardless of what they have going on outside of their work life. Kids, no kids—maybe someone just wants to go home to their dog at night or just go home and read a book. And I’ve tried to make sure that women feel really empowered and that—as long as they’re dedicated, have a strong work ethic, are smart, and they want a career—they’ll be treated no differently than anyone else. I wanted to have more and more women around me because I don’t think there are enough women in senior executive and leadership positions. Even today and even in our industry that’s dominated by women, leadership roles are still dominated by men in a way that isn’t reflective of the industry at large.

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Vitale was asked to speak earlier this year at the Milken Institute Global Conference panel discussion entitled, “Global Retail: Adapting to Changing Tastes.”

CB: There was recently a McKinsey study that showed mid-level roles are actually comprised of 56% women, but that they drop off when they start to get to those senior positions because it often coincides with the time in many women’s lives that they start having children and they can’t figure out how to balance the two. Anecdotally, if a woman needs to get on a flight to go to a big meeting but her kids get sick, rather than having an open discussion with her boss, if she doesn’t feel supported she may just shut down. And that has a huge impact on a career.

DV: Listen, women are the only ones who can give birth to children. You can’t really change that, at least not right now. So you’re already starting from a point that’s not quite equitable. You have to take extra steps to ensure that women feel protected and that they feel like they can come to you. Women do tend to be more nurturing—it’s been proven that women tend to have an instinct to nurture more than men do. That’s not a bad thing. That’s what can make them good leaders and mentors. It’s one of the strengths that comes with having women in leadership roles.

CB: There are certain qualities that are valued more in female leaders than in male leaders, like that nurturing element and empathy. On the other side of that coin, the quality of aggression, at least as far as getting a deal done, may be more valued in a man than in a woman.

DV: Its’ true—I’ve been called too aggressive, too loud. If it were a man who was exhibiting those same traits, you’d never say a word. It’s the double standard where in business, a man is considered a ‘killer’ whereas a woman is considered a ‘bitch.’ It’s important for people to step back and say that it’s not fair. Like the phrase “too ambitious”—what is that? You’d never say that about a man. If you’re mentoring someone, you might say they need to step back and develop more in certain areas before they move on, but you’d never call them too ambitious. But people say it about women.

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Vitale, inspecting Tomasini Paris handbags during a showroom buying visit in Paris last Fashion Week.

CB: Do you think there’s been a watershed moment in your career, a moment that you can point to and say put you on the path you’re on now?

DV: My role at Ferragamo made me realize that this was what I wanted to do. I had an amazing mentor in Paulette Garafalo, who was my boss at the time, and I realized that hers was what a successful career looked like. Understanding that I’d found someone to be my mentor was really an ‘a-ha’ moment for me. It wasn’t just about the job; it was really about finding someone that could help me develop my career. Also, when I went to her say that I was leaving to go to Armani, she basically told me that it was time. Yes, there was crying and emotion, but she knew that it was time for me to move on and that that was the next step. That was really the formative moment—not the actual job, but the person who was going to help me get to where I needed to be.

CB: And is she still in your life now?

DV: Yes, I still talk to her about work. She even calls me sometimes, now, for career advice! She’s stayed in my life for 24 years and is genuinely a very close friend.

CB: If you had to break it down and say these are the three things that make a successful leader, what would you say they are?

DV: One big one is empathy, as we talked about before. It’s important in business—trying to put yourself in someone else’s experience and where they’re coming from. Not feeling bad or sorry for them, but really trying to understand. Another important trait is recognizing early on that you need really good people around you. Surround yourself with people who are going to know more than you do about certain things and realize that it’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Third: work ethic. Understanding that you have to work hard, but it doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your entire life for it. It means quite the opposite, because working hard also means working hard to find things that are meaningful to you outside of work. If your passion is reading, you may only have time to read that book on the plane on a business trip, but you have to seek out that balance.

CB: So what do you do outside of work that helps you to be your best self once you’re at the office?

DV: I try to exercise—some form of physical activity is very important to me and I try to do it daily. It’s not just the physical piece, but also the mental health piece that helps be stay somewhat stress-free. Spending time with my children and doing things that are fun for them. Making them happy makes me happy and making them laugh is important to me. Reading everything I can, anywhere I can, even if it means skimming five newspapers while drinking my coffee in the morning. It’s vital for me.

CB: What advice would you offer someone who’s looking to get to the next level of their career, whether they’re just starting off or if they have their eye on the C-suite?

DV: Constantly ask. Ask for more challenges. Ask for more opportunity. If you want more, never stop asking for it.