When Amy Williams was a fourth-grader growing up in Briarcliff Manor in Westchester County, New York, she would regularly sneak her cousin’s hand-me-down jeans into her backpack, then slip into them at school. “I’m a complete tomboy—I always have been,” says Williams, whose mother was insistent that she wore dresses to class. When it was time to board the bus home, “I would change back, so she didn’t know.”
Fast-forward four decades and Williams’ enthusiasm for denim is still going strong, as CEO of Citizens of Humanity.
It all goes hand in hand with her love of retail, which Williams discovered during her senior year of high school working at Bloomingdale’s. As a teenager, Williams quickly learned how to put her head down and work hard—part of her coping strategy for dealing with her adoptive mother’s battle with cancer, which she lost during Williams’ junior year.
“I didn’t get flustered easily if things didn’t go perfectly. If I look back at that time, it was probably unusual for someone that age,” says Williams. As a student studying political science at State University of New York at Buffalo, she landed a job at Talbots. “I loved working and I didn’t love school,” says Williams.
That realization was magnified when Williams was accepted into a retail development internship program at Macy’s in New York City during the summer of her junior year in 1988, then received an offer for a full-time sales manager job, which she took on while finishing the remainder of her graduation requirements at the nearby Fashion Institute of Technology.
Unbeknownst to Williams, it was a decision that would help chart the course for her illustrious career in retail: In 1989, Williams, then 21, was hired by former Macy’s executives for a merchandise trainee position at Gap Inc. in San Francisco. “I missed the energy of the city,” says Williams, who moved back to New York City a year later and remained with the brand. By the time she left in 2003 to run Lucky Brand Jeans’ retail division in Los Angeles, Williams was overseeing Gap and Gap Body as the senior vice president of design, product development and pre-production.
“I had always loved L.A.,” she says, citing the city’s entrepreneurial fashion spirit. “You would design and develop, and could actually see the production in your backyard. That changes the speed at which you can do things, and the dynamics of the creative process.”
It was at Lucky where she met her now husband, Scott, who lured her to San Francisco when she opted to leave the company in 2006.
And what started as a consulting gig for Citizens of Humanity in 2009 evolved into a full-time job for Williams, who was asked to take on the role of president in 2011, and CEO in 2015. With her family based in the Bay Area (the couple now have twin daughters, in addition to Scott’s three children from a first marriage), Williams began travel to Los Angeles on a weekly basis—a commute that she has down to a science eight years on.
When in Los Angeles, Williams spends time brainstorming with the design and merchandising teams; other aspects of the CEO’s work range from strategizing with the sales teams around the globe on account opportunities to reviewing daily reports and exploring ways to grow the business. “I love working as part of a collaborative team and really working with other people and trying to draw out the ideas that they have and creating an environment that allows that to thrive,” she says.
There was a brief moment before university when Williams thought she might want to go into another field, such as restaurant and hotel management. But retail has always been her true calling—a conclusion that Williams drew in part after being reunited with her birth parents and half siblings (with the encouragement of her adoptive father) eight years ago. “Ironically my half brother is the creative director at [clothing company] AllSaints, my other brother is a lawyer and I was actually planning to go to law school, and my dad’s an architect. [Reuniting] is an amazing experience because you’re like, OK, I understand now.”
Regarding her own brood, it’s important for Williams to turn off work and be present with her husband and children, especially on weekends when the family enjoys outdoor pursuits, including riding and caring for their horse. And though soccer “might not be the sport I am most knowledgeable about,” Williams is “a keen assistant coach for the twins.”
As for some of her biggest career accomplishments, the kids have a hand in those, too. Earlier this year, Williams’ 15-year-old stepson asked her via text to pick out some Citizens denim for him. “It made my day,” she says. Meanwhile, the 8-year-old twins, are already following in their mother’s denim footsteps. “At school, they write about the outfits they wear,” says Williams. “They can never be too young, I guess!”