Fashion Executive's Liberty City Roots Gave Him the Edge [The Miami Herald]
During his evening strolls along Lake Geneva, Tony Curtis often pauses to peer out at the orange-hued sunset until another jogger interrupts him: "Bonjour," says the passerby.
"Bonjour," replies Curtis. It's usually a brief exchange because Curtis' French is still "a bit rusty." So Curtis heads home, walking past the merchants, down the winding cobblestone streets to his apartment in the heart of Geneva. Amid the village's shops and French-accented restaurants, the 6-foot-3 former Miami Central High football player sometimes finds himself a man apart.
Since taking over as Polo Ralph Lauren Europe's Human Resources vice president in 2006, Curtis' schedule has been nothing short of A-list executive. He's touted the brand at store openings in Milan, Stockholm and Munich. His next trip is to Istanbul for a new store opening. Yet, Curtis says, he's "never lost" in Europe. "It's very important in life that you know who you are and where you came from," says the 44-year-old former Liberty City resident. "It keeps you grounded and rooted."
"I told my kids they have to make the best out of every situation," says his mother, Rose Curtis. "Where there's a will, there's a way. The trials of life will only make you stronger and better suited to face adversity." Rose Curtis grew up in an era when segregation still pushed black Miamians to the margins. As well as working as an teacher's aide, she sewed to help pay the bills. Her ex-husband, Israel Curtis, had already broken barriers as The Miami Herald's first black pressman. Tony's sister Terry Curtis is an ad traffic coordinator at the newspaper, and his brother Kenneth Curtis is a mailroom crew chief.
After graduating from Miami Central High in 1982, Tony Curtis headed to New Mexico State University on a football scholarship and majored in advertising and public relations. The experience defined him to this day. "I saw that coming from the inner city, I had an advantage over the other students because I knew how to overcome struggle," he said. "My engine was hotter. . . theirs was on autopilot." He ventured briefly into journalism with a summer internship at The Herald.
In 1986, Curtis was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but, after an unsuccessful year, he headed to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to earn a master's in labor relations. A Boston firm took notice of Curtis and offered him a job. Over the next decade, he worked for several large companies, including Citigroup and CIGNA. Then, in 2006, while working in North Carolina as Ralph Lauren's vice president of Human Resources in North America, the European position opened.
"I just told them my strengths," he said. "It all revolved around what I faced growing up in the inner city."
These days, he's immersed in learning the nuances of European society, which means admitting that they have a "finer taste for fashion" than Americans. Armani suits tend to be more "boldly designed" because Italians are "very expressive." On weekends, Curtis gets temporary respite when his 4-year-old daughter Jala visits from Zurich. This weekend, he's wrapping up a week's vacation with his mother, who now lives in Hollywood.
Curtis hopes to find a church in Geneva. "I have to put God first. . . That's where the foundation of knowing who you are begins."
— By Peter Bailey
Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald
Published on June 8, 2008
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