Melissa Skoog Dunagan ’95 FAA couldn’t have been more startled herself. One minute she was commuting to her dull, dull job as the receptionist at a Chicago marketing firm and thinking, “This is not supposed to be. This is not supposed to be how my life turned out!” Three weeks later, she was in New York City, personal assistant to the most powerful editor in fashion at the world’s empire of style magazines. Barely into her 20s, Dunagan was brushing shoulders with an A-list of celebrities and jet-set royalty; her baptism complete, she then launched her career with two of the highest profile brands in global retail.
This is less a fairy tale than a story of pluck and perseverance. A native of Hinsdale, Ill., Dunagan grew up dying to live in New York City. It was her dream. It was where she wanted to be. Even while attending the University of Illinois, she had her sights set on the excitement and glamour of Manhattan. After her junior year, she applied to and got into New York’s Columbia University as a transfer student. That’s when her parents told her, “Sure, if you want to be $80,000 in debt after your senior year, go ahead.” The plan was abandoned and, in truth, Dunagan loved Illinois. Today, she looks back on her time there and praises its “amazing culture, the sense that you’re independent, it’s a sink-or-swim kind of school.” Unlike a boyfriend who went to Bowdoin College in Maine, “where they did everything but tuck him in at night, at U of I it’s not about how many people who do things for you. It’s a Big Ten school, and you’re on your own; you’ve got to make it happen.”
New York was the one big thing Dunagan wanted to make happen. Undeterred by her busted romance with Columbia, she kept at it after graduation. As an art history major, “there were no career fairs, so I did a ton of networking. It’s what I just told a girl who interviewed here recently,” says Dunagan, seated at her desk in her handsome offices on Michigan Avenue. “Talk to everybody.”
As founder and head of SKOOG Productions, a boutique marketing firm that launched in 2012, Dunagan, 42, has settled back in her hometown with a very promising business. Named to Crain’s Chicago Business as a “40 under 40” to watch in 2012, she can boast an impressive list of prestigious clients, and her working hours are packed with events, calls and client meetings. A not-atypical day in February starts with a morning meeting at the Adler Planetarium, where Dunagan is doing some pro-bono work for the Women’s Board and its upcoming Women in Space Science luncheon as well as its Celestial Ball. At noon Dunagan meets with Shinola, a new client out of Detroit that specializes in high-end watches and leather goods; she’s promoting its new store in Wicker Park and helping the company plot a partnership with Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel Chicago, another new client for whom she handles all fashion partnerships. Three o’clock and she’s got a conference call with a University of Chicago arts program and Tiffany & Co. to explore a possible collaboration; Dunagan was tapped to publicize the renovation of Tiffany and its flagship Michigan Avenue store, which will be completed in late summer. After that, she runs to Hyde Park to visit the Blackstone Bicycle Shop and hear about its education program aimed at empowering youth, finishing just in time to attend an exclusive private event at the Museum of Science and Industry for public-relations professionals. At six, Dunagan’s got another conference call with one of her newest clients, Vosges Haut-Chocolat, and, finally, it’s a private dinner for a select group of influential Chicago women that’s geared toward promoting Bright Pink and its campaign to broaden cancer awareness among young women.
Diva of fashion
None of this was on her plate back in 1995 when Dunagan, a recent college graduate, had eyes only for Manhattan. Presaging her own advice to the woman she recently interviewed, Dunagan worked on her future by talking to everybody. She had her mother talking to everybody, including guests at a cousin’s birthday party where someone knew someone who knew someone who worked at Vogue.
Several phone calls and several months later, Dunagan was in a car with three friends headed for New York City, the pinnacle of fashion publishing. Two of her friends landed jobs, Dunagan did not, but apparently made a serious impression on publisher Condé Nast. She was five months into her boring job in Chicago when a woman from Condé Nast called to tell Dunagan to be in New York in three weeks if she wanted a job. During her first day training as a “rover”—the company’s term for a free-floating temp—she was summoned again and informed that Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief ofVogue, needed an assistant. “We think you’d be great,” they told her.
Fans of The Devil Wears Prada might immediately assume that the newbie assistant to the terrifying magazine diva was modeled on Dunagan. “People always say, ‘Oh, you must be the Anne Hathaway character!’ because I’m from the Midwest,” says Dunagan, laughing, who actually went on to a job at Prada. “No, that was the girl after me.”
Working for Wintour was a transformative experience, an instant apprenticeship with the hugely influential editor and immediate immersion in the world of magazine publishing.
“I worked super-hard,” says Dunagan, whose workday started at 7:15 a.m. “What was so cool then was that this was kind of a heyday for Vogue and publishing—[it was] before the Internet. I got my first cell phone there. I called my parents and said, ‘I’m calling you on this StarTAC flip phone!’ I didn’t even have email. We did everything on typewriters,” she says, and recalls an amusing story about one of “Anna’s” many trips to Paris when she demanded to be kept up on everything—so Dunagan spent an hour a day at the fax machine. “It was back when faxes came out of a tube of paper, and she called from Paris and yelled, ‘Stop! Melissa, my whole room is filled with curly paper!’”
No one led a more celebrated life in the fashion spotlight than the iconic Wintour—and Dunagan was often there with her. She was there in 1996 for the second Met costume gala that Wintour helped stage; she was there for the charity event that Wintour organized with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Not that it needed a loyalty boost, but the latter trip clearly cemented their trust. “Anna gave me this engraved silver box … that Princess Diana was going to present to Ralph Lauren and said, ‘Oh, Melissa, will you just carry my jewels for me,’ and she gave me all her diamonds, and there I was, 22 years old, on the shuttle to Washington, D.C., with the sweatiest palms and shakiest arms with this box that cost a gajillion dollars and all these jewels on underneath my clothes,” Dunagan recalls.
She was present for the housewarming that Wintour tossed for fashion designer Gianni Versace at his new Manhattan mansion, just a year before the designer was murdered in Miami in 1997. Artist Julian Schnabel “did a huge mural for his bedroom. Elton John was there, John John was there! I almost died. I call that era of my life ‘the fishbowl,’ because I was certainly not a participant, but I was there to bear witness. It was just a crazy time in New York and fashion.”
Super brands Gap and Prada
After two-and-a-half years with Wintour, Dunagan moved on to an accessories editor at Vogue and then to Hearst’s Marie Claire, which was where her second career began, this one in retail. At an appointment with Banana Republic, she had suggested a few ways the company might redesign one of its bags to improve its market potential. “They called a week later and said, ‘We’re going to make your bag,’” and I said, ‘What are you talking about? What on earth does that mean?’” Dunagan found out soon enough. “‘We’re going to buy 40,000 units,’ they told me. ‘It will be 38 bucks and in nine colors, and we’ll put it in our 375 stores across the country,’” Dunagan says. “The next thing I knew, they contacted me and gave me an offer that I couldn’t refuse, so I moved to San Francisco as a merchant for Banana Republic.”
That brand was owned by Gap, a vertical company that manufactured goods for its own stores, and after two-and-a-half years, Dunagan commanded $200 million in business for the giant retailer. She’d started knowing little about retail, but she left an expert, in large part because, as Dunagan puts it, “I had the honor of working with one of the best merchants, if not the best.” That was Gap Chairman Mickey Drexler, a legend in the retail industry. As The New York Times noted in a recent story on Drexler’s “third act” at age 70, “There are few fashion merchants who have better defined affordable American style than Mickey Drexler.” To Dunagan, he was a “genius [who] eats and breathes and sleeps what he does because he’s so passionate about it. His entire life is retail. It’s very contagious when you’re around that kind of energy.”
Dunagan left Banana Republic because she “profoundly missed New York City” and was offered a job in 2004 as director of public relations for Prada’s women’s collection, yet another landmark in her professional life. In addition to honing her expertise in brand management, she found it a “tremendous honor to work with Mrs. Prada and understand her creative genius firsthand.” Dunagan traveled to Milan four times a year—when she wasn’t immersed in the glitterati of Manhattan, and would likely be in Manhattan still if she hadn’t gone to a “business meeting” at Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel. It was set up by one of Dunagan’s closest friends who wanted her to meet a man who’d just invested in a fashion company. “Little did he know it was really a blind date!” says Dunagan. She and Chris Dunagan moved in together two weeks later and were married in seven months. But the couple’s future in Manhattan took a permanent hit when Chris met his sister-in-law, Linda Skoog-Sluman, MD ’90 (UIC), a Chicago oncologist heading up a health wellness company and hunting for another business partner. Chris, who holds an MBA degree from Wharton, “was either at the right place at the right time,” says Melissa, laughing, “or in the wrong place at the wrong time—I’m not sure what we call it yet!”
Sweet home Chicago
Leaving New York was bittersweet. While part of her was “kicking and screaming,” another part was ready for a change, says Dunagan, who had left her position as Prada vice president of public relations for U.S. men’s and women’s fashion to join an Internet business venture, which eventually went belly-up. The return to her hometown had a silver lining, enabling Dunagan to spend time with her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and died one year later. Her mother, Joyce Anicich Skoog, EDM ’82, was a prominent North Side community activist and the village of Hinsdale’s first and only female president, her life celebrated in a full-page obituary in the Chicago Tribune. “She was a go-getter, to say the least,” says Dunagan. “Her whole mantra, along with my father’s, was to give everything to their kids … That’s what they were all about.”
Coping with her mother’s death in 2014 was tough, but 2015 is shaping up “with lots of excitement.” Dunagan has her own family to focus on—she and Chris have a pre-kindergarten-aged son and daughter—which she somehow manages to fit in with her whirlwind calendar. Dunagan is particularly active in women’s issues, and takes on one nonprofit a year on a mostly pro-bono basis. Although it can seem like she’s already enjoyed more professional esteem than others see in a lifetime, Dunagan is amused when friends wonder why she doesn’t just relax, raise a couple of kids and rest on her laurels.
“People say, ‘You’ve been so successful, you’ve had such an interesting career!’” Dunagan says. “But honestly, I don’t even see it. I think, ‘Really?’ Life is just a work in progress, and that’s how I feel—like a work in progress.”