With a picture book highlighting the iconic creations of famed Hollywood
costume designer Edith Head resting on the coffee table before her, Harriet
Bailiss-Sustarsic leans forward from the sofa of her airy North Manhattan
Beach home and thoughtfully ponders the current state of the retail fashion
industry, with many established brands now working to reinvent themselves.
“Denim has lost a lot of cache. Women no longer want to spend $200
or more for a new pair of jeans,” she says. “Millennials are
less motivated by brand recognition and are more concerned with authenticity.
As a result, many of the junior big box retailers are struggling.”
She continues, “Malls are also now being challenged to enhance the
shopping experience through the addition of elevated food and spa environments.
Everything is changing.”
After a successful 35-year career in fashion, Harriet is also undergoing
“I’d like to reinvent myself,” she says. “I’m
looking to apply my experience to create the next opportunity. What is
the next thing?”
Her passion for her chosen industry can’t help but shine through.
It’s one that despite her mother’s apprehension, guided Harriet
as an undergraduate at California State University Long Beach away from
her original path of becoming a school psychologist. Following her graduation
with a bachelor of arts in psychology and French minor, she joined the
executive training program at the now defunct Broadway Department Stores.
“Back in high school, I was always saving my lunch money and using
it to go shopping,” she says. “I was very interested in the
latest trends and products.”
Her zeal led to steady success. She rose through the corporate ranks in
merchandising positions at ’80s and ’90s shopping mall fixtures
Contempo Casuals, Rampage, Charlotte Russe, Guess and Wet Seal. Her climb
continued through the 2000s with senior-level and consulting positions
at denim heavyweights True Religion and J Brand, among others.
“It was fun and gratifying, but hard work too,” she says. “I
have never had a dull day.” Harriet shares her love of fashion with
her 24-year-old daughter Lindsay, who would accompany her to shop the
competition and attend fashion shows in Europe while growing up.
Harriet and her only daughter have always been close, so during high school,
when most young girls are developing their fashion sense, the two also
began to notice concerning symptoms in Lindsay that couldn’t be ignored.
“She started getting very sick. I didn’t understand how serious
and specific it was,” she says.
Lindsay was eventually diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases. It began
with celiac disease, where the ingestion of gluten (proteins found in
wheat and related grains) leads to damage in the small intestine. Following
this, a visible butterfly rash on her face, led to the discovery of lupus,
a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the body’s immune
system attacks its own tissues and organs. She also had developed vasculitis,
where blood vessels become inflamed. Most recently, doctors are calling
her condition mixed connective tissue disease, a combination of diseases,
also known as mixed lupus.
In 2011, a routine procedure to have her wisdom teeth removed was complicated
by Lindsay’s weakened immune system. “It got to the point
where she could barely talk. Lindsay knew something wasn’t right,”
Not given antibiotics following the procedure, Lindsay had become gravely
ill due to an infection. Following a trip to the Emergency Department,
she spent two weeks in and out of Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s
Intensive Care Unit fighting for her life. With a sense of urgency,
Eric Milefchik, MD, an infectious disease specialist, ordered a test of her blood levels.
It revealed she was battling sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication.
Sepsis occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight infection
trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body. This inflammation
can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems,
causing them to fail.
Lindsay was on the road to recovery from sepsis in the Pediatric unit,
when she began complaining of shoulder pain. This led to the diagnosis
of empyema, a condition during which fluid accumulates in the area between
the lungs and the inner surface of the chest wall. Radiologist
Albert Grabb, MD, made the discovery after viewing images from Lindsay’s computerized
tomography (CT) scan. A spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis.
Lindsay recovered from both challenges. The lasting impressions made by
the staff at Torrance Memorial led Harriet to want to find a way to express
her gratitude. Around that time, Harriet’s long-time friend Wendy
Klarik introduced her to Christy Abraham, a
Torrance Memorial Foundation board member. Abraham suggested that Harriet join the Ambassadors, a Torrance
Memorial support group, to which she readily agreed. Through gifts to
the Torrance Memorial Foundation, the group’s mission is to educate
and save lives by helping to sustain programs and services provided by
the medical center’s Burn Center, Hunt Cancer Institute, Turpanjian
Rehabilitation Services and Health Education Center.
“We were very impressed with the staff, and the level of care was
amazing,” Harriet says. “They saved Lindsay’s life and
I wanted to give back. Subsequently, I became aware of the programs supported
Ambassadors, such as the Burn Center and Oncology Services. I’ve had people
very near and dear overcome breast cancer at Torrance Memorial.”
Today Lindsay is making progress toward controlling her health issues through
close monitoring and a health-conscious organic and gluten-free diet.
After graduating from George Washington University with a marketing degree,
like mom, Lindsay already has several big-name brands on her resume.
Meanwhile, as she has in fashion, Harriet continues to trust her instincts
when it comes to her next career move and her support of local health care.
“Lindsay and I have learned through our journey that you have to
follow your intuition and be your own advocate when it comes to navigating
the health care system,” Harriet says. “I feel very comfortable
knowing we have a really good hospital in our own backyard.”