From the Dobbin Blog: Why We Sell Online Only

October 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

I haven’t been keeping up with Truth Plus for good reason, it’s been busy with Dobbin. But I thought I should share a post I put up today on the Dobbin Daily that’s in the vein of Truth Plus. I did a little bit of market research into the  true financial cost of a chain store or a contemporary designer dress and compared it with our own numbers and philosophy. Let’s just say, it’s not surprising how much added overhead becomes part of a retail price. In any case, hope you’ll check out the post and let me know what you think:

Behind the Scenes: Why We Sell Online Only

What I’ve Learned

July 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today, I was ironing a very old shirt of mine, a blue oxford button-down that my mom and I unpacked last summer in our basement, and marveled at its quality. The shirt’s thick fabric and sewing have stood up over what must be 15 years of machine-washes and wears. I wear it often and happily. And when you look at the remainder of the label, which I cut out a long time ago, what does it say? Made in the USA.

That shirt, and other pieces I have from the 80s and 90s, were part of the reason we started Dobbin. Mass retailers, whom so many of us used to rely on for quality basics that lasted, have opted for fast-fashion and trend-for-less over closet staples in great fabrics that last and look good in a multitude of ways.  That shirt made me feel good about what we’re trying to do at Dobbin, and proud of what we’ve already done.

Since we launched this past Spring, I’ve learned so much. I thought I’d take a moment to share a few of those lessons, surprises and delights.

Our clothes fit and look great on: Because we used a size 6/8 fit model as opposed to the traditional 2/4 that most fashion companies used, we were understandably a little nervous about whether our fit would work. But lo and behold, we’ve only had 1 return to date (knock on wood)! Overall, our customers have been thrilled with the fabric and the fit of our pieces. Catherine and I have been so happy to hear and in some cases to see what our customers are wearing and loving. Some women have told us that they can’t take our pieces off and wear them multiple times a week. That’s music to our ears at Dobbin and exactly what we were trying to accomplish. Your clothes should be versatile, durable, comfortable and flattering.

Everyone has a different sense of personal style, as well as shopping techniques: In New York City, and in the fashion industry in particular, your eye can get trained to recognize certain styles and pieces of clothing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Within those broad confines, many designers and fashion industry members tend to define their own personal or design styles, but rarely venture far from whatever the top magazines and blogs are serving up. At Dobbin, we’re trying to listen to what women in and outside of New York are really wearing in their day-to-day life: to work, to social occasions, on the weekend. Those answers differ in ways not even the sharpest merchant might expect. Some women are now following fashion’s every move via social media and want to play along, others create their own rules and know what works for them, and others yet are watching their budgets and trying to shop smart. It’s so refreshing to know that personal and shopping styles are still so individual. We’re learning new things every day and know that our findings will only make for better products down the line.

The concept of quality is complex: The above story of my Made in the USA shirt is a distant memory for most people. Large apparel chains and department stores have filled our closets with mass-produced basics and trend items typically manufactured in China. It’s hard for many shoppers, particularly younger ones, to feel the difference between good fabric and bad fabric, and to recognize a well-sewn vs. a poorly-sewn garment. Elizabeth Cline’s recently-released book, Overdressed, has been a wake up call to me and to countless others about how we as a nation shop and what we expect of our clothing. So many of us, myself included, had come to expect a decent shirt to cost very little, or to be sold at a bargain price. I would be upset when it fell apart or washed badly. Now that I’ve seen the flip-side, and have felt and bought top-quality fabrics, and worked with pattern makers, sample makers and factories here in NYC, I know that better garments cost more and can be worth their higher prices. But to us at Dobbin, if they’re going to cost more, they shouldn’t be super-trendy. Clothing can be fresh, pretty and modern, but it should also last you longer than one season. The economy is still in a very tough and turbulent state, and it’s a fact that most families are not spending as freely as they once were. We know that Dobbin’s prices are not the lowest, but we’re trying to give as much bang for buck as possible.

Online shopping is still a new territory: As an adventurous online shopper who has been known to try a product that looks and is priced right after only a few clicks, it’s been crucial for me to remember that a new online brand is a tricky entity for most shoppers. They don’t have to trust our quality, fit, branding or even our customer service when their online shopping options seem so plentiful, or when they’d prefer to look at and try on in person. All of the most successful online brands we know started out by selling their lines live, at trunk shows and even out of the backs of cars. Our online strategy has been to provide free-of-purchase swatch cards, which customers can feel and shop from, to make shipping both ways free so that customers can easily return our clothes if they don’t work, and to provide personalized and prompt customer service. We’ll be improving our online experience as we go along, and will be complementing our e-commerce business with trunk shows, events and pop-up stores. We’d still prefer not to wholesale our clothes to boutiques or department stores, as they would definitely be marked up so much that the prices would not match our branding any longer.

Customer service is still king: From the time I was 16 and working in a local shoe store, I have known that the way shoppers are treated is almost as important as the product itself. From the shopability of the site, to the ease of the return process, to how quickly I try to answer phone calls and emails, this facet of the business is still vital to Dobbin’s long term success.

Welcome to Dobbin!

April 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

I know, I know, I’ve been MIA. But there’s a good reason. I started my own business! As of yesterday we’re up and running. Welcome to Dobbin Clothing!

Dobbin was an idea hatched a few years ago, that my partner Catherine Doyle, and I decided to make a reality in the past 6 months.  We felt that for women with real bodies who wanted to dress elegantly but comfortably in quality clothing were underserved.  Contemporary apparel businesses serve the young, slim-hipped and trendiest of dressers, as do fast fashion stores.  Big box stores and longstanding chains often miss the mark in terms of style and quality. Of course on the high-end, there more options for the professional woman with casual wardrobe needs, but they cost a lot.

Dobbin is an old English term for workhorse. We want Dobbin’s clothing to be the workhorses of your wardrobe. Our line is made of high-end Italian stretch fabrics and is carefully cut to flatter a woman’s bust, back, arms, waist, hips, and thighs.  The tops are longer (many of them have shirttail backs for extra coverage)  the fabrics are super soft and stretchy, the pants have a higher rise and an amazing fit, and the dress is already turning out to be a hot seller. I hope you’ll come check out the site,  and let me know what you think. If any of you have trunk show location suggestions, happy to discuss those as well.

I’ll be writing in Truth Plus when I have the time as it’s an excellent and fulfilling project and hope to document some of my thoughts on starting a small  business here. I’ll also have a blog over at Dobbin on which I’ll discuss more lighthearted style, health, literature and other lifestyle topics.

Manufacturing clothing has in and of itself been an eye-opening adventure. I’d always been around the process and participated in it somewhat, but I’d never been  so closely involved. It takes a lot to manufacture a garment. And for a small company, the options are limited in how to do that. As we wanted, all Dobbin clothing is made here in NYC; however we would not have even had the choice to go to China for it, with such small runs. Fabrics are chosen by quality of course, but also by which mills will work with small companies,.

I’ve loved the experience of  figuring out how to make the best clothes possible. We start with a fabric, sample it from Italy or the US (some fabrics we used are from LA, I traveled to their garment center this past Fall), then have a pattern made by our 30-year industry veteran pattern maker, have a sample made by a sample room who works with companies like Theory, then fit it on our experienced fit model several times to get the fit just right as we alter the pattern, and then off to the cutting room, markers and graders, and ultimately the factories here in New York (who also sew for brands like Rachel Roy, Thakoon and Marc Jacobs).  Every button, zipper, pocket, sleeve and trim must be considered. It’s pretty fascinating I must admit and I have to say we put a lot of thought and love into the clothes.

Right now we’re selling via e-commerce only in order to keep costs lower than they would have been if we wholesaled the line. The prices aren’t low per se, but they’re far lower than a contemporary piece in the same fabric or even a  less well-made piece from a bigger chain (if I do say so myself!). We’re offering free shipping both ways so you can try on at home and keep only what works.

Happy Weekend and Happy Shopping!

Retail Events: Paul Mayer Spring 2012

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Mayer Spring 2012

This week, I stopped in to see my new friend, shoe designer, Paul Mayer, whom I’ve written about on Truth Plus before. His Spring 2012 Collection was being showcased at his Upper East Side shop, a jewel box location on Lexington Avenue.  Paul’s shoes combine classic chic and high quality with total comfort,  attributes few designers manage to successfully combine. On trend for Spring, Paul showed me his lovely ballets in lots of bright colors like royal blue and an amazing pair of camel flats with an orange peep toe.

Paul Mayer Spring 2012

During the preview, Paul also showed me a sneak peek of Fall 2012, which I loved. He was very kind to send me out with a pair of his divine flats and with some much-appreciated advice on starting a business. During our meeting, many women stopped in to shop at his store and to chat with their elegant designer. It’s always so nice to see a designer/business owners interact with his or her customers; those relationships are the key to a successful brand. In any case, thank you to Paul for the wonderful visit and congratulations on a beautiful Spring 12 Collection!

Paul Mayer Shoes

Today’s Truth Plus: Sky-High Shoes

March 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Malkemus thinks much of the rising-price trend is owed to the basic capitalist idea of pushing the market to what it will bear — which is not necessarily a wise move, in his opinion. “When a young lady says to me, “I went shopping for shoes and the average pirce point was $900 — $900 used to be a coat, ” says Malkemus. “I think that people may have taken advantage of the notion that ‘It’s all about accessories right now.” When [designer] ready-to-wear priced itself out of the realm of most consumers, shoes and bags were still affordable. Now, what’s happened is the shoe people and the bag people sort of lost control of that, and they are scaring off a certain consumer.” (Iredale, WWD Accessories, 3/26/12)

In the middle of today’s WWD Accessories special issue, which is chock-full of images of luxury handbags and shoes, there’s an unexpected and delightfully Truth Plus-esque piece that questions the new $600-plus price norm for designer shoes. I remember when spending $150 to $200 for a pair of contemporary shoes felt like a real splurge, and that Manolo Blahniks used to cost a shocking $395. Now, you’d be more apt to see a pair of Chinese-made shoes at Macy’s for $150 and a pair of contemporary sandals for $395. As people’s salaries have remained static, reduced or have disappeared altogether, luxury shoe brands have rather brazenly continued to hike up the prices of their products.  When I read that $1900 booties are being snapped up in a flash or an ‘It Bag’ sells out by pre-order in record time, I can only think that it’s the true 1% who is able to afford these items. Yes, an aspirational customer can save his or her pennies and buy one good thing as an investment. But there’s no way, I don’t think, that they can make multiple purchases of $700 shoes in one season.

So why have prices gone up? Designer shoes, as Malkemus explains, are most often produced in Italy. In past years, the dollar had lost quite a bit of value against the Euro, and US customers ended up with higher retail prices as a result. Raw material prices,  Malkemus says, have increased 30-40% in the past year and half alone. As the prices of the most high-end shoes have gone up, the market has created new norms for prices at all quality levels to accord to the top tier’s price setting. But as the Euro-Dollar currency conversion has recently evened out, shouldn’t shoe prices in the US decrease some across the board?

Malkemus’ above quote says a lot about why prices haven’t and perhaps won’t drop. The average aspirational customer, who began her luxury education/fascination with Carrie Bradshaw’s Fendi Baguette, has become an accessories-focused consumer who might buy fast-fashion clothing and pair it with with $700 shoes. Malkemus is right that high-end and contemporary clothing pushed away many average customers, and H and M and Zara have capitalized on that shift. Bags, shoes and sunglasses have been marketed as more enduring, versatile purchases. Plus, there’s no way, unless a person is wearing a recognizable Prada print, to know that he or she is for certain wearing a $1200 skirt. A luxury shoe or handbag has become a more easily attainable status symbol than say, a luxury car or a home in a wealthy town. Still, I’m not sure how Hermes is rushing to keep up with production of $25,000 Birkin bags, but I digress.

I’ll be curious to see what limit luxury accessories brands will push consumers to before their current pricing strategy ceases to work. As I work on my own line, I see how expensive it is to work with European fabrics and manufacturers, but I’m trying not to hand those costs on to my customer when we launch, or worse yet to exploit my customer by charging far more than the cost of producing the good.

Textile Intelligence: Richard Saja of Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Richard Saja's Historically Inaccurate hand-embroidered toile

I found Richard Saja and his work through an editorial piece in Elle Décor last year. His hand-embroidered toiles just jumped off the page, and I knew I had to get in touch. I’ve always been a fan of French Toile de Jouy prints, and I loved the way that Mr. Saja was able to play off of them in a humorous, clever and skillful way. He’s partnered with brands like Opening Ceremony and Hello Kitty, and has new large-scale tapestry and apparel projects on the horizon. In addition to his more commercial work, Mr. Saja’s pieces have been acquired by museums like the Shelburne in Vermont and restaurants such Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. The name of his company, Historically Inaccurate, really captures both the reverence and irreverence that goes into his art. A few months ago, I traveled out to Queens to Mr. Saja’s studio to meet the artist and check out his inspiring, beautiful work and the techniques that go into producing it.

TP: Can you tell me about this amazing home?

RS: In Sicily, two brothers married two sisters, and came to America. Because of the double connection, they raised their families together. Three of the adults went to work and one mother took care of all of the children from both of the families. My Aunt Mary, whom I live with, is 99 and her mother used to sew costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. Mary always wanted to be a nurse, but somehow she followed in her mother’s footsteps and she became a designer’s assistant. Her first job was working for Elsa Schiaparelli. So for her entire life, she was a designer’s assistant. People loved her, and she worked until she was 83. She was so good at what she did that people didn’t want her to retire! I think I take after that side of the family. Her father was a woodworker who did all the furniture in the house; that part of the family was very creative.

Richard Saja pillow

TP: How did you come to start Historically Inaccurate?

RS: After high school, I studied surface design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I didn’t matriculate; I just took a couple classes because I was really interested in fabric, pattern and texture. My friend and I started a very small, limited edition line back then called Three Laughing Hermaphrodites. We went our separate ways and I started getting into ceramics and moved to Santa Fe. While I was there, a friend at St. John’s suggested I sit in on some on of his classes. I did, and I was just completely blown away by their approach to education. All of the classes are discussion format, taught around a round table. So I applied and went there for four years, and loved it.

I ended up moving back to the East Coast, taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator, and got a job as an assistant art director at an advertising agency, where I worked for two years. One day shortly after, while I was walking along North Beach in San Francisco with a really good friend, discussing how we both loved textiles so much, she suggested we start something. We founded a cushion company and gave ourselves a year to do it; she was the business end, and I was the creative end. The initial concept was to do ten different styles where it looked like different people had created each of them, even though I was the designer.

We launched the line at the International Gift Fair, and right out of the gates, the hand-embroidered toile got a lot of attention. It seems like such an easy, simple, basic idea and yet, no one had really done it. So my friend and I ran the cushion business for a few years and then she moved to Vermont and I just decided to take our company tagline and make it my own company’s name: Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts. I decided when we split ways that my work was just going to be about handmade. Up until really recently, I stuck to that. I’ve begun to explore the machine weaving process because there are incredible possibilities that I can see in the technology.

One of the next things for me is to do massive tapestries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art just acquired a three-yard piece of my Sideshow Toile to bring into their permanent collection. My friend did all of the drawings, and I pieced them all together and turned them into a toile print. What I’m going to do is go through their collection of toiles and really start collaging the prints together and making my own prints or tapestries based on historic toiles.

TP: What drew you to toile?

RS: Toile was first created in Jouy, France. It was the first mechanically replicated textile print. What we call toile now actually means two different things. There’s a representational pattern I usually use that’s referred to as The Pleasure of the Four Seasons print. Traditionally, people on these prints are depicted dancing around a maypole, being pulled on a horse-drawn carriage, rowing a boat, just enjoying a land and life. That being said, that print has gone through hundreds of iterations and permutations since the 18th Century. Basically, what people do is draw their own versions of the same print. The other toile is a strange, abstract floral print.

Toiles have become less available, even in the last ten years that I’ve been working with them. There are only a few fabric houses that still produce them. Unfortunately, quality is just not there a lot of the time. It’s not a pleasure for me to spend all this time stitching something on an inferior fabric; it just doesn’t make sense.

The simplicity of the toile concept appeals to many different worlds from high design to mass market to indie companies like Opening Ceremony, whom I partnered with last year on some limited edition sneakers. That collaboration was great because it opened my work up to a whole different crowd of people. All of a sudden, high design apparel people were into the stuff.

Saja's hand-embroidered sneakers for Opening Ceremony

TP: What’s the underlying emotion behind your embroidery on the toile?

RS: People really seem to like the humor. There have been times when people have requested that I go in a more vulgar direction and I’m just not interested in that. Part of my work is irreverence, so there’s cheekiness, but I don’t ever think it’s disrespectful.

TP: Do you have any dream projects?

RS: I just spent a day as a guest at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. It was Marjorie Merriwether Post’s house. She was the heiress to the General Foods empire. She had an incredible collection of Cartier jewelry, Fabergé pieces, a lot of Russian Imperial art, things just encrusted with of diamonds. At the end of my tour, the COO of the museum said she’d really like to work with me on something. I think I’d like to just take something from their collection and respond to it in my own way and maybe do an installation piece in a building on the grounds there. I think the next year will be about the large-scale tapestries, additional production work, and taking a more installation-based approach to textile art. There are also some fashion projects coming up too, which I’d like to put under the name Hysterically Inadequate.

Embroidery Thread

Truth Plus Talks: On the Issue of Newness

March 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

Is just plain pretty old news? Christian Dior Fall 2012

“The responsibility is no longer just about making a nice piece,” Elbaz said in a preview. ” you have the responsibility, on one hand, to work on the vision, so you have to bring the newness, and it also has to have a zipper. How do you work with both?” (WWD, 3/5/12)

Following along with this season’s Fashion’s Month, I’ve been struck time and time again by seeing the term “newness” in reviews and reports.Yes, what’s new and next is inherent to fashion; it’s why we look to the runways and presentations to begin with. But when newness is forced or newness produces clothing that is difficult to wear for a large swathe of potential customers, what is the implication of pushing designers to create newness in the first place?

Personally, the runway clothes I find myself reacting most positively to are made of the finest and rarest fabrics on earth, in flattering silhouettes, and in exciting new colors. The newness comes from a difference in silhouette, a slight alteration to a style that’s worked in the past and that can be refreshed now, and gorgeous craftsmanship or embellishment. In the past ten or fifteen years, designers have used technological innovations to fundamentally alter natural and synthetic fibers. In previous eras, during the textile R and D heyday of companies like DuPont, new fabrics were created to benefit the wearer, to make her warmer, slimmer, or to make garments easier for her to machine-wash. Now, the hyper-treated fabrics developed by designers are meant to mimic rubber, bondage and even parachutes. Cool, yes; helpful to the wearer, perhaps not.

This Paris Fashion Week, Bill Gaytten, who worked under John Galliano for many years, and has been at the helm of the house since Galliano was let go, was lambasted yet again for a show that did not present newness. Yet, his previous couture collection and this Fall 2012 were unquestionably lovely.  Even, dare I say, wearable. Maybe he’s not “taking the house forward” or showing us his “vision”, but he is turning out fabulously beautiful, luxurious and expensive clothes that women who can afford them can actually consider buying. I’ve seen the images from the show appear on fashion and home design blogs since the clothes went down the runway, so I know that not everyone thought the collection was a total disaster. The clothes are true to Dior’s ever-popular New Look and the the house’s romantic personality. They are more practical than fanciful, and Dior’s apparel sales are reportedly on the rise. Still, fashion cognescenti are prodding LVMH to replace him for someone more artistic or more forward-thinking. I’m not sure which makes more sense.

Rediscovering Retail’s Past: Ohrbach’s

March 2, 2012 § 18 Comments

Ohrbach's Department Store

I’ve always loved to hear my mom tell me about the NYC department stores she grew up being taken to by my grandmother. Many of the stores she brings up, such as Gimbel’s, B. Altman and Ohrbach’s,  were situated on 34th Street, where H and M, Gap and Zara now reside. It’s difficult to imagine what a shopping experience might have been like then, only a few decades ago, versus the mad dash for fast fashion that currently exists in that area. In any case, our chat led me to look into Ohrbach’s history and to try to find some images of the store my mom could so vividly recall as being one of her favorites. Some of these images are small, but they’re a nice peek inside Ohrbach’s.

Ohrbach's Department Store, 34th St.

Ohrbach's Infant Wear Department

The pictures above show Ohrbach’s 34th Street store, but it wasn’t their original location. Nathan Ohrbach and his partner, dress manufacturer, Max Wiesen, opened their first location in less-tony Union Square in 1923. Famed architect Paul Laszlo designed Ohrbach’s original location, as well as many of their following stores. After an early falling out between partners, Wiesen sold his stake in the company, and Ohrbach continued on with expansion plans. The NYC location actually remained in its original spot until 1954, when it moved to 34th Street,  to a space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Ohrbach's Coffee Shop

Ohrbach's Shoe Department

Prior to opening the 34th St. store, Ohrbach had opened stores in California, beginning in 1945. They had  a conservative approach, leasing three floors and a mezzanine on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, where stores like Desmond’s, Silverwood’s, May Company, Seibu and Coulter’s were situated. Ohrbach’s succeeded in the smaller location, and went on to open stores in Downtown LA, La Mirada, Panorama City and Cerritos. Jerome Ohrbach, Nathan’s son, had been largely responsible for the company’s westward expansion.

Nathan Ohrbach was known for his sales and marketing techniques. Instead of the high level of service often associated with historic department stores, Ohrbach’s used a more minimal business strategy, and sold their goods on cleverly organized tables and racks. Over time, Ohrbach moved into higher-priced merchandise and sales tactics, but continued to price his goods with even numbers, compared to the odd ones his competitors used, and to keep a close eye on overhead. When the NYC store opened, Ohrbach lured in customers by selling “French Couture Originals,” copies of runway fashions that had been shown in Paris only a few months earlier, by appointment. Here is a link to a fantastic archived piece from the NY Times, which reported on the arrival of these licensed copies at the 34th St. store. It’s a bit easier for me to understand this kind of excitement for affordable, wearable and luxurious clothes, rather than the lines to see Lady Gaga’s wonderland at Barney’s that appeared this past Christmas here in NYC.

Ohrbach's Ad, 1964

French Couture Originals at Ohrbach's

Like so many other historic department stores, things got more complicated around the time that the founder retired. The Brenninkmeyer Company of the Netherlands began buying shares in Ohrbach’s in 1962, and had complete control of the company by 1965, when Nathan Ohrbach retired. Brenninkmeyer opened stores in Newark and in Bergen County. The Newark store failed rather quickly and operations were folded back into the Bergen and NYC offices and stores.  The California stores and the New York store, which changed ownership many times in later years, were closed in 1986. The final owner, Amcena, reopened some of the locations as Steinbach department stores.




Fashion’s Future: Too Big To Fail?

February 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

Call me crazy, but I tend to bristle when I read about Michael Kors’ plan for retail world domination, about pressure on Tory Burch to go public and about Sonia Rykiel’s perhaps desperate hopes for expansion via a sale of a majority stake of her company to Fung brands. It’s exciting to see brands succeed and become wildly popular, but is there ever a point of no return?

In the past, I’d have said no. Licensing, partnerships, extensive retail reach; what could be bad about any positive expansion of a company that employed people, produced good product, and that was constant about its message across various price points? Again, in the past, I’d have found little fault with this strategy; now I’ve begun to have a change of heart.

Previous to the past 5 to 10 years, to social media, emerging brand platforms, Fashion Week mania and Project Runway, the apparel and accessories markets were smaller, and in some ways clearer. A brand could define its aesthetic, its position in the market and its basic plans for future growth. We remember historic brands because of their defining ‘look’, for the stores they sold at, and for the lifestyles their founders led.

Now, with the constant buzz of media, brands feel more pressure than ever to try to capture as much market share as possible, and by any means. There are never-ending opportunities for publicity, co-branded partnerships and lower-priced licenses. Don’t get me wrong; these things are not intrinsically detrimental, rather it feels like fewer brands are being choosy about growth strategy and instead embracing a ‘do everything all at once’ mentality.

It’s quite true that licensing can provide the kind of cash flow that young designers can only dream of. Target changed the landscape for small designers and has done a great job creating quality co-branded product and educating the public about less prominent fashion companies. But Target is now just the tip of the partnership iceberg; we’ve seen variations on their model in the years since they began their licensing program, and we’ve yet to see the expected partnership platform potential of Ron Johnson at J.C. Penney.

The originator of success via licensing is of course Ralph Lauren. Ralph was ahead of his time in terms of a crystalline brand identity, a multi-tiered price strategy, and a single-minded perfectionist standard by which his products have had to live by. I’m not sure anyone will ever match that level of vision, consistency or timing. Both production practices and retail markets domestically and internationally have changed drastically since Ralph set out in the 1970s, and it seems much harder to predict the path a brand will travel or where the end of its line will be.

Speaking of production standards, in this moment of enthusiasm for American manufacturing, is it too much to ask the major American brands of today to consider where and how their products are produced? Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and others project an image of rich Americana, of lush 70s bohemia, of sporty tennis breaks in the Hamptons. How does growing an American-identifying brand play against the reality of producing overseas for greater profit?

I’ve said before that I admire Marc Jacobs’ brand trajectory; he and MJ President Robert Duffy have managed to preserve high-end exclusivity, to sell at various price points with definite differences in look and quality between them, and to mix high and low product in their stores. It’s a model many have tried to copy, and few have been able to replicate. Jacobs and Duffy seem to have that sense of standard and of market understanding that have allowed their brand to flourish and to make an impact at various levels.

Michael Kors has been successful to-date with a similar model to Jacob’s. He has high-end stores dedicated to luxury product, as well as some stores that mix his signature line with the lower-priced Michael Michael Kors brand. He also has a sizeable wholesale business for each line. But MK President John Idol’s remarks a few weeks ago in WWD) worry me:

The fast-growing company plans to open about 30 to 40 more stores in North America, 10 to 15 stores in Europe and 10 in Japan in fiscal 2013, said Idol. (Lockwood, WWD, 2/15/12)

There was a large payoff from the company’s recent IPO, and now there’s serious pressure to keep going, to keep reaching new and untapped markets. But is Kors’ brand strong enough to endure this kind of pressure from less fashion-savvy shareholders? Can he stretch his vision across cultures and across mediums further and further? How many stores can a brand really sustain? How many potential customers before it loses its essence?

As someone who is on the cusp of launching a new business, these are all questions I’m asking myself in a different way than when I worked for or with other brands. I want to be careful about everything, even my aspirations for growth. It’s got to be done carefully.




Odell’s Advice

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Turning a label into a business that can stage a show deserving of the industry’s energy is a years-long process, a very small part of which is devoted to actually designing clothing. Sustaining a business and forging relationships with the industry’s veteran players is an exhausting dance that few designers relish, and even fewer master. (Odell, NY Mag, 2/15/12)

Amy Odell, the witty writer of NY Mag’s fashion blog, The Cut, is on her way out of her job, and moving onto a new one where I think she’ll take many of her readers. I do think it’s very cool that she chose to write the attached piece as one of her last at the magazine. Fashion Week has gotten busier and busier over past seasons, with smaller and more unknown designers trying to grab their piece of the media attention pie. But the ROI on Fashion Week for a young and undercapitalized apparel business is not high; editors and bloggers may help a designer to gain recognition, but not always immediate dollars. Perhaps in the past, when department store buyers outnumbered the editors, a fashion show might have had a more substantial financial return. But now, what a young designer can hope for is the attendance of a few choice retailers, editors and bloggers that might further his or her career. But when so many shows appear on the Fashion Week schedule,  and industry heavyweights must attend those of their faithful advertisers and favorite designers, new or newer names can get lost in the mix. I recognize that it’s so many designers’ dreams to show on the runway or at a presentation, but like the article, I’d recommend you have your finances in order and more than a few seasons under your belt before you take the Fashion Week plunge.



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