Monday, June 09, 2008

Troubling 'Times’

Forever 21 black and white spectator ‘Ollie’ oxford pumps

Just when you thought the economic outlook could not get any worse, the Dow Jones plummeted, the unemployment rate surged to an all time high rate of 5.5 percent, and the price of oil rose to a record breaking $140 a barrel. To say this is a difficult time for businesses of all kinds (particularly fashion retail), is an understatement.

And so it couldn’t have more perfect timing for “Retail’s Moment of Redefinition” (in the consumer century), last week’s Fashion Group International event which gave new meaning to the phrase, “retail therapy”. The mission of this reception, luncheon, and presentation, was to explore why merchandising for a mass consumer audience no longer works, forecast business for the remainder of the decade, to examine the ever changing shopping habits of the consumer, the effects of globalization on the market place, and the way in which the current recession is impacting on retail.

The highlight of the event was a panel discussion moderated by Joyce Greenberg, Managing Director, Financo, INC, with panelists Rick Darling, President, LI & Fung, Chris Lee, Senior Vice President, Forever 21 (which Ms. Greenberg hailed as the “king of U.S. fashion with huge global aspirations”), and Diane Hamilton, President & COO, Brooks Brothers (“THE iconic brand” according to Ms. Greenberg).

To kick things off, Robin Lewis, Vice President, Head of Retail Vertical, Vantage Marketplace LLC, delivered his “Economic Overview”. While it was dubbed ominously, "The Perfect Storm” (he explained that currently, there are three weather fronts colliding for that ‘perfect storm’: 1- Sub prime mortgage meltdown, 2-Decelerating GDP Growth, 3-Decelerating income), he was intent on injecting some lightheartedness into the sobering proceedings, seemed intent on seeing that fictional glass ‘half full’ and repeatedly sought to find some “good news” within the bad.. For example, when he was first introduced, he joked that “the good news is that I’m not an accountant” and when he quoted Alan Greenspan, who reported that there’s a “better than 50% chance" we are headed for a recession, Mr. Lewis noted that “we might avoid a technical recession”. And even if we don’t, the “good news” is that we will “finally get rid of some of the excess and reach a balance between supply and demand”.

But perhaps the key point he made is that “the consumer is in charge” and he outlined some behavioral shifts the retailer should understand (these were displayed in large letters on a monitor behind him, summarzied as ‘From’ and ‘To’). The way he sees it, the shift is ‘from’ needing stuff ‘to’ demanding experiences, ‘from’ conformity ‘to’ customization, ‘from’ plutocracy ‘to’ democracy, ‘from’ new ‘to’ new and now”. That’s where the idea of ‘fast fashion’ comes in. As he observed, “It’s a Zaro world and a Forever 21 world. It’s an Internet world, and it’s a world of new products and new services 24/7”.

He then listed 6 key points for an “Emerging New Business Mode” (1- Traditional retail is evolving to a hybrid specialty chain model, 2- There are 'mini' formats for many neighborhoods (the internet, catalogue, and other direct channels of opportunity), 3-Traditional wholesalers are integrating forward, 4- Niche branding by specialty chain brands, 5- Accelerated brand proliferation and new lifestyle cycles (continuous rapid innovation and differentiation), 6- Going global. And then he announced a "new business paradigm" which is exemplified by the fact that the “the consumer has the power of access and control and the supplier has need for access and control” .

This was a perfect segue into the panel discussion that followed. Rick Darling enumerated on four major trends which are making a difference: 1- "globalization of sourcing, 2- the economies of the world are very much in sync, 3- international retailers are entering markets they had once been afraid to enter; 4- it's all about differentiation (exclusive brands for retailers). Chris Lee proudly described Forever 21, founded in 1984, as a "fast food department store", somewhat akin to a "candy store" with "Wal-Mart prices". They made 1.3 billion last year and their goal is to "get the best merchandise as quickly as possible" and as such, they compete with H&M and Target. When asked asked by a member of the audience if there is a 'target' age group, he wisely answered that "the 21st century is about lifstyle, it's not about age." Indeed it is. My most favorite recent purchase was acquired through They are a pair of wonderfully distinctive black and white spectator ‘Ollie’ oxford pumps which are comfortable enough to really walk in since they sport a chunky 1 1/2 inch heel, never fail to illicit compliments, and cost a mere $20. Now, that's what I call ‘retail therapy’, recession or not.

As part of their expansion plans, they are building malls in South Korea and getting more into menswear (this will give the guys who shop with their girlfriends, wives, etc., something to buy.

Expansion plans also figure prominently in Brooks Brother's future. According to Diane Hamilton, it's all about "the history of a true American icon" (the company was founded in 1818 and they are celebrating their 190th anniversary). She admits the biggest challenge she is faced with is how to "redefine an iconic brand" which is known for offering a "high quality product at good value for our customers". Ms. Hamilton admitted that attempts to change it's identity in the 70's, 80's, and 90's were unsuccessful. She said the new Black Fleece Collection by Thome Browne, (a "better luxury brand") is doing well, and so are the brand's 100 regular price retail stores in the U.S. (though outlet business "continues to be strong"). In the final analysis, it's customer relationships that are "major" .Happily, their customer has "given them the go ahead to expand brands" (so expect to see men's and women's fragrances, among other things, in the future).

A New York Times Gaffe...

By the way, speaking of troubling 'times' (and in this case I mean that literally)...perhaps one can blame it on disorientation caused by the horrible state of the economy, the suffering heat wave, or the distraction of two climbers who (within two hours) ‘scaled’ the heights of The New York Times building on Friday….but still, none of the above can explain or condone the glaring typo that I found in the Evening Hours section of ‘Sunday Styles’. In the -column showing pictures from last Monday’s CFDA Awards, one guest, Mara Hutton was described as wearing a “vintage Jeffrey Beene”. We all make mistakes for sure…but how someone at the NYT did not catch this is unbelievable. I showed this to a friend who is not even involved in the fashion business, and she caught the mistake immediately. I'm sure there were a lot of red faces on Sunday morning -- and not from the heat of the day.

- Marilyn Kirschner

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

“I knew Yves Saint Laurent, and you’re no Yves Saint Laurent”

There was only one Yves Saint Laurent and there will never be another. While there are talents and visionaries to be sure (and a new generation of promising torch bearers), sadly, too many of today’s ‘designers’ don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Yves, Unfortunately, some are little more than overly hyped pretty boy (or girl) posers, egocentric control freaks with no talent, and blatant copycats with no original thoughts of their own (but who have at their disposal powerful publicists with lots of muscle).

And talk about timing. As if to heighten this reality and exaggerate the situation, on Monday evening, just as the eyes of the fashion world were to be focused on the ‘best of the best’ (the honorees, nominees, and recipients of the 2008 CFDA Awards), the one name that loomed large over the New York Public Library, casting its magic spell, was that of Yves Saint Laurent.

Diane von Furstenberg in a vintage black YSL tuxedo pantsuit

So influential and revered was this fashion legend, that WWD needed two consecutive issues (on Monday and Tuesday) to cover the news of his death, and chronicle his life and legacy. In addition to quotes from designers, social figures, and celebrities, who weighed in on what Yves meant to them, WWD ran some of YSL’s musings through the years. My favorites included:

“So they have crowned me king. Look what happened to all the other kings in France.” 1968

“In the future, men and women will dress more and more alike. I want to create clothes for women like men’s clothes.” 1968

“Classics continue all the time because they have style, not ‘fashion.’” 1981

“I have said before that the most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.” 1978

“I’m happy to be copied, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job well.” 1998; “I have always done black. I don’t do ‘message’ couture.” 1968

“What a woman needs is a black turtleneck sweater, a straight skirt and a man to love her.”, 1989

His chic, elegant, intelligent muse was one who exhibited strength of character and true personal style and, as such, could not be more further removed from the self consciously mass produced, ‘sexy’ IT bag, stiletto heeled trio starring in “Sex and the City”, (a movie which met with rather unfavorable reviews but nonetheless found itself in first place after débuting this weekend. Further proof that public taste is, well, questionable at best).

With his innate fashion radar, faultless taste level, brilliant color sense, and master’s eye, Yves elevated street wear to couture and perfected wardrobe basics like trench coats, pea jackets, trousers and sweaters, bow tie blouses, safari shirts, black turtlenecks, leopard prints. Sounds like your closet? It sure sounds like mine. Speaking of which, would somebody please ‘reinterpret’ that iconic lace-up safari shirt modeled by Betty Catroux? (Actually, didn’t Banana Republic come out with one several years ago? Maybe it’s time to do it again!)

As if to perfectly illustrate the inherent modernity and ‘forever’ appeal of what Yves has proposed through the decades, all those attendees at the CFDA Awards who apparently changed their minds at the last moment and chose to pay homage to the designer by wearing vintage YSL or something in keeping with his fashion credo, not only looked better than anyone else but, looked better than ever. That includes Naomi Campbell in a vintage YSL long sleeved black sheer blouse and very au courant black pailleted ‘harem’ pants; Carolina Herrera in a white ‘le smoking’ of her own design; Ashley Olsen (who normally looks like a sad sack but looked terrific and pulled together in a Calvin Klein Collection black ‘le smoking’ worn with a white shirt); and, last but not least, CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg, who eschewed her signature busy prints in favor of a vintage black YSL tuxedo pantsuit. The androgyny of the pantsuit offset her curly mane perfectly and quite frankly, it’s the best I’ve seen her look in a long time. What a fitting tribute and testimony.

While the evening witnessed a true mixed bag in terms of fashion statements, one woman who was a disappointment to me was Anna Wintour. The editor-in-chief has her pick of anything and everything yet, I found her dress label unknown though I assume it’s by an American designer) to be rather boring and unexciting. Though she is always consistent, which is fine, I would love to see her break the mold just once and go against type. With her severe bob, she would have looked amazing clad in a fabulous tuxedo pantsuit with her nude nails painted red. Tres chic!

Mark my words, Yves Saint Laurent and his legend will loom large over the spring 2009 collections shown in the fall and there will be renewed interest in chic tailleur and timeless classics.

-Marilyn Kirschner
CFDA 2008 Fashion Awards

Photos from the Red Carpet by Randy Brooke.

Anna Wintour

This year the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards was sponsored by Swarovski. Monday was sunny and balmy but crystals and purple rained on the red carpet that evening. One of the first to arrive was Miss Swarovski in an all black cocktail dress and her signature crystals worn as accessories. Many of the guests honored the official sponsor of this year's event by wearing the famous crystals as well.

Marc Jacobs & Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham was wearing a Marc Jacobs (very) short dress made of a myriad of black applique organdi hearts. Carolina Herrera was in an all white tuxedo suit, while Lauren Hutton wore an all grey jumpsuit and cover-up. Eva Longoria-Parker sported a cocktail dress of a pale raspberry fabric adorned with off-white beads at the bustier line. Eva Mendes was elegant in her long and sleek white gown by Francesco Costa.

Ralph Lauren & Wife

Mrs. Ralph Lauren wore a graceful long and pale blue dress adorned with delicate flowers. Maggie Gyllenwaal was in a green-and-black checkerboard tunic by Proenza Schouler. Emcee of the evening Fran Lebowitz wore an all-white tuxedo from "her favorite London tailors". As for CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg, she wore a vintage Yves Saint Laurent black tuxedo, paying a vibrant homage to the designer who just passed away. Anna Wintour was in a short gold lame cocktail dress.

Stan Herman & Lauren Hutton

And speaking of the men, Isaac Mizrahi wore a black tuxedo, waxed hair and shiny black sandals that showed his painted toenails while Tom Ford, elegant as usual, wore a black tuxedo and white shirt. And Stan Herman just looked great -- also as usual.

Carol Alt

The M.O. of the night had to be "purple". Seen wearing the color were Erin Lauder in a flowing short purple dress, Carol Alt in a long purple gown with a side slit, Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live) in a purple dress with flowers cascading down . Lil' Kim wore a short purple dress cinched at the waist while Behnaz Sarapfour wore a stunning purple dress. Hillary Duff wore a sequined purple dress by Michael Kors, Tory Burch sported a long purple dress of her own design, Diana Taylor in a Ralph Lauren design. It was a purple rain, no less. The color was almost everywhere, either as the main color of the outfit or as an accessory.

Hillary Duff

In this writer's opinion, the most outstanding dress had to be the one worn by Hillary Duff. Michael Kors' design was simple, yet highly effective. The combination of the fabric and the clinging lines made for a beautiful, elegant and very sexy dress that Ms Duff wore very well.

Unfortunately, the worst part of the evening was the relatively small space allocated to the working press and the lack of help or directions when I first checked in. I struggled just to keep my "PRESS" sticker from falling off me.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg & Diana Taylor

So if you have not heard already, the winners of this year's CFDA awards are : Francesco Costa (womenswear designer for the second time, quite an achievement),Tom Ford (for menswear) Tory Burch (for accessories). As for Carolina Herrera, she accepted an award for her lifetime contribution to the industry. Candy Pratts Price received this year's Eugenia Sheppard Award. The International Award went to Dries Van Noten, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given the CFDA's Board of Directors' Special Tribute. The Swarovski awards for emerging talent went to Kate and Laura Mulleavy for Rodarte for Womenswear, Scott Sternberg for Band of Outsiders for Menswear and Philip Crangi for Accessory Design.

- Muriel Geny-Triffaut