WALL STREET JOURNAL | SUZANNE KAPNER Makers of luxury handbags may need to let customers keep a little more in their pocketbooks.
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WALL STREET JOURNAL | SUZANNE KAPNER Makers of luxury handbags may need to let customers keep a little more in their pocketbooks.
WALL STREET JOURNAL | ELISA LIPSKY-KARASZ DOMENICO DOLCE ’S earliest memories of growing up in the ancient Sicilian town of Polizzi Generosa are of napping in his father’s tailoring shop, warmed by the heat of a coal stove.
WALL STREET JOURNAL | CHRISTINA BINKLEY When Melissa Beste moved into Jason Wu ’s offices on West 35th Street in New York this fall, she quickly noted the fashion designer was spending too much time directing sales, budget and merchandising activities at his eponymous label.
WSJ | Christina Binkley Fashion has a new enfant terrible in Philipp Plein, a German designer-entrepreneur who compares his artistic aspirations to those of English artist and celebrity Damien Hirst. Mr. Plein has stormed Europe and Asia with his rock ’n’ roll fashions, such as moto jackets embellished with crystal-studded skulls.
When Michelle Obama steps out at Monday night's inaugural galas, life will change for at least one person who is unlikely to be in the room: her gown's designer. Accolades will flow, if the past is any guide, and morning television shows will race for the first interview. The designer's current collection should quickly sell out.
Despite a strict policy against commenting on her clothes, Mrs. Obama has become her generation's most impactful fashion muse. Already, the fashion industry is trying to horn in on the spotlight she will generate next week.
Retailer White House | Black Market this month introduced a limited-edition "inaugural-inspired" dress collection of nine beaded gowns and cocktail-length numbers—priced accessibly between $250 and $300. Aiming to grab some publicity from Mrs. Obama's jewel choices, the Gemological Institute of America speculated that she would wear emeralds at the inauguration because color experts Pantone declared emerald to be Color of the Year for 2013.
The fashion world is abuzz with gossip about which designers Mrs. Obama will wear on Monday. Naeem Kahn is being mentioned as a contender for her gown. Jimmy Choo is considered a shoe-in for her heels.
Consumers paid little attention to Laura Bush's steady diet of Oscar de la Renta suits, and few emulated Hillary Clinton's tailored-pantsuit wardrobe. Those choices fit the women's roles as Washington, D.C., figures and were priced beyond reach for most people.
But Mrs. Obama wore a Gap sweater to lunch with Nancy Reagan and also introduced the world to Jason Wu's $1,500 dresses, influencing the way women dress at work. Her risk-taking has led many women to incorporate more feminine dresses and blouses into their power wardrobes and to don soft cardigans in place of traditional suit jackets at the office.
Most first ladies "fall into the trap of dressing to fit in," says Kate Betts, a fashion editor who wrote one of a bevy of books on Mrs. Obama's fashions, titled "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style." "She took the opposite tack: She dressed to stand out."
Entire brands—such as J. Crew, which Mrs. Obama wore on David Letterman's show—have soared on the draft from her patronage. "She's almost to the point of launching collections," says fashion-industry investment consultant Robert Burke, noting that what Mrs. Obama wears sells out, even if it isn't widely available for weeks or months later.
Political kerfuffles have broken out over some of her fashion decisions, often because she breaks with traditional symbolism. Many people were outraged at her decision to wear a non-American label—the British Alexander McQueen's full red gown—to a state dinner for the Chinese president in early 2011. And she made headlines by wearing a cardigan to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Though the cardigan was by Paris couturier Azzedine Alaia, many deemed the choice too casual for a royal moment.
Amid her frequent donning of down-to-earth Gap and J. Crew clothes, critics found fault when Mrs. Obama once wore Lanvin sneakers—priced at an estimated $540—to a food bank.
Mrs. Obama supersedes even A-list celebrities and the future queen of England in her fashion impact, Mr. Burke says. "Kate Middleton has global influence, but she's not as fashionable," he says. And because Mrs. Obama cultivates an every-woman persona, he says, "Unlike Lady Gaga, women can relate to her."
Fashion executives have taken to including photos of Mrs. Obama wearing their brands' clothing when they prepare investment packages for bankers and private-equity investors, Mr. Burke says.
The first lady's patronage doesn't necessarily lead to stardom. Chicago designer Maria Pinto went out of business despite a long association with Mrs. Obama. Isabel Toledo, who designed Mrs. Obama's yellow coat and dress for the last inaugural swearing-in, isn't much more famous now than she was before January 2009.
But if you know who Mr. Wu is, it is probably because Mrs. Obama chose his one-shouldered white gown to wear on inaugural night in 2009. Mr. Wu's business savvy helped him capitalize on the attention, making him a go-to designer. He is now so closely associated with the first lady that he is seeking to branch out.
"There has been so much press on him dressing the first lady," said his spokeswoman, Anne Fahey, in a polite refusal to discuss Mrs. Obama's fashion, "and we would like to try to keep the focus on what he is currently doing."
This inauguration heralds another four years of Prabal Gurung, Thakoon, Loree Rodkin jewelry and other fashion brand sightings in Mrs. Obama's public appearances. But the first lady's actual influence may last even longer because her approach has crept muselike into the way designers think.
"She's in my head all the time," says New York designer Sophie Theallet, whose clothes Mrs. Obama has favored. "She represents the women I am dressing."
It takes more than a visionary eye for style to turn a fashion designer into a blockbuster brand. It takes a combination of right-brain creativity and left-brain execution.
For women's fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, it has meant hiring left-brain fashion-industry veteran Robert J. Wichser in May. The label tapped him to be chief executive and resident "suit" at the 15-year-old label. Mr. Wichser's mission is to help the Narciso Rodriguez label regain the business mojo that has eluded it in recent years.
The 51-year-old Mr. Rodriguez became famous overnight as designer of the sleek silk-crepe sheath Carolyn Bessette wore to marry John F. Kennedy Jr. in September 1996. Soon after, he launched his own women's fashion line and went on to be named the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Womenswear Designer of the Year twice, in 2002 and 2003.
Mr. Wichser (pronounced "wisher"), 62, is known as a Garment District fixer, an executive who can help a creative genius get his business act together. His recent projects include stints at Sean Combs's Sean John line and at the John Varvatos label, where Mr. Wichser helped evaluate prospective partners and position the label for a sale to private investors in April.
The suit, or businessman, is recognized as indispensable to a fashion designer's survival ever since the 1960s and '70s, when Yves Saint Laurent was a pioneer of the concept of an international fashion superbrand, in large part because of guidance from his left-brain partner, Pierre Bergé. More recently, Marc Jacobs, Mr. Rodriguez's generational peer, has achieved international sales and acclaim with his own left-brain business partner, Robert Duffy.
An exacting designer, Mr. Rodriguez is known for body-conscious dresses and blouses that skim the figure with the seductive ease of a negligee. But his label has floundered in recent years, stuck in narrow distribution because it has lacked the resources and breadth of offerings that help a designer achieve fast growth at retail.
"You see the success of other designers who have the good fortune to have a solid partner on the business side. It's what I've always desired," Mr. Rodriguez said in a recent interview at his New York studio. "I needed a person to build the brand, someone to grow the company."
Accessories are the name of the game in fashion today, whether it's shoes, bags, housewares or all of the above. And high-low collaborations with retailers, like the one between Target stores and Missoni last year are also increasingly a must. Narciso Rodriguez has had very few of either.
The designer has attempted to expand, and his 2003 fragrance launch was considered a success. But partnerships with two major financial backers, AeffeSpA AEF.MI 0.00% and the former Liz Claiborne Inc., collapsed in 2006 and in 2008, respectively, over disagreements on the brand's direction.
Kathy Kalesti, currently a consultant to small designer labels, was Mr. Rodriguez's 13-year business associate, vice president of merchandising, distribution and sales and then president when she left amicably, according to both sides, about a year after the Liz Claiborne connection ended.
Mr. Rodriguez "really needed someone to objectively come in and figure out how to move the company forward," Ms. Kalesti says. "I couldn't be that and be involved in the product and the wholesale and all of that. It's too big a nut without the right infrastructure."
"It all fell on Narciso's shoulders and there wasn't an infrastructure in place to support the growth of the business," Mr. Wichser says. "There wasn't that expertise within the company."
Mr. Rodriguez tried running the business on his own and concluded he was in over his head. He reached out to Mr. Wichser, hiring him for a three-month consulting stint. The two hit it off, and Mr. Wichser's three-month engagement turned into a year. He left Narciso Rodriguez for the John Varvatos gig, but returned in May as chief executive.
Since then, Mr. Rodriguez has launched shoe and handbag lines, an e-commerce store and, in November, a lower-priced collection with Kohl's stores. Mr. Rodriguez also has signed an agreement with Gap's GPS +0.08% Banana Republic to be a fashion adviser to the chain. His third women's fragrance is expected next year.
Robert Burke, a luxury-goods consultant, said Mr. Rodriguez was wise to get into fragrances back when he did, but his label still "has to make up for lost time" by expanding.
This is a difficult time to enter the competitive accessories market, which is crowded with established brands constantly looking to broaden their price ranges and audiences, as well as younger designers who have started pumping out accessories earlier in their careers. "I hope Bob is the person to do it," Mr. Burke says.
Mr. Rodriguez says he sees Mr. Wichser as more than a suit. "I had a wealth of sketches and ideas we were showing, and they were never being brought to market," Mr. Rodriguez says. "Bob helped pull together teams to help me make those accessories a business and identify the appropriate partners to make the product."
Some of Mr. Wichser's changes met with culture shock. He instituted weekly meetings with all departments, with Mr. Rodriguez's blessing. "Design needs to be in touch with production and sales," the designer says.
At the meetings, Mr. Wichser and Mr. Rodriguez articulated their vision for the company. Previously, Mr. Rodriguez said employees had a sense of the vision, but "Bob made it crystal clear to everyone."
The designer and the CEO met with retailers to get feedback, visited factories and sat in on sales meetings. They introduced fixed deadlines and schedules for everything, including the design process, so products would arrive on retail sales floors at the start of a shipping cycle rather than weeks after it had begun. This way, more merchandise can be sold at full price, with less discounting. "That had a major impact initially on improving the business," Mr. Wichser says.
Deliveries now arrive earlier, says Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York. "You can see the changes in supply-chain management."
Mr. Wichser said he made the decision to launch the shoes and handbags with Barneys, which has long carried the ready-to-wear collection, rather than a group of retailers buying small amounts here and there. He says he wanted one high-end retailer to make a significant commitment to the label in all product categories, with marketing and "real estate" on the sales floor. Barneys was willing.
Ms. Vitale says price points for the shoes "were a little higher than we would have liked," but overall Barneys has been pleased with sales of the accessories.
Narciso Rodriguez's Spring 2013 collection, shown at New York fashion week this fall, received the kind of raves the label was getting in its earliest days. But this time, the designer can't afford not to capitalize on the buzz.
Mr. Wichser said he aims to make Narciso Rodriguez "a major player in shoes and handbags," with accessories expected to become a bigger business for the label than ready-to-wear clothing. The company is looking at expanding into new areas, like eyewear, intimates, home merchandise and its own retail stores, Mr. Wichser says.
Mr. Rodriguez says he is happy so much has been accomplished in so little time. "It's great when you have someone who listens to what your vision is and makes it happen," the designer says. "There's a new energy at this company."
Fashion designer Jason Wu lovingly refers to a handbag, the Daphne, as one of his label's "classic bags." The bag isn't from decades or even years ago: It made its debut in stores last year. This "classic" represents the new, faster cycle of designer goods.
Mr. Wu, along with other young designer labels, are quickly adding collections of bags and shoes, launching secondary lines or small collections for other brands. Some are opening their own stores and expanding abroad much earlier than their predecessors did. In the process, they are upending fashion's playbook.
The voracious appetite for newness from retailers, fashion magazines and the fashion blogosphere is also pushing younger designer labels to grow up much faster than labels that launched in the 1980s and '90s. Unlike other industries, it isn't production breakthroughs spurring the pace of product launches. Instead, the change is more about the style sector's lightning-speed buzz factor: Today's wannabe is tomorrow's in-demand designer who is increasingly striking with new lines while the iron is hot.
By moving quickly, young labels also risk overexposure, diluting their reputations and, by having their hands in too many things too soon, sacrificing quality. Expanding into accessories and other categories also generally requires investment in staff and production, putting additional financial strain on these young often fledgling labels. The alternative is to sign up with a licensing partner and hope the product will be consistent with the designer's aesthetic and standards.
This faster pace will be on display at New York Fashion Week, which starts Thursday. Accessories have proven lucrative growth engines for the luxury-goods industry. While it has become customary for established designer labels with long careers to present accessories during this week, more recent fashion labels like those of Mr. Wu and Alexander Wang—who launched bags in 2008, just one year after debuting his women's collection—are cranking out accessories and splashily sending them down the runway.
Mr. Wu, 29-years-old, plans to debut a new line of bags on the runway Friday. He is known for a polished, ladylike style and presented his first ready-to wear-collection in 2006. Just two years later he launched a Resort collection in addition to Spring and Fall lines. His breakthrough moment arrived in January 2009, when first lady Michelle Obama wore a custom-made, ivory silk-chiffon Jason Wu gown to the inaugural balls. A flurry of activity followed, including an eyewear collection with Modo in fall 2009, two capsule collections—a sort of mini collaboration—for clothing line TSE, a nail-polish collaboration with CND and a cosmetics collaboration with Supreme Aupres in 2010. Mr. Wu's handbags and shoes debuted in stores in 2011. This year, he made a candle with Nest fragrances, as well as a collection of clothes, handbags and scarves for Target. His secondary line, Miss Wu, is set to arrive exclusively at Nordstrom stores in January. All the while, he produces four Jason Wu ready-to-wear collections a year.
"You can't just follow the path of designers before," Mr. Wu says of his generation of designers. "It was a different world then."
Marchesa, a label known for lush and intricate evening gowns, launched a diffusion, or secondary, line called Notte by Marchesa in 2006, two years after launching its main line. It has since launched a handbag line, wedding dresses, a tabletop collection with Lenox, and a limited-edition cosmetics collection with Le Métier de Beauté. The brand plans to launch a fragrance this week. A "contemporary line" featuring more daywear is set to debut in 2013.
Phillip Lim opened a New York store a little more than a year after debuting his women's line, 3.1 Phillip Lim, in 2005. Two stores, in Tokyo and Los Angeles, followed in 2008. The label then opened stores in Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong. The stores were partly a way for Phillip Lim to control the way he wanted his line to be presented.
"I'm not sure if we were supposed to do that or not," says Wen Zhou, chief executive of Phillip Lim, referring to the opening of a store so soon after launching. "We just said, 'we can do that.' We didn't look at other brands, at how they opened stores," she says. "It might seem fast or quick but it felt right at the time. We don't follow any playbook." The label launched bags and shoes early last year.
By contrast Narciso Rodriguez, in business with his own line since 1997, just launched shoes and bags earlier this year.Marc Jacobs, who launched his women's collection in 1986, opened his first store in 1997 and started selling a diffusion line, Marc by Marc Jacobs, in 2001. Donna Karan launched her separate DKNY line in 1989, four years after the debut of her main collection. She opened her first DKNY store in 1994 and her Donna Karan Collection store in 1996. (Donna Karan offered accessories from the beginning.)
To be sure, each fashion house has different reasons for the timing of, say, an accessories line or a store. Still, these days, it is the rare designer label that can afford to ignore accessories or other brand extensions.
"If you look at 15 years ago, you did your main line, after five years you do an accessories line, you could end up doing a secondary line and save the fragrances and sunglasses for the end of expansion," says Robert Burke, a luxury-goods consultant and a former fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "Today those rules don't apply," adds Mr. Burke, who has advised young labels including Mr. Wu's.
"People like Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani took a generation to develop their reputation in apparel before starting accessories. Now if somebody is hot very quickly, they want to exploit it pretty quick," says Arnold Aronson, managing director, retail strategies at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. "You can do it but you have to say to yourself is my career as a designer going to be a marathon or a 50-yard dash?"
Both Target and Nordstrom approached Mr. Wu about doing less-expensive lines a couple of years ago, but he declined, thinking the timing wasn't right, he says.
He eventually launched a line with Target, in February, which "showed me that there was really an appetite for my design," at lower prices, and making him reconsider the Nordstrom offer, he says.
"There are some things that I cannot or will not make for my collection because it would not be the right price point, like a T-shirt. [But] there was a price point I was not reaching," says Mr. Wu of the Nordstrom deal. Jason Wu's dresses average $1,595 while Miss Wu will reportedly range from about $200 to $800.
U.S. sales of women's bags and luggage rose 6% to $9.92 billion in the 12 months ended July 31, according to market researcher NPD. That compared with a 4% rise to about $108.28 billion for women's apparel. Sales of women's fashion shoes rose nearly 3% to $17.45 billion.
Mr. Wu says launching bags and shoes last year "allowed us to reach out to a broader audience that knows Jason Wu" but may not be able to comfortably afford his ready-to-wear clothes, where prices range from $595 for knitwear to $6,360 for an evening gown. By contrast, Jason Wu bags range in price from about $1,500 to about $3,000. Shoes cost $630 to $1,470.
Gustavo Rangel, Jason Wu's chief financial officer, says the label's shoes and bags already represented 17% of the closely held company's sales last year. He expects them to represent 25% of sales this year and 40% in the next few years.
Mr. Wu conceded that as a clothing designer, he lacked the skills to produce accessories. "I had to learn from the ground up," he says. He has since hired a two-person design team for accessories. The eyewear collection is licensed out.
Mr. Wu says he can appreciate some observers may feel he's juggling too many balls. "It's only too much when there's no market for what I do," he says. "If there's a legitimate market for Jason Wu, why not?"
Theia designer Don O'Neill has been having night sweats since December. His first-ever runway show is Wednesday, and things keep going wrong.
A week before the show, an important gown arrived with its elaborate embroidery completed perfectly—all on the wrong fabric. An Italian wool-jersey fabric shrunk dramatically each time it was ironed. Models have been chosen—and dropped out. "There are so many variables that are out of your control," says Mr. O'Neill. "All of those jigsaw pieces have to come together."
More than 300 designers are showing their collections on the runways this week in New York before the shows move on to Europe. That's more than will show in London, Milan and Paris put together. Chalk it up to American entrepreneurial spirit and the lack of a controlling body overseeing the shows. In Europe, major fashion weeks are governed by national councils that control who can show and when.
Fashion consultant Robert Burke estimates that out of the 308 labels showing in New York, only 40 have annual revenue of more than $10 million. That means the other 85% of labels are effectively mom-and-pops with big dreams.
Among the handful of first-timers hitting the runway this week are Theia, Billy Reid, Suno and Levi's.
Last year, Billy Reid, Suno and Theia held informal presentations for fashion editors and buyers instead. Jenne Lombardo, fashion director at Milk Made, a production house that backs emerging designers each season, says editors and buyers prefer presentations for their ease and speed. It takes an hour to see a 15-minute runway show, allowing time for the mechanics of seating and other preparations. But a 15-minute presentation takes just about that.
Even so, the allure of the runway is hard for designers to resist. Len Peltier, Levi's creative director concedes that he worries about seeming "presumptuous." "We're excited to launch something on the world stage," he says, but "we know we're not a high-fashion brand."
Runway shows create more opportunities for video, and photographers can snap pictures from risers at the end of the runway—making it easier for labels to use the show later in marketing.
But for all their promise, runway shows are full of heartache and fear. Mr. O'Neill, the designer of three-year-old Theia, has seen his designs on celebrities such as Angela Bassett and Taylor Swift. For his own show, he dreamed of a Plexiglas runway glimmering beneath the evening gowns for which the label is known. Then he had to nix the Plexiglas when the cost estimate arrived: $7,000. His runway will be covered in white carpet.
The designer, whose label is privately held, says he doesn't have a firm budget for the show, but he knows he shouldn't spend too much. He tries to cut corners where he can. The show is set to take place Wednesday afternoon at a venue 40 blocks from the Lincoln Center tents.
One job of a runway-collection designer is to wow the jaded fashion magazine editors in the audience. This crowd is looking for signals that a designer has buzz and artistic talent—and for ideas for their own pages. Often, pleasing them requires designs that are very different from what a designer might present to shoppers.
Yet Mr. O'Neill worries that in his haste to create dramatic fashions in fine fabrics, he may have created several too-costly looks, including a lambskin poncho with a Mongolian lamb collar. "Either I get fired after the show because I spent too much," he says, "or it'll be a huge success and I can keep my job."
Another faction to please with his collection: his sales team. "Why is it so dark?" asked one saleswoman, referring to a number of looks in black. "Because that's what I'm feeling," he said.
A week before his show, Mr. O'Neill said he had completed about half of the 30 looks he was aiming for.
Getting models has been a particular problem. Mr. O'Neill settles on a model, and then her agent warns her to hold out for a bigger label. "If you aren't Marc Jacobs, it's hard to get models. And I'm not Marc Jacobs," Mr. O'Neill says.
Despite the stress, Mr. O'Neill says he is counting on results. "There are some publications that won't even come look [at his presentations]. So I'm hoping that this will get their attention."
Being the lead designer has helped him look back with sympathy at his previous bosses at other brands, such as Carmen Marc Valvo. "At Carmen, I'm now understanding why he was how he was before a show," says Mr. O'Neill. " Very, very stressed out."
What comes between spring and fall? In the fashion world, it's not summer, it's "pre-fall." If all goes according to designers' and retailers' plans, it could be one of the most lucrative times of the year.
The term pre-fall refers to what used to be unglamorous, mostly commercial collections meant to tide shoppers over in between the big spring and fall seasons. They were typically filled with staples like sensible blazers, skirts and sweaters in unchallenging colors.
Pre-fall fashions were once low-key affairs, shown by private appointment—if the collections were shown at all.
But in the past few years, pre-fall has started stealing the spotlight with dramatic, red-carpet-ready looks and shows from high-profile designers including Oscar de la Renta and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel that are on par with the designers' spring and fall collections.
For the past month, designer labels have been showing their new collections for pre-fall 2012. After a pause for the holidays, there will be more presentations from big names like Givenchy, including shows in which models just stand rather than walk a runway.
That's partly because despite its silly-seeming name, pre-fall is serious business. Pre-fall designs begin arriving in stores in May and June—two to three months before fall clothes start arriving—and generally stay on the floor until January.
This means the clothes are generally sold at full price for longer than those from the fall collections, before being marked down.
"Resort" collections, which come in between fall and spring and generally start entering stores in November, have also been rising in prominence and revenue, but pre-fall's timing has given it more celebrity buzz.
The pre-fall shows coincide with the early-year entertainment awards ceremonies including the Golden Globes and the Grammys.
"These shows have become the perfect marketing vehicle for pre-fall," says luxury goods consultant Robert Burke. "You show it in December and it's on the red carpet in January and February and in stores in May."
Pre-fall, in terms of a fashion season, is supposed to start being worn somewhere around mid- to late-August and early- to mid-September. The timing presents a weather-temperature challenge for shoppers and retailers.
"When these pieces hit the store in June or July, depending on the part of the country, it can be 80 or 90 degrees, so we're not only looking for really wow emotional pieces for the fall season with fur and leather, but also for lighter weights" and lighter colors, says Colleen Sherin, senior women's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. It's something the retailer is especially concerned with as many of its stores are in the South, she says.
The in-between season also presents a challenge for designers. Michael Kors this month showed a coat worn with shorts, while Vera Wang showed dark-colored sleeveless fur coats and wool shrugs with light chiffon dresses in colorful spring-like prints. Mr. de la Renta showed short-sleeve outerwear and a silk merino "cardigan coat" with a mink collar.
The rise of mid-season collections began in earnest following the global recession of 2008, when even luxury shoppers stepped back from conspicuous spending. Retailers requested more deliveries from designer labels, hoping that rotating in more new merchandise would tempt shoppers to again open their pocketbooks.
Karl Lagerfeld's elaborate resort show in May 2010, held against the backdrop of Saint Tropez's harbor with models arriving by speedboat and celebrities like Diana Kruger flown in to sit front row, marked a watershed moment for these pre-season collections. Shortly after that, more designer labels put on shows or presentations and fashion magazines and websites eagerly covered them.
A spokeswoman for Oscar de la Renta, who showed 58 looks in his pre-fall runway show, said pre-fall is, in general, a big collection for the house "and very important sales-wise."
For Jason Wu, "the spring and fall collections are the main image drivers of the company," he says. But in terms of business, the pre-seasons are doing the heavy lifting.
For fall and winter, about 60% of orders from a group of key retailers is from the pre-fall collection, the designer says, while 40% is from the fall runway collection. Mr. Wu even took the opportunity during pre-fall to launch another bag line rather than wait until his fall collection.
With increasing up-to-the-second coverage, a trend shown on the runways for spring gets exhaustive exposure—and is worn by celebrities and tastemakers soon after the show is over. By the time that look reaches stores six or seven months later, it already looks and feels dated, says Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of Tobe, a New York-based trend-forecasting firm.
By January, "spring runway looks would have been worn already" by celebrities and personalities, says Mr. Wu.
That, of course, is a no-no for celebrities on the red carpet. For her appearance at the People's Choice Awards last January,Natalie Portman wore a button-front silk chiffon pleated dress from Mr. Wu's 2011 pre-fall collection.
Quick: Who is Vera Wang?
Hoping to alter the obvious answer—"bridal gown designer"—Ms. Wang is about to rebrand herself, moving deeper into ready-to-wear clothing. In an effort to earn greater regard—and profits—from the mainstream fashion audience, she will place her famous name on her midpriced line of ready-to-wear, which is now called "Lavender" and will be called "Vera Wang."
She is also broadening her reach in mass fashion with new lines of teen clothing and menswear. The moves, announced today and Thursday, include a line of rental tuxedos for Men's Wearhouse and a clothing brand called Princess, which will be sold at Kohl's.
The initiatives, part of a strategy to unleash growth in new ventures, will move Ms. Wang further beyond wedding-related goods than ever before. They also will leave her with a tiered pyramid of brands—and, if all goes well, a much larger stream of revenue from ready-to-wear.
At the top will be her small but expensive luxury bridal and ready-to-wear lines. The fashion line she shows on New York Fashion Week's runways will now be called Vera Wang Collection—or just "Collection," as Ms. Wang's team is already referring to it. (The move evokes Calvin Klein, which shows the Calvin Klein "Collection" line on New York's runways, in addition to the company's underwear, fragrances and other products.)
The new Vera Wang line of ready-to-wear will fall in the middle, along with her long-established licensed products, from fragrance to eyewear. Plans for the ready-to-wear line include clothing, accessories, handbags and jewelry, says Mario Grauso, president of the closely held Vera Wang Group. At the bottom tier are lower-priced clothes and jewelry for Kohl's, David's Bridal and Zale Corp.
It's from the middle section that the company's growth is expected to come, with new Vera Wang dresses costing just a few hundred dollars. That will make them accessible to far more people than the current runway line, where dresses cost $1,300 and up. "In the years to come, that middle brand will be what we will develop," says Mr. Grauso. "The middle is huge."
The new emphasis on ready-to-wear also offers a peek into the mind of the woman who dressed both Chelsea Clinton and Kim Kardashian for their weddings. Despite the princessy gowns for which she is known, Ms. Wang's real passions in design are edgier—the urban daywear she wears herself.
"When I design ready-to-wear, that's about me. That's about how I live," she says. "I'm really a luxury T-shirt, sweater kind of girl," she says, but, she acknowledges, "People don't think of me that way."
But the strategy is rife with risks. Ms. Wang has worked for years to build a luxury brand and must avoid diluting it or confusing customers. And though Ms. Wang may be the world's best-known bridal designer, with successes in high-profile gowns (such as the strapless cobalt-blue confection Michelle Obama wore to the Kennedy Center last week), her track record with ready-to-wear is spottier. Her nonbridal clothes have often struggled to find mass appeal. Lavender was temporarily shuttered during the financial downturn, and has been producing only shoes for several seasons.
"She started with a bridal collection and then extended into other areas, but most of it relates back to bridal," says Robert Burke, a fashion-industry consultant who has in the past advised Ms. Wang. She has had a string of successes with ancillary bridal products—from a line of budget-priced bridal jewelry to mattresses—an endeavor that came out of research showing one thing many newlywed couples buy is a mattress.
"We don't do horribly," said Mr. Grauso, when asked about Lavender's performance—hardly the voice of confidence. But he and Ms. Wang think Vera Wang will do better than Lavender did with a stronger fashion market, now that the financial crash is over, and with a collection of products more clearly branded as Vera Wang.
Mr. Grauso is dispassionate about the small, luxury-priced "Collection" line, which appeals to an artistically minded clientele and has never made profits. "There's much less of a customer for Collection," concedes Ms. Wang. "The cost is enormous. I don't make money doing it. I lose a lot."
"How many women are really interested in clothes off the runway that are a little challenging and weird-looking?" posits Mr. Grauso, a longtime fashion executive who isn't fearful of challenging clothes himself. As he spoke, he was wearing a pair of Rick Owens blue jeans with a crotch at midthigh and a hem above his ankle.
Ms. Wang's bottom-tier efforts have had greater success. In August, when Kohl's Corp. reported its profits rose 17% in the quarter, the store chain attributed the rise in part to the success of Simply Vera, Ms. Wang's line of lower-priced fashions.
The new Princess line for Kohl's is set to capitalize on that, with girlish clothes designed to appeal to teens and young women in the twenties. A person familiar with the plans says the new line is expected to bring the Vera Wang Group revenue from the various Kohl's deals to $500 million annually within two to three years, with Vera Wang Group's total revenue expected to be more than $1 billion.
The new Kohl's line is expected to be on store floors in July 2012, initially with clothes, which will be followed quickly by handbags, and shoes. "This is going to be girly," says Mr. Grauso.
Men's Wearhouse will start taking reservations for the tuxedos in January, for weddings beginning in April, says spokesman Doug Ewert. A high-quality super 130s wool fabric and trendy trim fit—two button jackets, side vents and flat-front pants—give the black or gray tuxedoes a "Mad Men" look. They'll be among the retailer's most modern looks, Mr. Ewert says. The deal also allies the three biggest bridal fashion purveyors in North America: Vera Wang, Men's Wearhouse (which says it rents one out of every three tuxedoes in North America) and David's Bridal, which cross-markets with Men's Wearhouse and sells Vera Wang White brand gowns.
Ms. Wang says she doesn't feel any pangs of regret at putting her luxury name on a midpriced product. "I brought Mario on to do this," she says.
Before joining her, Mr. Grauso worked as president of Puig Fashion Group, where he had the unlovely job of firing designer Olivier Theyskens from Nina Ricci. That move was considered wise for the brand's financial success but was received with fury by fans of Mr. Theyskens' ethereal, haunting designs. Yet Mr. Theyskens has gone on to success designing the midpriced Theyskens Theory line, and Nina Ricci has found its footing under designer Peter Copping.
Ms. Wang's luxury-priced lines are like icing, says Mr. Grauso—in need of something to support them. "Icing," he says, "is only good if there's a cake."
My print column examines the hundreds of products that claim to be the most expensive of their kind. Some achieve this by defining narrow categories, by piling on the gold and diamond embellishments, or by setting a high price that no one steps up to pay.
“I think it’s all about publicity,” said Martin K. Sneider, adjunct professor of marketing at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, “either for the seller or the buyer or both.”
Much of the publicity seems to originate from the U.K., where many of these products are offered for sale, then covered in the newspapers. “There’s a lot of international money there,” Sneider said of London.
At Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel and Restaurant in Bowness-on-Windermere, U.K., which this week sold a chocolate dessert for $34,000 and is applying for Guinness World Records recognition, “The appeal to us was never making money as we are selling the dessert at a price that makes us very little profit,” Mark Abbott, business development executive for Lindeth Howe, wrote in an email. “We do however gain the publicity.”
As for the U.K.’s predilection for such superlatives, Abbott said, “I think with the situation in the economy and other things going on in the U.K., the U.K. public like ‘good news’ or ‘happy news’ and the media pick up on these stories, to counter-balance the negative stories. I also think that rich individuals in the U.K. like to show off their money and it is aimed at them. I think it can be an aspirational product.” And even in these tough economic times, there are enough buyers, especially for products with a very limited production run. “People will enough money to buy something like this, don’t get too affected by the recession as they have enough money,” Abbott said.
Other most-expensive candidates are no longer available. In 2007, the Westin New York offered a $1,000 bagel with white-truffle cream cheese, but it isn’t on the menu today. “The bagel was launched in a different economic climate, before the recession hit, and is no longer offered, so the hotel cannot speak to whether it’s a tougher sell in the current economy,” a spokeswoman for the Westin wrote in an email. “However, interest continues to be very strong from a media perspective, which suggests that consumers are still interested in hearing about exclusive, luxury-type products.”
“Even in these tough economic times, we have found that the people who had plenty of money still have plenty of money to spend,” Rob Bruce, spokesman for Whyte & Mackay, wrote in an email. Whyte & Mackay owns the Dalmore distillery, and a bottle of Dalmore 62 sold for a record price two months ago. “They are maybe being less ostentatious and less high profile with their buying behavior. For example, the buyer of the Dalmore 62 was adamant he wanted his identity protected which we duly did. But they are still enjoying the best luxury products money can buy.” Bruce added, “Buyers of these products have a raft of different reasons for purchasing them. To treat themselves. To invest and make money. To show off. To indulge in a passion or hobby. To taste history in a glass.”
The motivation isn’t always, or often, practical. A diamond-and-platinum bikini designed by New Hope, Pa. artist Susan Rosen for Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Molly Sims in 2006 was given a price tag of $30 million and has been labeled by many articles as the world’s most expensive bikini. Yet any wearer would find she hadn’t gotten much surface area per dollar. “I don’t think she expected it to be that small,” Rosen says of Sims, though Rosen added, “It’s racy but it’s not obscene.”
If she were brainstorming a special swimsuit this year, Ms. Rosen isn’t sure she’d go for something so opulent, but she noted that interest in the bikini, from the media and blogs, has remained high.
“Time doesn’t go any faster or slower because I spent $50,000 on a watch,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. “But time can be more enjoyable to a person because they have a watch no one else has, or can eat a dessert no one else has, or can drive a car that you can feed a country with the value of.”
Cohen suggested one way to marry that phenomenon with today’s consumer’s hunger for deals: A Groupon or other social coupon offering, say, half price on menu items at the restaurant that offers the most-expensive version of a certain food item: “Experience a piece of luxury at a price anyone can afford” is the tagline he suggested.
Charles A. LaCalle, a retail analyst with Robert Burke Associates, agreed that the very expensive item could make less expensive wares alongside it seem downright reasonable. He mentioned a company that introduced an expensive backpack made of alligator. If it makes just a few and sells out, “the effect on consumers is significant,” LaCalle said. “Now, customers can buy a $1000 shirt from their line and feel like they are getting a bargain.”
Cohen added, “Luxury no matter what is something that in good times and bad still resonates with people. Even in our hungriest and darkest of days, we still want luxuries we can no longer get.”
Shoppers looking for clothing by Emanuel Ungaro in any major American department store are out of luck. Stores have stopped carrying the high-end French line. And here, at the sole Ungaro store, downstairs from the label's offices on Avenue Montaigne, several of the shelves are bare.
Now, Emanuel Ungaro is trying to climb back from one of fashion's biggest debacles in recent years. Two years ago, a collection remembered for its sequined, heart-shaped pasties made Ungaro the laughingstock of Paris Fashion Week. The juvenile designs were a far cry from the sultry gowns made by the founder in earlier decades. The collection had been designed in part by Hollywood wild child Lindsay Lohan.
Add to that the five other designers who have left since founder Emanuel Ungaro retired from ready-to-wear 10 years ago. Ungaro cut ties with the latest, Giles Deacon, earlier this month. The turmoil has muddied the brand's image.
Now, Ungaro (pronounced: OON-ga-ro) is starting over—and it's doing so deliberately without a head designer. When the house shows its spring 2012 collection Monday in Paris, it will be a team effort. Emanuel Ungaro SA's new chief executive hasn't figured out who will take the runway bow.
"I don't believe in overnight sensations," says Jeffry Aronsson, an American who took over in June after heading brands such as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs International and Donna Karan. "My goal is to revitalize the company in a sustainable way, not a flash in the pan."
Mr. Aronsson believes the brand should stand out in tops and loungewear such as caftans, capitalizing on roots in silks and prints. The upcoming collection has a geological inspiration. A board where designers pinned up images that inspire them showed pictures of eroded rocks. A print used in a sequined maxi-dress and other items was created from images of volcanoes, said Ms. Labib-Lamour. The shapes include peplum tops over long pleated skirts and draping on a red leather dress to form a cowl neck.
Plenty of brands seek new designers when they attempt a turnaround. Gianfranco Ferré has had a revolving door of designers since its founder died in 2007. The Italian label rushed to bring in two freelance talents for its Milan fashion show this week. American fashion house Halston has also had its share of creative chiefs, including Rochas's Marco Zanini and actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
But few designer brands flourish without a public mastermind. Christian Dior is biding its time with studio-designed collections while it searches for a designer to replace John Galliano. Its couture show in July—a mishmash of various decades, with some designs topped off with clown hats—showed what can go wrong without a driving vision.
Max Mara and Hugo Boss are two labels that thrive with no designer in the spotlight. Yet neither boast the high prices of designer ready-to-wear and the image that justifies them.
Ungaro's Mr. Aronsson thinks the in-house talent can mine Ungaro's heritage—bright colors, silk prints and sexy draped dresses—better than a high-profile designer from outside.
"At this point it would be worse for the brand to recruit a known designer because it would be one more direction and message," says fashion consultant Robert Burke.
Less than a week before the fashion show, in a cluttered room, seamstresses were hunched over a long table sewing sequins on lace and cutting red, blue and turquoise fabric for a pair of pants.
Jeanne Labib-Lamour, a designer who previously worked at Balenciaga and Giambattista Valli, called models in one by one to audition for the runway. Ana de Ribeiro, the director of product development, played with metallicized white lace on a mannequin, trying to figure out the right draping.
When it came to deciding what looks would go down the runway, three women—Ms. Labib-Lamour, Ms. de Ribeiro, and the head of marketing, Isabelle Konikoff—sat around a table to watch models try on the dresses. Mr. Aronsson also had his word to say, keeping the women focused on the brand's roots.
Mr. Aronsson says that when he arrived in June, he found a discouraged team of 35 employees. But he noticed young talents, as well as veterans who had worked under the founder. Seeing them and their knowledge of the archives convinced him to rely on them as designers. "I'm not looking for a big name from the outside because I don't want the development of the brand to be dependent on a big ego," he says.
The brand has been traumatized by more than a decade of upheaval. Mr. Ungaro, who is French with Italian roots, sold the house to Salvatore Ferragamo SFER.MI -0.18% in the 1990s. Ferragamo flipped it to Silicon Valley entrepreneur Asim Abdullah in 2005. Over that time, sales collapsed from a few hundred million dollars a year at its peak in the 1990s to $6 million last year, according to documents the company filed with France's commercial court. Ungaro lost $8.5 million last year, according to the documents. Ungaro has retail sales of several tens of millions of dollars, most of which is generated through licenses for products such as perfumes and home linens.
The design turmoil set in after Mr. Ungaro's retirement from his ready-to-wear line in 2001. (The company ended its couture line in 2004 when Mr. Ungaro fully retired.) Giambattista Valli, his deputy, took over the main clothing line. Three years later, Mr. Valli left to start his own line and was succeeded by a string of designers over the next several years.
When sales didn't spike, the company's then-CEO, Mounir Moufarrige, tried a bigger stunt: hiring Ms. Lohan. (He brought in professional designer Estrella Archs to help the actress.) Ms. Lohan's reign lasted one season.
"I'm still convinced it needs a similar sort of cocktail as what I concocted with Lindsay Lohan because it needs buzz," says Mr. Moufarrige, who left the company at the end of 2009, about the same time as Ms. Lohan. "Making beautiful clothes is not enough."
Mr. Deacon, a British designer, joined last year with a four-year contract. But his aggressive aesthetic was a mismatch for Ungaro. His last runway collection was in dominatrix black, far from Ungaro's iconic pinks. He left earlier this month.
Upon his arrival, Mr. Aronsson set out guidelines on what Ungaro stands for, using words such as seductive, sophisticated and intellectually attractive. "Emanuel Ungaro was inspired by the concept of the mistress, but for me it just means a woman who has it all," says Mr. Aronsson.
He says it could take a few seasons before retailers have confidence in Ungaro. The runway show is a step in that direction. "I want the retailers to see this, that it's a whole new page," he says.
PARIS—Louis Vuitton's CEO-in-waiting, Jordi Constans, won't be the first consumer-goods brand manager who jumps over to the luxury-goods business. But when he arrives at the French luxury fashion giant, Mr. Constans is likely to face a culture shock.
Known for yogurt and bottled water, his former employer, Groupe Danone SA, has a dressed-down style, where executives rarely wear ties, in contrast to the sleekness found at Louis Vuitton, an empire built on status-symbol handbags. At Danone, the informal "tu" form of addressing people—rather than the more formal French "vous"—permeates even the chief executive suite.
LVMH employees are decorous, and it is considered a plus for job candidates to be well-versed in classical music. As for Mr. Constans, he's a keen electric-guitar player.
On Wednesday parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said Mr. Constans, a relatively unknown Spanish executive, will work with current Louis Vuitton chief executive Yves Carcelle for a year before taking the reins of the fashion brand.
The 47-year-old Mr. Constans declined to be interviewed for this article. LVMH declined to make Mr. Carcelle available to comment.
The business-school educated Mr. Constans is likely to bring a more modern touch to proceedings at Louis Vuitton. Mr. Constans replies to email promptly and personally. Mr. Carcelle's secretary prints out his emails for him.
In an interview on Danone's website from January 2010, Mr. Constans describes the food maker's culture as "humble" and "constantly questioning ourselves." Speaking in French with a slight Spanish accent, he says the qualities he encourages in his employees are "openness, rapidity and agility."
At Danone, Mr. Constans piloted the dairy division through the financial crisis by slashing prices on its best-selling products to boost volumes. He also polled consumers about how they liked his yogurts and worked with bloggers.
During an April speech to students at the IESE business school in Spain, his alma mater, Mr. Constans laid out his philosophy on innovation. He highlighted "avoiding the production of useless items" and said economic crises are an "optimal time to innovate," according to the IESE. "Innovation comes from a good conversation," the IESE quoted him saying on its Web site. "You never forget a good conversation."
Investors will be anxious to see how that philosophy meshes with selling $1,000 handbags in China. Indeed, many experts are fretting that Mr. Constans doesn't have an extended track record in emerging markets.
"Louis Vuitton has done an excellent job in boosting distribution and the brand's image in Asia," said Robert Burke, president of Robert Burke Associates, a New York-based luxury-goods consulting firm. For Mr. Constans, "it will be a steep learning curve."
Louis Vuitton, which is the flagship brand of the LVMH luxury goods empire, generated around €6 billion ($8.21 billion) in sales in 2010. Around 60% of Louis Vuitton's revenue came from Asia, according to research by HSBC. The entire company had 2010 revenue totaling €20.3 billion.
Filling Mr. Carcelle's shoes will be a challenge, analysts say. The 63-year-old spent the last 21 years transforming Louis Vuitton from a French trunk maker into a global handbag brand with operations stretching from Shanghai to Rio de Janeiro. Mr. Carcelle fine-tuned Louis Vuitton's image to keep it up-market yet affordable for aspirational shoppers, while ensuring an efficient distribution and production network.
The amiable Frenchman is also famed within the company for his ability to combine work and play. Mr. Carcelle has been seen partying late at night with designer Karl Lagerfeld and quaffing champagne early in the morning after news conferences about yachting races. But Mr. Carcelle is known for working long hours, starting at the crack of dawn to catch his colleagues in Japan; his three assistants work in shifts to keep up. During the weekends, he often zips down to the south of France where he owns a vineyard and a country house he has decorated with contemporary art.
Despite the cultural differences between Danone and LVMH, it was widely expected that Louis Vuitton would look outside the company when its current chief executive Mr. Carcelle retired, analysts say.
"The choice of a replacement outside the world of luxury is not such a big surprise," says HSBC analyst Antoine Belge. When talking about which brand he wanted Louis Vuitton to be compared to, Mr. Carcelle "never gave the name of another luxury brand and instead cited brands like Apple," Mr. Belge adds.
The conversion from consumer to luxury goods can come with a stigma. After French retail group PPR SA hired the unknown director of Unilever's frozen foods division to run its high-profile Gucci Group luxury division in 2004, Robert Polet's moniker as the ice cream man haunted him. Mr. Polet left Gucci earlier this year.
That said, LVMH has heavily recruited outside of the luxury business, hiring experts from the automotive industry to help fine tune their production line and luring Procter & Gamble Co. PG -0.62% veteran, Antonio Belloni, to become their managing director.
Mr. Constans zipped up the ranks at French food company Group Danone SA during a 21-year stint that saw him move from marketing the dairy brand in his native country of Spain to become the head of the dairy products division world-wide this past January. Until then, he split the role with another executive and focused on mature markets, such as France and Spain.
Mr. Constans helped market a number of Danone's marquee brands, which include Activia yogurt.
For Danone's yogurts that purport to have health benefits, such as Actimel and Activia, marketing those brands has required tip-toeing around regulations. Health authorities have shot down Danone's health claims—that Actimel boosts the immune system and Activia aids digestion—and Danone has challenged those rulings. But in the meantime, Mr. Constans has steered Activia and Actimel's advertising to campaigns that avoid specifically making health claims.
Not all of his product launches were successes. He tested a yogurt that purported to boost bone density, Densia, in France before pulling it from shelves when consumers didn't bite.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Tommy Hilfiger was in his office clad in his signature warm-weather uniform: navy blazer, white shirt, crisp chinos and penny loafers, no socks. Only now, there was a crucial difference. Gone was the big, yacht-captain style, double-breasted blazer with brass buttons and baggy pleated khakis.
The change mirrors a shift at his company. His recent runway collections are sleeker and more urbane than in the past. He credits the "specialists" he has tapped to rejuvenate his women's and men's runway collections.
In one of the more unusual relationships in the fashion industry, Mr. Hilfiger has hired two critically acclaimed younger designers, Peter Som in 2009, and last year Simon Spurr, as creative consultants.
"It's my formula. It's my vision," Mr. Hilfiger says. "But I wanted someone to come in who respects the vision but would want to maybe modernize it a bit."
The hires are part of Mr. Hilfiger's broader effort to refresh his 26-year-old label's image in the U.S., particularly among luxury consumers.
High-end shoppers are taking notice. Over-the-knee, high-heeled lace-up women's duck boots Mr. Som dreamed up in collaboration with Mr. Hilfiger last year turned out to be one of the label's most buzzed-about and sought-after items in years. The label's retail prices have increased approximately 15% over the past two years. Net sales for the company's products rose 14.5% in 2010.
Critics are noticing, too. Tommy Hilfiger witnessed some of its most enthusiastic runway-show reviews in years since the two young designers came on board. Reviews noted the women's clothes "felt luxurious and sophisticated in a new way" and the men's line may have marked its best interpretation of preppy to date. Mr. Spurr, 36 years old, is one of three nominees for menswear designer of the year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, whose awards ceremony takes place June 6.
With its popular colorful, preppy aesthetic, Tommy Hilfiger was one of the hottest American brands in the 1990s. At its peak, the company, acquired last year by apparel giant Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.,PVH -1.32% generated nearly $2 billion in annual sales in the U.S. But overexposure and changing tastes caused its popularity to wane considerably in the U.S. Its red, white and blue, logo-heavy look was seen as outdated. The label took a two-year hiatus from the New York fashion week runways in 2005 as it repositioned itself in the U.S. Meanwhile, the brand thrived in Europe, where it had a more upscale reputation and look.
Mr. Hilfiger says he is encouraging the designers to come up with modern interpretations of his signature staples. "I had an in-depth conversation with Peter on what New England preppy was all about," Mr. Hilfiger says.
The two men took a field trip in late 2009 to Mr. Hilfiger's home in Greenwich, Conn. They looked through Mr. Hilfiger's closet and that of his wife, Dee. "We were talking about how when Dee went to college she wore duck boots all the time," Mr. Som, 40, says. "I have my own duck boots, so I thought it would be fun to take iconic items and spin them, so I came up with making the boots sexier."
The result: High-heeled duck boots. "It was one of the most successful items we've had," Mr. Hilfiger says.
Mr. Hilfiger hired Mr. Som after he sought the advice of Vogue editor Anna Wintour a few years ago on how to spruce up his women's runway collection. Ms. Wintour recommended he take a look at Mr. Som. When he was looking to do similar updating with the men's runway collection in 2010, Mr. Hilfiger again went to Ms. Wintour, who suggested Mr. Spurr as one possibility. Ms. Wintour, through a spokeswoman, confirmed Mr. Hilfiger's account.
While several designers work for themselves as well as with other labels, Messrs. Som and Spurr's role with Tommy Hilfiger is uncommon. Typically, when a designer with his or her own line moonlights with a big label, the label's founder is deceased or is no longer involved. Mr. Hilfiger, 60, is very much alive and still holds the titles of visionary and principal designer.
And Mr. Hilfiger hasn't kept his business relationship with the designers under wraps in the way that bigger fashion houses usually do when they bring in smaller designers. Messrs. Som and Spurr were backstage—and were thanked in the program notes—for the women's and men's shows held during New York fashion week in February.
Robert Burke, who runs luxury-goods consultancy Robert Burke Associates, says crediting Messrs. Som and Spurr "is a smart move. It elevates [Mr. Hilfiger's] visibility and credibility in the high-end designer world."
Mr. Hilfiger says he sees hiring the men as a way to help two talented and hard-working designers. Mr. Hilfiger pays each designer a salary, which all three declined to disclose. They also get business experience working for a big fashion brand with $4.6 billion in global retail sales last year.
Mr. Hilfiger says he sees his arrangement with Messrs. Spurr and Som as an extension of his track record of breeding talent. Reed Krakoff worked at Tommy Hilfiger before being tapped by Coach, where he is executive creative director.
Many designers who are at the helm of mega-brands don't do much actual sketching and sewing, especially if their labels span a wide range of products like Mr. Hilfiger's. But even from when he started his label in 1985, Mr. Hilfiger hasn't generally been thought of as a designer who wields a sketch pad and pin cushion. Mr. Hilfiger notes he had numerous hands-on design stints early in his career.
Messrs. Som and Spurr sketch, select fabrics, make prototypes and conduct fittings for Tommy Hilfiger's runway collections. (The designers don't work on the sportswear collection that is sold exclusively at Macy's.) Last week both designers were in a factory in Italy working on prototypes for the Spring 2012 Tommy Hilfiger collection to be shown at New York fashion week in September.
The two work on their own lines at the same time. They said, in separate interviews, that they never have moments where they are conflicted about whether to save an idea for their own lines instead of using it for Hilfiger.
The process usually starts when Mr. Hilfiger conducts meetings with each designer to lay out the next collection's concept. They brainstorm, reviewing previous collections and inspirational imagery.
"They will give the initial sketch" and then work with the company's in-house design team on the details, says Mr. Hilfiger. The sketches are presented to sample makers.
"Once I sketch enough, I'll go back and get Tommy's thoughts and then he has an angle I never thought of, he adds that twist that he's known for," Mr. Spurr said by telephone from Italy. "It's a collaborative process."
"I'm there but I give them space," Mr. Hilfiger says. "If they want to try something different, I'm all for it because I like innovation and I want to see what they'll do without Big Daddy." After completing fittings of samples in Italy, Messrs. Som and Spurr present them to Mr. Hilfiger in New York to review. They coordinate with the label's stylist, Karl Templer. Mr. Hilfiger alone makes the call on what will go down the runway.
It can cost a man a lot less to feel like a million bucks in his suit these days.
There are more suits priced between $500 and $700 that include features once found typically on more expensive suits: fine Italian fabrics, modern cuts and narrow lapels. The goal is to attract younger men who increasingly want the current fitted, formal styles as opposed to the boxy suits and more casual officewear of their dads.
Big suit makers like Brooks Brothers and HMX, which sell suits between about $600 and $3,000, say their lowest-priced suits are experiencing the fastest sales growth. And next month Amsterdam-based Suitsupply, with 35 stores in Europe, plans to open its first U.S. store in New York with suits starting at $385. Suitsupply will offer its sometimes flashy suits with details like Italian wool fabric, brightly colored lining and working button holes, features that usually carry a higher price tag.
Other efforts to keep up quality at lower prices include J. Crew Group Inc.'s expanded men's suit selection. Sales of its men's suit have more than doubled since 2008, when the clothing company introduced a slimmer style, made with Italian wool and superior interior construction, a spokeswoman says. The style, called Ludlow, starts at about $600.
At HMX, which owns American suit brands like Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx, the fastest growth is in its lower priced suits, around $795, says Joseph Abboud, president and chief creative officer for HMX. Sales of Hart Schaffner Marx suits, the company's brand in that price range, are up 27% year to date compared to last year, says Mr. Abboud.
The briskest sales growth at Brooks Brothers is happening in its recently expanded Suiting Essentials line, priced starting at $598, says Guy Voglino, divisional merchandise manager for men's clothing at the company. Sales of the line are up 28% in 2011 to date, compared to the same period last year, Mr. Voglino says.
Introduced in 2007 offering one fit, the line has expanded to four different fits, most recently the brand's narrowest cuts, the Fitzgerald and the Milano. Brooks Brothers offers some made-to-measure options including about 20 fabrics. The ability to individualize appeals to younger men who want to stand out even in a room of suits, says Mr. Voglino. Because each suit is specially ordered, the company saves money by producing only what it actually sells and doesn't risk bloated inventory.
The interest in suits at this price range comes amid an overall pick up in suit sales at some manufacturers. Brooks Brothers says sales of its 1818 Collection, priced about $1,000, are up 26% year-over-year. HMX is seeing double digit growth in volume and dollar sales across brands and price points, says Mr. Abboud.
"We are seeing the suit business really come back in the last six months very very strongly," says Robert Burke, a luxury-goods consultant and founder of Robert Burke Associates in New York.
Many men wait for seasonal sales in order to find a good price on a suit, but suit makers hope the new $500 to $700 range will encourage men to buy retail instead of waiting for price cuts.
Suitsupply is able to keep down prices, in part, by picking store locations slightly off main shopping streets with lower rents, says Fokke de Jong, chief executive and founder of the company. The company's new Soho New York location will be on a second floor with no street level window display. About 15% of Suitsupply suits are sold through the website.
J. Crew, like Suitsupply, controls more aspects of production from design to distribution, cutting out payments to third-party companies that typical move suits into department stores.
Men's Wearhouse which sells suits from about $199 to $700, keeps prices low by offering two-for-the-price-of-one deals, increasing sales volume and therefore buying power with its suppliers, says Doug Ewert, president and chief operating officer of the Houston, Texas-based company.
Maintaining the current price-to-quality relationship in men's suits is likely to become increasingly difficult. Raw material prices for desirable natural fabrics like wool and cotton are rising sharply. "If I have to guess, price is going to go up 10% to 15% on the wholesale side" heading into spring 2012, says Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing which manufactures men's suits for brands like DKNY, Calvin Klein and IZOD.
We enlisted two experts for an unscientific, blind review of six suits: Salvatore Giardina, a men's suit designer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Salvatore Cesarani, a designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design.
The testers found striking differences in quality, sometimes out of line with the suit's price. Both testers said the $614 Suitsupply suit matched the $3,625 Armani in quality. Both saw little difference in quality between the two, or at least not enough to justify a $3,000 difference in price. Each is made with soft Italian fabric and showed the maker cared about details like pockets with extra stitching at their edges.
"It's a work of art," said Mr. Giardina when examining the sewing job in the waist band of the Armani suit pant. But after learning of the large price difference, "that means that won," Mr. Giardina said, pointing to the Suitsupply suit.
The J. Crew suit fared well with the testers noting its neat construction and that it is made of high-end Italian fabric and Bemberg lining (a type of rayon favored for its breathablity and moisture absorption).
The testers said the Hart Schaffner Marx suit didn't live up to its $895 price. Mr. Giardina noted some fraying strings on button holes and said its "AMF stitching" didn't achieve a handmade look. (AMF stitching is a wider stitch that's an aesthetic touch.) Mr. Cesarani said the jacket didn't move freely in the chest.
The test method "is an imperfect science and it's an opinion," says Mr. Abboud, noting that the suit tested is made from "super 110s wool made in Italy. "We take great pains," he adds, to make sure fabric and construction is high quality.
Mr. Giardina said the H&M suit used a lower thread count wool fabric and basic construction, but still pulled off a nice overall look. Mr. Cesarani dismissed it as "cheap looking." He docked points for the lack of extra fabric for future tailoring where the lining inside the cuff of the jacket meets the exterior fabric.
"We know that our suits are appreciated by many of our customers," said an H&M spokeswoman.
The Target suit isn't worth more than $89, both testers agreed, calling the polyester fabric a major negative.
"Target is committed to offering quality merchandise at a great value," says a Target spokeswoman. "For our business-focused guests, this means finding suits for less than $100."