TIME | MARION HUME
IT COULD BE A RECIPE for how to go broke in the fashion business: establish yourself somewhere far off the style map, target women over 35, ignore the current accessory-driven business trend, and insist on using luxurious fabrics so that your clothes become prohibitively expensive. And don't forget to make sure your heritage is as unhip as possible, something along the lines of your grandmother's founding the family company with an apron business.
Despite all these odds, Akris (an acronym from the name of the above-mentioned grandmother, Alice Kriemler-Schoch), based in the Swiss town of St. Gallen, has elegant women across North America praising its elusive balance of style, fit and quality. Women tend to discover Akris for themselves. Nicole Kidman spotted a coat in a store window on a Sunday evening and ordered it the following morning. Other fans include Susan Sarandon and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Not surprisingly this Swiss family company, now helmed by Alice's grandsons Albert and Peter Kriemler—the designer and the president, respectively—is lauded by retailers for its precise deliveries and perfect execution (at the factory, each garment is accompanied by a dossier explaining what needs to be done and what can go wrong) as well as for actually listening to what stores want. When Joseph Boitano, a senior vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue, explained the importance of offering a cruise collection (a concept less established in Europe), Albert headed to Florida, where he spent weeks studying what chic women want on vacation.
"Akris is in the top 15 brands in all areas of Saks," says Boitano, noting that Saks carries the main line in 20 stores and the bridge line, called Akris punto, in 47 stores across the U.S. "When you consider Akris does not have shoes, handbags, fragrance, and its sales are driven entirely by ready-to-wear, that is a major feat."
Robert Burke, who heads his own consulting business in New York City and was previously with Bergdorf Goodman, says a single salesperson there writes several million dollars' worth of orders for the label each season. Burke even mentions Albert Kriemler, whose name is still far from well known, within the designer superleague: "Albert is unwavering in who he is appealing to. You look at the great designers—Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Giorgio Armani—and what links them is they stick to their own aesthetic, they stick with their customer."
St. Gallen is not where you would expect to find the next Armani. Yet being based not only in Switzerland—which has one of the most expensive labor forces in the world—but in a little town bordering the Appenzell region is an advantage, insists Albert Kriemler. He is not what you would expect of a fashion designer, given that he is rather serious and erudite (his references can include modern art and Russian philosophy). Being isolated means that the tailors and technicians he collaborates with, all of them full time and many with the company for years, think Akris from morning to evening. "That's why I don't work with freelance people," he says. "It's not right for us that someone leaves and misses the evolution in our overall process."
Albert's vision is simple: to create clothes that enhance the personality, never hide it. "I think it is inappropriate if the first thing you notice is a woman's dress, when you should see the woman first," he says. "Also, we have other senses besides eyes. We feel clothes on our body, and this is as important as looking right. And I have the conviction women should have the same rights as a man: if she loves a jacket, a pant, she should continue to wear it next season."
David Asher, vice president and general merchandise manager of womenswear at Holt Renfrew, the Canadian department store, says the savviest of shoppers get Akris because these fashion purists "aren't motivated by splashy ad campaigns but by fresh femininity, superior construction and focus on each piece of clothing, rather than on an overextended megabrand with its name on every manner of product category."
Pretty views, an equable climate and the fact that because St. Gallen is not a fashion mecca, the designer is not distracted by what he sees around him mean higher productivity for Albert Kriemler, who works either in his attic studio atop the old school that houses the Akris ateliers or at his desk at home, looking out onto a meadow of wildflowers and an installation he commissioned from the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay.
In 1922, Alice Kriemler-Schoch could never have imagined that her grandson would one day show on the official Paris fashion-week schedule (the first Swiss designer invited to do so) or that in starting her little apron business for something to do while she raised two sons, she was founding a dynasty. After the death of her husband in 1944, the business passed to their eldest son Max Kriemler. In 1980, Max's eldest son Albert, then 20, was about to move to Paris when his father's right-hand man died suddenly, and Albert stepped in. Seven years later, after completing studies in law and business management, Peter joined the family firm. (Albert and Peter have a sister who is a doctor.)
"We always felt responsible for what we inherited from our parents and for the loyal people of this company," says Albert. When the brothers took over, their target was to dress the customer seven days a week from morning into evening. "I said to Peter, We must do what we feel, without listening to what others are doing," says Albert. The brothers still agree. "When you get along within the family, it is the most beautiful thing that can happen in your life," Albert says. "Two people mean two opinions, and when there is a disagreement, you must be able to talk this through."
Albert Kriemler may be more reserved than your typical designer, but he recognizes that part of the role of the designer is to be the front man, and he shields his businessman brother from media attention. The businessman gives the designer something rare in return: time. Albert can work at his own pace to ensure the perfection for which Akris is now celebrated.
The structure of this private company is also unique. "The moment you get into classical management structures where you do budgets for the next five years, it's so insecure. We do not do that," says Albert. "What we do is dependent on how each collection performs. We don't have accessories, we don't have licenses; we need to do fashion well."
A downside of any family firm is that it prompts the question about the next generation. Albert understands that interest, "for there was already a pressure in our case because our parents and our grandparents had run a successful business. My brother and my sister have children, but it's premature to discuss their futures."
What seems certain is that the two brothers will continue together in their quest to turn a company based in rural Switzerland into an international powerhouse. Albert recently refused an offer from a major design house because, he says, "you cannot have two souls." His is clearly in such a quiet place that when he strokes a fabric and falls into silent contemplation, you can hear the tinkle of cowbells from the nearby hills.