WALL STREET JOURNAL | RAY A. SMITH
Under the Bryant Park tents of New York fashion week Tuesday evening, Narciso Rodriguez will show off his typically minimalist evening gowns and day dresses. What the crowd won't see is Mr. Rodriguez's own ambitious makeover, as he reinvents himself once again, a year after his relationship with financial backers collapsed for the second time.
Mr. Rodriguez is making more dresses that sell for less than $1,000, below his more-typical price tags of $1,800 and up, a move some retailers who carry his lines requested. The designer, who doesn't have stores of his own, has also signed a deal with eBay Inc. to create a line that will be sold exclusively through the online marketplace. Ebay, more known for bargains than luxury, will start selling the line in the spring. The line, "Narciso Rodriguez for eBay," is a first for eBay, which plans to announce the deal Tuesday. The clothes will sell for less than $350.
Mr. Rodriguez, who burst into fashion's major leagues with his sleek minimalist style when he designed a wedding dress for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in 1996, sees the moves as a chance to "bring in a new customer." He also designed the dress Michelle Obama wore on election night.
The critically loved designer has been known for experimenting with fabrics as varied as polyester, silk crepe and charmeuse and incorporating materials like plastic and fiberglass. And his eBay clothing is expected to hew to his sleek aesthetic and body-conscious sculpted design. Ebay, which says it has 88 million active users, plans to host the after-show party. Press releases of the announcement will be in the gift bags handed out as guests exit the bash.
While the moves could help broaden Mr. Rodriguez's audience, they also risk alienating his most-loyal higher-end customers.
Behind the scenes at Fashion Week, many designers are grappling with how to balance the realities of the economic climate with their creative, and often expensive, impulses. As consumers have balked at high fashion's prices, retailers are demanding that designers produce more-affordable clothing.
Mr. Rodriguez is on board: "I think she's [the customer is] grateful to have the opportunity to buy something that's under $1,000. The person who wants the dress at $2,500 or $1,500, it's a unique piece, they're designer pieces. The pieces that are less expensive just open the opportunity for them to shop more."
Mr. Rodriguez, who keeps collections he is planning to show very close to the vest, has said that the spring 2010 collection he designed to show Tuesday was greatly influenced by the modernist sculpture of the late British artist Barbara Hepworth. In a recent interview in his Manhattan studio, the designer said the show would reflect optimism. He is also known for being slightly futuristic and modernist, and isn't likely to bring back 1980s looks as a number of designers have done in New York so far during Fashion Week. A board covered with pictures and clippings on a wall of his studio, his "inspiration board" for the collection, included a picture of an alien from the movie "District 9."
"The atmosphere here [at my company] has been so upbeat. It's a new beginning. It's been an upbeat season and that's what's reflected in this collection. It's a great way to combat what's going on in the world," he said.
He has gotten a lot of buzz in recent months when Michelle Obama wore his dresses, particularly a red-and-black dress on election night. His runway shows are highly anticipated and have drawn stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes and Rachel Weisz. Jessica Alba is expected to attend this year.
The eBay deal is a tentative but important step for a designer who has long shunned measures that other designers use to expand their lines, such as designing for inexpensive chains like H&M or Target, or signing licensing deals to make accessories or cosmetics.
Mr. Rodriguez cited an unconventional designer as someone he looks up to: Isabel Toledo, who is also of Cuban heritage and a good friend of the designer.
"It's not a mass brand but she is someone I personally admire because she's a creator," he says. "She has always created in a very specific way and has never changed her way of designing. There's such a glut of mass [merchandise] and there is so much fast fashion. Someone like her, smaller companies, true designers, thrive more, that's who the true designer customer wants to buy."
Mr. Rodriguez says that he is not opposed to adding more products, such as accessories and expanding further into fragrance or other beauty items. But, he says, he is looking for the right partner and wants to personally supervise design and production rather than having those functions outsourced.
And though he's looking for a partner, he isn't interested in collaborating with a low-priced fast-fashion chain, as so many other designers have, because he believes the clothes that result from the partnerships end up being the retailer's vision rather than the designer's.
"You may grow very quickly the first two years and then watch the business decline, unless you really start selling product at any price range with various degrees of quality," he says, regarding "a diffusion line," or a lower priced line. "That's certainly not a strategy I've ever had for this company."
Mr. Rodriguez needs to bolster his business. While the designer is a contemporary of Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, his privately held business is far smaller with less than $10 million a year in sales. Liz Claiborne Inc. pulled its financial backing from Mr. Rodriguez in 2008, with both parties citing differences on how best to achieve sales growth. His prior investor, Italian manufacturer Aeffe SpA, which owns fashion labels Alberta Ferretti and Moschino, and he had a strained relationship because of their opposing views of how to expand the label, both parties say. They split in 2006. Massimo Ferretti, Aeffe's executive chairman, said in an email: "The termination of our business relationship with Narciso Rodriguez was mutually agreed upon and is attributable solely to our different vision of how the Narciso Rodriguez brand should be developed."
Liz Claiborne declined to comment beyond its statement last year: "Initially we both saw significant opportunities to develop the collection in multiple product categories, channels and geographies, but differences emerged as to how best to achieve this organic growth, and we have decided to terminate our business relationship by mutual agreement."
Mr. Rodriguez launched his line in 1997 after years of working at Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and Cerruti. In 2003, he became the first designer to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Womenswear Designer of the Year award two years in a row.
Among the changes he was forced to implement following the breakup with Liz Claiborne, he and his small staff now handle everything from manufacturing to ordering fabric to retailer shipments after relying on much larger partners Liz Claiborne and Aeffe to handle such functions.
Mr. Rodriguez, 47 years old, is trying to stay in the game amid the worst economic climate in decades, with luxury brands and retailers being especially hit hard. Consultant Bain & Co. forecast in a June report that the global luxury-goods market would shrink 10% this year.
"A designer that small needs a partner especially in the luxury area which has been in freefall," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail-consulting and investment-banking firm, based in New York. "It's very very difficult in this economic environment to do what you need to do alone."
So far, some retailers say, Mr. Rodriguez has managed. "It hasn't been an easy time for a lot of brands and we are paying close attention to the financial condition of the people with whom we're doing business," says Bergdorf Goodman Chief Executive Jim Gold. "Narciso has been shipping on time and we're selling his clothes very well." He says there's been no disruption since Liz Claiborne and the designer parted ways. "It's been business as usual."
Mr. Rodriguez says he is hopeful but wary about finding another suitable investment partner. Potential investors may also be wary. He lacks features that would make the label attractive to an investor: a line of handbags, shoes, sunglasses and boutiques, which are de rigueur cash cows for other designers. The only ancillary product line is three fragrances. What's more, he has two failed partnerships, which may give investors pause.
Robert Burke, a consultant to luxury-goods companies and high-end designers, and a former fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, adds that there are far fewer investors looking for luxury brands to acquire. But he thinks Mr. Rodriguez has a lot of brand-extension potential and needs an investor "who is looking at the long-term picture."
The designer says he hopes this period in his label's life will demonstrate to potential investors that he is disciplined and capable. He also argues that not having accessories and complicated licensing agreements means less "baggage" for potential investors to sort through. "This is a new beginning." he says.