NEW YORK TIMES | RUTH LA FERLA
Dana Taylor, a model, stood straight as a maypole as Reed Krakoff circled, paused, then peered intently at his handiwork. Ms. Taylor was wearing Mr. Krakoff’s cobalt-blue sleeveless officer’s coat, a sample from the fall collection he will show on Wednesday, a piece stripped to its essentials: welted seams, slant pockets and a pair of outsize lapels its only embellishment.
Was it too much? Too little? Mr. Krakoff considered before snatching up a swatch of matching blue leather, attaching it briefly to a lapel, then rejecting that notion, slipping it beneath the coat like a T-shirt. He toyed with the neckline, gathering it in his fingers. Then something clicked. “I like the ruched effect,” he said. “And we might finish it with a little black tape on the top.”
Then again, maybe not. With just two weeks remaining before his runway presentation in Chelsea. Mr. Krakoff was in the fitting phase of his collection, the first he will show since buying his namesake business from Coach last year to introduce a label that was conceived at the outset to compete in the fashion world’s top echelon.
Bound to strike some industry insiders as an act of sheer chutzpah, Mr. Krakoff’s departure from the company that nurtured him and that he helped recast as a global megabrand, has, on the eve of New York Fashion Week, placed him under redoubled scrutiny.
“His timing took guts,” said Robert Burke, a New York retail consultant. “The expertise and the needs in luxury fashion require a different skill set.”
Was he feeling the pressure? Not much, Mr. Krakoff said the other day, though the designer, 50, was, in fact, striving quite visibly to affect an aura of masterly serenity. Pacing his temporary headquarters in the Coach building on West 34th Street, his office a soothing medley of springy gray carpet and gray felt-covered furniture, he pondered a collection that, like Mr. Krakoff himself, is in continual flux.
Inevitably at this juncture, “nothing looks good,” Mr. Krakoff said flatly. “Then something goes well and you’re happy again. Those moments of self-doubt in between are part of the process.”
That candor was unexpected, coming as it did from the former Coach executive creative director whose octopus reach extended into clothing and accessories, advertising, store design and merchandising, and who, during his 16-year tenure at the company’s creative helm, sold handbags, fragrances, jewelry raincoats, shoes and ready-to-wear, elevating the $500 million brand into a retail behemoth with revenues of more than $4 billion.
It was, after all, Mr. Krakoff who, in a New Yorker interview after the debut four years ago of his first high-end collection at Coach, told the writer Ariel Levy, “It’s not that I have the best answer, but I have the right answer.” Indeed, Mr. Krakoff seemed fixed at the time on presenting himself, from his stern black-rimmed glasses to the elongated tips of his John Lobb shoes, as a man with a plan.
But the other day, it was a strikingly low-key, soft-spoken Mr. Krakoff who stood sliding a length of rubber-dotted lace inside a black-and-white shearling aviator coat. “Nothing I do is planful,” he said, making free with the language, as is his wont. “You are always kind of schmooshing things together to see how they feel.
“I don’t think much happens creatively if you are too much in control.”
Letting go, he said, repeatedly, has become integral to his learning curve, his method a developing process of trial and error. “Fashion is a dialogue with your customer,” he said. “You want for people to respond to your work.”
Those who have include Julianna Margulies, who wore a modestly embellished Reed Krakoff gown to the Golden Globes last month; the models Stella Tennant and Laetitia Casta, who have featured prominently in Mr. Krakoff’s advertising campaigns; and most influentially, Michelle Obama, who wore Reed Krakoff on inauguration day in 21012 and, again, for her official portrait last year.
They were clients he has never had to chase, Mr. Krakoff all but boasted the other day. When Julianne Moore, like Mr. Krakoff, an aficionado of midcentury and contemporary design, first approached him, “we found we had a lot in common,” he said. “On an aesthetic level, we really connected.”
Designer and actress cemented their friendship in the late 1990s, after he photographed her for a Coach campaign. These days she counts among her go-to pieces a leather “track bag,” an understated tote with a stark white stripe down the side, and a leather-piped black cashmere coat. “They are clean, not tricky, and they have a lot of integrity,” Ms. Moore said. “As a designer, he gets better all the time.”
But his true aesthetic beacon has been Delphine Krakoff, his wife. “Her style,” he said, “is the ultimate expression of my brand.” A gamine figure sheathed in orange or white, according to the season, Ms. Krakoff greets guests at her husband’s shows, and stands beaming her approval as the models saunter along the runway.
“Everything she does is considered, and at the same time everything feels natural,” he said. “We’re both purists.” Mr. Krakoff may consult with her by phone six times a day. “She will tell me what she likes and what she doesn’t like, and why.”
He is otherwise learning to silence the cacophony of critical voices in his head. “To me, it’s the hardest thing in the creative process,” he said. “You have to learn how to trust yourself.”
His confidence, fragile at first, has firmed by degrees. The debut in 2010 of the first Reed Krakoff collection, designed while he was still at Coach, freed him, part of the time, to stop chasing mass appeal and play, rather showily, to a more discerning, moneyed crowd.
There were flaring leather military coats, shearling jackets and belted and buckled frocks, their lines influenced obliquely by Modernists like Alexander Calder and Jean Arp, whose pieces are displayed in his townhouse on the Upper East Side. Still others seemed indebted to Helmut Lang and Phoebe Philo of Céline and industrial designers like Marc Newson, whose work has long been a touchstone and is captured on Mr. Krakoff’s Instagram account.
In all, Mr. Krakoff has positioned himself as a man of protean talents, his multiple passions moving him to create chairs and lamps and a body of black-and-white photography. Portraits of models, boxers and, most glamorously, his wife are hung from a picture rail over his desk.
“I don’t see myself as a fashion designer,” he said, explaining his restless pursuit of things streamlined and austere. “I see myself as a person in design.”
Elements of the art, architecture and furniture design that Mr. Krakoff so visibly champions have found their way into his fashions as well, the sensuous curves of an Arp table filtering onto his runway, and the hand-drawn Sharpie lines reproduced on his new porcelain collection meandering onto a shirt for fall.
That visible cross-pollination, and an adamantine refusal to be categorized, represents “a new way of doing things,” Mr. Krakoff said. So new to some that his earliest collections were greeted with skepticism or dismissed outright as starchy, pretentious and, most damningly, unwearable.
“Krakoff has a way to go,” Women’s Wear Daily wrote of his inaugural collection. “Cut from thick-looking leather, long skirts and wide pants read heavy. More significantly, often they felt like cover for a clear point of view.”
In assembling a creative team that included Valérie Hermann, formerly the president and chief executive of Yves Saint Laurent, Mr. Krakoff invited complaints of dilettantism. As Cathy Horyn put it in a review in The New York Times, Ms. Hermann “will leave her dream job to run the vanity label of Reed Krakoff, the creative director of Coach, whose one dream is apparently to be successful.”
The comments stung. They were reflected in what was widely considered a poor retail performance. Coach declined to provide sales figures. Looking back, Mr. Krakoff acknowledged that he flailed at first. “Those earlier collections were just me, trying a lot of things,” he said. “Sometimes they became too forced.”
There are signs, though, that Mr. Krakoff is loosening up. His spring 2014 collection was compelling, said Mr. Burke, the retail consultant. “There were plenty of luxurious silks, cashmeres and leathers that were sophisticated and modern, but not stiff,” he said.
Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a brand consulting firm, chalked up Mr. Krakoff’s bumpy ride to growing pains. “The experience of having some pushback is part of a designer’s maturation process,” he said. “I don’t think he’s been damaged by any of this.”
Certainly, Mr. Krakoff has toughened. “To get on this business,” he allowed the other day, “you need a really thick skin.”
“You need to think it doesn’t matter what other people think,” he continued, “to believe that you can invent something that’s nonnegotiable.”
And then, like a gridiron hero, to run with it.