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NEW YORK — Lafayette 148, a day-into-evening bridge brand, has been building a business without national advertising or lavish fashion shows.

The New York-based company, now in its 10th year, has grown into a profitable $50 million player in the competitive bridge market selling stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as several hundred specialty stores.

Lafayette 148 has plenty of ambition, but aims to take things one step at a time.

“We want to build a brand, and want to do it organically,” said president Deirdre Quinn, noting that for the past few years, the company has been growing about 10 to 15 percent a year. “We don’t want to push people [into buying the line]. You live longer. We believe in investing and not having it happen overnight.”

Competing with Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein and Charles Nolan, among others, Lafayette 148 has carved out a niche for itself with luxurious day-into-evening pieces, feminine separates, knits, leathers and suedes. The line is designed by Edward Wilkerson, a graduate of Parsons School of Design who worked with Donna Karan at Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and later, Donna Karan International. He joined Lafayette 148 in 1998 and is both the creative force behind the brand and the face of the collection. He has been the recipient of both the Dallas Fashion Award and DIVA Award in Atlanta.

Moving production offshore several years ago helped Lafayette 148 turn a critical corner. “Just in the last few years we started making money,” Quinn said. “We had to move manufacturing offshore.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the company moved all of its production to China, where it bought a factory in Shantou, and started to be profitable, she said. This enabled the firm to react quickly, do exclusive orders for customers and have total control over the timing of its production.

“You don’t have to have minimums and you can tailor it to each store,” Quinn said.

More recently, Quinn said she has received acquisition overtures from some of the big conglomerates — declining to name them — and added that she would rather keep Lafayette 148 independent.

This story first appeared in the February 7, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Although the company started out with its own retail stores, she and her Chinese partners, Shun and Ida Siu— who, with Quinn, own 75 percent of the business, the remainder is owned by private investors — quickly learned that was a mistake. Soon after opening five stores in the New York metropolitan area it closed them, never to venture into retail again. Quinn said they found that they didn’t have the name recognition yet to make it in retailing.

Wilkerson spends much of the year putting on fashion shows and making appearances across the U.S. The firm does 225 trunk shows a year, and can rack up as much as $500,000 in a single show. He is well aware of what his customers in different parts of the country want and their figure flaws. For example, Wilkerson said he knows that his customers want to wear long sleeves to cover their arms, and they prefer skirts that hit mid-calf. He also said when he goes to trunk shows his customers always want to see the newest thing and seek interesting details and novelty embellished pieces. The customers range from 35 to 45, with many skewing older. The line is offered in regular, petite and large sizes.

Some of Lafayette 148’s biggest markets are Dallas, Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.

For fall, Lafayette 148 has hired Barbara Gast, who has worked in Italy for firms such as Agnona and Zegna, to head sweater production. She travels back and forth to China and has taught the employees Italian techniques. Fall will be the first knits designed under Gast’s supervision. Knitwear accounts for 23 percent of the collection.

While still a Parsons student, Wilkerson got a job at Anne Klein, working with Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio. The school didn’t even realize Wilkerson was employed and he was often working so many hours at Anne Klein “they’d sew my projects in the office,” he recalled. In his second year, school officials told him they didn’t think he would make it as a designer — when he was already working as one.

Quinn and Wilkerson met years later while working at Donna Karan. Quinn was in production and Wilkerson was an assistant to Karan on the collection. A few years after Quinn left to start her own business, she recruited Wilkerson.

Based at 148 Lafayette Street here (thus the firm’s name), near Chinatown, the company doesn’t show during fashion week. It occupies several floors of the building, and its spacious 5,000-square-foot showroom was designed by Wilkerson four years ago.

Average wholesale prices for fall range from $228 to $498 for jackets, $398 to $798 for leather and shearling jackets, $148 to $348 for skirts, $158 for pants, $178 for day dresses and $498 for evening dresses. Wilkerson said he’d like to start licensing products such as handbags and shoes, and would love someday to do men’s wear.

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