NEW YORK — Annette Breindel, owner of the Annett B. Showroom, has had one essential rule for 25 years.
“I won’t talk to you unless you bring me your clothes,” said Breindel matter-of-factly. That was her response to designers seeking representation in 1980, and it was the same response she gave designers in 2005. “I just won’t look at their book. I need to see the clothes in person.”
Breindel closed her showroom on June 30 after 25 years in the business. During her career, she cultivated contemporary labels such as Anna Sui, Jill Stuart, Rebecca Taylor and Nanette Lepore, among many others. She said the end of her career is bittersweet.
“It’s an obsessive business, an addictive business,” she said sipping coffee at the lone table in her showroom here at 214 West 39th Street, days before she locked the doors for good. She named the showroom Annett B., sans the “e” on her first name, simply because “it made for a better business card,” she said. The seventh floor space was barren. Wall racks were vacant and stacked boxes were packed for the movers who would cart them to Breindel’s TriBeCa apartment.
As Breindel recalled the events of more than two decades, she laughed at certain memories and shed tears for others. She spoke candidly about her relationships with designers and about the industry.
Breindel grew up in the North Bronx. During summer vacations from high school, which she attended with the late Oscar-winning actress Anne Brancroft, she was a waitress at local restaurants and would save $1,000 each summer and head to Fifth Avenue boutiques to stock her closet for fall. She splurged on plaid coats with fur collars, long velvet dresses and cashmere suits.
“I could name every designer in Loehmann’s,” she said, proudly. “I got my entire education there.”
Briendel said every weekend girls from the neighborhood would borrow her clothes for dates and every Sunday morning they would return them and gossip about their boyfriends. From there, her love of fashion was sparked.
She married immediately after high school and later spent two and a half years in the West Indies with her husband and four children. But when the marriage ended, Breindel moved with the children to TriBeCa. In 1971 she joined the feminist group The Radical Feminist, and in 1980 began merchandising for designer BJ Berti.“She’s the one who really got me into this business,” Breindel said. “I learned how to be an effective merchandiser and how to improve her design.” At that point, she officially opened the Annett B. Showroom.
“I really had a conviction that I wanted to have people bring designers to me,” she said of her strategy. “I would never approach another designer in another showroom. That seemed unethical to me.”
In 1988, a new designer, Anna Sui, contacted her.
“Anna called and said, ‘My rep thinks I should talk to you,’ so she came in and just brought her book,” Breindel said, at this point reiterating her rule. “After I saw her clothes, I flipped out. She was extraordinarily talented,” Breindel said, but added that Sui’s sales were struggling so they tried to figure out why.
“There were complaints about the fit,” Breindel said. “It simply wasn’t good enough.” After some adjustments, Sui designed a group of vests, blouses and fitted pants. “That was probably the best group she’s ever done,” Breindel said. “She sold more than she’d ever sold. That started her on a roll. She really trusted my input.”
Sui was with Breindel for 10 years or, more importantly, until Breindel signed a new client, Jill Stuart.
“Anna always said she wasn’t going to leave, that she had no intention of having her own showroom,” Breindel said. “But when Jill came, Jill’s line took off like a bat out of hell. She has an uptown sensibility, and she’s a quick learner. Her line started getting hot very fast,” Breindel recalled. “Things got intense. Anna is an extremely loyal person, and one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met.”
When the competition between Sui and Stuart heated up, Breindel said Sui didn’t think there was room for both of them at the showroom. Sui, Breindel said, felt protective of her designs and feared being copied. “Anna really believes she invented the kilt. The kilt has been around for thousands of years!” Breindel said.Breindel was forced to choose between them. “If I could never launch anyone else what would happen to my career?” Breindel said she asked herself at the time. She debated at length whether to stick with Sui and have “just one famous designer,” as she put it, or if she should do what she really believed was in her best interest.
“I actually went to a career counselor at the time,” Breindel said. She decided to keep Stuart, resulting in Sui’s departure.
“She would never speak to me again,” Breindel said, her eyes reflecting the emotion of the memory. “I cared about Anna and appreciated her talent, ethics and loyalty.”
Sui was unavailable for comment.
Stuart remained at the Annett B. Showroom for the next three years.
“It’s always a tremendous letdown [when designers leave the showroom], but an expected one,” Breindel said. “It definitely comes as a blow, even though it’s expected, because you become dependent on the income.”
The more well-known designers she represented gave her the financial freedom to take on start-up designers. “It’s like an art gallery in that way,’’ she said. “You can invest in the smaller companies that weren’t doing as well while the main income subsidized them.”
Even when successful companies left the showroom, Breindel never sought to retain a piece of the action. “If other designers in the company were aware of that, I thought they would feel like I had my own interest at heart before theirs,” she said.
Nanette Lepore sought out Breindel after her collection had been out for a few years but wasn’t very profitable. “I loved what I saw, but I said, ‘Pajamas for $650?’” Breindel said. “She needed to bring her prices way down to the contemporary level. Nanette would probably remember me as changing every button [on her designs],” Breindel said, laughing.
Lepore said she had to beg Breindel to carry her line. “She would really make the line go,” Lepore said. “She had really great lines in there, and we were very happy to be a part of the mix. Buyers respected her. If she had the line, buyers would go for it.”Lepore said her company was in debt before joining the showroom. “Within two years, she turned it around. She knew how to merchandise. She could tell who had talent and who didn’t. She didn’t take you unless she thought you had the potential.”
Rebecca Taylor was another designer who honed her skills with Breindel. “She was practical, smart, motivated — I instantly took her,” Breindel said.
Her best years were probably between 1988 and 1998, Breindel said, when she boasted brands such as Anna Sui, Jill Stuart, Nanette Lepore and Chaiken & Capone. Even in 1987, during the recession, Breindel said she was doing well.
Her biggest mistake? “Denim,” she said. “Even if there were 20 jeans lines out there, you can always have 21. I didn’t see that, and it was a mistake,” she said, adding that she was amazed at the influx of denim brands in today’s contemporary market.
“It surprises me that there are so many denim lines doing the same thing. I think denim has ruined the contemporary market. People have put so much of their budget into jeans and tops that designers are really discouraged to do much else,” she said. Breindel also noted that through the years, she’s witnessed the shift in the contemporary market, geographically. “There used to be many more key players in New York, and L.A. was thought of as sweat clothes and junk, but now, California is extremely key,” she said.
In recent years, the showroom housed contemporary labels such as A. Cheng, Saja, Doma and Leah Kes. Before she closed shop, Breindel arranged for the industry’s top showrooms to view her lines so they might ultimately represent them, but at press time wasn’t certain if any deals materialized.
Weeks later in Breindel’s TriBeCa high-rise apartment overlooking Lower Manhattan and the Hudson River, she discussed plans for the future. “Maybe I’d do some consulting — if people approached me,” she said. She is also considering teaching or writing. “Everyone is encouraging me to teach,” she said.
Contemplating the future of the contemporary market, Breindel said, “Anna [Sui] is here to stay. She’ll go down in fashion history. Nanette Lepore knows what you have to do to make money and Rebecca Taylor is enormously creative and smart.”After a pause, she added a final bit of wisdom: “You have a shelf life of about two seconds in this business if you’re not famous.”
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