By  on March 3, 2005

NEW YORK — Barbara Cavanagh had an epiphany of sorts in September.

En route from Paris to Première Vision, it became clear to Kellwood New England’s president that the bridge customer and her shopping patterns had changed enormously over the past few years, and she came to a single conclusion: Kellwood’s Bill Burns division needed a makeover.

So she literally turned to David Landauer, Bill Burns’ vice president and creative director accompanying her in the car, and announced that she was shifting gears and changing the creative direction of the line, effective immediately.

“I said to David, ‘We will have to do this and if we don’t do this, then we are going to have to close the doors.’ I made the decision then and there,” Cavanagh recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘We need to start all over again and change the whole concept of this line.’”

Landauer, who was caught off guard, quickly adjusted to the new game plan. “I had 20 minutes to absorb it and then I had to run into fabric appointments thinking, ‘What am I looking for?’” he said. “It was hysterical. I had to process it and look at everything from a fresh perspective. Ultimately, it was very exciting.”

The designer twisted and tweaked items in the following spring collection, but offered the complete makeover for fall, which Kellwood is presenting to specialty stores. The collection consists of items such as cashmere and silk argyle V-neck sweaters, stretch silk georgette bow-tie blouses, leopard flocked stretch tweed skirts, cotton velvet jeans, silk cashmere wraps and crushed tie-dye velvet blazers.

It’s a far cry from the Bill Burns the customer has come to know over the years. The label stood for classic, men’s wear-inspired tailoring with plenty of structured suits and jackets, pants and skirts, all cut from the same cloth to offer women ways to coordinate their separates. Its mission statement was to give women a look for the boardroom and very few other places. Bill Burns, like many others in the bridge segment, seemed stuck in that mantra. But as the customer was becoming less traditional in her fashion choices, looking for more items and shunning the standard bridge resources for contemporary lines, the time seemed ripe for a Bill Burns makeover.For fall, Landauer was inspired by vintage prints he found in the Fashion Institute of Technology archives. He assembled a collection of separates in fabrics such as silk corduroy, silk cashmere, stretch cotton and cotton velvet. Italy accounts for 75 percent of the production, while Asia manufactures the rest. Wholesale price points range from $77 to $239.

“Before, it was a short jacket, a long jacket, a classic pant, a clean skirt and a novelty skirt and it was all done in one fabric. At the very most, you’ll now see two pieces in one fabric and typically we won’t even show them together. We will show them as items and options,” said Stacy Esser, vice president of sales. “[Before] it was very specific to career woman, whereas now it speaks to the many lives.”

A Kellwood spokeswoman declined to disclose Bill Burns’ current wholesale volume; however, industry sources peg it between $10 million and $12 million. For spring, the line was picked up by 50 specialty stores, including Cameron Clothing Co. in Raleigh, N.C., Maison Weiss in Jackson, Miss., and Beginnings in Scarsdale, N.Y. Esser said she is projecting to be in about 300 specialty stores for fall, adding that the average wholesale order is about $12,000.

“We are choosing our retail partners very cautiously, selectively,” Esser said. “We feel the specialty store market is extremely important and we want to make sure our retail partners project the image of the line consistently.”

As for future line expansions, Cavanagh said the label will venture into accessories eventually, but there are no imminent plans.

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