By and  on February 6, 2006

NEW YORK - The world of fashion directors is in flux.

Long considered one of the most powerful and highprofile positions in retailing, the job recently has undergone immense turmoil and change, with Bloomingdale's, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus all seeking new fashion directors. Neiman's, which has been searching since October to find a replacement for the retired Joan Kaner, is said to be close to an announcement.

Nordstrom, meanwhile, doesn't even think it needs a fashion director. "We don't have that role," said Pamela Lopez Perret, the retailer's fashion communications director. "We empower merchants to wear both hats - the fashion hat and the merchant's hat."

These differing views are causing more and more observers to ask, "What is the role of a fashion director today?"

With fewer bona fide merchants filling the retail ranks, some contend that fashion directors are needed more than ever to help creatively edit and assort product, and set sharper store images after decades of being driven by numbersoriented buyers and financial concerns. Still, many others in the industry regard the job as increasingly ineffectual, distanced from the senior managers and with diluted fashion duties because of the burdens of new responsibilities. Fashion directors no longer simply track trends and cover designer shows - they are spending as much time on special events; determining product for catalogues, advertising and windows, and supervising public relations.

They are "more into the realities of the business," said Nicole Fischelis, who, for the last year, has been fashion director of Macy's East and rebuilt the fashion office.

At Nordstrom, stores can still make "big money" without a fashion director, but risk losing the edge, said Barbara Atkin, fashion director of Holt Renfrew, the Canadian specialty store known for its luxury assortment.

"Good fashion directors understand innovation,'' Atkin said. "They should become advisers, and must be navigators of change. We have a lot of conviction, but a lot of fashion directors would say the audience [management] isn't listening. You need to have somebody at the top that will partner with you. You need to be fearless."

How that partnership is defined in an era when there are fewer major department store groups, an increasing emphasis on private label and endless pressure from Wall Street to grow compstore sales is a question even many fashion directors can't answer. Longtime retail observers continually bemoan the lack of strong merchants in the industry today as the buying function becomes increasingly geared to promotions, markdowns, special events and the financial side of the business.The days of legendary fashion directors such as the late Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president of fashion direction, seem long gone. Ruttenstein, who died in December at age 69, had enormous impact on the mood and image of the store. He created shops and windows with exclusive merchandise inspired by Broadway and Hollywood, responded to runway collections with knockoffs that were sold before the originals were on the selling floors, nurtured young designers and was supported by the store's top managers. His death has left a big void. "We were very close," said Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's chairman and chief executive officer.

"Kal used to say, 'We are dinosaurs.' I think he meant it, in a way," said Ellin Saltzman, fashion director at the online offprice retailer Bluefly, who was fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue for 15 years and also held that position at Macy's, Limited and Bergdorf's. "Kal proved it wasn't necessary to be a dinosaur. He made trends appear. He could just make it happen.

"I am not sure the role is needed any longer until the stores once again realize they need an image," Saltzman said, adding she believes there are few powerful fashion directors left. "I think Barneys is certainly an exception and Neiman's is an exception" because, by cornering the designer market, they've established distinct identities.

At Saks, "I never had the bottomline responsibility," Saltzman said, but added that she had influence because she reported directly to the ceo. "I had his or her ear - absolutely. John Galliano would have never been at Saks. Marc Jacobs would not have started at Saks if Saks hadn't listened to me. There was so much creativity then."

Bendel's needs to replace fashion director Scott Tepper, who left in the fall, while potential successors for Kaner at Neiman's are said to be Ken Downing, Neiman's vice president of corporate public relations, who does fashion presentations and oversees the store's fashion shows and special events, and Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for Lord & Taylor, who also wears several hats. Olexa has three fashion directors reporting to her, for men's, women's and accessories, as well as Manoel Renha, divisional vice president of visual merchandising, fashion and special events. Olexa is also one of the store's spokeswomen, along with ceo Jane Elfers, and travels to shows and European cities for trend directions.Others reportedly being considered for the Neiman's job are Michael Fink, senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, and Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York.

Sources said the announcement of Kaner's replacement was imminent. It would follow the appointment of Linda Fargo as women's fashion director at the Neiman Marcus Group subsidiary Bergdorf Goodman. Fargo, a highly regarded visual merchandising executive, filled the slot held by Robert Burke, who resigned to start his own consulting firm. She continues to orchestrate windows, instore displays and store designs. Sources said Kaner's replacement at Neiman's will be equally high profile.

"Each store treats its fashion director differently," Kaner said. "Some are merchants. Some are p.r. people. I think the job was valid when I was at Neiman Marcus. I served as not only a style definer each season, picking out what we should stand for, but I sought out other opportunities and new designers that were emerging. I had a merchandising background, so I understood the needs of buyers. I knew what they were up against. I knew they had to make their bottom lines and goals."

Fashion direction has changed, Kaner said. "It's not all about 'Think Pink' anymore. You have to be a merchant. I feel I was always a merchant. I had been a buyer, and had been a merchandise manager and fashion director. I always had that on my side. For most of the people I worked with, that was an asset. I didn't get carried away. I kept a balance between what we sold and how the store was going to look. Fashion can still be relevant and merchandised well.

"I worked very often with the vendors to give them direction, as well," Kaner continued. "Many of them attended my slide presentations. Unless you have a really cuttingedge designer collection, many of them don't have the direction and want guidance. I always tried to temper it with the needs of Neiman Marcus, as well. That was very worthwhile for my people."

Kaner disagreed with the view of some competitors that she was at a disadvantage by being based at Neiman's fashion office here rather than in Dallas, where the corporate headquarters and merchants are situated. "It's imperative to be in New York if you're a fashion director,'' she said. "If you come at different times, you can miss out on a new designer. A merchant can run the store and you, as the fashion director, have visits. I went to Dallas periodically to attend bestseller meetings and other meetings."A year ago, Macy's didn't have a fashion office, but it has since rebuilt one and recruited Nicole Fischelis. Fourteen years ago, when Fischelis was fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, she saw Alexander McQueen's first collection in London and had the ear of Rose Marie Bravo, Saks' president at the time. "I said to Bravo, 'We have to have him.' She said, 'Let's do it.' Very few people went to London. People didn't have the time or didn't think it was important."

Now Fischelis is women's fashion director of Macy's East, reporting to Karen Smith Harvey, senior vice president of fashion forecasting and trend direction. Fischelis is still reviewing collections and trends and attending trade fairs, but also giving PowerPoint presentations twice a year on the 11th floor of the Herald Square flagship, in a conference room with a huge screen and 200 buyers from every division, from sportswear to readytowear to accessories.

"When it comes to all the trend forecasting and presentations, it's the same thing, more or less, but now I am even more into the reality of the business," said Fischelis. "It's all about being quick and very tuned in to results, and tuned in to the item of the season. When the buyers say, 'Thank God we listened to what you said about the military coat, we sold it out,' that's very satisfying. It used to be much more of a social position. Now, you really have to connect with the divisional [merchandise manager] and [general merchandise manager], really understand what product is valid for your company and generate business. If you are not into the commercial side, you don't have credibility."

Fischelis said she influences looks that go into Macy's catalogues, including a black trend section in the fall 2005 issue. "Last season, Paris was very much into black," she said. She's also pushed for winter whites and better designers, including Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Jones Apparel Group, and works with private label buyers on catalogues, including a huge cashmere program for Federated's INC private label. Her efforts, she noted, revolve around Macy's stores attaining "big numbers."

"The role is changing," said Jaqui Lividini, who succeeded Fischelis as Saks' fashion director, and was senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communications. Lividini, now head of a marketing consulting firm, said the fashion job is "evolving into a more creative role, as opposed to strictly merchandisingbased. Then there is the whole spokesperson part, but also developing the persona of the store is very vital. It's truly become not only a merchandising function, but a marketing function, but it depends on the retailer. At Saks, we not only had a say [on] what went into the [marketing] vehicles, we actually developed those vehicles."In the old times, fashion directors worked directly with the merchants,'' she said. "They were in the market. She was a very inside person. Now, it's not only working with merchants about fashion direction, but also putting a public face on it for the consumer. It does vary from store to store, but the power base is much more in marketing than in merchandising. Fashion directors do have the ability to affect what's in the catalogue, windows and what's advertised. That's the public face."

At Saks, Lividini continued, "we were responsible for every aspect of the catalogue except for shooting it. We developed the theme, the pagination, the story. If a store is buying 500,000 units of furtrimmed sweaters, the fashion director doesn't direct that. They may say fur trim is important, but the power of the buy is absolutely in the hands of the merchants."

"When I arrived at Bergdorf Goodman, I felt what had been defined as the role of the fashion director seemed slightly outdated," Burke said. "The fashion director gave direction on trends, hot colors, what was happening on the runway." It was more of a trend spotter, he added. "But we really integrated the fashion office with merchants on how to represent trends and on making a real statement different from other stores'. How it was going to be communicated through advertising, and the Bergdorf Goodman magazine was crucial. The biggest difference today is that it's not enough to be able to say pink is the new hot color. It's how you register that. It's not enough to be a trend spotter. It's how you actualize it."

"I think the job may be more relevant today because buyers have so much responsibility other than looking at merchandise," said Dawn Mello, a former Bergdorf's fashion director and president and Gucci creative director who is now a consultant. "It's much more complicated. Today, the buyer comes into a showroom with a computer. It's a different ball game. There's a lot of pressure. The numbers are extremely important."

Said another retailer: "Top management has to really endorse the job. The person doesn't have bottomline responsibility and is there to make recommendations. Either the buyer accepts that or brushes it off.""I am the radar of the company," Atkin said. "My main goal is to provide fashion direction to senior executives, buyers and the media. I analyze longterm trends and trend analysis. I look at consumer behavior and what the big trends are. I keep my eye on the pendulum of social change. Fashion directors have a gut feeling about the items that can increase the bottom line. We challenge our buyers and say, 'Can you resource this item and find it at a good price that customers will buy into?'"

Atkin, who reports to Holt Renfrew president Caryn Lerner, has been with the store for 18 years and acts as an "internal consultant" in all aspects to the company. She produces fashion forecasts twice a year, nine months before buyers hit the market; identifies hot items and designers, and has been an advocate for new business opportunities, including a fiveyearold shop called the World Design Lab, in Holt Renfrew's Toronto and Montreal stores, featuring new designer collections and great items, regardless of prices. There are also sales associates on the floor who formerly were stylists.

"That was my baby. I sold the idea to my president, and it was the right time for it," Atkin said. "The customers were saying they were seeing the same lines everywhere." It was also a way to break the mold of merchandising by price point. "In actuality, the customer doesn't shop by price point. They mix price points and mix designers on their body. We just pick great items, regardless of price, and house them in one area. There could be a decorative little Tshirt for $75 and jeans for $500 ... next to a bag for $2,500 ... .It gave us the handle to open our budgets and go into the market for brandnew names and incubate brandnew names." Among the designers in WDL is a Canadian designing in Paris, Nicolas Andreas Taralis, who is "redefining the great tailored pantsuit," Atkin said.

"I think that no one understands what the fashion director does because a lot is done behind closed doors," Atkin added. "When I started here, there was no fashion director."

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