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Erin Fetherston: The New Contemporary Girl

The New York-based Californian lives a consummately “art-directed life.”

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Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 01/26/2011

Erin Fetherston lives a consummately “art-directed life.” Those are her words, not ours — although anyone who has ever crossed paths with the New York-based Californian already knows this. Few designers project the perfectly manicured — and perfectly consistent — persona that she does: always smiling, head tilted just so and that platinum blonde hair with long, blunt bangs. As for her clothes, she dresses, without fail, in a dreamy coquette way with sweet dresses and fluid, airy separates. “It’s real. I’m like that all the time,” says Fetherston, when asked if it’s all just an on-camera act. “You should see my apartment. It’s light, feminine and has a sense of whimsy.” And then she says it again: “It’s a totally art-directed life. And my two dogs are perfect in it.” (And how. She has a Chinese crested powderpuff and a bichon Maltese.)

Come fall, the Erin Fetherston lifestyle can be had for a more affordable price. The designer is putting her ready-to-wear collection on hold — “I have plans for the main line at a later date,” is all she’ll say about that — and, in its place, will introduce a contemporary line, Erin, to make its debut during New York Fashion Week. “This isn’t a little-sister line that’s second fiddle to something else,” says Fetherston, who recently named Stefani Zien, formerly of Rachel Roy, the company’s new director of sales and marketing. “I want this to be a stand-alone program.”

Price points aside — which range from $73 to $250 at wholesale — the real difference lies in the clothes: Erin skews more toward everyday wear, with ample ladyfied sportswear. T-shirts are embellished with beadwork and chiffon accents (“like a kiss from a cocktail dress”), a winter parka is done in icy metallic lamé and skinny black pants come with a swath of silk trailing in the back, like a cape. “I still want to create unique things,” she says. “There are plenty of perfect-fitting trousers out there.” Day dresses, simple tanks and blouses and a tuxedo jacket with sheer bishop sleeves round out the collection.

According to Fetherston, her 2007 collaboration with Target and recent partnership with Juicy Couture, which wraps up next month, played heavily in her decision to take a lower-price route. “I became more aware of a large Erin Fetherston fan base that hasn’t necessarily been able to buy into the designer price point,” she says. “I don’t want to leave that girl out anymore.”

The declining economy made an impact, too. “When the climate isn’t good, that really takes the fun out of buying something that’s going to be a $2,000 dress,” she adds. “I don’t want to be so removed anymore. That’s not where we are.”

Such is the reality check that has affected numerous designers of her generation who have made a similar lower-price move of late. Richard Chai, Doo-Ri Chung and Yigal Azrouël have all entered the contemporary market, while Zac Posen added a bridge line. But Fetherston has no regrets about her decision to start with rtw, and during the couture shows in 2005 to boot. “Since I was totally on my own, I could use that opportunity to present myself and my aesthetic as a designer without having the immediate pressure of business demands and production delivery cycles,” she says. “For me, it was great. I was able to give myself a little time.” But she still has a bone to pick with the press coverage from those early years: Reports that her company was funded by her then-boyfriend’s mother are completely false. “This has really plagued me,” she says, her composure breaking for a fiery few seconds. “This business has always been — and is still — a hundred percent my own.”

In fact, Fetherston’s first look book consisted of photographs she took of herself in various outfits, which she then Photoshopped together. “That’s the definition of a one-woman show,” she remarks. “I totally am the Erin girl. It’s never been part of my strategy, but I can see how it helps create context for the brand.” And it’s a brand sensibility that has, at times, landed in the most unconventional categories, such as the tin containers she designed for LU Biscuits in 2009. “It’s easy for me to bring my perspective to almost any kind of visual project. From the beginning, I’ve always had a clear point of view of my universe.”

For the record, Fetherston’s Crème Roulée canister featured a sketch of a girl holding giant wafers shaped like rolls of fabric. The girl, no surprise, sported long, cropped bangs.

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