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Men’s wear designer Steven Cox of Duckie Brown has a pipe dream about women’s wear. The plot plays out a lot like the Tilda Swinton film “Orlando”: Swinton starts off as a man and, centuries later, becomes a woman. “I have this secret fantasy that Duckie Brown will turn organically into a women’s line without anybody knowing it,” Cox explains. In reality, he and his partner Daniel Silver are in talks to develop a lower-priced line, which would include both men’s and women’s. Though no date has been set, they’re aiming for fall 2010.
The Duckie Brown duo aren’t the only men’s wear types seduced by the notion of women’s wear. Click here to view women’s looks by men’s wear designers>>
Though it’s hardly a new idea — after all, Ralph Lauren started by peddling neckties — quite a few men’s designers have recently tossed their hats into the distaff ring. Kris Van Assche, Band of Outsiders’ Scott Sternberg and Obedient Sons’ Swaim and Christina Hutson already have women’s lines. Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments and Fraser Moss and Jimmy Collins of YMC launched women’s collections for fall ’08, while spring ’09 saw the debut of women’s from Endovanera, the relaunch of the category by Gilded Age (after an earlier failed effort) and expanded, full collections from both Oliver Spencer and Nice Collective. Simon Spurr and Michael Bastian are also contemplating the move, Bastian saying it’s not a matter of if but when.
Why the sudden surge? One reason is that, with the economy tanking, companies are trying to tap new turf. “The men’s market is quite small compared to the women’s,” says Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone. “I mean, there’s a reason there are more women’s fashion magazines. The men’s opportunity from a business perspective is not that big unless you’re in a mass arena like J. Crew.” Rag & Bone’s women’s line, launched in 2005, three years after the company’s debut, now accounts for 70 percent of overall sales.
“It comes down to brand awareness,” says Spurr. “It’s much easier to establish a brand if you have a women’s arm to it.” And, some note, it’s easier to break into women’s from the men’s arena than as a complete start-up. “The competition for women’s is probably tenfold,” says Endovanera’s Mitch Moseley. “I imagine it would be quite difficult to launch a women’s line now from the ground up.”
Indeed, the fact that women are familiar with, and interested in, a men’s label is often cited as an advantage. “It was a smart transition for a lot of these designers,” says Paul Birardi, who co-owns the Manhattan men’s boutique Odin with Eddy Chai (brother of Richard). “You would see women coming into our store and actually trying to get an extra small or a double-extra small.” Recently, the two opened Pas de Deux, their first women’s outlet, on East 11th Street; many of the pieces they stock are by designers who also sell to Odin. “The women [we know] were a bit alienated by the overly feminine offerings in the market, and we wanted to provide another window,” says Nice Collective’s Joe Haller.
Or as YMC’s Moss and Collins bluntly point out via e-mail: “Not all girls wear dresses.” Which isn’t to say these designers aren’t offering frocks, too. The sensibility of the styles, however, is often rooted in a masculine approach, even if women’s allows for more flexing of the creative muscles. Case in point: Endovanera’s ruffled bloomers, which, despite those trimmings, seem more basketball-shorts sporty than frilly.
Tempering mannish design is but one crossover challenge. Another essential to master: fit. “There aren’t that many guy types,” says Wainwright. “Girls come in so many different sizes and shapes. It took us a while to realize girls had to have stretch denim.” The women’s market, moreover, moves at a dramatically faster pace. “You have to stay pretty consistent with men’s wear,” notes Sternberg. But, adds Wainwright, “You can’t just keep redoing versions of your men’s wear. A girl will adopt a look very, very fast. You can have the core influences and the core ideals of men’s wear details or tailoring, whatever your particular brand aesthetic is, but you have to evolve quicker.” As Steven Alan puts it, “You have to reinvent each season.”
Along the way, men’s designers who have crossed must negotiate that nimble dance between their men’s and women’s collections. On that point, just how distinct a voice to give each collection is up for debate. Haller notes that Nice Collective’s men’s and women’s lines mirror each other for spring, but that he and co-owner Ian Hannula plan to give them more independent identities in seasons to come. Ditto for Sternberg. “The carryover [between Boy and Band of Outsiders] is going to become less and less,” he says. “So much so that I don’t even know if I’ll show them in the same space.”
And then there’s Tim Hamilton. He’s jumping into the women’s market with a tight 10-look lineup for fall 2009 and promises the designs will be worlds apart from his men’s. “It’s not going to be shown with men’s; it’s not going to be inspired by the men’s wear,” he remarks. “And it’s not going to be the girlfriend or wife of Tim Hamilton men’s. I think it’s kind of corny to pair them up.” Rather, his women’s debut, which targets those twenty- and thirtysomething cosmopolitan career girls, will take a feminine yet architectural approach that draws from his mother’s youth in the late Fifties and early Sixties. “Strong, sexy and bold,” he notes.
The bottom line is that designers of small men’s businesses often see limited growth potential in that arena and are thus lured by the promise of women’s wear. “At the end of the day, fashion is a business. Women’s wear will help line the pockets,” says Spurr. “With this economy, there are two ways of approaching business right now. You either tighten your belt, sit tight and ride the roller coaster, or you push hard and you push strong.”