LOS ANGELES — Robert Rodriguez is giving Charlize Theron, Hilary Duff and other celebrity clients another reason to dress up.
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Los Angeles-based designer is creating an eveningwear line to begin selling for holiday that injects a youthful edge in gowns, cocktail dresses and separates of chiffon, taffeta and tulle. Robert Rodriguez Black Label is an extension of his namesake contemporary sportswear line, a sophisticated offering that includes fur boleros, lace blouses and sequined shift dresses.
Rodriguez said his red-carpet goal is based partly on locale. “We are in Hollywood,” he said.
But he also wants to modernize the eveningwear category with details such as raw edges on chiffon and satin ribbon, pockets in which a woman can slip a cell phone and sportswear-inspired separates.
“I didn’t want to make an eveningwear collection that was beaded from head to toe,” Rodriguez said in his Zen-inspired downtown showroom that is decorated with river rocks and wood panels. “I wanted to take it to the next level. There are women out there who want to feel edgy.”
Rodriguez spotted a void in the market for formal separates. He is offering six separates, such as a matador-style jacket covered with tiny metal rings, high-waisted pleated shorts in silk taffeta and tuxedo-style pants in crepe accentuated with frilly passementerie running down the sides. They are in addition to 16 dresses, including a purple knee-length chiffon style accentuated with rosettes climbing up one shoulder and a floor-grazing black tulle sheath hand-appliquéd with rows of silk grosgrain ribbon.
“This they can wear with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt if they want,” Rodriguez said, pointing to a silk tulle vest embellished with silk grosgrain ribbon, jet beads and silk thread balls. “I don’t think [women] expect to see a cool evening separate that she can feel glamorous in.”
Creating formal looks is a throwback to the early days of his career. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Rodriguez assisted the women’s eveningwear designer Geri Gerald at Christian Dior and designed eveningwear at Laundry by Shelli Segal.
Rodriguez, 43, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at age four, said he decided to focus on sportswear in 2003 when he started his contemporary business because it was a lucrative market. He’s always included cocktail dresses in his contemporary line, which recently provided a gray rosette number for Theron’s appearance on “Late Show with David Letterman” and a high-waisted pencil skirt for Tyra Banks to wear to a gala in West Hollywood. But Rodriguez noted, “evening and sportswear aren’t the same thing.”
Wholesaling from $315 to $615, the eveningwear line is projected to generate $2 million in annual wholesale sales, said Nicola Guarna, Rodriguez’s business partner who is chief executive officer of Moda Nicola International LLC in Los Angeles. The designer’s sportswear, which wholesales from $125 to $245, generates more than $20 million in annual sales through retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Ron Herman and Harrods.
Acknowledging the slowing retail market, Guarna said he is being cautious with the eveningwear business, a precursor to Rodriguez’s plans to open his first store in Los Angeles next year, a boutique in New York before yearend and offer handbags in 2010. “We’re not launching [eveningwear] to everyone,” Guarna said. “We are focusing on the existing retailers.”
Despite sourcing the tulle from France and crepe, taffeta and satin from Italy, Robert Rodriguez Black Label is priced competitively with European lines because of the favorable exchange rate from a weak dollar and a decision to produce the clothing in the U.S., China and South Korea.
“It’s not like you’re buying a couture dress for $35,000,” Rodriguez said. “But you’re getting a couture look for that price.”