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Will He Hit or Miz? Mizrahi Joining Liz Sets Industry Abuzz

Liz Claiborne Inc.'s decision to tap Isaac Mizrahi as creative director of the ailing Liz Claiborne brand got a thumbs-up.

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Liz Claiborne Inc.’s decision to tap Isaac Mizrahi as creative director of the ailing Liz Claiborne brand got a thumbs-up Wednesday from one of the people who perhaps matter most: Terry J. Lundgren, chairman and chief executive of Macy’s Inc.

“It’s a good step — I am encouraged by this move,” said Lundgren. “Obviously the answer will come in the product itself and the response to the product. I’m hopeful Isaac will bring some freshness to the product.”

Macy’s dramatically cut back the brand last year after Claiborne struck an exclusive-collection deal with rival J.C. Penney Co. Inc. Of Mizrahi’s appointment, Lundgren said that, if the product is right, the brand has a chance of regaining some of the space it has lost not only in the last year, but also in the past decade. “It’s definitely been a product issue for a long time,” he said. “Long before Bill [McComb, Liz Claiborne Inc.’s ceo] arrived, the line has been struggling — it’s not a secret. The place to begin is the right product and fashion for the core customer.”

Nor was he the only fashion industry insider to applaud the news. As reported, Mizrahi will be packing up his belongings at the end of the year at Target Corp., where he has been designing an apparel line since 2003, and moving to Claiborne, the $4.99 billion vendor, where he’ll be in charge of creative direction for women’s sportswear, accessories and licensed products, beginning with spring 2009. Sources estimated that Mizrahi’s collection for Target generated in excess of $300 million at retail annually.

He faces immense challenges at Claiborne, however, and the track record of outside designers trying to revive iconic brands is a spotty one at best.

In Europe, bringing in big-name design talent has long been a recipe to the ongoing success of fashion houses, as evidenced by the relationship between Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld. In the Nineties, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief Bernard Arnault was able to raise his company’s visibility by tapping high-profile designers for established names, from Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton to John Galliano at Christian Dior and, more recently, Matthew Williamson at Emilio Pucci. Some designers have been a more successful fit than others, but the ongoing process of importing established talents into mature brands has maintained LVMH’s position as a top fashion conglomerate.

In the U.S., however, efforts to revive major Seventh Avenue houses have so far proven less successful. Anne Klein has had a revolving door of designers, including Charles Nolan, Richard Tyler and Isabel Toledo. Bill Blass went through three designers before bringing in Peter Som, who will show his first fall collection at New York Fashion Week next month. Halston, too, went through a handful of names, including Randolph Duke, Craig Natiello and Bradley Bayou, before it was bought by The Weinstein Co. and Hilco Consumer Capital LLC last year. It is also being relaunched under Versace alum Marco Zanini during fashion week.

Whether Mizrahi is the best choice for the Liz Claiborne brand remains to be seen, but observers feel his personality, color sense and talent could help propel the collection out of the doldrums. Claiborne’s stock jumped 5 percent, or 83 cents, to $17.23 on Wednesday.

Louis Dell’Olio, who designed Anne Klein for many years, said designing for an existing fashion house comes with a myriad of challenges, from the money the parent invests into the new designer’s stab at success to the time it allows him or her to put their own stamp on the label. “You can’t expect to hit a home run with one season or two seasons,” Dell’Olio said. “You have to let it really grow, but companies today are in such a rush to have huge successes. The major thing is to let the designers settle, let them get to know the company, and for the consumer to get to know the designer’s product.”

Dell’Olio said Mizrahi should remain true to himself. “You can never try and design for a company. You have to design clothes that you love. Isaac is a very creative designer. He has great ideas, and he has an incredible color sense. I don’t know who the Liz Claiborne customer is anymore, so Isaac has to create a new one. That will be his biggest challenge.”

Michael Vollbracht, the former designer at Bill Blass, concurred that creative freedom is a key ingredient to success. “The challenge is the management,” Vollbracht said. “The designer is the most important element that runs everything. If you’re hiring real talent, leave them alone, or don’t hire them. Isaac is an extraordinarily talented man. You have to let the designer really go at it alone. I think he will land on his feet.”

“I think it is a genius move for Liz Claiborne, and it will be fun for Isaac,” said Diane von Furstenberg.

Marc Gobé, president of Emotional Branding, a consulting firm, observed, “Finally, the value of design and designers is recognized as one of the most powerful elements of a brand’s success. The age of commodities is over — people want to have emotional experiences, and this is something only designers can deliver.”

Gobé compared the strategy of McComb, who came to the apparel world from Johnson & Johnson in November 2006, with that of LVMH’s Arnault. “When Bernard Arnault bought those brands, his first task was to bring in really powerful creative designers, and people welcomed that,” Gobé said, citing such designers as Jacobs and Galliano.

Of course, the better-priced Liz Claiborne — a quintessential American brand in the mass marketplace — is more than a pond away from those design houses, but Gobé maintains that the importance of the designer is no less in Claiborne’s channel of distribution.

“Good designers, whether they are luxury designers or designing for the mass market, really understand the audience they are designing for,” Gobé said. “That was the success of Target, and that is probably a lot of the learning Isaac will bring to Liz Claiborne.”

Sources agreed that, in the halls of Target for the last five years, Mizrahi has learned about the mainstream woman. While his couture and designer collections can be flamboyant and theatrical, his Target line showed he can deliver basics with style at a price.

“It’s an inspired and, at the same time, perfectly natural marriage,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president and women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, which in 2003 brought Mizrahi’s designer line back to life after his fashion house was closed by parent company Chanel in 1998. “Everything Isaac designs is infused with his exuberance, exciting color sense, wit and charm, whether it’s his luxurious interpretations, which he creates exclusively for us at Bergdorf’s, or it’s his quintessentially American sportswear pieces. Isaac is a ‘made in America’ story personally, as was Liz Claiborne, and that quality filters through his work. Isaac lives in many worlds, and was one of the first designers to make us all confront the reality that, stylistically, most of us embrace a mix of high-low as our own personal style options.”

But does Mizrahi, known for his flamboyant and theatrical looks, have the common touch needed to make great basic daywear for the working woman — the very foundation of the Claiborne brand?

“Today, the concept of the working woman is very different than it was when Liz Claiborne started her brand,” said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Saks Fifth Avenue. “The working woman today works in a lot of different settings, has a lot of options for clothing and is looking for fashion and newness in her dress. Isaac can deliver a fresh perspective to this woman.”

When asked if Saks Fifth Avenue would consider carrying the better-priced line once it is in the hands of Mizrahi, Boitano said Saks is “always open to looking at new ideas and new product.”

The issue, of course, is less about whether high-end specialty stores such as Saks pick up the label, and more about whether Macy’s and other department stores will give a Mizrahi-designed Liz Claiborne back some of the space it has lost.

Sources said retailers cut back spring orders 30 percent, on top of 50 percent cuts last year, on top of gradual cuts for the last decade. Macy’s drastically cut back orders last year, partly as a response to the creation of the diffusion Liz & Co. line for J.C. Penney, which Mizrahi will not design.

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of women’s at Macy’s, said, “I know Isaac very well from when I was fashion director at Saks. He has a sense of whimsy and he’s a color artiste.”

After doing trunk shows with the designer at Saks, Fischelis — who praised exiting designer Richard Ostell for doing “a remarkable job at repositioning Liz Claiborne with a modern and refined attitude” — said she hopes Mizrahi will continue the work of the in-store appearances and fashion shows for the brand that Tim Gunn, Liz Claiborne Inc. chief creative officer, has been making at Macy’s stores this fall. “If Isaac is willing to take some of that, it’s going to be extraordinary, because he is such a natural talent with such a wit and presence.”

Fischelis agreed with McComb that Mizrahi’s designing of only the flagship women’s line answers the question of differentiation from diffusion lines, like Liz & Co. at J.C. Penney, which triggered some of the rift this year between Macy’s and Claiborne.

Although Liz Claiborne is a well-known brand, it has lost its relevancy, said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s a huge challenge to revive a fading brand — more so than launching a new brand — because you first have to change what people currently think about it,” Calkins said. “The biggest thing is you need news, to give people a reason to rethink the brand, and they’ve done a great job in coming up with very big news in picking a very big designer.”

While such a high-profile change can quickly improve the distribution to help the brand gain space, Calkins said, it takes longer to change consumer perceptions. But, he added, “the more they can focus on Isaac Mizrahi, which is the stronger brand now, the faster the change will be.”

The Liz Claiborne flagship brand represents almost a quarter of its parent company’s volume — notably the quarter that has been sinking while power brands Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans and Kate Spade grow. Sales of the core brand have been cut in half from their height of about $2 billion in the early Nineties to about $1 billion today. The Liz Claiborne brand family, which now also includes Liz & Co., Concepts by Claiborne, Claiborne, Axcess and Villager, brought in $1.5 billion in sales last year. While McComb has set his sights relatively low — stabilizing the losses, as opposed to growing the brand — its sizable volume has been a constant cause of concern for the public company, as its losses offset gains elsewhere.

Part of the problem is that the whole retail landscape — and the better floor in particular — is struggling. Mizrahi joins other designer names that are attached to the better floor: Michael Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta with the O Oscar line and Calvin Klein with its white label.

“But the big difference from the other better brands is that he is both the designer and the name,” said Andrew Jassin, managing director of the New York consulting firm Jassin-O’Rourke Group. “He’s actually there, he’s touchable, he’s a presence retailers can work with.”

Although Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, said the Liz Claiborne brand was not too far gone to be resuscitated, he said: “It will take an awful lot to reclaim even a portion of the brand power it had.

“History has shown [Mizrahi’s] ability to bring the product to a level of wearable fashion and value,” Cohen continued. “The key will be if he can do it with a wider competitive landscape. The success at Target was about value, exceeding style expectations and timing. This is a bit different. In Target, it practically stood alone. Here it will have to thrive, not just survive, amongst a bevy of brands trying to do the same thing.”

Peter Arnell, chairman and chief creative executive officer of Arnell Group, did marketing for Mizrahi in the Nineties. For marketing the new Liz Claiborne line, Arnell simply recommends, “interviewing him and asking him why he’s doing it. That’s all they need — to get his voice out there — they don’t need to do marketing.”

Arnell called Claiborne’s enlisting of Mizrahi brilliant. “That brand deserves a real reengineering that would take it into its rightful original brand positioning,” Arnell said. “If this is done right, America will get what it hasn’t had for a long time: a resurgence of a talent at this level of the market.”

Abbey Doneger, president of The Doneger Group, said, “Clearly Isaac understands the consumer at all levels of distribution. [Mizrahi] has almost celebrity status — that’s significant in any branding strategy today. It’s a great move for Liz Claiborne, and consumers will get it.

“With Isaac Mizrahi joining Claiborne, I’m sure there will be other talented people who will join him,” Doneger added. “It’s an infusion of some new thinking and creativity into the Claiborne business, which is always exciting.”

In an interview, Dave McTague, executive vice president of partnered brands for Liz Claiborne Inc., dodged specifying whether Mizrahi will work with the former Claiborne design staff or clean house.

Some observers believe that Mizrahi is too closely associated with Target, and that could pose a problem when developing a department store following.

Craig Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, said he was “not so certain Isaac Mizrahi will do it at Liz from a brand point of view.

“If you believe fashion isn’t about fabric but about newness, Isaac isn’t new and wasn’t even new at Target anymore. Maybe he has some cards up his sleeve and is planning on reinventing himself,” said Johnson.

Johnson added that he’s not sure if “Isaac is a tomorrow brand, a today brand or even a yesterday brand that will propel Liz into the future. He started as an upscale brand and went from class to mass. Now it seems he is starting to go back in the other direction, but I am not sure how successful he will be. He can’t hurt Liz, but I am not sure how much he will help.”

He said Liz Claiborne needs a “major shot in the arm. It has been heading downhill and no one is applying the brakes. What does Liz stand for to the consumer? I’m not really sure.”

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