NEW YORK — If Donna Karan represents the left side of the brain, then Melissa Parker-Lilly is on the right.
Just a few weeks into her new role as president of the Donna Karan New York brand, Parker-Lilly has quickly placed her stamp of orderly, deadline-oriented management upon a designer collection that has been known, at times, to show an allergic reaction to any attempt at discipline.
Case in point: While most American designers have recently pared down or done away with their pre-season collections — the commercial clothes they show to stores ahead of their editorialized runway presentations, Donna Karan opened on Monday with a pre-fall 2003 collection featuring close to 200 samples, a full month ahead of her catwalk show. This early-bird approach is coming from a designer who has often lambasted the industry’s move toward showing fashion trends so far in advance of selling them.
Lots of changes are afoot at Donna Karan International, the American megabrand that has slowly been digested by the French conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton since it made the expensive acquisition in December 2000. Much of that transition has been marked by somewhat antagonistic relations between the designer and the new owners of her brands, contributing to strained relations with some of the company’s key retail accounts. But the mood has quickly changed there since the arrival of Fred Wilson as chief executive officer in September and the appointment of three divisional presidents since.
Although Karan and Parker-Lilly, the former president of the Italian knit firm Agnona, were strangers, they formed a quick rapport for a simple reason, the designer said during a lengthy reflection on the company on Friday: “She gets it,” Karan said. “She gets me.”
Although Karan’s approach to design and everything else in her life would best be described as emotional, Parker-Lilly seems to be able to draw the same conclusions about the Donna Karan customer and her lifestyle using practical logic. In examining the merits of a cashmere backed-leather cape or a reversible leather trenchcoat, Karan and Parker-Lilly often spoke at the same time, talking over each other about different points of interest and ultimately understanding every word the other one said, or at least indicating that they do.
“The most important thing she’s going to do is to make the person who’s going to sell the clothes understand them,” said Karan. “The time and energy that I was putting into these clothes was not really getting out there to the sales floor. She can transfer the design to a consumer level because she has the commercial touch.”
A hallmark of Karan’s designs, despite their feminine and sensual appeal, is that they’re somewhat of a challenge for the average customer to understand. Jackets are often cut with the intention of being pinned together with a large, dangerous-looking hat pin; gowns come with layers upon layers of ravaged tulle or velvet that have, as Karan admits, virtually no hanger appeal.
But to see the designer on the floor of her flagship at 819 Madison Avenue, refusing to hear “no” until an unsuspecting customer at least tries on a look, which they more often than not tend to buy, it becomes apparent that hers is a style that requires the accompaniment of some instruction. One of her long-standing frustrations has been the inability to successfully market a product she calls “sleeves,” which are basically the sleeves of two cashmere sweaters sewn together as if they were a scarf — a practical and easy shrug to take on and off at whim. If only someone could explain.
“It takes some people a little time to get it,” said Karan, noting that the reason for the lack of attention to the management of the collection had more than anything to do with the fast growth of the company’s bridge label, DKNY, throughout much of the Nineties. “DKNY needed an enormous amount of time and attention,” she said. “Donna Karan — it wasn’t, let us put it, the priority.”
Parker-Lilly’s appointment marks the first time an executive has been placed in charge of only the Donna Karan New York men’s and women’s collections, with no responsibilities for DKNY, which is headed by Mary Wang, following the restructuring by brand that Wilson initiated upon becoming ceo. Parker-Lilly’s first priority was to create a clear message of what the collection was and what it should be, and in many respects, the feeling at 550 Seventh Avenue is that Donna Karan is actually starting from scratch as a relaunch.
“We want to operate in a strategic way, to make Donna Karan again the premier women’s ready-to-wear brand in the world,” Parker-Lilly said. “There is no other name that evokes the level of passion that Donna’s name evokes. In the past, people didn’t look at Donna Karan as a brand, but as individual pieces. We want to find what that customer needs as a brand at every level. The quality, the taste, the styling, the whole point of view needs to be seamless.”
If done correctly, Parker-Lilly expects the women’s collection could grow to a $100 million business within a few years, compared with a peak of about $50 million — where retail sources estimate its zenith to be in the mid-Nineties.
Parker-Lilly’s strategy focuses on clear communication, both with Karan and through the various departments of the company, of the nature of the company’s design statement and how to improve its execution, deliveries and distribution. Among the immediate changes, Donna Karan has shifted the production and sourcing of its factories into some of the best available in Italy, relying on Parker-Lilly’s experience in the European market through her prior role at Agnona and the U.S. launch of Loro Piana. Equally important is the dissemination of a consistent strategy throughout the design process and to other product areas, like handbags, home, pantyhose and underwear, as well as maintaining clear deadlines for color choices, design and sample production.
But the biggest change, by far, is the incorporation of an extensive pre-fall collection that puts a clear emphasis on the commercial statement. Karan at first complained about the timing, but ultimately was persuaded to fully get behind the pre-collection, working with Peter Speliopoulos, who returned as vice president and design director for the Donna Karan New York brand.
“Right now, business is a real challenge,” Karan said. “You can’t sit back and say, ‘I’m so-and-so.’ You cannot rely on your name alone because the sales are not going to happen on a hanger. Melissa feels that as viscerally as I do.”
The starting point to the pre-fall collection, they decided, was “black cashmere,” a regular in Karan’s repertoire and the name of her latest fragrance, which was further developed into items the designer calls “cashmere plus” — those which are combined with stretch panels or bonded to leather, for instance. There are suits, dresses and lots of knits, as always, but there are also the addition of options that Parker-Lilly believes will better serve retailers by catering to a more diverse customer base.
A black paillette dress with a low bustier top, for example, also comes in two styles of skirts, one flared and one fitted, with a variety of matching sweater options or a cashmere jacket to better serve shoppers who are wider or shorter than the original style might best flatter. In addition to increasing its focus on knits, Parker-Lilly also believes the company can become a dominant resource in pants and eveningwear.
“Pre-fall is important because we want to build good relationships with the stores,” said Parker-Lilly, who is presenting the line to key accounts like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue this week. “To stores and to designer customers, the trend is to shop earlier and it becomes imperative to have options there for them.”
Parker-Lilly has also instituted some obvious steps to improve relations internally and externally, inviting Donna Karan’s store personnel as well as other retailers’ personal shoppers and key sales associates to sales meetings, so that the people who will ultimately be selling the collection to the designer customers will be armed with the knowledge of how they were made to be worn.
“Donna Karan fell into the same trap of many big European brands: They have become more focused on the idea of a brand instead of a collection,” Parker-Lilly said. “When you do things the right way, you get the right results. We have a team of people who want to do things the right way.”