By  on April 10, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Tim Schifter has a new business partner, and she's not your classic boardroom dweller.

Schifter's new accessories company, Schifter & Partners, launches today with the help of co-shareholder Gwen Stefani, the platinum blonde celebrity of fashion, music and film.

Schifter is building on his track record at New York's LeSportsac: He transformed the functional nylon bag company founded by his parents in 1974 into a youth-friendly fashion brand enhanced by collaborations with style mavens such as Stefani.

Beginning in 2003, LeSportsac issued three collections with Stefani's contemporary label, L.A.M.B., that generated about a third of LeSportsac's more than $100 million in annual wholesale sales. In November, LeSportsac was sold to New York's Accessory Network Group and Japan's Itochu Corp., reportedly for more than $100 million.

At his new venture, which will be based in Manhattan's Flatiron District, the 47-year-old Schifter is reuniting with Stefani, who will help design cosmetic cases, messenger bags, totes, wallets, iPod cases and other accessories for L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers, her lower-priced label that is heavily influenced by Tokyo streetwear and by her music.

Schifter is taking the unusual step of giving Stefani equity in his company. Declining to disclose exactly how much Stefani owns, Schifter said she is "a significant minority partner"; he is the majority shareholder.

Another thing different about Schifter's new company is that rather than focusing on one brand and working on temporary collaborations with labels such as L.A.M.B., Schifter aims to cultivate multiple brands focusing on the contemporary market and youth customers. In addition to L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers, Schifter's portfolio includes Jill Stuart, the 13-year-old contemporary brand designed by the New York designer of the same name.

Schifter & Partners will show some 20 styles from Harajuku Lovers this fall, and follow with about 24 styles from L.A.M.B. and an undetermined number of offerings from Jill Stuart next spring. Retail prices will run $20 to $100 for Harajuku Lovers, $50 to $750 for L.A.M.B. and $125 to $500 for Jill Stuart. A fourth brand — Schifter is considering several candidates — will launch in the fourth quarter of 2007.

"The idea is to transform the handbags and accessories departments of department stores and specialty stores from older and more mature brands into a new generation of brands that truly resonates with the new, young consumer," said Schifter, leaning forward in a wing chair in a Chateau Marmont hotel suite during a visit here last week to hold design meetings with the seven-month-pregnant Stefani. "We really want to think outside of the box with this business."Schifter's move beyond the conventional parameters of the accessories industry underscores the powerful allure that celebrities have in fashion, how far companies will go to maintain exclusivity with hot brands and the tectonic shifts jolting the apparel and retail industries in a global market increasingly dominated by technology-savvy youths who insist on "fast fashion."

Stefani could have granted licenses to the highest bidder who wanted to manufacture accessories for L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers. But having had a taste of creative and commercial success with LeSportsac, she wanted more.

"One season [at LeSportsac] had turned into three, and by the end, we were really starting to get somewhere creatively, but there was only so much you can do being branded with another brand," said Stefani, from the living room of her home in L.A.'s artsy Los Feliz neighborhood in late March.

"After you get the hang of it, you want to go outside the box, and when Tim came to me later and said he was planning to start a new thing, it just came together. It's interesting to be on both sides of the fence because I have yet to have that experience with any of my projects."

While Stefani said she won't be "super involved" on the business side because it's not her passion and she doesn't have the experience, she looks forward to seeing how it develops. "The more experience I get, maybe the more influence I will have," Stefani said.

Stuart, who doesn't own equity in Schifter's company but is assigning him the accessories license, said she and Schifter had flirted with the idea of working together on a multibrand accessories company for some time. On her own, Stuart scored hits with suede hobo bags, leather and silver chokers, and other items in her accessories line. "However, until now, it was orphan to the demands of the numerous [ready-to-wear] lines, kids, footwear, cosmetics and fragrance, and the opening of Jill Stuart [boutiques] in Asia, the Middle East, Spain, Russia, Korea and the U.S.," Stuart wrote in an e-mail sent from Tokyo, where she was on a business trip. "Now, with Tim and our mutual passion, we intend to take the category to a new level."In addition to targeting department stores and boutiques where L.A.M.B.'s and the other brands' apparel already is sold, Schifter plans to expand retail distribution to duty-free shops on international travel routes, shops in Japan and Hong Kong, and the Internet.

Bolstering Schifter & Partners' ambitious plans is a third — and silent — partner: a large Asian fashion group that has extensive sourcing and distribution capabilities that would make Schifter's company a semivertical operation and facilitate global retail expansion in the second half of 2007, according to industry sources. Schifter declined to comment on the third partner or disclose financial projections for his privately held company.

Familiar faces from LeSportsac have joined Schifter's new company, where he is chairman and chief executive officer.

Michael Shapiro, LeSportsac's former chief financial officer, is operations chief; Steven Kane, who was LeSportsac's national sales manager before working at Roots Canada Ltd. and Levi Strauss & Co., is vice president of sales, and Elle Kilpatrick retains the title she had at LeSportsac, vice president of design and product development.

Schifter's wife, Helen, who is a former fashion editor and a frequenter of runway shows, will consult on the development of brands, particularly in the designer arena, for belts, hosiery, jewelry and other categories. Schifter said in the first year, his company will employ 15 full-time people, three of whom will work with Kilpatrick on design.

Schifter has no plans to open freestanding stores. He will update and expand Harajuku Lovers' Web site and initiate an online marketing campaign. "The [Harajuku Lovers] consumer is glued to the Web, providing us with great opportunities to build brand awareness," he said, adding that a L.A.M.B. Web site will launch later this year. Schifter said in the second year, he will launch advertising campaigns for L.A.M.B., Harajuku Lovers and Jill Stuart in fashion magazines targeted at each accessories brand's consumers.

Schifter also is searching for brands that appeal to young consumers and have the cachet to succeed in overseas markets. Additional labels might be obtained through licenses, produced as ventures with other companies or acquired if they are "small accessories companies that Gwen and I think have the DNA for growth," Schifter said, noting that Stefani is the perfect partner for cool-hunting: "She has great personal style and an intuitive sense of what's next."Stefani is modest, crediting Schifter with all the fashion know-how. "Ideas just come," Stefani said. "Designing for me is the easy, fun, passionate part, whereas music is the really hard part. But one really inspires the other."

The inaugural collection of Harajuku Lovers is made entirely of prewashed canvas to suit the budgets and practical needs of Stefani's core fan base, ranging from tweens to twentysomethings. The first collection, inspired by Stefani's songs, includes the themes "Bubble Pop Electric" and "Love Camo." One rectangular shoulder tote from the group, named "Super Frank Rainbow" and featuring every color from a bag of Jolly Rancher candies, uses jacquard-print seat belt webbing for straps. The nylon lining of a messenger bag is printed in a black-and-white pattern imitating ermine, a nod to Stefani's fondness for Hollywood's fur-swathed glamour queens. To meet shoppers' demand for fast fashion, new prints will be delivered every eight weeks.

"The idea is a complete wardrobe of all aspects of Gwen's life and a woman's life," Schifter said.

Don't count on seeing diaper bags and other accoutrements to accommodate Stefani's impending motherhood. Schifter said Stefani has already chosen the roomy camouflage-print messenger bag from the Harajuku Lovers line as her baby bag.

Stefani describes the L.A.M.B. bags as primarily leather, with some printed fabric pieces with leather trim. "What we're working on now is creating a signature, something that will roll over every season. The hardest thing is deciding on a logo or zipper pull. It's those simplest things that will be there forever," Stefani said.

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