NARCISO RODRIGUEZ: BRINGING N.Y. SMARTS TO LVMH'S LOEWE

Byline: Sara Raper, Paris / Lisa Lockwood, New York

PARIS--"I've been a Latin living in New York, but I can bring that energy [to Madrid], that edge that the New York streets have," said Narciso Rodriguez, talking about his new position as women's ready-to-wear designer at Loewe, the Madrid-based leather house.
Rodriguez is the latest in a series of hot names joining Bernard Arnault's growing stable of designers. Loewe is a unit of Arnault's LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Loewe president Gerald Maz-zalovo confirmed a Rodriguez report that appeared in these columns Friday.
Rodriguez's appointment--paralleling that of Marc Jacobs at Vuitton--is perceived as an attempt by LVMH to expand Loewe's position in women's wear and to compete aggressively with Hermes and Gucci.
Rodriguez's first runway presentation for Loewe will be at LVMH headquarters here next March for the fall/winter 1998 season.
Discussing Rodriguez's appointment, Mazzalovo, in a telephone interview from Madrid, said, "I think he's a natural. Loewe is a Spanish brand expressing Spanish culture, but it needs a more resolutely modern, contemporary look."
Known for his impeccable tailoring, Rodriguez, 36, received international attention last fall when he designed the wedding dress for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy--a bias-cut pearl silk crepe slipdress with subtle draping in the front and back. He had been design director of Nino Cerruti until last March, when his two-year contract expired. He had spent two seasons as a design consultant at Tse, the luxury sportswear company, and earlier was a design assistant at Calvin Klein Inc.
"I'm so excited," said Rodriguez, who was reached Friday in Loewe's atelier in Madrid. He said he'd been talking to Arnault, LVMH chairman, since his departure from Cerruti in March.
Rodriguez said he'd been contacted by "quite a few people" after he left Cerruti, but noted, "I was very serious about coming here, and this was always my first choice."
"The whole idea of working for an Hispanic company is a natural for me," said Rodriguez, who is a Cuban-American. "The image they have is one of quality and luxury. Everything I've been feeling for the past eight to 10 months is of my Latin side really emerging.
"My goal here is to really make this a more international house and introduce a larger portion of ready-to-wear. They're mainly known for their leathers and accessories, and are very strong in Spain and Asia. We'd like to open more doors in Europe and the U.S."
Both Mazzalovo and Rodriguez said much of the collection will be focused on leather, in keeping with the tradition of the house, which was founded in 1846 and is the official supplier of leather goods to the Spanish court.
Mazzalovo said Loewe decided to show its collection here because Paris was "coming back as the center of fashion." Loewe is interested in competing globally with Gucci and Hermes, and Madrid is too far from center stage. He also noted the city was a natural for Loewe because of Loewe's affiliation with Paris-based LVMH.
Rodriguez said he planned to divide his time between Madrid and New York with stopovers in Paris.
"Someone at dinner last night asked if I had taken an apartment here, and I thought to myself, 'Maybe I should buy a plane first,"' he joked. But he added he probably would look for an apartment. "I'm not a hotel designer.
"I've visited here a few times and I'm really excited to be here. There's no language barrier for me," Rodriguez continued. "It's such a beautiful and romantic city. It seems like a little bit of a windfall."
In February 1996, LVMH, which already had a minority stake in Loewe, bought out the Spanish company.
A statement from the house said Rodriguez would work exclusively for Loewe, but he would be permitted to continue designing under his own label. Asked whether LVMH had offered to back a line under Rodriguez's name--as it had with Christian Dior designer John Galliano--the designer said, "Today I am focused on Loewe."
Both Mazzalovo and Rodriguez declined to disclose the designer's salary.
Rodriguez showed his first fur collection under his own name for Goldin-Feldman in New York last Monday, and he will continue with it.
Mazzalovo said Loewe has had rtw, which was designed by a team, for more than 20 years. Last year, rtw sales were $20 million, 10 percent of Loewe's worldwide consolidated sales of $200 million. Spain and Japan are Loewe's strongest markets. It has 20 boutiques in Spain and 60 in Europe, Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. It also has 10 wholesale accounts in Europe. While Loewe is not sold now in the U.S., executives said the company plans to expand to North and South America.
Rodriguez said he had already visited the rtw factory in Madrid and had gone foraging in the house archives.
"I've taken a look at all the logos since 1846--they're superb," said Rodriguez. He said he will bring members of his own team to Loewe. "They also have amazing people here. I visited factories and saw craftsmen and the quality is unbelievable," Rodriguez added. "My design is very clean, and the quality really shines when you take away the gimmicks.
"Loewe has a strong reputation and image already, and a strong clientele. I want to bring a more useful, sexier look to the collection, and keep all the refinement, elegance and quality that this collection stands for," said Rodriguez.
Asked how he feels about being in such company as John Galliano for Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy and Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Rodriguez said, "I'm totally excited. John and Marc have become friends. Marc and I were in school around the same time, and our friendship has become stronger. John is a new acquaintance. To be included in that group of designers is really an honor for me. I really respect their work."
Rodriguez said the fact that he had been raised speaking Spanish would help him fit in at Loewe. He also said he took to Madrid immediately.
"It totally seduces you. Once you're here, it's like Paris, but more Mediterranean. It's bright and white and there are flowers. It's total seduction here."

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