THE COMFORT ZONE

Byline: STACI BONNER

ATLANTA--If it was up to California designer David Dart, executives in power suits would all shed their heels and hose and climb into his soft linen separates. Dart's design philosophy transcends regions, markets and even seasons. His easygoing dresses and separates in soft colors and fabrics exude comfort--something Dart feels his customers all crave. "I think people dress the same no matter where they live. We used to think that the Dallas and Atlanta customer wanted something different, but we looked at our accounts, and that really isn't the case," he says. Dart gets to know his customers' needs by meeting women who wear his clothing at trunk shows around the country. "When I see certain customers coming back time after time, it sometimes just blows me away," he says. Dart's company was launched in 1987 and is quickly becoming a fashion empire, with $40 million in sales last year. The 32-year-old designer is known for his easy chic look, putting a California sensibility into lightweight fabrics.
Now the designer has taken his company to the next level. The David Dart label has been acquired by Kellwood, a $2.8 billion company. "It was time," Dart explains. "We got to the point where we wanted to sell our garment company. Luckily, we built it to a great place and hit a certain volume point where it was possible to do this. Becoming a designer name brand is like a dream come true, really." Dart is president and design director of the company and says the Kellwood acquisition of his name won't change the line's output or designs. "It will not affect anything creatively. It really just gives us a lot more strength in the industry. Now I have a billion-dollar company behind me. I've been able to hire incredibly knowledgeable, experienced people and put those people in key positions," explains Dart. He notices that his soft separates are increasingly worn in the office, and not just on dress-down days. "Women are realizing they can wear fashionable clothing and be comfortable at the same time. Our customer wants clothing to look good without being constructed. Life in general is getting more difficult, and women don't want to work at their clothes. They don't have time for that." If the distinction between work and weekend wear is becoming blurred, that's fine with Dart. "We see ourselves as a lifestyle clothing company," he says, adding "it's up to the customer to decide" if it's acceptable to show up for work decked out in Dart. He points out that some higher-level execs can do just that. "It depends on who you are and what you do. The chief executive officer of Warnaco, Linda Wachner, was on the cover of USA Today wearing David Dart linen."
David Dart's new spring and summer collection features plenty of the soft fabrics which the 10-year-old line is known for. There are sandwashed silks as well as linens that are laundered, yarn-dyed and salt-water washed. "Linens are definitely key for us, especially for the early part of the year. I'm trying to be as creative as possible with them. Right now, we're experimenting with some silk and linen blends." Straight-leg trousers with side pockets and a front-button jacket are bestsellers in every market and region. These pieces have been customer favorites for years, in various colors and fabrics. "It doesn't matter what store or what season it is, they always do well. We're constantly adapting them, recoloring them, reinterpreting them. Women love the linen trousers. They're much more casual than velvet trousers."
Tencel, the ecologically friendly Italian fabric, is also extremely popular in the collection. "It looks like denim, but feels like silk," he said. Prints are also a cornerstone of Dart's designs. He frequently travels to Europe searching design houses for interesting patterns. The spring group features custom prints in whimsical teapot and flower designs, and conversational prints in black and white.
Before being featured as guest designer at Rich's Lovett Show in Atlanta, Dart won awards at both the Dallas and California markets, where he was named 1994 California Designer of the Year. At that California ceremony, talk show host Ricki Lake made her runway debut in Dart's rayon tunic and sandwashed silk and linen jacket, proving the point that you don't have to be rail-thin and tall to wear Dart's clothes well.
Dart says his customer is "from 30 up."
"She has a complete life, which might include a career, taking kids to school, grocery shopping," Dart says. She's definitely a woman with her own mind-set." He says his customer is typically fashion savvy, but doesn't follow trends blindly. "She may know pastels are happening for spring, but wants to wait until she feels it's right for her. We are doing what's best
for our customer, instead of just do-ing everything that everybody else does."
Retailers recognize the increasing market for Dart's casual "everywoman" clothing. "We feel David Dart reaches a growing segment of the market for us. This customer doesn't necessarily wear a suit to work and jeans on the weekend. She wants a relaxed, put-together look seven days a week," says Russell Stravitz, chairman and chief executive officer of Rich's. "I would hope that my customers mix and match within the different collections, season to season, year to year," says Dart. He makes it easy, since his various collections share common ground. Like his fabrics, the colors are soft: subtle pastels, black and white, khaki, sand and spice are featured for spring. The collection is moderately priced, with wholesale sales ranging from $35 to $95.
"In each group, there's such a wide range of color. For collections, we have to think of the customer who doesn't want black," he explains. "Basically, we do what's right for our customer." Dart notes a predominance of salmon, indigo and light blue in his new collection. The designer line copes with a fast-paced production schedule. New designs are sent to stores every month to keep the displays fresh. "All the stores want a new group every month. We ship a lot of product, which can sometimes be a problem as a design team. I don't know whether we're burning out our customers. I hope not."
Dart currently has two boutiques, with a third store in Newport Beach's Fashion Island set to open later this year. The spring-summer collection is available at major national department store chains and specialty stores, with in-store boutiques at Rich's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Dart forecasts $50 million in sales for 1995.

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