NEW YORK--It's been a slow march for bridge designer Randy Kemper--until this season. After eight years in business, Kemper's wholesale volume reached a modest $12 million in 1994, selling primarily to small specialty stores in mid-sized cities and suburbs, like Gus Mayer in Nashville, Tenn., and Addy's in Newport Beach, Calif. "I've been focused on my product, getting it to represent what I feel is right," said Kemper, during an interview. "Now we can go forward." But with a new multimillion-dollar deal with Mitsukoshi Department Stores and an expansion into new product categories, Kemper said he's finally poised for growth. The Mitsukoshi deal in Japan calls for Kemper to open 500-square-foot in-store shops in up to 18 doors by fall 1996. Two opened in the last month, in Nihonbashi, a section of Tokyo, and Sapporo. Some of the shops will be in Daimaru, another department store chain in Japan, which teams up with Mitsukoshi on certain merchandising efforts for greater buying power. According to Kemper, representatives from Mitsukoshi's merchandising office here approached him about the project after seeing his first fashion show, last fall in Bryant Park. "They will be able to showcase the collection truly," said Mark Attix, vice president of sales, Randy Kemper Corp. "It's a very significant endorsement." Each shop will have a selling staff of three plus two fitting rooms. The shops, designed by FRCH Design Worldwide, have curved sculptural fixtures for a fluid, sensual effect, brushed nickel shelving and neutral floors. Attix and Kemper, who is president of his company, consider the project a prototype for developing business with other department stores and better specialty chains in the U.S. and overseas. Among the big U.S. chains, only a handful of Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Parisian branches carry the label. Abroad, Kemper is sold in five Lane Crawford stores in Hong Kong and Singapore. El Placido in Mexico City will carry the line in the fourth quarter. "We may go forward with him for spring," said Joan Kaner, fashion director for Neiman Marcus, which currently doesn't carry the line but has in the past. "It's cleaner, a little more contemporary, younger and zippier," Kaner said. "He's a little younger and more forward than the other bridge vendors he hangs with," said Michael Hammon, bridge and designer sportswear buyer, of Gus Mayer. Continuing to step up the marketing efforts, Kemper is planning to stage his second major fashion show for his spring line, which will be in Astor Hall in the New York Public Library Oct. 29. He said that for spring, he's selling about 250 specialty doors in the U.S., compared to 175 last year. "This is a pivotal year," said Kemper. At 20, Kemper left his native Philadelphia for Paris and worked at the House of Givenchy as a design assistant. Two years later, he attended the Parsons School of Design and later worked as a design assistant at Hanae Mori, Albert Nipon, JG Hook and Bill Blass, before breaking out on his own. "I've known Randy from when he first went into business in the mid-Eighties," said Barry Stagman, president of the Stagman specialty store in Glencoe, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. "He really went all over the board for a while, starting with that Blass kind of feeling, then getting very contemporary. He was trying to find himself." That could have kept his business from growing faster, but Stagman added that now, "Randy has found his stride." "People don't stop him in the streets, but he does have a following in Richmond," said Robin Scates, a sales associate at the Francis Kahn, a specialty store in Richmond, Va., that sells Kemper. "He designs beautifully fitted jackets--and very affordable," said Scates. "He injects color--teals, dark forest greens, lipstick reds in his jackets" at a time when beige, black and subdued tones rule the market. For his part, the 36-year-old bridge designer said, "I am definitely not interested in trending the market."He defines his style as classic but with a modern element. "It's tricky to pull it off," he said. This year, Kemper has started to develop more relaxed looks for cruise deliveries. He's doing activewear, accessories and more dresses, including viscose items priced at $298, as well as promotional products such as T-shirts and hats for the Japan shops. "We've started to layer in a less-expensive element," Kemper said, though he has always kept his prices reasonable, with jackets retailing in the $350 to $500 range, while consistently offering designer-quality fabrics, styling and detailing for career professionals at bridge prices. "Four hundred dollars is that magic price point. If you get above that, it's considered too expensive," Kemper said. "There's more resistance, unless it's a luxurious blend. Then people get it." In mid-July, Stagman staged a three-day Kemper trunk show. "It was 105 degrees every day, but we sold almost 400 pieces, over $80,000" of Kemper's mohairs and wool styles, Stagman said.
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