By  on April 29, 2008

NEW YORK — The Bill Blass New York showroom at 501 Seventh Avenue is an elegant space with white furnishings, blonde wood accents and a large round table in the center of the room at which buyers can sit and write orders. But there are no traditional buyers here. The direct-sales brand isn't sold in department or specialty stores. Rather, independent sales consultants hold trunk shows in their homes, inviting their friends and neighbors to shop.

Bill Blass International in 2006 licensed Bill Blass New York, the first direct-sales designer collection. The company, which is owned by Angelo Gordon & Co., a privately held investment firm, offers four collections a year with looks ranging from casual- to eveningwear, priced above bridge and below designer.

Ann Acierno, who was president of new business development at Tommy Hilfiger, where she conceived and launched Karl Lagerfeld and H Hilfiger, was named chief executive officer of Bill Blass New York in November. She declined to divulge the company's sales volume, saying only that it is profitable. But she is working toward reaching the $50 million sales mark in two years.

Bill Blass New York differs from Bill Blass Couture, which is owned by NexCen, a brand management company and sold at Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, among other stores. NexCen acquired the Bill Blass brand last year.

"The only thing that's different about this product is the way it's distributed," Acierno said about Bill Blass New York. "This is well-made clothing. We use Italian fabrics and designer details. It doesn't have a secondary line aesthetic. It's the same aesthetic as Bill Blass Couture. It's for the woman who wants a designer product and name, but doesn't want to pay designer prices."

Direct-sales fashion companies such as Carlisle Collection, Worth and Doncaster largely have kept a low profile. "We want to be above the radar to drive the business," said Acierno, who is working with a public relations firm to get the word out. Nationwide, there are about 200 sales associates, the most successful of whom can earn $300,000 or more. Acierno said there's room for as many as 500 in the U.S."We're looking at reaching out in different ways other than trunk shows," she said. "We're looking for new distribution channels. We'd consider doing an e-commerce site, but only if sales went through the associates."

Jose Solis, who trained with Anne Klein and Ralph Lauren, designs the collection, which is geared for women ages 30 and older. For summer, there's a sarong dress in a parachute and cotton fabric tied with a gold rope belt for $695; a fuchsia jacket in silk and cotton with hand-carved buttons, $650; a long, sleeveless, hand-pleated dress, $695; a flower-print silk skirt, $495, and a black sleeveless dress with hand-embroidered flowers, $1,295.

Cathy Miller, a sales consultant in Lexington, Ky., owned a boutique and worked for Worth for 12 years. She came out of retirement to join Bill Blass New York a year ago. "They respond quickly to trends and don't water down the integrity of a design to make it appealing for the masses," said Miller, who has about 800 to 1,000 clients on her list. "I see about 10 appointments per day. People can easily spend $20,000 to $30,000. It's a huge, huge business."

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