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CFDA Panel Offers Advice on Business

The Council of Fashion Designers of America offered a crash course in business for aspiring and up-and-coming designers Wednesday at Saks Fifth Avenue — the first of a three-part lecture series.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America offered a crash course in business for aspiring and up-and-coming designers Wednesday at Saks Fifth Avenue — the first of a three-part lecture series.

Four panelists — Peter Arnell, chairman and chief creative officer of the Arnell Group; Kimberly Grabel, Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president, marketing; Nanette Lepore, and Kristina O’Neill, Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion news, feature director — talked about their views on such subjects as celebrity gift-giving, unsolicited e-mails, runway shows and media-savvy consumers.

Arnell recalled how after studying architecture and engineering at Columbia University, he taught at Princeton University but agreed to work for Dawn Mello at Bergdorf Goodman designing windows and creating ads to help pay the bills. Through Mello he met Donna Karan, for whom he wound up creating ad campaigns.

“I don’t think anyone in this day and age can plot out a road map. They just have to really listen and decide what they want to do,” Arnell said.

Lepore said her company has always centered on product rather than marketing. One of her first hires was a patternmaker — “I knew my limitations,” she said.

Fit trumps hype, according to Lepore. “Everyone is trying to rush to do a show. I think it’s ill-advised,” she said. “The stores give you one or two seasons and then you’re out if you can’t pull your own weight.”

Grabel said Saks looks for the combination of “a gifted, talented designer and a really good business partner.” Young designers need to have a clear sense of who they are designing for and the marketplace void they are hoping to fill.

O’Neill advised newcomers to pace themselves: “Let your résumé develop. Put your time in.”

Courting celebrities was another matter. When Lepore was starting her business, she worried about giving freebies to friends and family, but her accountant assured her that was good for business. “The more people wearing the clothing, the better, even though it’s not Sienna Miller and it’s your neighbor. Give them really good prices or give them clothing to get your message out there,” she said.