NEW YORK — Chetta B is a rare Seventh Avenue animal.
While many of its species of independently operated ready-to-wear firms have become extinct and others have joined a larger herd, this bridge-priced dress and suit house has been run by the same person — Howard Bloom — with the same designers — sister Sherrie Bloom and Peter Noviello — for 25 years.
That's not to say the company hasn't evolved with the times. Its survival is proof of that, the three insisted in an interview at the firm's showroom and offices at 530 Seventh Avenue. The firm moved to its current home four years ago after 21 years at 498 Seventh Avenue when what had been known as the "dress building" decided to attract nonfashion clientele.
Another major change in the company, which had sales of about $20 million last year, is the evolution over the last 10 years as to where it makes its merchandise.
"We've become a 97 percent importer from 100 percent domestic in the last 10 years," Howard Bloom said. "I get a better product. I get product I couldn't manufacture here, especially from factories that specialize in this kind of handwork and beading. You go to China, where they have gorgeous factories, everything's brand new and they're proud to be in that business. Here, you go to a factory and it's old and dark and dank, they haven't bought a machine in 35 years and the labor force is miniscule."
He said importing from China has made the firm plan its production "a little bit earlier," but Sherrie Bloom and Noviello still like to work close to the season to be on top of trends and customer needs.
"The requirements to work in China are not what they used to be when people first started going there," Bloom said. "When the exodus first started, the Chinese manufacturers were dictating policy. That is no longer the case. I feel that I have the upper hand in those negotiations. There are so many of them there now, that they're happy to have a steady, 25-year-old firm to do business with."
Bloom, whose firm used to manufacture in unionized shops and was an advocate of worker rights and supporting local jobs, said times are just not the same and efforts to curb imports and protect American jobs are a fruitless endeavor."They're way too late," he said. "These are not the right jobs worth saving. There's nobody here who wants to do that kind of work. Our economy has changed."
In 1980, Bloom left St. Gillian/A.J. Bari, where he had worked with the late Jon Levy and with Kay Unger, who now runs her own dress firm, and started Chetta B.
"Sherrie and Peter had also worked there and I asked them to come with me," Bloom said. "They were doing buying and selling, and I was doing selling and administrative. We started making daytime, young missy clothes."
Sherrie Bloom said working with her big brother for so many years brings "a certain comfort level and trust because you know your brother will never hurt you."
Bloom said the business has grown steadily since 1980 and "what's nice is it keeps evolving into something else."
"We started as a daytime dress resource and during the 25 years we've made leather and suede, we made shearling coats and we're now big into the eveningwear business," Bloom said. "So, fortunately for us, it's about the product. Sherrie and Peter have been very good about designing product that's apropos for the time. We were in the suit business and when suits were great we were doing great. When suits weren't so great, we slowed it down. When eveningwear is important, it gets more emphasis. Daytime clothes are becoming more important now, they're emphasizing those looks."
Noviello said "anticipation" of where the market is going is important from a design and sales standpoint, rather than reacting to trends.
"Being evolutionary is what's kept us fresh and relevant for 25 years," Bloom said. "I believe a lot of the women we sell have followed us."
He said many times when he tells people that he owns Chetta B, people will react and cite a certain dress that they bought years earlier.
"We have a following," he said. "We sell the same stores that have been around for 25 years, like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. There's a bunch of specialty stores that are 25-year customers of ours. We take good care of the specialty stores. We cater to them and do special orders for them."Bloom said Neiman's and Saks combine for about 30 to 35 percent of annual volume.
Sally Peck and Rebecca Jordan, managers of Monkeys, a specialty store in Richmond, Va., said Chetta B gives them a combination of strong styling and customer service.
"They're just great to work with," Peck said. "They're very good at sending us catalogues and information for our customers to look at."
Jordan said the line has consistent fit and up-to-date styling. She said, "It's great for mother-of-the-bride styles. The line is sophisticated and shows off a women's body very well."
Peck added, "It's classic styling that's also sexy and it doesn't sit in the store — it sells."
Chetta B items generally hang in stores with lines such as Kay Unger, Carmen Marc Valvo, Teri Jon, ABS and Nicole Miller.
The last quarter century has seen sweeping changes in American retailing, changes that have continued lately with further consolidation of major stores, such as Federated Department Stores plan to buy May Department Stores.
"For us, the mergers won't have drastic effect because most of the Federated and May stores don't carry us, and I suspect that ones that do, like Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's, still will," Bloom said. "However, some of the guys on Seventh Avenue are going to get hurt big time by that consolidation."
The trio said their longevity on Seventh Avenue can be found in their entrepreneurial thinking, which comes down to servicing their accounts and designing for women's needs.
But Noviello said designing with a certain age woman in mind is the wrong way to go about it. He and Sherrie said a good style is one that bridges the gap and can be worn by the mother of the bride and the bridesmaids.
Howard Bloom said the regional markets and the Fashion Coterie show are important ways to find new accounts. He said even with many stores closing down, there are still good specialty stores in each city, "and our job is to go find them."
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