By  on February 9, 2006

NEW YORK — Cirque du Soleil has a new trick up its sequined sleeve.

The $500 million Montreal-based entertainment empire known for its creative extravaganzas filled with evocative music, dazzling costumes and supremely athletic performers, wants to build a brand that highlights fashion, cosmetics — and more.

The company this summer plans to launch women's ready-to-wear, which will be followed by men's wear and children's wear, and a fragrance project is in the works. Cirque also has its sights on other product categories and is even considering opening its own stores.

"There's an enormous amount of ambition to take Cirque outside the theater to a wide variety of applications," said Rodney Landi, vice president of merchandising. "We wonder, what would a restaurant, hotel or spa by Cirque be like? There's endless applications."

Accessories are a logical extension to fashion, Landi said, adding that home furnishings, fitness and children's toys are also good fits. Cosmetics is a natural for Cirque — performers are trained to put on their own makeup, which may take hours.

"You can put that magic on yourself and transform yourself," Landi said. "Cirque is all about transformation."

Where will all the new products be sold? Certainly not the crammed concession stands under blue and white grand chapiteau where T-shirts and posters are on sale during the 20-minute intermissions of a dozen separately themed shows.

"Opening our own stores is something we'd very much like to do," Landi said. "It's certainly one of my own dreams. We've worked hard to push past the expected souvenirs. At our shows we have lots of physical limitations with no fitting rooms. Lots of times we have great ideas for products but we know they're not going to work under the big top."

The 64-piece rtw collection for fall-winter 2006 is to be introduced in August in about 300 specialty boutiques worldwide.

While the natural impulse is to assume that the clothes will be theatrical, costumey or downright strange — think of the grotesque bird humans in "Alégría" or the sea creatures in "Ka" — the collection appeared to be surprisingly wearable.Demure, however, it's not. With copious amounts of feathers, fake fur, trims, sequins and Austrian crystals, the rtw is dripping with details intended to put the wearer in the spotlight. The silhouettes — denim miniskirts, tight-fitting jeans and midriff-baring sweaters — are for a woman with an if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it mentality, but there are also clothes for more modest yet no less flashy tastes.

The collection was produced through a licensing agreement between Cirque and Itsus International, a Montreal-based design and manufacturing company with a sales network throughout North America, Asia, Europe and Australia.

Itsus, which has been manufacturing the T-shirts sold at Cirque du Soleil shows for seven years, hired Desiree Sangallo, a Canadian with 20 years of experience in the fashion industry, to design the rtw.

"The line with Itsus is one of the first expressions from a licensing standpoint," Landi said. "We've worked with Itsus for a number of years. They understand the Cirque du Soleil brand. They spent time looking for a designer who would have the ability to realize this dream of ours."

Sales for the first season are projected to be between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, said Howard Vineberg, co-owner of Itsus. Next year, when distribution is expanded to 600 specialty doors, sales may top $4 million in the U.S.

"We intend to broaden the distribution," Vineberg said. "We could go to Neiman Marcus, Holt Renfrew or Nordstrom. We will probably investigate some of the major players [after the first season]." There are plans to expand to France, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Russia, Australia and Japan.

Itsus also holds the global license for men's wear and children's wear, but Vineberg said there's no timetable for those introductions.

The success of Cirque du Soleil has surpassed its founder's expectations. Guy LaLiberte, an accordion player, stilt-walker and fire-eater who performed on the streets of Quebec, has over the past 20 years built Cirque into a theatrical powerhouse.

"We didn't set out to have the number of shows that we have," Landi said. "Generally we don't go into these kinds of things with real tough financial objectives. It's really about the work not the end product. We've been extremely fortunate as a company in that making those choices has always resulted in great financial results as well."The target customer for the rtw is a 35- to 50-year-old affluent woman. Sangallo said she wanted the clothes to have a "wow" factor, but added, "We still have to sell the garment and make it wearable."

The designer immersed herself in Cirque du Soleil culture. She spent time at the Montreal campus, where former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's onetime chef serves up a United Nations of cuisines to employees. She traversed the globe to see many of the Cirque du Soleil shows now in production. Sangallo also had access to the rich creative trove hidden in the costume vaults in the basement of Cirque's headquarters and spent hours at the documentation center, or library.

"Cirque is a very artistic community," she said. "These people are in another world. Everyone is a different nationality. Global is a very important thing."

Every garment had to embody Cirque's ideology or seven pillars, which include creativity, global inspiration, the nomadic spirit and sensory stimulation. "I want to pull that through in the garments," she said.

Sangallo made seven inspiration boards covered with bits of fabric and trim and snippets of costumes from different shows. A board called Autumn Essence has shades of red, gold filigree, burn-out fabrics and textured details. Endless Trip is a collage of denim, tapestries and Gypsy-style costumes from "Ka." The board called Curiosity shows "Varekai" leather costumes, feathers, scales, beetles and sparkly mesh fabric. A multi-pleated skirt, $340, associated with that board, has a fabric treatment that evokes the scales on a fish.

"'Alégría' is one of my biggest inspirations for this collection," said Sangallo, who had the show's singers dressed in huge hooped gowns in mind when she designed a black skirt, $300, with an antique jacquard print in gold and a black mesh and sequin-striped overlay. Other Cirque shows that influenced her were "Mystere," "O" and "Cortero."

For the denim pieces in the collection, Sangallo designed crystal grommets and buttons and embroidered on the pockets of jeans sayings in English and French such as "Dream," "Rever" and "Falling in Love," "Tomber." There's also a scroll design on a short denim skirt, $400, made of 1,200 Austrian crystals. It comes in a long version with a slit up the front trimmed in fur. A denim jacket, $410, has fur trim on the placket, gold embroidery on the sleeves, ruffles on the shoulders and crystal buttons."I don't want to compete with the Diesels," Sangallo said. "I want to bring in a few fashion denim pieces."

Sangallo now has her mind on spring. "Cirque du Soleil is a lifestyle for me," she said. "I live it, breathe it and eat it. Every time I see a show something new comes to light."

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