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By Joshua Greene

This story first appeared in the August 6, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

NEW YORK — You are now cordially invited to buy Oscar de la Renta wedding gowns.

In the latest step to mould his business into an all-encompassing lifestyle brand, de la Renta in an exclusive interview said he will launch Oscar de la Renta Bridal for January retailing.

The designer house has partnered with bridal gown resource Carmela Sutera, who holds the license to produce and distribute dresses that de la Renta designs. Milton Paris, a 44-year bridal industry veteran, has come out of retirement to take on the project in the role of executive vice president of sales and marketing.

This is the first major announcement from de la Renta since he amicably resigned as Balmain’s couturier on July 9. As reported, the designer cited personal reasons for leaving, as well as a desire to focus on his namesake ready-to-wear business here, which is currently experiencing a growth spurt. Year-to-date sales at the house are currently up 35 percent, according to Jeffry Aronsson, president and chief executive officer. In overall terms, industry sources estimate the house brings in around $50 million in collection sales plus more than $600 million at retail with licensed goods.

While de la Renta has designed bridal gowns for select private clients in the past, he said creating a wholesale line was more about timing.

“We had been thinking about bridal for a while,” said de la Renta from his Connecticut home, adding that the traditions associated with marriage blend with the image of the Oscar de la Renta lifestyle. “We decided it was the right time to do it and I will have more time to work with it since I’m not doing haute couture.”

The bridal collection comprises 15 different styles and will include accessories such as veils, headpieces, shoes and bags. The gowns — which feature such fabrics as silk mikado, silk duchess, silk-satin organza, silk faille and French Alençon lace — will retail between $4,000 and $10,000. They will be made in New York, where Sutera is based.

The line is expected to rack up $10 million over the first few years, according to Paris.

“Mr. de la Renta and I decided that an organized and focused approach to the multibillion dollar bridal gown and dress business in the U.S. presented us with an opportunity to expand our business,” Aronsson said, noting that a strategic partner was necessary to successfully launch the line. “We entered into an agreement with Carmela Sutera and Milton Paris, both which understand and appreciate our retailer relationships and strategy to continue the healthy growth of our business.”

At retail, the line will be offered in the bridal salons of Bergdorf Goodman as well as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus stores nationwide. The line will also be available at bridal specialty boutiques.

“I think that there is a customer at the stores who knows what I do, so I think it is important to be in the bridal departments,” de la Renta said. “[When designing the bridal] I think that I’ll try to use the same philosophy for any clothes that I design, while keeping in mind that a wedding is a special time for a woman, where she wants to feel feminine, look pretty and be romantic.”

Aronsson said some sort of presentation for the bridal line will be staged, though details about when or if it will be a runway show are still undecided. There will be an advertising campaign, he said, although the budget and the creative direction are also yet to be determined.

This is the second licensing deal for Oscar de la Renta Ltd. this year. In February, the company struck up a deal with Century Furniture Industries to create a full range of home furnishings which is scheduled to make its debut at the October furniture market in High Point, N.C. The company opened a showroom last week in Dusseldorf, Germany, to distribute shoes and accessories in Switzerland, Austria and Germany before expanding throughout the rest of Europe. Further, Aronsson said he recently negotiated the opening of two free-standing stores in Chile for its Oscar line of men’s sportswear, which is available only in Latin America. The first is slated to open this fall. Executives at Oscar de la Renta Ltd. said the designer’s active role in product development and design string a consistent image throughout the lines, with the ready-to-wear collection sitting at the helm. Currently, the company has licensing agreements for men’s wear, fragrances, sleepwear, bridge sportswear and eyewear.

To further solidify its image, de la Renta said the company is looking at real estate for its first freestanding store, although the designer has mentioned similar prospects in past years. While he had not yet settled on a location, de la Renta said he’s targeting the Upper Sixties and Seventies on Madison Avenue with a planned opening for fall 2003, adding that locales in the Los Angeles and Miami areas might follow. Freestanding boutiques would house ready-to-wear and bridal collections as well as accessories, de la Renta said, adding that they would share a similar aesthetic to the Bergdorf in-store shop that the company opened last September.

“We don’t want to have a store for the sake of having a store,” said Aronsson. “I would say by 2004 you’re going to see boutiques in the U.S. and abroad. Oscar de la Renta is a global brand, but the business is not as global as it can be. It’s our mission to do that. A lot of things are going to happen all at one time. Like Jiffy Pop, it starts popping and then it explodes.”

In a testament to the growing demand for the brand, a Saks-sponsored trunk show for de la Renta’s resort collection — which took place Saturday in a small tent in Lake Tahoe, Nev. — booked over $275,000. The collection was then taken to the Saks store in San Francisco, where early bookings Monday were forecast to reach $450,000, a spokeswoman said. Combined with a fall preview in May, de la Renta’s trunk show sales for the San Francisco store alone are expected to reach $1 million.

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