BCBG’s younger sister, To The Max, is taking its time growing, while maintaining the design integrity of the house that spawned the junior collection.

While most designers are looking at the bear economy as decidedly grizzly, To The Max designer Max Azria seems to be playing with an entirely different animal. "We’re doing well in this economy — it’s good for us," he said. "We’re using it to become more creative, to come up with more designs and to better ourselves."

To The Max, the junior offspring of BCBG, which launched in 1996, is sold in approximately 600 specialty stores and 15 department stores, including Nordstrom, Burdine’s and Marshall Fields. Pieces wholesale on average for $22. The line accounts for six percent of the company’s sales.

The line’s appeal has grown as its customers have: The line was originally targeted at suburban adolescents between 14 and 22, but in fact reaches from 14 to 35.

"We’re designing for women and giving them versatility and quality — we’re giving them trends that respect their bodies," Azria said. "I try to remember my consumer. My goal is to design clothes that make her feel comfortable and allow her personality to come through. The best way to look good is to be yourself."

Fashion items constitute between 40 and 50 percent of the collection, while 50 to 60 percent are basics. "There are two types of people: those who want singular pieces and those who want a bigger concept and lifestyle. I work for the concept and the lifestyle," he said. "Our pieces combine silhouette, fabric and texture to make up a collection that is very easy, basic, casual and modern."

For fall, the 200-piece line will feature vintage elements and embellishments such as buckle straps. Japanese influences, both in silhouettes and prints, are featured in the line. Lending a hint of femininity, lace and appliqués also make cameo appearances throughout the collection. A T-shirt shows an all-lace front panel, while the back provides solid coverage. The wrap-top silhouette also makes a strong addition to the group. "The style changes little by little every season, but when you take a look back, you see the evolution," Azria said.The collection relies on its public relations efforts, wide retail exposure and broadening consumer base — but no advertising — to generate buzz for the line.

"A collection is like an infant: It has to mature and grow before it’s ready," Azria said. "I have so many things on my plate right now that I’m not focused yet on advertising." Advertising strategies await in the wings, however, and while Azria shies away from nailing down any concrete dates or projections, he does reveal an eagerness to gain more exposure. A target of 2004 is penciled in for the launch of advertisements in teen and fashion magazines.

In addition to a growing market within the U.S., To The Max is also discovering quiet success overseas. With no marketing efforts abroad, the line is still gaining sales in Canada, Mexico and Japan. Azria estimated that approximately 10 percent of the line’s entire sales is due to an international audience and concluded, "I will not be surprised if, by the end of the year, that figure has expanded to 25 percent."

While To The Max’s bastion of essential offerings may account for its inexplicable success and expansion during times that might crush similar collections that appeal to the same target market, Azria has a very simple explanation for why women continue to wear his wares: "The only key of our success is our ability to ignore the competition while concentrating on each individual consumer. Because only the consumer buys your product. If what you’re offering is good, then people buy it."

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