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Designers Behind the Chains

A visit with the design powers behind some large fashion thrones: H&M, Banana Republic and Express.

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NEW YORK — Outside of the fashion world, most people have never heard of Deborah Lloyd, Margareta van den Bosch or Kady Dalrymple. But with their designs bringing in respective annual sales of $1.9 billion, $5.9 billion and $1.5 billion, chances are that most people either own something one of these designers has created — or know someone who does.

Each of these women oversees design at three major retail specialty stores: Lloyd is executive vice president of design and product development at Banana Republic; van den Bosch heads design at Hennes & Mauritz, and Dalrymple is executive vice president of women’s design at Express.

Here’s a look at how they do it:

MARGARETA VAN DEN BOSCH

Van den Bosch, 60, has been chief designer of men’s and women’s at H&M for 16 years. Working from the home office in Stockholm, each day is different for this designer.

“My day could be filled with meetings with designers, with press, going to fabric fairs. I also travel around and see what’s happening in different cities,” said Van den Bosch, who has a total of about 20 years working in design.

She has a team of 95 designers working with her and each collection has a team of designers who work with buyers and pattern makers.

H&M is known as the purveyor of fast-fashion, but contrary to what that might imply, van den Bosch said the company is not producing clothing super fast. Rather, she said, they are constantly introducing new deliveries into the stores on a weekly basis.

“I have never said we are fast-fashion,” she said during a phone interview from Stockholm. “We can be fast for single items, but we also need planning. We start 10 months ahead. Right now, we’re working on spring 2004. We can also put in single items, for next winter, maybe next summer, that are quicker. We have our color cards already in place for summer 2004. Of course, things can happen during that time and we can react to single items in one month.”

The inspiration at H&M is everywhere, van den Bosch said, from what’s happening in fashion to what the actual consumer wants.

“Inspiration is not just coming from the catwalk, but from the street and what people are wearing. As it is in fashion, the influence is going around and everybody has the same influence,” said van den Bosch, who attended the Stockholm School of Design and did three years at tailoring school. “But what we do is listen very much to our consumers. We can have a quick reaction and then we can buy more of that item, for example. We follow very much what we are selling. We can try things and buy bigger quantities later.”

Fabrics can come from everywhere from Italy to Asia. The company has 10 production facilities in Asia, 10 in Europe and one in Africa. The reason it can retail its clothing so affordably, van den Bosch said, is because it works directly with its suppliers and owns its own stores.

“We also work in very big quantities,” she noted.

H&M is constantly expanding into new areas and will open in Italy in September, and in Canada, Poland and Prague next year, she said.

“We have so many lines and want to offer a broad range to our clients from maternity to big sizes, leisurewear, more trendy items, classic and young,” she said. “The difficult part is you always have to have a good basic assortment, as well as be interesting and be exciting. It’s always a big challenge. Everybody can be our competition, but that depends on our client. People always want to compare us to Zara, but we have different collections than Zara.”

KADY DALRYMPLE

Dalrymple, 51, has 28 years of experience in the industry and said the constant change of the business keeps her invigorated.

Today, as executive vice president of design for the women’s division at Express, she oversees 65 designers. She joined the company 11 years ago, starting out as fashion director before the company had a design team. Six years ago, she became vice president of design and was promoted to her current position three years after that.

“It’s my job to make certain that everything we design and create has a very clear design perspective,” she said. “We travel and do a lot of thrift shopping and then use our intuition to create the product from the beginning.”

Dalrymple said Express is focused on a 22-year-old consumer, assuming the audience spans lower and higher in age range. Express has 660 stores in the U.S. today.

“Our intention is to give the girl the looks she can wear to work, for casual and her denim look,” Dalrymple said, adding that she thinks Express’ competition is really other specialty stores like Banana Republic, Gap, H&M, Bebe, Club Monaco and Zara. “The customer today is much more fashion-aware and the business has changed a lot in the past five to 10 years. Fashion used to be you’d see it on the runway and then a year from now, you see it in the stores. Now, you see it on the runway and the young fashion-conscious woman wants it now and she doesn’t want to wait.

“We want to be known for the ‘look of the moment,’” said Dalrymple, who worked as vice president of merchandising when DKNY was launching, and also as a merchandise manager at Anne Klein and buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue. “I feel challenged for the next five years. It’s always about tomorrow — never looking backward.”

Express, which is currently designing for next spring, has also cut its lead times and can get products into the stores in six to eight weeks’ time, she noted. “People are really conscious now of what they pay and it’s fun to wear something inexpensive…that is value-priced,” she said.

Unlike many designers, Dalrymple didn’t go to fashion design school, but learned the business through work experience. While at Saks, she worked in product development for 10 years until she became a buyer and she learned how to fit and sketch a garment.

“I’ve done product development my whole career,” she said. “But at Express, it’s ultimately about putting together a look. Design ultimately has to have a customer and fashion is a business. People expect design at every level in their life today, from a well-designed package for inexpensive food to well-thought-out terry cloth towels to the lowest-level chain store. What we try to do [at Express] is pair the concept of design with the business. It’s all about the brand.”

DEBORAH LLOYD

Lloyd is no new face in fashion. She came to Banana Republic from Burberry, where she headed women’s design for the Burberry London line for five years. Lloyd was part of Burberry’s famed turnaround and created items such as the trench dress and check bikini. She started her career designing men’s wear at Byblos and then worked for Kenzo in Paris designing women’s wear.

But for this 38-year-old designer, serving as creative director for a brand she has long admired is her “dream job,” she said. At Banana Republic, she has full reign — overseeing design for all product categories from baby to home to men’s and women’s wear.

“For me, this was a real step up and allowed me to touch everything and to have a point of view,” said the native Londoner, whose first collection for Banana Republic appeared in stores holiday 2002. “Rather than just having a small part, this enabled me to give a handwriting to an entire brand. I just had a real affinity for the brand and it was a job I always wanted to do.”

Lloyd signed her contract with Banana Republic just two days before Sept. 11, 2001, and while clearly that was a strange time to move to New York, she said her experience has been nothing but positive and challenging in a good way. She was recently promoted from senior vice president of design to executive vice president of product development and design.

“Banana was always a place I’d go to find the right things at the right time and it looked like designer,” she said. “The fabrics were wonderful, yet there was a quirkiness to it and an unexpectedness to it that no one knew where you got it from. You’d go back to Europe and people would be, like, ‘Where did you get that?’”

Lloyd said she knew she wanted to be a clothing designer since age 16 and studied design at the Royal College of Art in London. Her mother was also in the business as an antique clothing dealer.

Today, Banana Republic has more than 400 stores in the U.S. and Canada. While many apparel companies are focused on fast-fashion and reacting to suddenly emerging trends, the retailer works on a traditional design cycle of nine months. Lloyd said the company remains committed to this cycle, as it retains its own design philosophy and is not about “chasing trends.” Sixty percent of the fabrics the company uses come from Italy and Lloyd noted it’s not possible to do quick turnarounds when working with Italian mills.

She and her team of 68 designers are currently working on spring 2004 and glimpses of what that collection might look like dot Lloyd’s “inspiration board” in her sparse Manhattan office: vintage, flea market dresses, photos of tropical island locales, scarves and antique roses.

“Banana is not about throwaway fashion at all,” Lloyd said. “What we try to create are pieces with an individuality. They shouldn’t be too fashiony, but have a longevity. You can wear them next season and yet there’s something interesting to them.”

Lloyd said her focus is to achieve a “good” collection, which could dress an ageless consumer — someone 16 to 60.

“It’s really about bringing in color, feminine prints and attention to detail,” she said. “We were often thought of as a neutral [color] brand. [The question] is how do you dress people in a stylish way, whether it’s going to work or going out in the evening?”

A few examples of this more whimsical direction are the pink ladycoat that sold out for spring, lingerie-inspired camisoles in pastel colors, paisley-printed dresses and a greater emphasis on accessories to complement the collection.

“There’s a real nice rapport here. I will work on the colors and general trends and then I’ll show it to the designers and they’ll bring back their ideas,” Lloyd said. “There’s a real conversation. In the end, I take all the ideas in and steer the team on a course that’s very sort of focused. I think you need that, otherwise you don’t come across as having a handwriting. I will still design some pieces, but I have a very strong philosophy of where we want to go, so I really direct it.”

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