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NEW YORK — In what looks like a changing of the guard, Oscar de la Renta is handing over the title of chief executive officer to his 36-year-old son-in-law, Alex Bolen. But the designer insists the move will merely free him up to spend more time doing what he does best — designing.
The 71-year-old de la Renta, who founded the company in 1965 and remains chairman, told WWD Friday, “I feel really great about it. I’m seeing the continuity of my business beyond my life span. That’s important for my family and my employees. But I hope to go on for a long time — you know I’m a control freak.”
But the transition wasn’t without at least one casualty. After nine years with the company, Rachel Barnett, senior vice president and chief operating officer, has resigned to pursue other interests. De la Renta and Bolen said they were “saddened” to see her go, but were optimistic about her next step. “Clearly, her gain is our loss,” Bolen said. Barnett could not be reached for comment.
Married to the designer’s stepdaughter, Eliza Reed Bolen, Bolen is a 14-year Wall Street veteran and a relative newcomer to Seventh Avenue. Last year at his father-in-law’s urging, he pitched in at the fashion house, working pro bono for six months. After Jeffry Aronsson exited as ceo in January 2003 (becoming ceo of Marc Jacobs International and later, Donna Karan International), Bolen agreed to step up into a salaried full-time post as director of corporate development.
De la Renta said of Bolen: “He likes to get involved with everything. He’s been studying the business for quite a long time, but he even gets involved with the collection. He feels we need to lower the price point for the opening line.”
Although Bolen is nearly half de la Renta’s age, the company’s namesake is showing no signs of slowing down. Bolen said, “He redefines the term ‘active chairman’ in that he is very active in all aspects of the business — not only design. He speaks with me frequently and is not in any way dialing back.”
Their main objective is to bolster volume through sales of the de la Renta collection. The company generates annual sales at retail of $650 million, including licensed products. That also includes about $100 million from its collection business. Resort orders with major vendors such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman are 30 to 40 percent ahead of last year. Bolen was quick to note that the business got a lift after its namesake exited Balmain to focus more on his own collection.
“We are certainly extremely proud of our licensees, but we don’t see ourselves as a licensing company. We want to grow the business from within,” de la Renta said.
Bolen agreed, saying his first task is to bolster sales of the ready-to-wear collection with its bread-and-butter business. “We can expand distribution within existing doors and sell more to Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. We want to expand the collection not only with traditional styles, but to continue to emphasize our day separates business.”
Despite that focus, the company is said to be pursuing a few new categories including more accessories, O Oscar men’s wear and possibly women’s bridge sportswear.
The company is also on the move to open freestanding stores in the U.S., Europe and, eventually, Asia, and is said to be nearing deals for Madison Avenue and Bal Harbour, Fla. Bolen said the aim is to open five to 10 stores in Europe within the next couple of years.
“The concern I have — if you will — is to manage our growth appropriately, not just providing good design, but the quality of our manufacturing and deliveries,” Bolen said.
With their savvy business ways and chiseled good looks, Bolen and his wife have been instrumental in attracting a younger crowd to the label. Like Carolina Herrera, Bill Blass, Badgley Mischka and other members of the Old Guard, de la Renta has made a concerted effort to reach out more to his daughter’s contemporaries. High-profile personalities such as Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan remain among his fans, but the broader customer base seems to be paying off.
This fall, O Oscar, a new moderate line of women’s apparel licensed to the Kellwood Co., bows, as does Rosamor, the designer’s seventh fragrance, and Oscar by Oscar de la Renta outerwear, which is licensed to Fleet Street. The company also is rolling out a greatly expanded line of home furnishings including china, glassware, linens, flatware, mattresses and rugs. Industry sources pegged fall sales for the target of the new scent at more than $10 million at retail in the U.S.
In his new role, Bolen oversees 72 employees in the New York office. He said he may add additional posts as the business increases. For now, he is focused on empowering existing employees, provided they are up for the task. Bolen praised Barnett for assembling “an extremely strong team.”
“I really like to find very smart people — which there are many of here — and give them as much responsibility as they want to take,” he said.
Well aware of the tremendous consolidation that has occurred in the luxury business in the last 10 years, Bolen said there are no immediate plans for a buyout or acquisitions. He said he and his predecessor agree there is “a tremendous amount we can do on our own at this point.” But that doesn’t mean something might not make sense down the road.
“I don’t have anything on my mind, but that doesn’t mean something we need to acquire won’t come along tomorrow,” Bolen said.
De la Renta insisted he didn’t promote a yes-man. “We don’t always agree on everything. But it’s important to have someone who challenges you at every step.”