“Well, it’s just not the image that we’re going for.”

Those words set off a frenzy in the blogosphere and in news outlets, including this one. According to Rosie O’Donnell, who relayed the anecdote with considerable passion on her Sirius XM radio show on Nov. 2, that was Eileen Fisher’s reply when O’Donnell acknowledged her for being a plus-size woman’s sartorial best friend. The exchange occurred after a recent performance of Nora and Delia Ephron’s play “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” “That’s not really our demographic,” Fisher supposedly added. “It was like someone stabbed me in the heart,” O’Donnell told her radio listeners.

While the comedian declined to commentfor this story, Fisher recalls a slightly different version of events. “I would never use a word like ‘demographic.’ I did not say that, no,” she told WWD. “I never would have said [those lines] in that way. I would have said that we’re trying to reach a wider audience. It would make me sad if I was misunderstood.” The silver lining here for Fisher? “It’s created a kind of buzz,” she says. “People are coming into the store and going, ‘Are you leaving me behind? Oh, good; you’re not.’ And then new customers are coming in. So, we’re not going to complain.”

Nevertheless, the incident brought to light the divide that often exists between a designer’s perception of his or her brand’s image and its customer base, and the reality. “That’s kind of an industry inside joke,” says Tuleh’s Bryan Bradley. “Some designers live this pleasant lie that their customers are all incredibly chic, and they’re really well-heeled, and they’re soigné at night. That’s the fantasy, maybe, that gets [the designers] through the day.”

Certainly over the years there have been instances when image issues unrelated to sizing have caused a stir. For instance: the Burberry versus “chav” brouhaha from 2004. Here, wannabe-street young Brits — derogatorily dubbed “chavs” — took up the label’s venerable plaid as a wardrobe anthem, to the dismay of company higher-ups. The house discontinued its logoed baseball caps in response and threatened legal action when, in 2006, London’s Metropolitan Police termed a related criminal crackdown “Operation Burberry.” Prada found itself in a similar situation around that time, when the company’s sneakers were banned from several U.K. clubs due to their affiliation with local street gangs in 2005. And then there was rapper Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal Champagne, ignited when Louis Roederer president Frédéric Rouzaud responded to a reporter’s inquiry about the brand’s association with the hip-hop crowd. “What can we do?” Rouzaud told The Economist in 2006. “We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have the business.”

But more often than not, image issues focus on matters of size, chic and, to a lesser degree, age. Whatever the specifics, all such issues address branding, specifically, how a firm should establish and maintain brand integrity without alienating its consumers. “Not every customer is the perfect size 2, 6-foot-tall girl. Not everyone dresses like Daphne Guinness, you know?” Jason Wu says. “We have to be practical as designers. In order to have a successful business, you have to be able to dress women of different body types, sizes and ages. Why limit yourself to one age group? Because the twentysomethings grow up, too.”

Wu’s viewpoint was echoed by many interviewees for this story, although several noted off the record that a verbal insult — especially one directed at an opinionated celebrity with a radio show — probably isn’t the best way to go. Still, there’s no denying that fashion’s aspirational element is a necessary one that fuels the industry, no matter that it may turn politically incorrect on occasion. “Eileen Fisher should stick to her position,” offers C.W. Park, editor of the Journal of Consumer Psychology and a marketing professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “By focusing your appeal on a particular select group, which is idolized by mass [consumers], demand will be automatically created. We all know that. That’s what Eileen Fisher was trying to do, the way I read it.”

In fact, she was. “Even our core customers [interviewed in a focus group] were asking us to be a bit more edgy,” Fisher says. “People got stuck in the early impressions of what our brand was — these are big, loose clothes, ‘they’re for my mother,’ or something like that. We’re making a conscious effort to widen the reach of our brand, and we’re doing that by the way we merchandise and present the brand. We didn’t do anything different with the clothes except advertise and put them together differently. They’re the same clothes. I want to serve our established customer by moving her forward as we also appeal to an emerging customer.”

Yet “you don’t want to over-reach.” That caution comes from Trey Laird of ad agency Laird + Partners who cites the attempted rejuvenation of St. John three years ago as the perfect example. The effort temporarily cast aside the firm’s mature image in favor of a sultrier version featuring Angelina Jolie. The move proved disastrous.

So how can/does/should the fashion set bridge the gap between the ideal and the actual? WWD surveyed designers, retailers and brand and marketing specialists — and one notorious D-lister — to find out.

Marc Jacobs
“Of course, there’s that aesthetic thing of what you think you’d like your clothes to look like. But what I’d really like to see is people enjoying them. So I could really care less if they’re split up the back or turned upside down or inside out. Who cares? Once you’ve done it, it’s the customer who makes it work. All I can think of is that I’m grateful if anybody chooses to wear what we do.”

Michael Kors
“As soon as you go into the world of being a designer, it’s not successful unless people wear the clothes. That’s the mark of whether or not you’re doing a good job. You know who you dress, and you know what it is about what you do that turns people on. Sometimes when I’ve seen the same clothes on very different women, I kind of love what they do to the clothes. We had a dress from five or six years ago that got worn by both Lil’ Kim and Sigourney Weaver. They wore it in obviously different ways. Sigourney looked like Sigourney — she wore it to the Tony Awards with diamond earrings and brown satin slingbacks — Lil’ Kim was still full Lil’ Kim. She wore it with a fur bolero, boots, a hip belt and a hat. They both looked great. It’s kind of a testament to you, if you can dress a lot of different people and make it work for them.”

Karen Katz, president and CEO, Neiman Marcus Stores
“Women want to look fashionable, modern and up-to-date every season, whatever the size. She wants to walk out of the house and feel good about herself every day. Part of what a retailer does is offer an assortment of product that talks to different kinds of consumers. I think some designers at every level miss business because they do not want to pay attention to a customer above a size 10. And you know what? Sometimes when that customer is underserved in terms of ready-to-wear, she’s spending lots of money on shoes and bags.”

Alber Elbaz, Lanvin
“I prefer surprises rather than shocks. I’m always happy to see anybody in my clothes. Our logo is a mother and daughter, so we’re not just dressing 17-year-olds who go nightclubbing in Russia. The fact that I’m not exactly a size 38 1⁄2, I know what it’s like to live with discomfort when clothes don’t fit.”

Stella McCartney
“It’s never healthy to get comfortable in one kind of language, and it’s never healthy to give yourself a false impression of who your customer is. That’s one of the genuine reasons I really enjoy meeting my customers. I love seeing that they’re not what I expected. I find different age groups, different body builds, different job backgrounds so exciting and interesting — and I’m not just saying this. To me, you’re a proper brand when you start to talk to different demographics of people. When you meet a larger lady and she says, ‘Oh, I love your stuff, but there’s nothing for me’ — it breaks my heart. I feel like I haven’t done my job properly when women say that to me.”

Donna Karan

“To me, reality is the only image that is real. In everything I design, the consumer is taken into consideration. The girls who come in for my runway show — this is another planetary group of people. I look at people today, I look at clothes and I look at reality. What we’ve been able to do is accent the positive, delete the negative. Every woman wants to feel sexy. Sometimes sexiness is being aware of [yourself] and what feels good about [your] physical body. I think there are lessons to be learned about that.

“This is one of my classic experiences: I go to the store and my salesperson shows me what this woman bought. I was there with my family and I said, ‘Guys, I have to stay here for a minute.’ Because I believe she was misdressed. She was a Donna Karan customer, she wore all the clothes and they were in the image of what she thought was best for her body. She would wear wide pants and a short jacket — they made her look bigger. I said, ‘If you put on a peg skirt, you’re going to look thinner. Let’s celebrate you as a woman.’”

Angela Missoni

“It’s obvious that when I design I have an image and customer in mind, but the reality is very different. We create a target and ideal customer in our heads, but if one season it’s redheads, it’s obvious that the customer will be very different. In general, I’m flattered when people buy my clothes and understand the philosophy. But I tell our sales staff not to sell an outfit just for the sake of selling it if it doesn’t look right. Knitwear is tricky and can make you look much bigger, so when I see a woman squeezed into one of my outfits, I’m not thrilled.”

Carolina Herrera
“Have I ever been horrified to see someone in my clothes? Many times, but I close my eyes and look the other way. That happens to everyone. What can you do? Go and tell her, ‘Don’t wear that dress again’? We designers always have fantasies in our heads, but the difficult task is to make them reality. Because you can be the best designer, but designing in your own place and with nobody wearing [your clothes], then what happens? You’re nowhere.”

Tory Burch
“As a designer, you have a certain vision of who you’re dressing and it’s not necessarily the reality of it. But, for me, I look at our customers as very different, because we dress an older woman, we dress a young girl and we have that middle-of-the-road 35-year-old. We recently added a size 14, because I felt we were not meeting all the needs of our customer. I love to dress all types of women and certainly all ages, so, for me, that’s part of the success of our brand. When I see someone who’s a larger size wearing my clothes, I’m completely flattered that they’re making her feel good. That’s why I’m designing, to make women feel good about what they’re wearing.”

Francisco Costa, Calvin Klein Collection

“I welcome everyone in my clothes — not just the statuesque. We dress so many different types. Calvin is a modern company, and people are attracted to that engine.”

Jim Gold, president and ceo, Bergdorf Goodman
“Certain brands project themselves in a very specific way. Others project themselves in a more democratic way. Each brand has its own DNA and its own mission, but when we approach the buy, we buy in a manner that will allow us to maximize the business. Some brands, based on what they offer us, allow us to service a wider range of customers and, as a result, they often have a much larger business than those who are very specific about their product and brand mission. That’s why, when you go in the store, you see certain brands that are very niche and very particular about who they want their customer to be — it’s a nice business and important to us, but it might be a rather small business. Others that take fit, let’s say, into greater consideration, often have a much more robust business.”

Jean PaulGaultier
“I am flattered when people wear my clothes in another way, interpreting them in their own style, mixing them. I don’t have a set idea: It’s about expression.”

Trey Laird, Laird + Partners

“Part of a designer brand versus a commodity brand is to provide a bit of a dream, a bit of desire and a bit of aspiration. That holds true for all different levels of positioning. It doesn’t have to be top designers. Even for more accessible designers, the reason they’re a designer brand versus just a manufacturer or an anonymous brand is that it really comes with more of a point of view and stands for something bigger than just the product. Hopefully, that carries through some sort of dream or desire. I don’t think it has to be, ‘This is the 100 percent reality of my customer. I have to reflect exactly that 100 percent, or else people won’t get it.’ To me, it’s not an issue that there’s going to be a bit of divergence. As long as the customer can relate to and desire it, and want to be part of that world, that’s what’s effective. But if you’re putting something out there that your true customer can’t even get her head around, then obviously, you’ve got a problem.”

Cynthia Rowley
“It’s hard to be definitive about who your customers are. In that way, it’s important for a brand to have a point of view. I need to have something in mind when I’m designing. It’s pretty true to the reality of the brand, but it’s hard to ever be definitive about it. A lot of my friends, artists like Rachel Feinstein, are my fantasy customers. But those are singular cases. If that [clientele] was all that was buying my brand, I would have been out of business a long time ago. Hopefully, having those people as a fantasy makes the brand more aspirational — but in an authentic and attainable way. Maybe in the past it would have been easier for designers to be more choosy about defining their customer. Now, I think the broader the range, the more commendable.”

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