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Fashion Oracle

The fashion director of the luxury-filled Neiman Marcus chain would be expected to have a certain amount of flamboyance — and Joan Kaner has just the right touch of it. It comes from her bold streaks of white hair, and the chicly understated...

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The fashion director of the luxury-filled Neiman Marcus chain would be expected to have a certain amount of flamboyance — and Joan Kaner has just the right touch of it. It comes from her bold streaks of white hair, and the chicly understated clothes and big necklaces she wears to fly the Neiman’s flag.

But what really drives Kaner, the New York-based senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman’s, is her down-to-earth perspective, pragmatism and balance between family and work that are rare for someone immersed in the fashion world. Then there’s her Old World charm and unaffected disposition. During an interview, for example, she never effused about things being “fabulous,” like so many of her peers.

Kaner believes in “slow romancing” designers and promoting styles that are timeless, “not obvious.” Nor does she get caught up in the frenzy of fashion week and rush to judgment. For Kaner, fashion is a job, a business, not a front row seat.

“I’ve always said that I take my work seriously — not myself,” Kaner said. “A job is a job. But I enjoy it obviously. I love fashion. I have always loved fashion. My earliest childhood memories are looking at Vogue magazine.

“If you do this long enough, the thing that really sticks in your mind’s eye are the things that really matter. There comes a point in almost every show, or in the best of shows, when you suddenly get the message loud and clear. It’s almost like a bell goes off and you say ‘Wow!’ It can be a certain item, or a certain passage that comes down the runway, and for me that’s the message.”

Her directions and advice to buyers on new designers and important looks for the upcoming season come after she’s had time to digest the spectacle of the runway shows, and some time for herself — those rare moments when she’s not in the market. “I take notes, but they’re like a security blanket,” she said. “Often, I truly don’t look at them. To me, the best thing is going through my slides. If I still love [a collection] when I see it the second time around — without the music, without the hoopla — then I know it’s right.”

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

She also has a life outside fashion. She was married at 19, had her first child at 23 and has four grandchildren. “I’ve always had a husband and children to go home to. I did what I had to do within the industry, but that wasn’t what drove me or pushed me. I think [family] has given me a marvelous balance.”

Fashion directors are a dying breed in retailing because most stores’ buying decisions are often ruled more by matrix systems and margin agreements than old-fashioned fashion instincts. In the post 9/11 era of inventory reduction, many stores have cut back designer offerings and are less willing to take risks on new designers. Also, in some cases, fashion directors have taken on other responsibilities in the store organization, diluting their fashion authority.

However, with Neiman Marcus on a mission to build up luxury offerings and exclusive items and solidify designer partnerships, Kaner’s role seems as relevant as ever. She’s sometimes the first to discover talent and she reports directly to Burt Tansky, the company’s chief executive officer. “I have absolutely not changed how I operate,” Kaner stated. “One thing we’ve never done is compromise. Neiman’s may have cut back, which was economically feasible, but we have not compromised the quality or the style of our offerings.

‘Our buying and selling is sharper, and that has proven to be really beneficial,” she added. ‘We have not done the promoting a lot of our competitors have done. Usually, we are the last to take markdowns. We ended the year successfully, because we bought less and sold more at regular price.”

One thing has changed. “I used to travel to more stores, but we are constantly in the market one way or the other, in showrooms, at trade shows, with the Europeans who come with early parts of their collections. I go to Europe four times a year, twice for the couture, twice for the ready-to-wear collections. The market goes on endlessly.”

Sifting through the morass can sometimes be rewarding, as Kaner remembers how Neiman’s started selling Chado by Ralph Rucci. It was seven years ago, when Rucci was attempting a comeback after being out of business for a long time, and was working out of a little showroom that he shared at 530 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan’s garment district.

“I was very taken with the make and quality of the clothes, and at that level, which we call couture, not to be confused with haute couture, I felt he was doing something that was missing in the marketplace,” Kaner recalled. “He was dressing a woman, not girls. He didn’t run after the waifs or try to be trendy.

“The next step was putting a small collection in several stores. Then he started to do trunk shows for us, at the downtown store in Dallas,” she said. The Beverly Hills branch also bought some Rucci goods.

At a Chado trunk show at Neiman’s in Los Angeles a few seasons ago, the unimaginable happened. James Galanos showed up. It’s rare in the ego-intensive competitive rag trade when one designer acknowledges another, and for Galanos to be there was a huge compliment to Rucci, considering Galanos’ couturier reputation and exacting standards for quality.

Kaner remembered that Galanos came in and told Rucci, ‘I heard about your clothes from several of my customers. I just had to come in and look.’ They became friends later, and when Galanos comes to New York, he stops in to see him.”

Chado by Ralph Rucci is currently sold in about a dozen Neiman’s locations. “It’s a very big business, and a lot of it is special order, because he is willing to customize for customers,” Kaner said. “I don’t know if it will be in 30 stores, but he has the opportunity to grow, and grow in each of the stores.

“The point is you have to romance it, you have to get behind it, and have to explain why it is what it is. You don’t just buy it and put it on the floor, and expect the customer to walk by and say ‘what is that?’ We like to grow a business slowly, especially if you are dealing with new young designers. Very often, you can overwhelm them. Miguel Adrover became too big, too quickly and no one was able to handle it. It’s prudent to start slowly, on everyone’s part.”

Because Neiman’s takes it slowly with new designers, Kaner said she’s able to get most of her recommendations acted upon. Asked if there are any new Calvin Kleins or Oscar de la Rentas emerging, she replied, “This season in particular, Zac Posen has proven that he is not a one-shot wonder. There are a few young people that we have our eye on, that we think can grow into important designers for us. I do wish that the CFDA would give more financial support to those people, so they can do a show.”

Sometimes even with corporate backing, things can go awry. “It’s usually not black and white,” Kaner said, though, “there are some people who feel very constrained. We saw that with Isaac Mizrahi. I certainly hope he comes back. He had a wonderful sense of design and color and fun. He could add a lot to the mix.”

Rather than corporate controls, Kaner said, “what worries me more is that designers for a long time have given way to stylists and editors. That’s a detriment to the business. Everybody jumps on the bandwagon. They all want to be in the magazines and they all want the fashion editors to cover the collections. For a long time, we were locked in the vice of everybody doing the same looks because of a few people in the industry who more or less were dictating what they wanted to see on the runways. I remember doing a presentation and unless the name was on the back of the slide, I couldn’t tell if it was designer A or designer B. It all looked alike, and again I think it was the dictates of what the editors were wanting to see.

“You have to give designers full rein. If they are good, they are going to do their thing, not yours. And you have to decide if it is right or wrong and make your decision based on that. Designers are to blame for allowing themselves to be caught up in that game. I knew a designer who didn’t do black, because a certain editor didn’t want to see black on the runway, and I said, ‘You know, you are working and living in New York City.’’’

However, Kaner added that in the last couple of seasons, designers apparently regained control. “It’s a good change. We need variety. We need individual statements by designers.”

Much of the spring ready-to-wear collections looked very saleable, she said.

“We’ve just come off all the peasant looks and ethnic looks, so there’s been kind of a swing the other way. It’s cleaned up and more sensual.” And in a sense, in the spirit of Ralph Rucci. “The women replaces the waif, the clothes are more sophisticated, polished, more pulled together and all that smacks of good business, because that’s who our lady is. We’re seeing more reality on the runways, and certainly in the American collections you see more reality than you do in Europe…There are lots of dresses and slim skirts I feel very strongly about.”

This past year, “What’s been working for us has really been two things, and almost a juxtaposition of each other: Akris and Chado have been very successful. The customer who buys Akris and Chado buys high quality, a certain kind of simple elegance and they’re not necessarily trendy. When you buy clothes of that type, you are buying something that has longevity.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Neiman’s is also selling “feel good” clothes, like Roberto Cavalli, Blumarine, Dolce & Gabbana, and [Moschino’s] Cheap & Chic. “It can be anything from peasant looks to little flapper beaded dresses, but they are fun kind of clothes,” Kaner said.

Amid the fashion changes and economic changes, Kaner believes the constant at Neiman Marcus is its ability to maintain focus. While other stores lose focus, for Neiman’s, she said, “I don’t think it’s that hard, when you have solid, experienced merchants.” She noted that the general merchandise managers have been at Neiman’s for many years, she’s worked at the store for 13 years, with Tansky at the helm for eight years, all helping to keep the company on course. Prior to Neiman’s, Kaner worked at Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman, a division of the Neiman Marcus Group. She also worked at Henri Bendel.

“There is a consistency, a viewpoint,” Kaner explained. “We try to understand who our customer is and I think we do. The one constant is we are addressing a monied customer. She is affluent. If she is not married to someone who is the head of a company, she is running a business. She is social and very active in charity. She has clothes to wear to all the functions. She travels with her husband, or she is businesswoman who travels. She is well dressed and she has the money to spend on the clothing. That’s all a generality at the highest end, the couture end.

“Then it filters down and you have the contemporary customer. Our contemporary business in the last five years has grown tremendously and that’s where we really address the more avant-garde. That’s a business that’s more item-driven. It’s Seven jeans, D&G, Just Cavalli, Theory. It’s relaxed, but it’s more trendy.

“Through the slowdown last year, contemporary has been extraordinary. I think today contemporary is what juniors used to be years ago. It’s the customer who is really looking for fast fashion. She wants gratification instantly.”

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