NEW YORK — There have been plenty of twists and turns in the 75-year ride for the company that is now the Carole Hochman Design Group.
But the family-owned company, run by Carole Hochman, chairman and design director, and her former husband, Neal Hochman, chief executive officer, has survived several eras of retail and vendor consolidation. The firm, which celebrates its 75th anniversary on Wednesday, is now into its third generation and going strong.
The firm was started in 1930 as Chevette Inc. by Neal Hochman's father, Sol, and a partner, Max Saffir. In 1949, Sol Hochman bought his partner's share. The business was then headed by Sol Hochman and his wife, Peggy, a former buyer at Franklin Simon, and sister of the late designer Mollie Parnis. Chevette was sold in 1974 to Harwood. The firm was renamed Carole Hochman Designs in 1980, after Neal and Carole Hochman bought it back from Harwood.
The milestone marks an unusual celebration in an industry that once had hundreds of independent companies, but now numbers fewer than a dozen private, midsize firms. The Hochmans, whose company ships 13 million garments annually, have survived by relying on their creativity and tenacity.
They continue to buck the odds, when the survival rate for manufacturers is slim in a world of retail consolidation. Neal Hochman retired from the innerwear business in June 1996, but he continues to oversee finances and is known to drive a hard bargain when dealing with contentious chargeback and markdown issues with retailers. He splits his time between New York and Florida.
Carole Hochman, based in Manhattan, is the creative force behind the company. She has built a team of designers and merchandisers she described as the "best creative talent." She added that to represent a new, modern image, the company name was changed from Carole Hochman Designs Inc. to its current name because it best indicates a group effort.
That team includes the Hochmans' daughter, Sara Allard, the firm's creative director, who heads the graphics and marketing departments. Overseeing day-to-day operations are Seth Morris, president, and Peter Gabbe, chief operating officer.
In an interview at the company's showrooms and offices at 135 Madison Avenue here, Neal Hochman compared the firm he joined in 1955 — when the number of employees totaled 60 sewers in 7,500 square feet and annual wholesale sales were $475,000 — with its present-day status as a trendsetter and a moneymaker that generates year-to-date wholesale revenues of $150 million. The company employs 141 people in its Madison Avenue offices, which will encompass 55,000 square feet in January, as well as 125 workers at a 273,000-square-foot distribution and warehousing facility in Williamsport, Penn."We're up 31 percent against a year ago, and we grew 37 percent in 2004," Neal Hochman said. "We'll wind up somewhere around $160 million this year. My seven-year plan is to double the business. The credit goes to the work that Carole has done and the team she's put together."
Carole Hochman started as an intern in the lingerie department at Bergdorf Goodman and joined the Hochman firm in 1968. She soon began designing the licensed Christian Dior sleepwear collection, which the company had maintained since 1964. By 1998, however, the Dior license had expired, the Hochmans had divorced, and retail consolidation continued to take a heavy toll.
Looking back, Neal Hochman remembered one of the toughest times was 1992.
"In 1990, we were doing $48 million, and that went down to $24 million in 1992," he recalled. "But Carole had some brilliant ideas. She started our knits business, changed our factories and began sourcing overseas, and branched out into private label sleepwear."
Since then, the company has been transformed into a powerhouse of top-selling innerwear brands, which include the Carole Hochman label, as well as seven sleepwear, daywear and loungewear licensees: Betsey Johnson Intimates, Lauren Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Esprit, Jockey, Stan Herman and Nine & Co. by Nine West.
The next big move will be expanding into the foundations field.
"We decided a year and a half ago to go into the intimates business," said Carole Hochman. "We thought intimates is the lion's share of the market. We learned a lot of what's required to do it well through the Betsey Johnson experience. It's taken us a while to do it, but we've assembled the right team that's extremely talented and experienced, and will take us to doing lifestyle brands."
As a result, three bra brands will be introduced: Esprit Collection Bodywear, which will be unveiled in August; Lauren Ralph Lauren in January, and Carole Hochman in January 2007, she said, noting that reaction to a preview of Esprit bras was "very strong."
"Carole's doing a great job making sure the brands' images and identities don't overlap," Neal Hochman said. "Each brand has its own self-contained design and merchandising group."
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