By  on June 1, 1994

NEW YORK -- John and Pauline Mak, owners of The Maklihon Group, may seem like an answer to a prayer for young designers seeking backers: As owners of a successful private-label and branded manufacturing firm, they say they are always on the lookout for new talent to develop.

But they have one bit of advice for potential callers: "If you're just looking for money, go to the bank."

"We always like to promote young designers," said Pauline Mak, a former Wall Street executive who handles the financial side of the business. "But they can be immature and full of dreams that are unrealistic. They think they've found a bank. I always like to work with designers who have a business sense as well as a creative sense."

Maklihon is a 15-year-old firm founded by John Mak, who now oversees marketing and sales. It produces private label merchandise for major retailers and catalogs here and in the Far East, including Henri Bendel, Victoria's Secret, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lane Crawford of Hong Kong and I. Magnin.

What has made Maklihon an intriguing firm is its move into branded collections that are the work of young or less established designers. Through associations with designers who have included Dianne Beaudry and Jennifer George, and now include Russell Bennett and Roland Nivelais, they have found that sometimes the affiliations work and sometimes they don't. But the Maks always have their ears open to new names and opportunities.

The Jenni Max bridge sportswear line, designed by Russell Bennett, opened in 1991. Bennett was able to unveil his signature designer sportswear collection last fall for spring 1994 because of backing from the Maks. Maklihon's newly opened dress division is Nocturne by Roland Nivelais. Nivelais already does his own signature dress collection apart from the Maks, but they have told the designer to just ask should he ever need financial help with his own collection.

The couple decided to give Bennett an opportunity to launch his own collection for spring 1994 because, said Pauline Mak, "we see his potential."

"We are providing full backing for him also because we think it will help our company to have a designer name associated with it," she continued. "And what no one can believe is that we did not lose any money this first season. It's what we call economy of scale: We share our patternmakers, cutters, shipping with him. If you just produce a young designer's line, you're bound to lose money. But, whatever we make in the future is all gravy and will help the private-label business."Bennett's collection is represented by Showroom Seven, and wholesales from $95 for skirts and tops to $255 for a blazer and $400 for a long coat.

Seeing an opening in the evening dress market caused by the downsizing of He-Ro Industries, the Maks launched Nocturne by Roland Nivelais, an evening dress division, for fall. Wholesale prices of the line, featuring simple evening dresses, range from $150 to $350.

Both Bennett and Nivelais said they felt "lucky" to work with the Maks, citing their understanding of the business as helpful. "They get excited and involved," said Nivelais. "It's genuine." The firm's annual wholesale volume reached $15 million in 1993, with 70 percent of that from private label and the rest from the Jenni Max bridge collection. John Mak said they expect a substantial increase in the branded collections' business this year because it will include a full year of sales for Bennett's collection and one season for Nocturne.

"It has worked for us with Russell and Roland because they are creative, but they know the reality of how to run a business," said Pauline Mak.

Offering further advice for any designers looking for potential backers, she added: "It's important for a young designer to find a backer who can do certain things for him or her, as well -- someone who does not just sign the checks, but can help with production, sales and legal matters. I think a lot of young designers are fooled. This business looks simple, but it's intricate if you do it right."

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