By  on July 24, 2007

MIAMI — The city's social set has caught the fever for custom apparel.

Three Florida-based designers — Rene Ruiz, Ivonne de la Vega and Mayda Cisneros — said the trend is being driven by their cosmopolitan shoppers, word-of-mouth recommendations, big name designers' interest in customized clothing and the media's coverage of bespoke apparel.

More than a decade ago, Ruiz's made-to-measure business was a one-man operation in a walk-up studio in the Spanish Mediterranean-inspired enclave of Coral Gables, Fla. In March, he moved to his fourth location there, a 5,000-square-foot freestanding building that houses his signature boutique, design and production studio, and 31 employees, including patternmakers, cutters and seamstresses.

The expansion, coupled with annual sales increases of 86 percent from 2000 to 2006, is expected to help boost this year's projected wholesale volume to $2.5 million to $3 million, according to Ruiz's business partner, Brad Rosenblatt. Along the way, the designer has cultivated a clientele who tend to shop in a more European, particularly Latin, style than the American preference for off-the-rack convenience.

"Tom Ford's store has given more attention to bespoke clothing, but it's always been around within elite circles, and our clients recognize custom clothes as real status symbols," said Rosenblatt.

Customized sales account for 70 percent of Ruiz's annual business, with his signature eveningwear making up the remaining 30 percent. Ruiz expects to sell his eveningwear in 20 U.S. stores next year.

Ruiz enthusiastically pulled out bolts of European fabric, choosing first a Parisian jacquard chiffon with gold Lurex paisleys for a gown, then a double-faced silk-cotton brocade in animal and Baroque scroll prints for reversible jackets. Leather is used to hide the $1,200 jacket's seams in the winter and grosgrain ribbon is used in the summer. "My clients are constantly on the go. Sometimes [they] don't have time to shop outside Miami and order seasonal wardrobes in one shot," Ruiz said.

A typical purchase by a top customer such as a fit, 40-year-old bank heiress consists of 15 pieces, ranging from sexy, silk halter tops and cigarette pants to a structured, retro silk charmeuse shift with a square neckline ordered in three colors. Opening retail prices are $200 for separates, $1,000 for cocktail dresses, $1,300 for suits and $2,500 for gowns."Once they come in for that first custom gown for a wedding or bat mitzvah, they're hooked on the whole experience, from picking out lace to the service, and want to carry it over to everyday pieces," he said, adding Latin women especially enjoy personal attention and often grow up with the tradition of making their clothes or hiring a seamstress to do so. "In Italy and France, I see mothers and daughters shopping for fabric and sewing supplies. You just don't see that anymore in America," he said.

He also sells $495 crocodile waist belts, $400 burlap clutches with lace and beaded appliques and $1,200 evening bags with crocheted Swarovski crystals and interchangeable, visible linings. "They love how they can match linings to different gowns, because the clear crystals go with everything," Ruiz said.

De la Vega, a Miami-based designer with a 1,500-square-foot store on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, also has seen annual double-digit percentage gains since founding her company in 2000. Customized apparel, especially eveningwear, which retails for upward of $2,800, and cocktail dresses and casual separates are contributing to the growth. Her customized clothing makes up 40 percent of her overall business. De la Vega also wholesales a signature collection to 24 U.S. accounts, including Ultimate Bride in Chicago and Andrea's Fashions in Los Angeles.

"It's rare not to want modifications. The red carpet has influenced them not only to show off youthfulness and their figures, but to access the same services as celebrities," she said.

De la Vega believes the trend is greater in South Florida as Latin Americans are accustomed to the couture experience at home, though she has customers who fly in from the Northeast and Europe. She describes Gloria Estefan, for whom she designed a bustier trumpet gown in black French lace with a silk taffeta sash to wear to the Oscars, as the classic case.

"These are women who aren't in their 20s, but want to look glamorous. Their whole posture changes with confidence when they wear something that actually fits," said de la Vega, who expects to bring in sales of $1.2 million in 2007. "Now I'm just trying to find enough sewing talent to keep up with orders."Miami-based designer Cisneros is in the same boat. Despite having some of the city's top beaders, seamstresses and patternmakers working for her namesake store in Coral Gables, she still has to turn away business, especially while working on hefty orders for Latin American clients. Her cocktail dresses retail from $600 to $1,500, and gowns start at $1,500.

"My back room is busy even during off-season, as that's when we prepare everything for high-season social affairs," she said. "And we're making more custom daytime wear than ever."

Favorite items include linen pants with flat fronts for $380, which Cisneros describes as ideal for Miami's yacht and garden soirees, and strapless or tank dresses in matte jersey for $400. She only sells customized apparel and ready-to-wear.

"There are tons of designer choices in the market, and my customers can afford all of it — from Oscar de la Renta to Carolina Herrera. But they still complain they can't find that perfect-fitting, white linen pant or even a T-shirt," Cisneros said.

Many of her clients are Latin American, French and British transplants — a crowd that values proper fit, the designer said. They also don't want to shop in the same stores in every major city, according to Cisneros, and even request custom fabric treatments, such as shredding or crinkling chiffon. She said sales of custom apparel have increased 20 percent annually, and the niche is only going to become more mainstream.

"We've lost a lot of the independent vibe to globalism, and people yearn for the return of the individual," said Cisneros.

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