By  on October 26, 2006

NEW YORK — Franco Moschino built his fashion empire on a vivid, tongue-in-cheek approach that drew cues from artist René Magritte's irreverent take on surrealism.

For instance, there was the famous little black dress replete with a neckline of teddy bears, a black evening gown with a trompe l'oeil ballerina motif or a men's blazer in Magritte-like sky-and-cloud print.

Since the founder's 1994 death, the fashion house has continued under the creative direction of Rossella Jardini, who had worked alongside Moschino at the Italian fashion house Cadette and joined the designer shortly after he launched Moschino Couture in 1983. While Jardini initially struggled to keep up the momentum, she eventually found her groove.

The designer has largely kept a low profile, rarely stepping out on the runway at the end of the shows and hardly ever making a personal appearance in stores. But now, Moschino faces the dilemma of most fashion houses that wish to take their business to the next level and where the high-profile namesake designers have long moved on: In the age of the designer-as-celebrity, is it viable to continue designing fashion by a creative director and design team that largely remains out of the limelight, or should a fashion house turn the designer into a visible spokesperson for the brand?

Moschino seems to have adopted the latter strategy. After 14 years of helming the design team of 40 at the Milan company, Jardini appears to be assuming a higher profile. Last week, the designer — who has a penchant for photography and jewelry and fiery red glasses that are in line with the house's eccentric vein — came to New York for the first time in more than five years to celebrate a recently opened, 350-square-foot boutique on the third floor at Bergdorf Goodman.

"I used to come quite often years ago, but I haven't been here in the recent past," Jardini said, sitting in the Moschino showroom at Aeffe USA, which represents the line here. "I have been extremely busy in Italy so it's been difficult to move around. I like New York very much, I like the energy."

Jardini said that, until recently, she never wished to come out at the end of the runway show, because "it was partially out of respect for Franco Moschino. I like to maintain a more understated profile, unlike the majority of the others. But I think that 12 years after Franco's death, it's right and proper that people understand that there is this one individual or figurehead behind this organization. [Moschino] produces a very large quantity of clothes, so we, in a sense, almost owe it to our consumers to know there is an individual there taking care of their best interests."While in New York, Jardini not only paid a visit to the shop-in-shop at Bergdorf's, which held a two-day trunk show at the renovated third-floor boutique that raked in $250,000, but also was keen to visit several photography galleries, including the Staley-Wise and Gladstone galleries. She is a fan of Fifties and Sixties black-and-white photography by Irving Penn, Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Lillian Bassman and Richard Avedon, and was hoping to buy Slim Aarons' famous 1955 photograph of C.Z. Guest by the pool of her oceanfront Palm Beach estate.

"I like the colors, and the type of elegance that doesn't exist anymore," she professed. "I will also be buying clothes for my nieces and nephews from Gap, and stop by Manolo Blahnik, which is an absolute must."

America, in general, and New York, in particular, serve as inspirations at times, and she admitted her mind often wanders to the American woman during fittings.

"I was always very taken by the American woman," she said. "They are very formal in a strange way, but also very respectful of the times they live in and daily life."

The 350-square-foot boutique at Bergdorf's gives this customer both ready-to-wear and accessories, including the new Muffin bag, in an environment featuring a Louis gilt chair, Frank Gehry "Cross Check" chairs and a Saarinen table.

"Bergdorf Goodman has a very special, very sentimental meaning to me," Jardini said. "When Franco and I would come to New York in the early Eighties, we were always so impressed with Bergdorf Goodman."

Jim Gold, Bergdorf's president and chief executive officer, called the Moschino business "outstanding." "It's running considerably ahead of last year," he said. "The collection looks great. For us, it's really about the rtw and dress classification being the strongest. It's a very feminine collection, but lately it's become more youthful and more modern so they are reaching out to a wider range of clients."

Gold lauded Jardini's increasing profile and personal appearance in New York. "It helps create brand awareness," he noted. "It also is very important for the designer to gain insight into our store and into our market. The more time she can spend with us, the better she can understand the needs of our clients and get direct feedback from our team."Globally, Italy is the single biggest country for the Moschino business, accounting for 25 percent of sales. The rest of Europe takes up 30 percent; North America, 15 percent; Japan and the Far East, 15 percent, and the rest of the world, 15 percent. Last year, Moschino had a turnover of 260 million euros, or about $326 million at current exchange.

Today, Moschino has 22 stores, and about 60 shop-in-shops worldwide in stores such as Bergdorf's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, which is embarking on the renovation of its space in January.

"Our business in the U.S. is larger than it has ever been; hence the decision to have an event to celebrate the opening of the boutique," Michelle Stein, president of Aeffe USA, said, adding the house in on schedule for a 14 percent increase for the spring-summer 2007 season for both the Moschino signature collection and the Cheap and Chic secondary line.

The company may even get back into freestanding retail soon. It once owned a store on Madison Avenue, which was closed in 2000. "I think we weren't prepared with the retail division," Jardini said. "It might have been a bit too early for the brand and it was at the height of property value on Madison Avenue. It's our first priority to open another store in New York."

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