By  on January 13, 2009

“When the economy changes, it’s not like you want to start eating bad-tasting chocolate,” Olivier Theyskens said after showing his pre-fall collection for Nina Ricci in New York on Monday morning. “You have to stay true to what you’re doing, and the house of Nina is about luxury.”

Indeed, Theyskens, who, in recent months, has been the subject of rumors that his two-year stint as artistic director at Nina Ricci is in jeopardy, sent forth a glamorous lineup of rich leather jackets, diaphanous silk dresses and slouchy pantsuits.

According to the designer, in beginning to create the line, he asked himself, “If I was a girl, what would I want? What would I need?” Known for his exquisite prints, Theyskens used a Seventies-style graphic motif in vibrant colors played up against neutrals. Dresses were short; pants, skinny, and outerwear, sporty.

And, although his collections routinely have received critical praise, Theyskens has weathered reports that sales have been flat for the label, which is sold in 50 U.S. doors and 200 worldwide. When asked whether such reports — and the economy in general — have influenced his creative approach, Theyskens, dressed casually in a hot pink shirt and dark gray sweater, offered a polite but emphatic no.

“I think it’s important to study the market and to feel you are right with it,” he explained. “But if I felt we had to start doing simple clothes, I’d be doing them.” As for his job security, Theyskens smiled and said, “I am totally committed to Nina Ricci. None of us really know from where such rumors come up, but we are feeling very confident that things are going in the right place.”

His confidence may be based in part on the introduction of an expanded accessories line, particularly handbags. Theyskens designed four styles for spring: a hobo, shoulder bag, tote and clutch, in skins from alligator to calf to pony. “I want this one,” he said, showing off a boxy alligator tote with leather ribbon detailing (about $25,000, though most of the bags run in the $1,800 to $2,500 range).

Shoes, too, played a major role in the pre-fall fare, as in platform pumps and booties (one unexpected flourish: a clear plastic heel fashioned into a dove). Despite the fact that he’s not deviating from his perfectionist clothing designs, Theyskens admitted that, when it came to creating a bag collection, he wanted to keep things “discreet.”

“We’ve had a propensity toward so much flash the last few years,” he said, “and I wanted to make something classic with simple hardware.” Translation? In lieu of fancy snaps and buckles, many of the bags, in black, steely gray and eggplant, feature a brass rope chain, some woven with leather, and a leather ribbon fluttering from the side. “I wanted to have a ribbon that you could hold in your hand and play with,” explained Theyskens. He also has created a line of sunglasses and eyewear, which he said would be in stores by June.

However, while accessories are often financial juggernauts for apparel companies, Mario Grauso, president of Puig Beauty & Fashion Group, which owns Nina Ricci, was quick to downplay high expectations for the collection. “I think that, for any fashion house at this moment in time, you’re trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he said. “I personally believe that the accessories market is kind of overloaded, so I don’t think that the new guy coming in is suddenly going to have a huge business. We’re going to start building what I hope will be a big business. But I also think, in a tough economy, girls are going to make themselves feel better with a smaller purchase, whether it’s eyewear or a pair of shoes.”

And, while Grauso — who noted he is “trying to keep the prices down as much as we can; now’s not the time for $25,000 dresses” — would not disclose sales volume for the label, he remains solidly behind his 31-year-old employee, whom he’s had his eye on since Theyskens’ days at Rochas. “I feel like, as soon as I hire somebody, there’s rumors about them leaving,” Grauso said. Theyskens’ contract is up in October, and Grauso added: “To be honest, Olivier and I haven’t started to renegotiate, but right now we’re fine. I can’t help but be pleased. He’s done a great job.”

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