Nolan Gets Into High Gear

Charles Nolan is getting ready for the race, though this time it has nothing to do with presidential debates.

NEW YORK — Charles Nolan is getting ready for the race, though this time it has nothing to do with presidential debates.

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

With new South Korean backing, a change in distribution strategy, a consulting gig at Lord & Taylor and a new showroom, Nolan has been pushing on the accelerator, but that’s just how the energetic designer with a knack for politics seems to like it.

“Life is freaking good,” Nolan said, sitting in his eclectic boutique amid stacked books, crystal chandeliers, blue and white ribbon installations, Barbie dolls and a flat screen displaying a trancing video of goldfish swimming around. “Since I was a kid, I had wanted a store on the corner of a street. And when [eatery] Florent opened, I knew I wanted it to be on Gansevoort.”

The store was just the beginning. In February, South Korean-based manufacturer Tejan took a 40 percent stake in Nolan’s business. Sources said its investment was more than $10 million. The goal is to help Nolan build his label into a brand with $100 million in retail sales within the next two years.

The new backer and aggressive growth plan represent a big comeback for the designer. Before launching his label in 2004, Nolan designed the Anne Klein brand, and, prior to that, did a 10-year stint at Ellen Tracy. Disillusioned, he quit fashion in 2003 for politics, and worked on Howard Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign. But within a year, he found himself lured back into fashion, launching his own collection via an 1,800-square-foot freestanding store on Gansevoort Street and a three-year exclusive distribution deal with Saks Fifth Avenue.

The Saks deal gave Nolan the financial security blanket required to build his business in a measured way, and brought the collection to 52 Saks stores, in addition to his own boutique. The Saks exclusive expires this fall, so Nolan has opened up his distribution and the collection has been picked up by Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and smaller specialty stores such as James Davis in Memphis, Helen Yi in Chicago, Mayda Cisneros in Miami and CK Collection in Fairhope, Ala. Saks will continue to carry the line in 36 doors.

“We want to grow the business organically,” said Nolan, who hopes to increase his distribution in the U.S., add global sales points, expand into new categories such as children’s wear and open more freestanding units.

“I am dying to open a store in Amsterdam,” he said. “It’s 15 minutes to the airport, and two hours to anywhere in Europe.”

Now that he is selling his line to a more diverse range of stores, the designer has beefed up his assortment, including more variety in silk jersey basics. Nolan, who launched shoes two years ago, also plans to add a collection of handbags for spring.

Meanwhile, in his own store, Nolan has been growing his made-to-measure business, offering elegant skirts and tops for a mostly bridal-oriented client base. In addition, he has started selling bespoke men’s wear, which is made by Stuart Lamprell, an alum of London tailor Timothy Everest. To demonstrate the look of his men’s suits, which retail from $3,000 to $4,000, Nolan brought out a tuxedo jacket he had just made for himself, with five cuff buttons and a shocking pink lining.

In his role as a consultant for Lord & Taylor, Nolan will work on revamping the private label Kate Hill bridge line. “I love the simplicity of the name and the price point,” he said. Lord & Taylor parent NRDC Equity Partners is looking to overhaul its entire store chain, and the partnership with Nolan is expected to extend into an exclusive collection for the store for fall 2008.

With so many business developments, it’s no wonder Nolan recently outgrew his Meatpacking District office spaces. In June, the designer moved to a 10,000-square-foot headquarters at 637 West 27th Street. The space has full theatrical lighting and a sound system to stage runway presentations.

And, while his main focus may be fashion again, he hasn’t entirely given up on ambitions of the political sort.

“One of my goals was always to dress the president of the U.S., and I did mean a woman president,” he said, chuckling. “Though I’d like to dress Barack Obama, as well.”