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Paula Thomas’ Great Expectations

Paula Thomas is too busy for an identity crisis.

Paula Thomas is too busy for an identity crisis.

She designed the Thomas Wylde label for its two initial seasons. Now, after parting with her financial backer, she has created Paula Thomas for TW with an expanded spring 2007 collection and has ambitious plans for growth.

Thomas is sole owner of the new label, which has a cultish, word-of-mouth following, partly because celebrities Kate Hudson, Sienna Miller and Lindsay Lohan wear Thomas’ skull-print chiffon frocks and studded leather bags.

“When people place orders before the merchandise hits the stores, for me, it’s like being in a rock band and having fans who can’t wait to get into the shows — that pressure equals challenge, which is good,” said Thomas, sitting at a lacquered white desk in her Los Angeles Arts District headquarters. Sketches for next season’s bags were lined up in military order at one end of the desk, and three swatches of wool decorated with crystals were arrayed neatly at the other.

In less than two years, Thomas, 41, a British-born model turned designer, has expanded the line to worldwide distribution in 91 high-end department and specialty stores, from Barneys New York to Browns in London. What began as a capsule collection of black-and-white leather and skull-printed pieces has become a lifestyle collection comprising beachwear, loungewear, denim, suiting, ready-to-wear, sneakers, boots and bags that Thomas previewed in private appointments in Paris and New York.

Titled “Death Valley” and inspired by the hues and landscape of the California desert, the collection is broader and more polished, but still appeals to rebellious teens with cash to spare and “conflicted punk” fortysomethings like Thomas herself.

“I am a bit rebellious,” Thomas said. “I can’t conform, and I don’t want my women to conform either. But because I’m in my 40s, I’m conflicted, and that comes across in the collection.”

Thomas’ identity crisis manifests itself in the grown-up/rebel juxtapositions such as a tailored suit with a skull-print lining or a superfine cashmere sweater with nail head embellishments in the shape of crosses or cow skulls.

Industry experts estimated the collection, which ranges from $160 retail for a T-shirt to $12,000 for a crocodile bag, could net several million dollars this season. Thomas declined to give sales projections.

The company’s quick growth owes much to Thomas’ work ethic and her involvement in production. “I run a business as much as I create it,” she said. “Early delivery and tight production are the keys to success.”

Thomas hopes to increase distribution to 130 stores by next season. The company has grown to eight employees from two, the most recent hire being a chief operating officer, Jene Fuchs, formerly head director of product development and production at BCBG Max Azria.

“My desire is to be attainable to a bigger audience, but I still want to keep that door partly closed, so to speak,” Thomas said, explaining her highly selective store list. “There’s something about the power of no that makes people want it even more.”

But it’s not only exclusivity that has made the line a hit. “I think the reason the collection has become so successful so quickly is because it offers a lifestyle,” she said. “I really do want to take on an empire.”

Thomas plans to launch limited-edition furniture and home accessories and watches for fall/winter 2007, and in two more seasons, she plans a denim-based contemporary line. (Her current collection includes three jeans styles, washes and pockets.) Fragrance and eyewear will follow (she already has designed the perfume bottle) and, eventually, a concept store here.

Anything else? “I would like to do a 30-room boutique hotel on an island,” Thomas said. “Then I’ll go live and work there.”