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Ralph as Role Model: Sean John Appoints Ex-Polo Designer

Sean Combs has found a designer for his women’s collection in one of his favorite places: the design room of his fashion idol, Ralph Lauren.

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NEW YORK — Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has found a designer for his long-awaited women’s collection in the design room of his fashion idol, Ralph Lauren.

Max Wilson, who resigned from Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. in February after an 11-year career working on the women’s designer collection, has been named vice president of design for the Sean John women’s line, which is planned to be prominently featured at Combs’ next runway show in February for fall 2005 retailing.

Women’s wear has been a major goal for Combs since the 1998 opening of his Sean John men’s collection, now a $450 million retail force with plans for its own network of stores, which will commence with a Fifth Avenue flagship here in September.

Wilson, 46, is known in the industry for his work at Ralph Lauren, where he was promoted to vice president in 1997 to succeed Maggie Norris when she left to launch her own collection. A native of Detroit, Wilson studied at Parsons School of Design and worked at several companies on Seventh Avenue, including on Calvin Klein’s women’s collection, prior to joining Lauren in 1993 as an associate designer of collection.

Jeffrey Tweedy, Sean John’s executive vice president, who was also once an employee of Lauren’s women’s collection business, said Wilson will direct the women’s design team at Sean John and that the company is looking to build a group of industry heavyweights to work on the launch. Wilson will report to Combs, president and chief executive officer, and to a senior vice president of women’s wear when that position is filled.

“You can’t make mistakes in the women’s business,” Tweedy said. “It’s three times as big as the men’s business, so we want to build the right team.”

Citing the debut of the men’s collection at retail in spring 1999, when Sean John surpassed its projections to reach $32 million in sales, Tweedy said the women’s line could generate $45 million to $60 million if the right distribution is in place.

The full collection will be presented at Combs’ fall 2005 presentation in February, representing at least 40 percent of the show. Combs has previously shown a handful of women’s looks as a teaser and to better define the brand identity of Sean John.

“We’re building a brand here, and all of what we do has to work in the same lifestyle,” Tweedy said, pointing to the company’s recent announcement that it will launch a fragrance with Estée Lauder, the development of its retail plans, the expansion of its men’s business with a belt license with Cipriani Associates and a new offering of tailored suits at higher prices. “We have a blueprint that is so vast we can go in different directions if we want.”

That blueprint — not what Wilson and Combs are designing for women — was inspired by the business models of Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, Tweedy said.

“I’ve always looked at the blueprints of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger,” he said. “Not for product, but for the way their companies are run, their distribution channels, their licensing — the blueprints of their organizations, which I admire.”

In many ways, Combs, who started his career in the music industry, has presented a competitive challenge to the empires of Polo Ralph Lauren and other designers, chipping away at department store main floor business with his core sportswear and new licenses. Yet he has remained effusively reverential toward Lauren. When Combs bested Lauren in the men’s wear designer of the year category at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards in June, he did so in a Ralph Lauren Purple Label tuxedo, and described Lauren as “the sexiest man on the planet,” while recalling an anecdote from earlier in his career. “I was in the Polo store saving my last bit of money to get me a Polo shirt, Ralph Lauren, and now I’m nominated with him. This is like the American dream.”

Similarly, when California billionaire Ron Burkle invested $100 million in Combs’ business last year, comparisons were made to Goldman Sachs’ 1994 investment in Polo Ralph Lauren that eventually led to a public offering.

Wilson’s qualifications and his history of working on designer collections made him an appealing candidate for the design post at Sean John, as was his attunement to the vision of the Sean John brand, said Tweedy. The company is positioning the women’s launch in the contemporary category, although Wilson, in a phone interview, said it was a priority to give the line the same image of a “designer brand” that is seen in Combs’ men’s wear, featured in extravagant runway shows with expensive fox-trimmed outerwear but positioned at retail in young men’s or urban classifications.

“We’re talking about clothes that are really sexy, stylish and versatile — clothes that reflect my image of him,” Wilson said. “I see him as the new elegance. He represents a total lifestyle, and women have been asking for these clothes for years. We want to dress them in every way, and to do that at a contemporary price point is really interesting, because you can get a lot more women into the clothes, and honestly, there aren’t that many people from the aspect of a designer point of view who are looking to do that in a contemporary line.”

The women’s contemporary and junior markets have been besieged by brands bearing the names or images of pop and hip-hop stars ever since Combs made his mark in men’s wear. In just a few years, clothing brands from J.Lo, Ashanti, Thalia, Eve and Gwen Stefani have come to dominate the world of teen-driven women’s apparel. Now, though, designers are predicting a sea change from utterly bare styles toward more conservative, feminine-looking clothes, which may not bode well for celebrity-driven apparel lines.

Where Sean John will fit into the equation is a question that Wilson and Combs have discussed at length. Wilson said it would look nothing like the collections of Combs’ peers in the music industry.

“It’s fashion,” Wilson said. “It’s a fashion collection, and fashion encompasses so many things. It’s going to be looking ahead. It’s not going to be indicative of trends of the past. It’s a unique situation in terms of who we are competing with, more in line with the Theorys of the world. It’s more sophisticated. It’s not junior. It’s grown-up and sexy. It will be classy and glamorous.

“You know,” he continued, with a laugh, “I’m from Ralph Lauren.”

Wilson compared the visions of the two designers in similar terms, noting that the personal life of Combs, his well-publicized trips to Saint-Tropez and his lifestyle, are as inspirational as building an image around Lauren’s preppy motif.

“I wasn’t even looking at Saint-Tropez until he was on those water skis,” Wilson said. “I thought that was really cool. Sean has this amazing consistency in terms of the things he wants to do, the way he sees things and the women he wants to dress. I feel like I really understand what he wants to do in a way that I think nobody else does. I could take inspiration from that whole Saint-Tropez thing, that new elegance and the glamour part of what he does.”

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