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MANNHEIM, Germany — The scene was like something out of Santa’s workshop.
Some 150 advent calendars were to be shipped the next morning, 3,600 little burlap sacks had been sewn, velvet ribbons in burgundy, antique rose or sea foam attached. These had to be stuffed with 24 surprises (such as an “Almost Famous” button pin, Giandua chocolate, a fashion time-line tape measure, or handmade “Style Icon” tea bags), then tied closed and knotted onto a velvet-covered circular hanger.
The finished product jingled and jangled, the young women who carried them off resembling trendy elves. It was an office-wide effort, full of personal enthusiasm and an eye for detail — much like everything else that comes out of Schumacher, Germany’s playful fashion house.
Once an insider’s tip, Schumacher has developed into a key opening price-point range for 550 designer-oriented stores in Europe, the U.S. and, as of this season, Asia. When Apropos opened its concept store in Cologne in the summer, Schumacher could be found an arm’s length away from Miu Miu. Apropos owner Klaus Ritzenhöfer said the collection “has developed from a modern basic collection to a balanced, complete collection for fashionable young women. It’s one of the best collections in this price range.”
In Europe, Schumacher spring dresses retail for between 269 euros and 439 euros, or $365 and $597 based on current exchange rates. Blouses retail from 119 euros to 259 euros, or $161 to $352; skirts, 199 euros to 349 euros, or $270 to $475; tops, 39 euros to 149 euros, or $53 to $202; sweaters, 149 euros to 299 euros, or $202 to $406, and jackets and coats from 379 euros to 559 euros, or $515 to $760. Schumacher’s advertising is stylish, it has good marketing tools, Ritzenhöfer added, “and the sell-through is always 90 percent. Our [Schumacher] budget continually grows.”
Dorothee Schumacher Singhoff, 38, and her husband, Jörg Singhoff, 45, founded Schumacher here in 1990, getting their start with three feminine T-shirts banded in satin. Today, the collection encompasses about 300 pieces each season, generating annual sales of about 20 million euros, or $27.2 million.
The staff has grown to 54 from 15 and the headquarters shifted from a downtown Mannheim building to a loftlike expanse in a former paper carton factory on the banks of the Rhein.
What hasn’t changed is Schumacher’s fun factor — reflected in the product and its presentation, often played out to the last detail, such as the colorful skewered fruit snacks served to showroom visitors. Or the Schumacher pop-up card the company’s retail clients sent to their customers pre-Christmas. Few midsize firms invest in complicated one-off printing these days, but it was a typical Schumacher approach to consumer bonding.
“When we want to do something, we do it. That’s our strength,” said Schumacher Singhoff, creative director and the “soul” of Schumacher. “We just do what we do. We have no strategy. The brand is a feeling, and that’s what people love about it.”
Schumacher’s main markets are Germany, Switzerland and Austria. “We’re fairly well-represented there, and rather than looking for new customers, we’re more interested in growing with those we have,” business director Singhoff stated.
Growth is coming from beyond German-speaking Europe. The company has been active in Italy for five years and in the U.S. for the last three, where it delivers to around 60 doors, including Takashimaya, New York, Butch Blum, Seattle, Fred Segal, Santa Monica, Stanley Korshak, Dallas and Tootsie’s in Houston. Schumacher has also started in Scandinavia, has France in its sights (where it will open a corner in Printemps in Paris for spring) sells to Mercury in Moscow, is building the U.K. market and has just entered Japan with Isetan.
The biggest compliment is the collection’s acceptance in Italy, Schumacher Singhoff said. “They understand the message,” she noted, but added that basically everyone seems to love the same items, whether they’re from Italy, Germany, Japan or the U.S.
The fall-winter collection, Style Icons, was aptly footnoted “Made with Love and Addiction.” Spring 2005 stars Daughters of Dynasty, wearing romantic little tucked crepon dresses, accented with pendants like drop earrings and layered over crepe de chine underskirts. Everything’s meant to be mixed at will. Some other typical looks: a dupioni jacket closed with fabric and leather ties, paired with a printed cotton plaid skirt with stitched down pleats and a turned-up hem; a charmeuse and toile camisole top popped over a tiny T-shirt and roomy wild silk pants, or a decoratively edged cropped cardigan over a little Western top and short, skinny chinos.
Accessories have become an important element in Schumacher’s storytelling approach. For spring 2005, extras include a woven lariat necklace in a little cigar box with a mirror on the inner lid; neo-cowboy boots in cutout lace leather; rawhide belts with rattan flower clasps presented on hopsack display pillows, or crocheted racing gloves with printed fabric banding and a string of stones running across the wrist.
Schumacher is not a fashion idea, Schumacher Singhoff declared, but rather a question of understanding women. “A woman never stays in her little world, but needs her fantasy and her games,” said the designer, entrepreneur and mother of four. “Our woman is down-to-earth, but she wants clothes that have a little wink, clothes that create lovely encounters.”
The architecture of the headquarters in Mannheim says a lot about the company’s philosophy, she suggested. Architect Yves Bayard, who designed the Museum of Art in Nice, helped Schumacher create an open loft setup, where everyone — whether they’re in sales, design or data processing — can see what’s going on. The goal was to create a huge communications forum within the firm, as ideas are welcome from all quarters.
Those, however, are already too small. “We’re trying to get the neighboring grounds and will build two new halls, including a kindergarten,” said Singhoff.
The Schumacher staff is young, primarily female, and pregnancies are a fact of Schumacher life. The company also plans to build a creative department for young students, complete with sleeping studios. The students will be given the opportunity to work on special themes for the collection.
“It’s always important to have new ideas and new inspiration, and young people are perfect for that,” he said.