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Last fall, Narciso Rodriguez was faced with a daunting reality. Despite having earned his status within New York’s fashion establishment over the past decade, Rodriguez was struggling to make ends meet. There wasn’t much money to buy the fabrics needed to make samples for this fall collection, and he had just one patternmaker to help put it together. Amid all this, he was looking for a new financial backer who could help free him from an existing partnership with Aeffe, which helped set up his label in 1997.
“Donna Karan sent me six rolls of fabric to make clothes out of,” Rodriguez, 46, recalls. “Ralph [Lauren]…heard that things weren’t great and wanted to sit down and find out why my business wasn’t there, or, as he said, ‘Why you, of all people, would be struggling.’ Anna [Wintour] was on it. Everybody came together to support me. We felt very loved and supported by the industry. It meant a lot to me.”
Fast-forward 12 months, and all the love seems to have paid off. During the spring 2008 show, the designer displayed perhaps his best collection to date-and certainly one of the best of the New York runway season. The success came on the heels of a new partnership deal with Liz Claiborne Inc., and the first fruits of their marriage were evident in the collection. Rodriguez evolved his usual form-embracing, clean aesthetic with light and artsy touches. A circle shape informed many of his designs, from a mauve circular stroke running across a white summer dress to tie-dye starburst embroidery to subtle dandelions embroidered around a skirt.
Sitting in the quiet environs of his Irving Place studio, Rodriguez citesmultiple sources as inspirations, from the striking drawings of Anish Kapoorto dyed Japanese colors and the way in which two unusual colors can cometogether to create an unexpected hue. Then there were colors he extracted bycomputer from turn-of-the-century French posters, and a giant ninja robotimage he found in East Village art gallery and T-shirt shop Giant Robot.
Retailers and editors were full of praise for the Cuban-American designer. Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, echoes the sentiment of many, describing it as Rodriguez’s “best collection to date.” Clearly, it’s a Rodriguez moment.
The designer, whose name was put on the global fashion map when he designed the wedding dress for the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in 1996, honed his craft at Calvin Klein before designing for Tse New York, Cerruti and Loewe. Over the years, though, the relationship with partner Aeffe soured, and Rodriguez endured a lengthy and muchcovered search for new backers, all while having to contend with stories about possible new design gigs on his horizon. At different times, there were rumors of the designer taking over the creative helm at Giorgio Armani, Gucci and St. John-all of which, true or false, just served to underscore how highly regarded Rodriguez was in industry circles.
“It’s a very difficult business if you don’t have the right partner and financial people behind you or people who really care for you,” Rodriguez says. “I am a designer. I take full responsibility. I did it. I chose the wrong people. I can’t cry over the past and don’t look at it as time wasted. I look at it as part of the history of my career in design. I look at it as a 10-year anniversary as much as I am closing the door on something that could have been much better with the right people in place. But, hey, that didn’t happen, so I am looking at it more as the first anniversary of the future. I am opening the door to the future now.”
That future has been made possible with the help of Liz Claiborne, which paid $12 million for a 50 percent stake in the designer’s name and trademarks in May, and vowed to help turn the business ultimately into a $100 million brand by offering resources and financial support. The brand currently generates about $10 million a year. Rodriguez admits that working on the spring show with the support of the apparel behemoth made the process an altogether different experience from previous seasons. “We hadn’t had any support before for the show,” he says. “We paid for it ourselves, so I always had to work to find sponsorships. All the other jobs I’d had before disappeared. I didn’t have to worry about dealing with the accountant every day. [LCI] are making sure that everything is working for us.”
Claiborne chief executive officer William L. McComb concurs that LCI has been providing attention to critical areas for business integration, from ensuring a smooth manufacturing transition from Aeffe to helping the designer build his team, securing the space needed for the increasing staff and laying out a growth strategy for such new categories as accessories. But the executive maintains that the conglomerate has kept an otherwise hands-off approach, particularly when it comes to design matters.
“We’re doing it without suffocating the magic of a still small and growing top-of the- pyramid atelier,” McComb says. “A lot of what we have been doing is financial and business strategy and operational planning, and we are leaving a lot of independence to Narciso. This is a different kind of business than the businesses we have here.”
Rodriguez agrees, although he is searching for a new president now that Janice Sullivan’s time is winding down. She was given the title in June, but continued to oversee projects at Claiborne, and Rodriguez hopes to find someone who can focus exclusively on his brand. Some could interpret this change as an early glitch in the partnership, but McComb denied any such notions.
“The business needed some immediate help, it needed some planning, it needed a major connection between the front end and the back end of the business and it needed a bright, strategic person to serve as the link between the machinery here at Liz Claiborne and the atelier down at Union Square,” McComb explains. “When we made that appointment for Janice, she also had responsibilities here, working for David McTague [executive vice president of LCI’s new partnered brands division]. She spent 50 percent of her time here and 50 percent of her time there.”
According to McComb, Sullivan continues to play a “transition role,” and is working with Rodriguez on three projects, while leading brand-development efforts in the partnered brands division.
“We are still working out the detail of the strategic plan-investment levels, categories,” says McComb. “We are not looking at this as a race, but as a business that at least has that potential. Within five years would be the aspiration, with that caveat.”
In recent months, the partnership has allowed Rodriguez to focus on his collection while taking on other projects, such as designing costumes for Morphoses/The Wheeldon Co., the new ballet company by Christopher Wheeldon, and Diane English’s remake of the classic The Women. Another benefit is that, after this season’s runway show, Rodriguez was able to travel to Europe for several weeks to explore new ideas and to do research. “I was sort of unshackled from the business so that I could start creating again.”
He also is turning his current space into a showroom and moving his company into three-and-a-half floors on Union Square to house the design studio and the sample room, as well as categories such as men’s wear and accessories.
“We have been working to identify the right designers, merchandisers, product people, factories,” he says of the accessories push. “We are very focused, we all went to Europe after we got the show done and haven’t had a break yet. We are very serious about taking this business to the next level.
“LCI…is very generous and recognizes the potential of everything we should and could be doing and haven’t been able to,” he adds.
And if there are ever any issues with the corporate divisions at LCI, Rodriguez will just pick up the phone and call McComb directly.
“Narciso and I have a very special rapport,” McComb says. “We take care of each other. He shows a lot of concern about me and, all through the summer, when I was announcing tough decisions, he was always very mindful. He would see me in the press and would send me very quiet, caring notes and I would do the same for him. I call it whispering on our BlackBerrys. At one point, I sent him a note that said, ‘Go, go, go on accessories.’ He sent a three-liner back and we got a whole program going based on that. He and I are very closely connected, but in a very technological way.”
Rodriguez is elated with the support he has been getting from LCI, and is busy paving the way for his future. “I put together a great design team, mostly from people who have been here in the past who had to leave because we weren’t funded,” he says. “The design room is humming, and in the sample room, we have hired three additional patternmakers and assistants and cutters and sewers, so that we can actually fill all the orders. The family is happy to be back together again.”