American sportswear designers have traditionally struggled to make a mark in accessories and they’ve never made much headway against the European leather goods powerhouses. This fall, several New York heavy hitters are dipping their toes into the category once more, hoping to make the leap from hemlines to handbags with a big splash.
Whether they will find success in the crowded area is yet to be seen, but it comes as little surprise they want a piece of the category’s $30 billion action. A hot handbag can do wonders for a company’s image and bottom line, and New York designers have witnessed their European peers excel by zeroing in on a must-have accessory. In addition, designers who have sold their firms to luxury goods conglomerates have pressure to grow, and executives like Bernard Arnault, Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou know the power of handbags.
This fall, LVMH-backed Donna Karan is making an aggressive push with the Donna Karan New York collection, handbags from Michael Kors’ better-priced Michael Michael Kors line and Tommy Hilfiger’s H Hilfiger collection will hit department store main floors nationwide, Diane von Furstenberg is expected to introduce a full collection of handbags by year’s end and Oscar de la Renta is slowly but significantly building his accessories division.
“It is definitely vital for designers to have accessories if they want to bring their brand to a level of a Prada or a Gucci,” said Scott Tepper, fashion director at Henri Bendel. “It gives any designer immediate recognition if they can just come up with one ubiquitous handbag or shoes of the season.”
All this begs the question: Do American designers have what it takes to create handbag businesses that can compete in volume and prestige with the likes of Gucci, Prada, Christian Dior and Fendi?
In the last decade, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have put to rest the theory that American fashion designers simply don’t have it in their genes. At Gucci and Louis Vuitton, respectively, both have managed to turn sleepy brands into hot billion-dollar commodities with accessories looks coveted by celebrities and soccer moms alike. Both were able to rely on the leather manufacturing expertise of France and Italy, and that’s a major advantage — houses like Gucci, Vuitton and Hermès started out and established themselves in leather goods before venturing into apparel.“Many of the American designers began as fashion houses who added accessories,” said Tom Murry, president and chief operating officer at Calvin Klein Inc. “Prada, Gucci and Fendi and other European designers began as accessories houses and then built their reputation upon that foundation before offering apparel. Calvin Klein has and will continue to strategically pursue accessories categories, which serve to enhance the lifestyle message of the brand, as well as become fully developed collections that can stand on their own merit.”
Many executives said a key problem with New York designers has been the level of creativity, which often falls prey to the commercial pressures, particularly from department stores.
In the past two decades, the likes of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren have dabbled in accessories, and while they may have produced beautiful and luxurious handbags, their offerings often lacked a clear point of view that ties back to the rtw. More runway gimmick than retail wonder, the handbags were rarely sold beyond the designer’s flagship boutique, or they were licensed and manufactured at standards below the rtw.
“American designer handbags were considered licenses, not an integral part of the creative image,” said David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group. “We see the Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior bags come down the runway with the clothes, so they’re part of the total package, and I think that gives them a real cachet in terms of linking the handbags to the designer in the consumer’s mind.”
Executives said before designers can successfully push into accessories, it’s necessary for them to build a stand-alone accessories division with a specific design, production and sales team.
“Until major designers are prepared to step back and relinquish control of the basic design process of handbags, they will not be successful,” said Victor Lipko, managing partner of Valko Consulting, which specializes in advising companies already in, or looking to get in, the accessories business. “The creativity is very important in this business, but the creative element in terms of recognition of the product comes after the basic product has been assembled. Handbags have to be practical. Women use handbags on a much more regular basis than they wear a dress.”Blanche Napoleon, executive vice president of accessories at Oscar de la Renta, said: “A handbag needs inside pockets, compartments, easy access. Handbags and shoes have to be user-friendly, as well as make a fashion statement. A suit can be altered easily, a shoe and handbag can’t. You really need a separate accessories designer, instead of having a rtw designer designing accessories because it’s such a specialized business.”
A handful of Seventh Avenue designers are now taking on accessories by treating them as stand-alone businesses.
“When LVMH bought the company, we came up with a strategy that included accessories,” Melissa Parker-Lilly, president of Donna Karan New York, said recently. “We established the brand with rtw, then followed it with a strategy for accessories by hiring a design team, a product development team and a team in Italy to manage the production.”
Kors similarly assembled a separate team to support accessories, hiring Anna Bakst as president of Michael Kors accessories. In addition, the company created separate accessories sales and design teams, as well as an accessories product development and production team.
“We are approaching this business like an accessories business would as a stand-alone business,” Bakst said recently. “But, in addition, we have Michael, whose vision is clear. He is consistent, which is ideal for building a significant accessories business. You can create an identifiable look.”
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