Robert Danes says he's probably the only Yale man to get a sewing machine for a graduation present. But then, he's probably the only history major in his class who dreamt of heading to Seventh Avenue.
Not surprisingly, Danes's Ivy League pedigree did little to impress the lords of fashion -- the only response he got was a nice rejection letter from Calvin Klein. "When I meet the guy, I have to tell him I have a soft spot for him because of that letter," the designer says.
Fast forward 10 years. Danes, now 32, is making a name for himself with a collection of intricately folded, origami-like silk organza pieces, dresses with bias-cut layers of iridescent chiffon and artfully cut silk taffeta jackets with floating lapels or ribbon chain collars.
And he designed all 70 pieces for spring of 1994 in less than three weeks. "I was concentrating on the finishing touches of holiday production," Danes says. "I had to make sure that everything was perfect before I could move on to spring."
After a brief stint in men's wear, Danes opened his women's wear business in 1990 with backing from a group of small investors, including some childhood friends from San Antonio. Though he started with a contemporary line, Danes soon upgraded the collection to the designer level. Wholesale prices currently range from $160 to $930, and Danes maintains there has been no resistance to price. "It's gotten easier as the prices have gone up," he says.
Stacey DiPersia, eveningwear buyer at Barneys New York, has carried Danes's line for several seasons. "His spring show was just inspirational," she says. "His combination of fabrics and colors was so beautiful and feminine. Barneys is generally not a color store, but Robert's color sense is amazing. We're going to put spring in the new Beverly Hills store."
Danes says his approach to design is simple. "I design what I love, and if it doesn't work, it wasn't meant to be. What people seem to respond to is the quality, the fabrics, the colors. It's something they haven't seen before."To wit, don't look to Danes for nostalgia -- despite his history degree. "You'll never see me doing 19th century looks," he explains. "The one thing I learned in school is that progress, innovation and development are inevitable.
"Of course that doesn't mean that you have to be Star Trekkian and do everything in Velcro," Danes continues. "But you have to be aware of what's happening in the world. Happily, things are changing for women, and that should be reflected in their clothes."
She did her first fashion show back in 1983 -- in collaboration with Anna Sui and Stephen Sprouse. But then Vivienne Tam took a long hiatus, not venturing back to the runway until last November.
It was confidence in the growth of the business that led her to stage a second show. "It was time for the buyers to see how things go together on real people, rather than just in the showroom," says Tam, who will say only that she's in her 30s. The line has also gone from being a group of sportswear pieces to including an entire, collection-oriented assortment.
Tam started her business in New York in 1981, hitting all the department stores that offered "open days" for unknown designers. "I came with each piece folded up," she laughs. "I didn't know about garment bags then." With a good response from stores like Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, Tam was on her way. She also credits the International Fashion Boutique Show as providing great exposure. Tam's designs always have a bit of an Eastern influence. "I'm Chinese, and I want to do something that belongs to my culture," she explains. Her company name, East Wind Code, also reflects her roots in China. The expression means "prosperity" or "good fortune." All of Tam's clothing is manufactured in Hong Kong and China and usually has an exotic feeling. "I love traveling, absorbing the music, food and style of different cultures," she says. One of Tam's trademarks is beautiful handwork, from beading to crochet. "Handwork is important because it adds warmth and spontaneity," she says. She points out that her signature knife-pleated chiffon pieces look different on everyone because the pleats conform to the different curves of different bodies. "I love mixing a crafty feeling with a modern feeling," says Tam. "In China, the artisans have all different kinds of techniques for beaded work and crochet work, but unfortunately, they don't always do it in a contemporary way." That's where Tam's powers of persuasion come in. "Sometimes they'll tell me it's impossible, but then they try it and they see it can be done. It's exciting to see how they're opening up."With a wholesale volume of $5 million in 1993 -- from accounts including Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's -- Tam is now setting her sights on new projects. She's interested in opening a store for clothing and home furnishings. "A store is a logical step," she says. "The home furnishings will be an extension of what I'm doing with my clothes."
Tracy Reese is on a roll. Her spring sportswear collection for Magaschoni is her best selling yet, and her new dress collection for spring is also doing well.
Reese attributes her recent success to the fact that she started staging runway shows four seasons ago. "Having a show has definitely helped our business," she says. At Magaschoni, the design process starts with Reese, 29, asking herself what kinds of pieces are missing in her own wardrobe. "I think a lot of women designers do that," she says. Most recently, the hipper, more trend-oriented pieces have succeeded. David Guisinger, director of Folio Merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, can vouch for that. "Tracy has a very fresh, very feminine and wearable approach," he says. "She does items well. For example, her Lord Byron blouse from fall was a great seller."
Inspiration comes from different sources. Her spring line, for instance, was influenced by a trip to New Orleans. "I was just so sick of everything coming from Europe," she says.
Reese's interest in design came in a roundabout way. "My mother had me in art classes every weekend because she didn't want me lying around doing nothing," the designer says. In high school, Reese took a fashion design class, which motivated her to apply to the summer program at Parsons School of Design here. Then she returned to earn her bachelor's degree in three years.
Reese got lucky with her first job, assisting designer Martine Sitbon at a contemporary clothing firm called Arlequin in New York. According to Reese, Sitbon gave her responsibilities beyond those of an assistant: "She let me sketch for her."
Three years later, Reese started her own company backed by money from her family. But while she sold to Barneys Co-op and Bergdorf Goodman, the recession hit and she was forced to close after only two years.The designer bounced back, however, landing a job at Perry Ellis early in Marc Jacobs's tenure. But after a year designing for Portfolio, she heard that Magaschoni was looking for a designer. "It was really a company that was waiting to grow, and to come in at that point was really exciting," she says. Nearly four years later, Reese is still happily ensconced. What about the future? Reese insists she's "a one-day-at-a-time kind of person," but even so, there's a buzz going about plans to expand Magaschoni into retail. "I really want to have a steady growth," says Reese. "I want the name to be better recognized."
It's so easy to design out of fantasy," says Stephen DiGeronimo, 34. "But in reality, women are not running around in sheer clothes.
"You can't just design a capsule of clothes that don't apply to anything in real life." The designer cites Clare McCardell and Halston as his inspirations and describes his own clothes as playful, sporty and clean.
But that doesn't mean DiGeronimo's clothes lack interest. This season, he delivered the punch in the form of wrapped, tied and laced details -- for example, a sundress laced up the back and a little suede dress tied like a shoe -- in his collection, shown as part of Cotton Inc.'s group show. Macy's East fashion director Benny Lin counts DiGeronimo's collection among the strongest sportswear offerings of the season. "It's clean, well made and well priced, and it was so refreshing to see it on the runway, especially in a season with all that lingerie," Lin says.
DiGeronimo became interested in fashion design "much the same way as Richard Tyler did. My mother wanted to be a designer. She had great taste. She taught me how to sew and told me about designers like Anne Klein and Chanel. From then on, I was hooked." A native of Pennsylvania, DiGeronimo studied first at the Philadelphia College of Art and then at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, putting himself through school with apprenticeships and part-time jobs. After graduation, he spent time at Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis and Michael Kors before breaking out on his own 2 1/2 years ago. In 1991, DiGeronimo and high school pal Gregg St. Onge opened the firm, setting up shop on Greene Street in SoHo with a small family investment and money they had saved.Last summer, the duo swapped their quiet downtown showroom for a spot off Seventh Avenue on 40th Street. "Asking the buyers to come to SoHo was like asking them to go to a foreign country," DiGeronimo explains. With a wholesale volume of $375,000 in 1993 DiGeronimo says the firm just about breaks even. But he is optimistic about the future. His wish list includes expanding the collection for fall, adding knitwear and increasing distribution. "When our cash flow gets better," he says, "I'd like to design a summer collection." DiGeronimo says he'd also love to sign a licensing agreement to do accessories. "And, I would love to do men's wear. Boxy tweed jackets and flat-front khakis -- like Oscar Madison men's wear."
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