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The Revenge of Interior Designers

PARIS — In their quest to build lifestyle brands, fashion designers have been expanding into furniture, housewares and hotels. Now the industrialists are turning the tables to come up with some fashion designs of their own.<br><br>Creating what...

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PARIS — In their quest to build lifestyle brands, fashion designers have been expanding into furniture, housewares and hotels. Now the industrialists are turning the tables to come up with some fashion designs of their own.

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Creating what could become the next wave of crossover lifestyle brands, well-known interior and industrial designers like Philippe Starck, Karim Rashid and Marc Newson are beginning to produce accessories, fragrances and even fashion under their names.

Newson, for instance, has designed luggage in collaboration with Samsonite and watches with Switzerland’s Ikepod since 1996, and Rashid has designed watches, handbags, shoes and jewelry for a variety of companies and will launch a so-called “Cybercouture” line in September in New York.

Meanwhile, Starck’s ever-expanding universe now stretches from furniture to sunglasses to toothbrushes and baby bottles for Target Stores; Andrée Putman recently launched a signature fragrance; French industrial designer Christophe Pillet is working with Samsonite on luggage slated to hit stores in January and with Lacoste on bags, and British designer Michael Young has launched a line of jewelry called Smak. Both Pillet and Young are best known for their furniture and decorative objects.

Industrial designers underline the fact that they feed on the same aesthetics and business practices as fashion people. Putman, who has designed everything from hotels to eyewear, already considers her name a luxury brand.

“People realize that creation does not have borderlines, which sometimes results in a completely new way of creating,” she said.

Paris-based graphic designer Ora Ito, who has dreamed up prototypes for various brands, agreed. “We can now apply our skills to a variety of fields, from suits to album covers,” he said. “Crossover has become a sort of reflex.”

Industrial designers believe their approach can enrich the fashion world. For instance, Rashid, perhaps most famous for his blob-like furniture, as well as his attendance at a lot of runway shows, store openings and model parties, said fashion often focuses too much on pure aesthetics, to the detriment of form and function. Also, many clothing designers tend to recycle past trends. His Cybercouture concept is conceived as a made-to-order line that will be sold over the Internet. A customer can choose from a selection of silhouettes and prints to mix and match. Then the order is sent directly to the factory to be produced and dispatched to the customer’s home.

“Design is based on new technologies, new behaviors, new materials and new production methods,” Rashid said. “Design is infiltrating fashion because fashion needs to catch up with our product landscape.”

Besides bringing innovation to the table, certain industrial designers are morphing into celebrities in their own right. Starck is perhaps the best example, with his face plastered throughout the U.S. in ads for his line of products for Target. Others are breaking into the fashion fray with more esoteric projects, like Michael Young’s jewelry for Smak that includes curvy gold and silver rings and necklaces that evoke the lines of the his so-called “Magazine Sofa,” one of his best-known pieces of furniture. Newson unveiled his first store for the Ikepod brand last year in Saint-Tropez, with an unusual blend of honeycomb-like window and wall display cases. A store using the same concept is slated to bow in Bangkok next month.

Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand Corp. in London, said the merging and blurring of categories is a current trend in the premium brand world.

“Brand names are trying to lure customers from one segment of the market to another, and customers are allowing them to do so,” she said. Clifton pointed to Giorgio Armani as an example. “He’s a fashion designer who has moved into the home design category. Why shouldn’t industrial designers do the same, in the opposite direction?”

In her view, industrial designers bring a cache of functionality and authenticity to the fashion world.

“These brands — these people — will be perceived as being good at making well-made things. Customers want substance and authenticity in today’s brand market,” she said. “The question is what these people will bring to fashion in a broader sense. The fashion business thrives on movement and innovation. And maybe these new brands have the potential to give it some juice.”

Alice Rawsthorn, curator of The Design Museum in London, underlined that industrial designers have long been interdisciplinary. As Rashid noted, Gianfranco Ferré and Romeo Gigli are among famous fashion designers who trained as architects, and the Memphis school of industrial designers in Italy once delved into jewelry.

Rawsthorn, who has written books on Newson and Yves Saint Laurent, attributed the trend to fashion’s current flirtation with architecture. Armani has worked with Tadao Ando, Prada with Rem Koolhaas, and Comme des Garçons with Future Systems, among others. And she pointed out that fashion has been enriched by fashion-art collaborations in the past.

“The collaborations between [Elsa] Schiaperelli and [Salvador] Dali were unforgettable and rich,” she said, referring to lobster-print dresses and a telephone-shaped bag they created in the Thirties. “What’s new is that [industrial] designers today have been celebrified. Designers are more visible to the public, hence the market for their work has expanded considerably.”

Sarah Lerfel, who runs Colette, the trendy Paris fashion and design store, said her clients are well-versed in industrial design. “They have the culture,” she said. “We even prefer to work more with designers than with brands. It’s the design quality and aesthetic research that goes into any product that is important to us.””

Editor’s Note: Design is a monthly feature in WWD covering all aspects of design, from architecture to consumer products, store design to visual merchandising.

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