NEW YORK — “Chrystie Street is the new Park Avenue,” said Amanda Brooks, the newly promoted creative director of Tuleh, looking out the window of the company’s recently relocated Lower East Side showroom, in a second-floor walk-up.
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It’s true that Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, a narrow strip of green that divides Chrystie from the parallel, uptown-bound Forsyth Street, evokes the same sense of the broad, grassy promenade of Park Avenue, but the similarities stop there, considering the renaissance of Manhattan’s Lower East Side hasn’t quite reached the manicured standards of uptown.
But for the socialite-friendly label Tuleh and for Brooks, herself an Upper East Side expat, the connection to a seedier part of town represents exactly what could make the company relevant down the road to more than just a handful of rich party girls.
“I’ve been dressing differently since I lived here,” said Brooks, a 28-year-old Palm Beach, Fla., native who held various fashionably correct jobs working for Patrick Demarchelier, the Gagosian Gallery, Diego Della Valle and as creative director of the accessories firm Hogan, before she began working informally with the four-year-old Tuleh collection.
She was officially described as house muse to its founding designers, Bryan Bradley and Josh Patner, but when the stress of independently building the Tuleh collection without a financial partner ultimately took a toll on their personal relationship, leading to Patner’s dissolution of the partnership in May, Brooks stepped up to help design and carry on the Tuleh label.
While retailers are waiting to see what changes are in store with the new partnership and whether the notoriously finicky social clientele Tuleh has cultivated will accept one of their own at the helm of the label, Bradley and Brooks are adjusting to their new roles in the collaboration and its evolving definition since the departure of Patner, who offered a more gregarious and charismatic foil to Bradley’s mostly reserved and mellow demeanor.
The idea of Tuleh was conceived as an old-fashioned New York dress house that rose above the cult of designer personality, and when Patner left, he didn’t anticipate the departure would be otherwise noticed. But there are also expectations that Bradley and Brooks will now have to make their presence more known in order for Tuleh to survive in a fashion world that looks dramatically different from 1998, when the frilly, puffy hallmarks they introduced stood out vibrantly against a sea of Helmut Lang minimalism.
Now a revived taste for individualism and femininity among designer customers has resulted in a lot more competition for Tuleh, both from new designers making their individual mark, like Andrew Gn, as well as renewed interest in old-guard designers such as Oscar de la Renta.
“Tuleh is still valid,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “We’re seeing a lot more femininity now than when they first started, but I have confidence they will continue in a sophisticated way and with a sense of humor to the collection because people seem to be interested in individual-looking clothes right now, in having their own personal look and not wanting to wear clothes that scream big label.”
Other big retail clients expressed little concern in Tuleh’s change in personnel. Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said it’s often hard to tell where one person’s contributions begin and the other’s end, while Jeffrey owner Jeffrey Kalinsky said Tuleh is a line his store has tried to support from its inception.
“We have every intention of continuing to support the line,” he said. “That’s what Josh would want as well.”
That’s as long as Tuleh’s clients can keep up with the changes.
“Fashion has changed since this started,” said Brooks, who encouraged the move from Tuleh’s old ornate apartment on an otherwise bland Upper West Side block to the larger space at 181 Chrystie Street — coincidentally, former Teen People fashion director Hayley Hill’s old apartment — just a block away from the loft Brooks shares with her husband, the painter Christopher Brooks, and their year-old daughter.
“There is more of a mix of high and low here,” she said. “The Lower East Side has more pedestrian fashion. I grew up on the Upper East Side and I know what every single closet looks like there.”
Just what Tuleh will become, given the changes, is not yet clear. Bradley still espouses a dedication to quality dressmaker details, such as fully finished and handstitched seams, handwritten content tags, a big old-fashioned label and expensive glass buttons. But there’s also an urge to lighten up the silhouettes and, although Bradley would not use the term, incorporate some sportswear elements — even swimwear for spring — into an inherently ready-to-wear concept.
Showing the look in action, Brooks, during a recent interview, wore a gold reptile-print blazer that was part of a suit from Tuleh, with Marc by Marc Jacobs jeans, and this is the way she expects customers will begin to shop the collection — for items rather than a head-to-toe look.
“I’m over theme dressing,” she said. “I just want to wear clothes that I feel comfortable in, not the latest Eskimo-themed collection or a peasant dress.”
“People are going to be able to see the detail and the frilliness of the clothes in a different way here,” added Bradley, who also now lives in the studio. “Now, they will be seen against a slightly more austere background.”
The socialites don’t seem to be avoiding the neighborhood. Renee Rockefeller, for instance, popped in one morning with a box of Fauchon cookies.
“Having Amanda affiliated with the brand is a great idea,” said Samantha Gregory, a classmate of Brooks at Brown University, who now works at Hogan as director of public relations. “Tuleh is a classic look with a twist and that’s the perfect way to describe Amanda, as well. The way she pulls everything together in a way that looks totally different than anything else.”
Marjorie Gubelmann, too, said Brooks’ red lace dress — which she wore to the much-photographed marriage of Emilia Fanjul in the Dominican Republic in March — turned eyes.
But Bradley and Brooks describe the creative process, and the relatively successful stage Tuleh has recently reached, with market sources estimating its volume at around $3 million this year, in practical terms.
Bradley does the sketching, while Brooks works on fabrics and inspirations, offering ideas about how she would want something to be better, like by extending a ruffle on the front of the blouse all the way around the back. Bradley went to Première Vision to make initial fabric selections, while Brooks did the same at Ratti, the Italian silk mill that specializes in prints.
“We hardly ever look at something together for the first time,” Bradley said. “One of us does the initial pick and the other does the editing.”
For instance, when Brooks gets hold of Bradley’s sketches, she attaches notes with her thoughts, including little hearts around the things she really likes.
“It’s not so confrontational when I do it by PostIt,” she said. “Everyone is sensitive when the sketches are presented. You can’t just say it’s hideous.”
Still, Tuleh often embraces hideous and garish fabrics, things for which other designers would scoff, but that often look surprisingly chic when cut into a dress or used for the lining of a thick tweed coat. The results are the sort of individual, clubby looks that harken back to the preppy collections of Lilly Pulitzer, who happened to have introduced Brooks’ parents back in Palm Beach.
“I have dressed modern, minimal, ridiculously decorative and preppy at various points of my life,” said Brooks. “That describes Tuleh, too. It becomes tacky and I love tacky. The dress I wore to Emilia Fanjul’s wedding was made with a lace that was hideous. But I’d get bored if everything was too tasteful.”
“Look at Yves Saint Laurent — he did that little element of tackiness with genius,” added Bradley. “All we ever do each season is knock off Yves Saint Laurent, or copy a Bill Blass knockoff of Yves Saint Laurent.”
While Bradley has replicated that sense of high-minded playfulness in fashion with great critical success, Tuleh hasn’t exactly become a similar financial powerhouse.
“We broke even last year,” Bradley said. “The company is profitable, but I’m not buying a house anytime soon.”
However, Tuleh’s original plan was much broader, with expectations of big fragrance licenses and a huge staff and volume, but since meeting with more than a dozen potential backers over the past year, Bradley and Patner were turned down by the ones that most interested them.
Tuleh is still exploring potential deals for backing but for now, the company is concentrating on staying in the black, considering the designers originally started Tuleh with $225,000 in savings and family loans. From Bradley’s perspective, that decision was a matter of survival.
“When we first started, we treated Tuleh like a big company,” Bradley said. “But it’s not. Once we decided to behave like a small company, that’s when it became a thousand times more fun, both creatively and financially. When you’re being pulled in a thousand different directions, things just start not looking right. There are some times that I thought, ‘Oh, I should go get a job at Donatella Versace and live the easy life,’ but this job offers me so much more.”
What has been frustrating to Bradley is having to cut certain samples from production because they were just too expensive to produce. Many items are one-of-a-kind and are made in Tuleh’s showroom, but about 75 percent of the collection is manufactured at factories around the city in lots of up to 200 pieces. A tailored jacket, for instance, is produced in an old Italian factory in Queens with a lot of handstitching, a full canvas form inside and button holes stitched by hand. That labor costs $250 per jacket, while the costs of fabrics, buttons and the original sample leads to a retail price of $2,200 for the look, with a matching skirt.
“Sometimes, you fill out the whole cost sheet and you realize you just can’t do that,” Bradley said. “But you also have to be careful not to expand production too much because the woman we dress doesn’t want to see herself coming and going in the same look.”
Still, things haven’t been easy. Two years ago, New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham captured Brooks, Lillian Wang von Stauffenberg and Karen Groos in the same polkadot dress, a scandal of immeasurable proportion.
“It’s hard to grow fast,” Brooks said. “We’ve made mistakes, but thank God, not a fatal one.”