NEW YORK — The odds of a young designer succeeding in New York are about on par with those of a producer mounting a successful show on Broadway or a chef opening a four-star restaurant. It seems all the more impressive, then, that Yigal Azrouël, a 31-year-old Israeli designer, opened his first store here in the Meatpacking district on Feb. 3, especially considering the fact that he didn’t have the backing of a large multibrand corporation.
“I really started with nothing,” said Azrouël, who came to the U.S. five years ago with little more than a suitcase and the address of some relatives. “I didn’t come here with any money.”
Azrouël’s eponymous 2,500-square-foot store, at 408 West 14th Street, is the perfect backdrop for his feminine-with-an-edge styles. The space, a former bagel factory, is dark and sexy with exposed brick walls and polished concrete floors.
Wood beams are juxtaposed with antique furniture the designer collects, which is scattered throughout the space. There’s a Twenties-style couch at the back of the store where experimental pieces hang. A big stone that holds a pool of water with flowers inside serves as an impromptu coffee table.
To complement the clothing, Azrouël offers one-of-a-kind vintage estate jewelry from the Twenties and Thirties, fragrances from Molton Brown, E’Coudray, Geodeses and Place des Lices, as well as Visonaire’s limited-release collectors editions and monthly issues of V.
His experimental fashion is “kind of unfinished and deconstructed with special stitching and trimming,” he said. Like countless designers before him, Azrouël drapes his fabric prior to sketching. “That’s how I get inspired,” he explained. “I let the fabric talk to me. It tells me what to do with it.”
Azrouël’s experience with his architect, an Israeli artist named Dror Benshetrit, was similarly empathetic. The designer gave Benshetrit the loosest of instructions, preferring to let him reach his own conclusions after the two spent some time together.
“As he got to know me, he understood my sentiments exactly,” Azrouël said. “He created amazing things.”
Just as he lets the fabric “speak to him,” Azrouël allowed the raw space to dictate the final vision for the store.
“I used the existing materials and kept it as is and played with the materials,” he said. Benshetrit softened the hard lines of the space with butter-colored silk curtains that give a boudoir feel to the dressing rooms.
Azrouël’s singular designs are incredible feats of tailoring where stitching is sometimes used as a design element and fabrics come in unusual textures and weaves. He even creates some of his own prints.
“His clothes are amazing,” said Sara Albrecht, the owner of Ultimo in Chicago. “We started not really knowing what to expect and he’s grown to be one of our very important vendors. He hangs with the best of them, next to Dolce & Gabbana, John Galliano and Emanuel Ungaro. He’s definitely someone to watch.
“We kind of moved him upstairs with the big guys because we do have a following for him,” she continued. “We’ve already sold out of our resort delivery for spring.”
Most of Azrouël’s collection is produced here, with knitwear and a new handbag and shoe collection made in Italy. Prices range from $600 to $1,500 for jackets; $500 to $900 for basic dresses; $300 to $600 for tops and $400 to $600 for pants.
Azrouël is a rags-to-riches story, with an emphasis on rags. After staying with his extended family for a while, Azrouël moved to an apartment in Queens, which he shared with four roommates. He started making patterns and designing clothes, a skill he learned when he was in the Israeli army making garments for his friends during his free time.
Azrouël took his handiwork to stores and trade shows; Ultimo and Oxygen in Miami were among the first to write orders. His collection now sells at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and select Nordstrom locations.
The company’s sales are projected to be $18 million at retail for 2003, while sales for the new store are estimated at $1.4 million this year, according to Donata Minelli, director.
Talent, as any designer knows, isn’t enough to make it in the fashion industry. You need luck on your side as well. Azrouël seems to have some of both.
Since discovering his designs, Rebecca Field-Weinberg, stylist for HBO’s “Sex and the City,” has dressed Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall in the clothes. Sounding as if he himself doesn’t quite understand how he got to this point, Azrouël said, “It all happened almost overnight.”