Wolfgang Ley Goes His Own Way

The name says it all: Collection Wolfgang Ley. The founder and former chief executive officer of Escada is back in the driver???s seat.

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MUNICH — The name says it all: Collection Wolfgang Ley.

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The founder and former chief executive officer of Escada is back in the driver’s seat with a new women’s wear collection for spring. Celebrating color and joie de vivre, the line emphasizes workmanship in styles geared to flatter Baby Boomers aged 35 to 55 and up in American sizes 4 to 16. Set to launch in selected European and Asian markets, Ley is projecting first-year sales at wholesale of 10 million euros, or $15.7 million at current exchange.

The 70-year-old executive stepped down from his final position as creative chairman of Escada in October, though he continues to own about 10 percent of the company he and his wife, Margaretha, established more than 30 years ago. “My main job these days is to help my friend Roberto Colombo build a world-class cashmere business, and I’ll continue to do that,” Ley said in his offices in Munich’s Grünewald district. “But I was approached by so many people in Germany, Switzerland, France, the Ukraine and Russia who said, ‘Why not do something on your own?’”

According to Ley, independent retailers have been complaining that “three to four out of five consumers can’t find what they’re looking for. I said I don’t understand. There are the most beautiful brands out there. But the problem is that consumers can’t find what they’re looking for in their sizes,” he said. “Only 10 percent of women can wear designer clothes, and above size 38 [an American size 8], the fit and proportions are often a problem.”

Another difficulty that Ley’s target customer faces is finding enough pieces to create a full look. “I did a test with real consumers who said we have the money and want to spend it. But they often couldn’t find something to go with that one jacket that finally did fit. These women don’t want to be dressed top to toe, but they also don’t want to be left alone with one jacket or a fashion skirt. You have to give them enough options so they can be creative.”

Ley personally provided the 1 million euros, or $1.6 million, in start-up capital to establish the company behind the collection, Ley International Fashion Company AG. “It’s 100 percent financed by myself. That may be stupid, but it’s better not to be dependent on a bank,” he declared, adding the company has 1.9 million euros, or $2.9 million, in capital reserves.

Collection Wolfgang Ley, however, is not a one-man show. Ley is chairman of the supervisory board and a company director will be coming on board in the near future. Klaus Windisch, a former Escada contractor, director of the label Stiff and master tailor, has been appointed board member for production and quality control. “He’s been a tailor all his life, and I need his eye for quality control, production and fit,” Ley commented.

Thomas Rath, most recently designer of the German women’s wear collection Riani, heads up design. Ley said he and Rath share the same values. “We want to work for the same woman,” with a collection that offers “beautiful fabrics, colors, subtle details and lots and lots of femininity. It’s what I miss and retailers say is missing,” said Ley.

The collection will be manufactured in Italy, Germany and some neighboring countries like Slovenia from Italian yarns and primarily Italian fabrics. Following a four-season concept, with two smaller supplemental lines, the main collections will offer about 110 pieces comprised of jackets, coats, blazers, dresses, blouses and knits for day, cocktail, events and travel in three deliveries.

“The intelligence of the collection is that you can always re-coordinate. In the third [delivery] group, for example, there will be at least one or two basic colors from the first group. I hate the word commercial,” he said, “But we need commercial collections that are beautiful, that can sell at retail at full price.”

Prices will be at what Ley terms the high end of the ready-to-wear market, with jackets set to retail at between 700 to 850 euros, or $1,099 to $1,334. The overall look is embellished, featuring plenty of novelty fabrics and intricate detailing, both inside and out. Rath is big on shape, his jackets tight at the waist and naturally straight at the shoulder. And he loves “to do seaming. You can really build a body,” he said.

The first season will see matching belts and six handbags “you can wear with everything,” Ley added. And while a more complete accessories range will be on hand for fall 2009, “we’re concentrating on fashion. We want to do one thing right,” he said.

A main Düsseldorf showroom opened last week, and there will also be CWL showrooms in Munich, Salzburg, London, Zurich and Amsterdam. At retail, Ley is pushing for corners to help create a strong brand identity from day one, he said, with franchise stores slated two seasons down the road.

As for the U.S., Ley thinks the collection would “be fantastic for an American clientele.” But he doesn’t want to work with agents, “and my own distribution [in the U.S.] would take time. I have too much else to do now.

“But if American specialty store retailers are interested in the collection,” he continued, “I would be proud to see them in Düsseldorf. I would like to serve them myself. I’ve learned so much from them and I want to give something back.”

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