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Designers of All Stripes Seek Fresh Paths

Despite tough times at retail, they are jumping in or trying to grow.

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The lean times at retail aren’t over, but that hasn’t stopped these four designers from diving into the business or branching out into new territory.

Wes Gordon

A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Wes Gordon was an intern for two seasons at Oscar de la Renta and later spent six months working at Tom Ford in London. He has set up shop at 80 Nassau Street in lower Manhattan to launch his own collection of elegant, sophisticated pieces city dwellers can wear from one season to the next.

With an interest in constructed tailoring, Gordon has added flourishes such as a starburst-inspired pleat across the upper back of a jacket. The six jackets in his 24-style debut collection, including a deep red satin item accented with burgundy Persian lamb, are intended to be worn casually with leggings or jeans, or over a cocktail dress for a more refined combo.

“Where we really have an opportunity to establish ourselves is in American tailoring,” Gordon said. “There is already so much soft [dressing] in the market.”

Gordon’s signature collection is made entirely in New York City through a network of factories, patternmakers, pleaters and other specialists he has assembled through industry friends and contacts. He is intent on sharing that network to help prop up the shrinking manufacturing sector. Patternmaker Yutuka Hasegawa, who worked with Halston and Bill Blass, and Inma Medina, who worked in de la Renta’s sample room for six years, are among the freelancers collaborating with Gordon.

“I am proud to take advantage of the incredible talent that is available in New York City,” he said. “For a small company, doing a small collection overseas could be a disaster. Here I can stand there with the workers if I need to make sure everything is done right, or run up to a patternmaker. ”

The collection ships to stores in July and will wholesale from $170 to $1,300. In addition to jackets, there are blouses, gowns and skirts, including a high-waisted one in machine-pleated lamb with sequin side panels and a cashmere back. Gordon will welcome buyers to the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan on Feb. 10. Looking around the spacious and sparsely decorated design studio/apartment where he sleeps, Gordon said: “I would rather not have a lot of furniture and have great patternmakers.”

Xeniya

Xeniya, which is geared for recession-minded shoppers who are less inclined to break the bank on eveningwear, launches in 175 stores this month with retail prices from $250 to $450. Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue are among the retailers that have picked up the label that is owned by Elaine Lai Rosen and her husband, Robert. The pair said the line will be sold internationally in locales such as France, Japan, Italy, Turkey, Spain and the Middle East. First-year projected wholesale volume is $7 million with second-year sales targeted at $10 million.

A recent Xeniya photo shoot with photographer Patrik Andersson will be featured on Bravo’s new show, “Kell on Earth,” which is focused on the working life of fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, who represents Xeniya. Cutrone recently dressed Natalie Morales of the “Today” show” in Xeniya for the Golden Globes. The newswoman liked the gown so much, she ordered one.

“Everything is changing so quickly with the Internet,” Elaine Rosen said during an interview at Xeniya’s West 39th Street showroom in Manhattan. “Eveningwear is the only thing people really need to try on anymore.”

Her aim was to create clothes that would appeal to mothers such as herself who have adult daughters. A strapless graphic animal print cocktail dress with a purple bow and black piping and a white gown with black lace are among the designs in the mix.

Domenico Vacca

Known primarily for its tailored Italian-made men’s wear, Domenico Vacca is ramping up its women’s wear with more of a fashion slant, including pinstripes with a metallic sheen and little jackets with narrow shoulders. The company will show off this new look Feb. 12 at Peter Tunney’s Fifth Avenue art gallery.

A classic Jackie O-inspired sheath, for example, has been reimagined in leather with an open back. The show will be styled by Lauren Santo Domingo, said creative director Julie Vacca, who is married to Domenico Vacca. The simple act of moving from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Museum Tower next to the Museum of Modern Art has had the effect of livening up Vacca’s design approach to the women’s business, his wife said.

“Domenico doesn’t think you should change your wardrobe every season,” she said. “He thinks you should collect clothes and add to what you have.”

In an effort to adapt to consumers’ reduced spending, the company lowered wholesale prices for its women’s collection 20 percent last year. The range starts at $290 for blouses and goes as high as $1,200 for a cashmere coat. The Vaccas hope the pricing will appeal to specialty stores looking to pick up more affordable options. Although Julie Vacca said 2009 was “a tough year,” the company managed to match 2008 sales, primarily because of the opening of its boutique in Qatar, Dubai, which helped compensate for lackluster sales in the U.S., Julie Vacca said. Domenico Vacca will unveil another store in Atlanta this fall, and talks are under way for a concept shop in Moscow and another in London. Women’s sales account for 50 percent of the designer’s retail sales.

Norman Ambrose

After selling his made-to-measure and signature collections through Neiman Marcus for almost three years, Norman Ambrose wants to expand distribution to specialty stores for fall.

His signature label is sold in sizes zero to 16, but Ambrose’s customized clothes are available up to size 22.

“You name it, we can do it. That’s basically been the cornerstone of our business,” he said, adding that 45 percent of the annual volume is generated by custom-made sales. This year’s sales should climb to $1.2 million from $700,000.

Inspired by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Horst P. Horst, Ambrose strives for well-tailored clothes. Designing large silhouettes, however, “is a challenge, due to the yardage of fabric and creating shapes that are necessary for patterns,” he said. “But we take pride in making the customer happy, no matter what size she is.”

All of his pieces have some element of finishing by hand, and everything is made in New York City. He has teamed with Goodman Couture to develop full-length furs that will make their debut at retail this fall. The collection will be shown Feb. 10 with informal modeling at the St. Regis Hotel.

 

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