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Is there opportunity in the current economic disaster? Saks Fifth Avenue executives are counting on it, at least when it comes to the contemporary arena. Last month, the retailer unveiled a fresh approach to the category, including a redesign of a 3,600-square-foot section of its contemporary department, featuring 15 of Saks’ newest labels.

This story first appeared in the February 4, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We want to, as Saks should, highlight new talent,” said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president, general merchandising manager. “In order to highlight it, we’re presenting it in a new environment.”

Selecting the featured collections couldn’t have been easy, considering the store’s current philosophy — stated in January by Ron Frasch, Saks’ president and chief merchandising officer — of making “the hard decisions on a brand-by-brand basis. Those brands that are nice to have can’t exist in the new environment.”

So what makes these collections so special? Boitano sees them as the best of contemporary’s fashion-forward — with staying power. Click here to see the lines that made the cut>>

“These designers have the potential to become its future core vendors, moving out of this space allowing us to highlight new emerging designers,” he said. “We chose them not because of a common aesthetic, but rather that each have their own distinctive voice. Whether it be the quirky femininity of Rachel Comey or the urbanity of Helmut Lang, in the new space each brand is able to present a clear and strong message, which then allows our customers to be their own editors, interpreting the trends for [their] lifestyle.”

Among the resources around which Saks will develop its contemporary identity, Rag & Bone, Elizabeth and James and Helmut Lang were new to the store last fall. Vena Cava, Gryphon and Hanii Y debut for spring. While the 15 are also available at three other Saks locations, with five more slated to follow for fall ’09, the environmental concept is unique to the Fifth Avenue flagship.


Taken together, the collections and their sleek new digs reflect “the evolution of our contemporary customer.” Boitano defines her as a mix between the traditional contemporary woman and one who’s being lured from the designer floor. “These brands are getting a lot of press in the magazines,” he said. “That designer customer is seeing the name, and she’s very open to mixing it up.” One could infer that such upgraded consumer interest in contemporary — and Saks’ response to it — might not bode well for the store’s designer business. Yet while Boitano acknowledges the new concept is meant as a destination for the “elevated contemporary customer,” some of whom are trading down from designer, “I don’t think it takes away from the strength of our designer business,” he said.

From a fashion perspective, the collections, which may change from season to season, are considered part of the market’s cooler offerings. They have a certain hip factor that resonates with the downtown set and is reflected aesthetically in their surroundings, situated just beyond the Marc by Marc Jacobs section of the floor. The space, designed by Saks’ in-house team, has an industrial, loftlike feel, thanks to the poured concrete and maple floor, Louise Nevelson-inspired sculpted panels, Tom Dixon lighting fixtures and blackened steel racks. Found furniture pieces, such as a black velvet Victorian Gothic chair and a vintage Belgian table are placed here and there, and contemporary art by Carrie Sunday is mounted on the west wall. Even the mannequins, steel gray and streamlined, exude a certain cool.

Plans for the redesign started about eight months ago, before the worst of the economic news hit. “We started this concept because we’ve had a very strong contemporary business, and we’re going after it in a more aggressive way,” Boitano noted. “Contemporary has weathered the economy more than most areas, and it’s bringing a new and younger customer to Saks.”

Lest anyone wonder what this new contemporary crossbreed looks like, Saks has partnered with Elite Model Management for Thursday’s launch party, where Ali Stephens, Daul Kim, Tanya Dziahileva, Louise Donegan and Joan Smalls will personify the fifth floor’s new fresh-faced edge.


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