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The Hills Are Alive – With U.S. Retailers

"We ride together, we eat together, we do everything together," quipped Ron Frasch of Saks Fifth Avenue.

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ST. GALLEN, Switzerland — “We ride together, we eat together, we do everything together,” quipped Ron Frasch of Saks Fifth Avenue.

He and a busload of other top American retailers — including colleagues Steve Sadove and Joseph Boitano; Burt Tansky of Neiman Marcus, and Jim Gold of Bergdorf Goodman — were heading off Saturday night for the festivities surrounding this town’s cultural event, Schnittpunkt (“Crossroads” in German), and a gala hosted by local fashion house Akris.

Anyone could have mistaken the busload’s arrival as the kickoff of Switzerland’s very own fashion week — or a college alumni trip into the Alps. But this was business: Akris is one of the top-performing lines for U.S. stores, and the retailers were in town to pay homage to the fashion house’s founders, the Kriemler family.

But forget any romantic idea of a quaint village lost in the mountains. Sure, there are plenty of grazing cows on the way to St. Gallen, an hour’s train ride from Zurich, and the city has its share of flowered balconies and wooden chalets. But St. Gallen, founded by an Irish monk around the year 600 A.D., is a small city of 74,000 people and renowned for its textile industry where different cultures and lifestyles meet: H&M banners coexist with tiny Broderie Anglaise haberdasher’s shops, and a Spanish tapas bar or a trendy Moroccan-style Alhambra Café sit opposite the traditional Conditorei La Boule. On one of the main squares, a food market was just a few feet away from a curry kiosk, and a group of young dreadlocked artists were decorating the pavement.

The fact that the Akris events were squeezed in between the Milan and Paris shows didn’t deter retailers from coming — or from having a good time. The Kriemlers organized a private flight from Milan so executives and the press didn’t have to cut their day short and miss the Missoni and Roberto Cavalli closing shows. But that meant they arrived only half an hour before the festivities were to begin, just enough time to change into their de rigueur tailored pinstripe suits or little black dresses and stilettos, displaying nary a trace of fatigue.

The program was laid out with Swiss precision, from the exhibition to cocktails and dinner. Showers were forecast for the unseasonably warm day, but it seems the Kriemlers managed to organize the weather, too, because it only started raining heavily that night, after the party.

First disembarking from the bus at the Textilmuseum, where Akris had mounted the main exhibition, the troupe of American executives walked up and down the floors to view the beautifully embroidered samples and the firm’s archival designs.

It was then back on the bus to head to the Spitzen Palais in the Lokremise for cocktails and numerous speeches, worthy of an Academy Awards evening, by local curators and authorities.

“The Swiss and the Germans just love their speeches,” said one hungry guest whose last meal was probably breakfast in Milan.

But at precisely 9 p.m., exactly on schedule, the speeches halted, and the 300 or so guests were ushered to the candlelit dining room, beautifully decorated by Akris designer Albert Kriemler. On the tables in the former train depot — recognizable as such only by the room’s circular shape — were arrangements of roses in every shade from rose to pink, with Kriemler-designed off-white cotton tablecloths embroidered with roses.

“Well, Burt [Tansky] did ask me to cut the speeches short — he’s hungry,” Albert’s mother, Ute Kriemler, joked good-naturedly.

“It’s 9 on the spot — how do they do it? It’s just like their trains, they always get them to be on time,” remarked Tansky, arm in arm with Kriemler.

In addition to being a best-selling brand for the stores, Akris has an added asset: the Kriemler family. “They are such nice people, and they really never ask for much,” said Karyn Lemer, president of Holt Renfrew.

And with that, the retailers boarded the bus again to return to the Kriemler-owned Einstein hotel, where they all were staying. A few were so tired they dozed off on the brief ride.

They needed all the shut-eye they could get. The Swiss sojourn ended abruptly for most of them at 7:30 the next morning, when they all headed to Paris. The French leg of the fashion tour was about to begin.

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