NEW YORK — Madison Avenue shoppers recently have had a lot of reasons to do a double take of the Searle windows.
Once the retail chain was considered a little sleepy, but Searle has undergone a quiet transformation: It has updated the eponymous label to be in sync with must-have runway trends, while taking a more daring buying approach with an emphasis on European designer, bridge and contemporary lines. Searle now sells M Missoni, Piazza Sempione, Issa, Postcard, Bogner, Collette Dinnigan, Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti, Jean Paul Gaultier, Isabel Marant and Alexandra Neel, and company executives pride themselves on giving real estate to lesser-known talents, including many British designers.
The change is the brainchild of founder Searle “Steve” Blatt, president; his wife, Alice Blatt, chief executive officer, and her son, Rick Weinstein, who is in charge of sales and marketing. Steve Blatt is a proponent of a major shift every few years, and he called the latest change a “delivered act. If you do it right, it’s never a mistake,” he said.
“The older customer was just astounded and in shock, but the young girl who had been walking by and never turned, now turned around because something caught her eye,” said Weinstein.
Searle operates seven stores and boasts more than 400 vendors in its matrix. In the fall mix is a Gharani Strok open-back dress for $548, Issa’s red knotted-front jersey dress for $548 and Jenny Dyer’s kimono-sleeve Empire V-neck dress for $998.
The Blatts have been together for close to 30 years. They met by chance after Steve Blatt decided to retire from the garment business to learn languages. “When I met Alice in 1977, I felt I had reached a point in my career where I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “I wanted to take some time off. I was studying German, Greek, French, Italian. Alice happened to be my German teacher. When I told her I was going to retire, she said she was not going to associate with a retiree.”
To this day, the energy of these two seems to be the driving force of the business. Much to Alice Blatt’s chagrin, she and her husband wake up at 3:45 every morning. He arrives at the office every day at 5; she gets there at 6:15. “She’s late,” Steve Blatt quipped.
The founder likes to reminisce about his early days. He started on Bloomingdale’s executive training squad in 1955, watching over the bargain tables downstairs for two-and-a-half years before being promoted to a buying position, working with then-assistant manager Marvin Traub and buying junior and misses’ coats and raincoats. But after four-and-a-half years, he was itching to move on. “I was a terrible politician,” he recalled. “I thought that without being a politician, I could never rise to the top.”
So what does a bad politician do, according to Steve Blatt? Become a vendor, naturally. In 1960, he swapped retail for manufacturing, bought materials on 38th Street and invested in his own factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He started as a coat maker, became a dressmaker and then expanded into sportswear. Eventually, he opened his own stores under the Tom Jones name.
“I was not in love with selling to other people,” Steve Blatt recalled. “Over the years, we changed our personality and the way we do business every five to six years. Up until 1990, we were a solid, staid, tailored business, but as the Nineties developed, we felt we could no longer grow in this field as it was dated. By this time we had four stores, and I decided that the stores on 84th Street and 62nd Street should have all young merchandise from other vendors.”
Currently, 40 percent of Searle’s business comes from its own brand and the remainder comes from other lines. The company’s total annual sales are $50 million, of which about $8.9 million is wholesale.
Now the company is readying itself for its next move. This September, Searle plans to open its eighth store, on the corner of 67th Street and Third Avenue. The store will be 4,500 square feet and will be the first to feature just Searle merchandise.
“One of the banes of my life is that because we’re so successful with coats, other people think of us as a coat resource,” Steve Blatt said. “It has to do with personal satisfaction. One of the things we do well is to last. I don’t want to do what I used to do. It’s boring. I want to lead my customer into new territory.”
The store’s aim is to establish a brand language for Searle — for a reason. When other vendors are looking to minimize their wholesale business in favor of freestanding boutiques where they can control the product buying and presentation, Steve Blatt seems intent on swimming against the stream. He plans to wholesale Searle’s complete collection, which retails from $200 to $700, for fall 2007, which begs the question, Why? “The coat business in the last few years has not been great,” Steve Blatt said, adding nonchalantly, “Besides, I do like to do things a little differently. If we win, great; if we lose, we’ll just offer more coats.”
Ronnie Eliyahu, Searle’s head designer, who works with a team of four, described the Searle line as “a young, modern collection that caters to trendy women who have their own point of view.”
“Clothes should fit beautifully and last for more than one season. We try to make dresses for 16-year-olds and their 44-year-old mothers,” he said.
For fall, the Searle collection includes a double-breasted gold oversprayed shearling coat, $2,295 retail; a long beige cashmere V-neck cardigan, $495, and an Empire V-neck jersey dress, $459.
Searle outerwear is sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom. While the wholesale strategy for the sportswear is still being figured out, Steve Blatt hopes to sell “ to any specialty store with a point of view.”