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It’s almost impossible to scoop an excited designer with a Twitter feed. Within hours of his first Saks window installation, the tweets were flying between Prabal Gurung and his fans. A formal blog post and photo followed. “I’ve invited everyone, all my friends have gone and looked at it,” says an effusive Gurung. “This is my first window ever in New York, and Saks is so iconic. I’m so happy they thought of me.”

Actually, Saks has been thinking of Gurung and his peers a lot lately, ever since the store revamped its third floor last year, devoting prime real estate (right off the escalators) to incubating new talent. As of Tuesday, that space is stocked with a collection of exclusive dresses Saks commissioned from six youngish labels, including Doo.Ri, Aquilano.Rimondi, Christian Cota, Erdem, Marios Schwab and Gurung. Each designer conceived three new styles — except for Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi, who created two dresses — that range from $700 (Erdem) to $7,059 (Aquilano.Rimondi) and will be available in a run of sizes at Saks’ New York flagship, with 10 percent of sales going to the Whitney Museum of American Art, another New York bastion of creative patronage. An in-store party will take place Thursday night to celebrate the dresses and their designers, all of whom, aside from Schwab, whose schedule was compromised by volcanic ash, will be there to toast Saks and hopefully sell some clothes.

This story first appeared in the April 28, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“We wanted short dresses with a cocktail feel,” says Joe Boitano, Saks group senior vice president and general merchandise manager, of the project’s design mandate. “After that we said do what you want.” In Erdem Moralioglu’s case, that meant dresses in original prints “that were easy to wear year round and that could easily be transferred from the city to the beach.” Cota produced a dress with cage detailing and two hand-painted styles to reflect the Whitney’s artistic influence. Gurung chose colors (black, white and electric blue) that felt fresh but gelled with his signature double-faced satin and ladylike silhouettes.

Doo-Ri Chung notes any retail exclusive comes with implied parameters: Know the audience. “It’s always fun with exclusives because it allows you to have a stronger sense of how the store approaches its customer,” says Chung. “And it’s a nice way to distinguish each of the majors. For instance, what I would do for Barneys is very different from what I would do for Saks.” In this case, that’s an accented waist, a hemline a little above the knee.

As much as the event is an opportunity to drive traffic and generate excitement on the floor, Saks also sees it as a statement. “What Joe and his team did when we reopened the third floor was highlight a number of very talented international creators. We received tremendous results from it in the fall season. And we need to let these emerging designers know that Saks is a good partner,” says Ron Frasch, Saks Inc. president and chief merchandising officer. “On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve gotten a lot of credit for it.” Presumably he’s referring to the fact that stores like Barneys and Colette have the reputation as the industry’s retail talent scouts.

Meanwhile, the designers report nothing but complete support from Saks. This is the second time Cota, whose business is a mere six seasons in, has scored a window at Saks, which also “put us in the New York Times in an ad campaign the first season as well,” says Cota, who sees this particular project as an opportunity for a small designer to get more merch in front of the consumer. “I don’t have [resort and pre-fall],” says Cota, who designed his dresses with seasonal transitions in mind (blues for spring, nudes for summer, black for fall). “This is a good way to introduce more of my collection to the floor without having five collections a year and also to keep the clients excited. If they think this is going to happen again, maybe they’ll come back the next week.”

“This impacts our business hugely,” says Moralioglu. “Because my relationship with Saks is still developing, projects like this create a point of difference from store to store and showcases our brand in a straightforward manner.”

Gurung breaks it down from a 360-degree point of view. “We’re living in a day and age of instant fashion, everything is available immediately at the click of a button. So how do you make the customer, who rules the market, feel special?” he says. “The beauty of this project is, it’s the Whitney Museum, and there’s the person who’s going for the feel-good, charity aspect. For a retailer, it creates interest and relevance. And for a designer like me, it’s great publicity.”

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