This story first appeared in the January 7, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

NEW YORK — Count Isaac Mizrahi among those who have declared 2009 as a time for change. After six successful years hitting the affordable fashion mark at Target, Mizrahi is on to Liz Claiborne, a company anxious for a design bull’s-eye.

It’s been nearly a year since Claiborne revealed plans to install Mizrahi as creative director. Thanks to his vaultlike contract with Target, which expired at the end of last year, the designer was barred from talking about his new gig until now. Certainly Mizrahi has his work cut out for him, coming aboard what many in the industry have characterized as a seriously troubled ship. It’s no secret that Claiborne’s once indefatigable better business has been suffering on the sales floor over the last decade, losing orders with its bread-and-butter department stores such as Macy’s and Bon-Ton.

So why leave Target’s plush pastures to tackle Liz’s considerable challenge? Anyone expecting full, juicy disclosure will be disappointed in Mizrahi’s murky-at-best response: “I just feel like spiritually it was time to, like, move,” he says. “I just thought I had this really great opportunity. No other reason than that.”

Of course, the assumption is that more than spirituality played a part, particularly after Mizrahi adds: “I would still be at Target if I could because I feel like I created this big thing….”

Timing aside — the Liz deal popped up just as Mizrahi was renegotiating his Target contract — one can only guess at the details. Regardless, Mizrahi considers his time at Target well spent. “The Target thing was not dumb at all. That was the smartest thing,” he says. “I remember when I did my first show where I had, like, $3 things mixed with $3,000 things. I was going to call it ‘bipolar shopping disorder’ and the people at Target were like, ‘Oh. Could you call it something else?’”

Whether or not Mizrahi coined the term “high-low,” he certainly blazed the trail for the modern designer-mass collaboration, and elevated Target to a fashion destination for the budget set. Liz Claiborne is undoubtedly expecting similar results — but in a more return-to-glory fashion.

“We had to find a way for both the consumer and the retail trade to stop and reconsider the brand,” says Liz Claiborne Inc. chief executive officer William L. McComb of the decision to hire Mizrahi, which was spearheaded by Dave McTague, the group’s executive vice president of partnered brands. “We knew it would take somebody who was not just an extraordinary designer, but somebody who could create an amazing amount of intrigue and buzz and give people this reason to say, ‘Oh my God, I need to take another look.’”

The firm, whose sales for the nine months through Oct. 4 fell 6 percent to $3.07 billion compared with sales of $3.27 billion in the same period a year ago, did not disclose first-year projections for the Mizrahi-designed Claiborne collection. McComb prefers to focus on sell-through rates anyway. “We got to a point where our sell-throughs were not sustainable and we were ashamed of them,” he says, noting that, for now, the collection will stay in department stores and Liz’s 92 outlet stores. “I want our wholesale partners to say that their retail sell-throughs are impressive, because that’s the consumer voting.”

Thus the measure of success will be if Mizrahi recaptures lost customers and draws in a new clientele, many of whom probably don’t remember the label and its late founder’s heyday. It’s a tall order, not only because Liz has been mired in bad product for awhile, but also due to the fact that the company was built as a bona fide designer label for Middle America, something that’s hard to find in fashion’s current polarized world — one that Mizrahi helped create.

To wit, that’s exactly where Mizrahi sees potential. “I’m trying to shift the paradigm once again,” he says. “The Target thing, that’s thinking very high and very low. But now there’s this whole other cultural thing that’s taking place before our eyes, and it’s only accelerated because of the terrible economic thing we’re going through. It’s like, I believe firmly in the middle now.”

Which is not to say Mizrahi is no longer about a dichotomy. His own ready-to-wear collection is still very much a priority. He’s planning to show during New York Fashion Week, possibly at the tents in Bryant Park, though the location has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, the fall Claiborne line, which Mizrahi says is also rooted in color, will be shown in an intimate cocktail presentation. A full-blown show feels “a bit pretentious” at this juncture, he says.


As for whether women still care about Liz Claiborne the woman, whom Mizrahi says he grew up “worshipping,” and what the label stood for, he’s optimistic. “I don’t know from industry journalism,” says Mizrahi. “I just know from what the consumer take on Liz Claiborne was. We did our homework, my partner [Marisa Gardini, Isaac Mizrahi New York’s president and ceo] and I, and the brand status is still fabulous, it’s still stellar. It never got ruined. It’s just some nice product that went very granny. But the point is the brand is still perceived as great, friendly, and incredibly value-oriented.”

Considering the dismal economy, leaving mass retail giant Target in favor of a pricier position dependent upon department store business that’s not the better market utopia it once was might seem counterintuitive, but Mizrahi thinks otherwise. The discussions with Claiborne opened in fall 2007, when the cracks in the economy first began to surface. “Marisa is very smart,” Mizrahi says. “She was the first person to say, ‘If this is going to go further south, you kind of don’t want to be at Target because it’s not a place where you’ll be buying fun sweaters or cute little khaki cargo pants anymore.’ You’re going to bypass the fashion and go straight to the laundry detergent or lightbulb aisle in a store like that. In times of financial crisis, you don’t necessarily look for the cheapest thing; you look for the most valuable.”

In other words, consumers look for quality for money that, says Mizrahi, can be found at places like Dillard’s and Belk as well as Macy’s and Bon-Ton.

Fashionwise, Mizrahi says he’s going for total reinvention, not that he paid much attention to recent Claiborne collections. “I don’t know where it was,” he says. “I hadn’t looked.”

The spring lineup, which hits 1,200 department store doors in February and was shown to buyers only in September, is full of fresh, sporty fare, such as wide-leg pants, safari looks and separates that flaunt Mizrahi’s signature way with color, something for which Liz Claiborne herself was known. “It’s supposed to be snappy. I hate to use the word ‘grown-up,’ but it’s slightly more grown-up,” says Mizrahi, noting that, based on this collection, Claiborne already has regained space on the sales floor.

The new look isn’t limited to the clothes, either: Mizrahi overhauled Claiborne’s shop-in-shop format that will roll out in select department stores next month. “We worked as hard on that as anything, because the strategy of the brand is to look better than anybody else in those stores,” he says, adding that the mostly white design is meant to show off the colorful collection. “It’s clean and yet there’s a bit of Dorothy Draper influence. So it’s a fresh and happy place.”

One that Mizrahi will be experiencing firsthand.

Details have yet to be finalized, but Claiborne executives will put Mizrahi’s public persona to work for them via in-store appearances and an ad campaign that breaks next month. Fashion aside, if there’s one thing Mizrahi is good at, it’s public relations. “I’ll cop to that,” he says. “I could’ve been a spokesmodel. You know who once said something about that? Karl Lagerfeld. He said, ‘Oh, he’s just too good at promoting himself.’ I was like, ‘Oh, and look who’s talking. The Quotron.’” (Of course, Lagerfeld and Mizrahi go way back — to the days when Chanel backed Mizrahi’s fashion house before pulling the plug.)

And, while the Liz ladies aren’t Chanel women, or clients of Mizrahi’s own rtw collection, they are, as the designer puts it, “smart, sophisticated women who are perpetually 35.” And he’s intent on reaching them, even if the courting takes time. “[The clothes] look wonderful,” says Mizrahi. “They’re going to get shipped beautifully and everyone [here] really cares. So give it a minute.”

Such a suggestion is almost novel in an era of fashion houses where designers come and go through revolving doors — Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Halston come to mind. On the subject of his own future at Claiborne in such an impatient industry, Mizrahi is matter-of-fact: “According to my business deal, they can’t be impatient.”




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