GOING FROM NAIVETE TO THE RUNWAY
Byline: Eric Wilson / Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — Luck has nothing to do with it.
For three fledgling design firms that are preparing to be thrust into the limelight with a Bryant Park fashion show on Sunday sponsored by Moet & Chandon, gaining this industry’s recognition hasn’t been a case of overnight success. Nor would they have wanted it to be, as evidenced by a roundtable discussion with designers from the three firms that were selected to show before a broad audience of editors and buyers.
The winners — Alexandra Lind, Gregory Parkinson and The Wrights, designed by twins Sharon and Angela Wright — aren’t exactly green. While they consider themselves fortunate to be showing in a professional runway setting for the first time, the designers also consider the show to be an acknowledgement of the talent they have been expressing and working for years to translate into successful businesses.
As Parkinson said, “Today’s young designers are a lot more savvy and know how to look out for themselves.”
Parkinson, a native of Preston, England, established his signature business in New York a year ago after developing a successful retail business that catered to celebrities and stylists in Los Angeles, where he created looks for videos like TLC’s “Waterfalls.” The inception of Parkinson’s signature line focused on social occasion dresses and has evolved into day and evening separates for spring.
Lind, a native New Yorker, started her business in 1996 after developing a following of social notables who often asked her to design dresses after seeing some of the creations Lind had made for herself as a hobby since she was 16. Before starting the line, Lind worked at Conde Nast as a “rover,” assisting fashion departments of various magazines and at DKNY as an assistant. She now also designs a bridal line for Bergdorf Goodman.
Sharon and Angela Wright are also English born and had worked in various fashion companies here and studied at Kingston University in London before they set up their ready-to-wear line, The Wrights, two years ago. Their collection was picked up by Maxfield and Linda Dresner within the first season and has expanded to stores including Neiman Marcus and Barneys Japan.
The designers will each show about 20 pieces at the collective show, called Moet & Chandon Designer Debut, on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Pavilion during General Motors Fashion Week. They will also be hosted at a reception on Sept. 16 at Henri Bendel, another supporter of the event.
As the designers were in the final stages of putting together looks for the show, they sat down with WWD for a roundtable discussion of their careers and where they see their futures headed after the show:
WWD: How have you marketed yourselves and your collections to date?
Angela Wright: We sell the collection ourselves from our studio/showroom. We call the stores directly ourselves and send out mailers and illustrations to specialty stores we are trying to target.
Gregory Parkinson: I worked with showrooms in the past, but I always found I had to make appointments with buyers myself. So I decided to work with a p.r. firm instead and show the collection myself. I do specific things for each store so I need to work with them personally.
Alexandra Lind: I have combined my sample room and showroom and fitting room all in the same little space. I have two outside contractors, one for bridal and one for private clients. The heavy heavy ballgowns I like to keep in house.
WWD: How do you consider yourself to be perceived by stores and the press?
Sharon Wright: When the stores come in they meet you personally so they can see who you are. You start a rapport and they sense who you are and what you’re about, then the clothes speak for themselves. In the first season it was a little difficult, but overall, people have been quite receptive. Buyers are the same as anyone else — you have many different personality types.
G.P.: A lot of specialty stores are also small businesses owned by individuals, so they are very receptive and they really understand how you’re trying to build your business because they’re doing exactly the same thing.
My work is very personal, but if the buyer doesn’t really like it or if it’s not really for them, I don’t take it personally. I have a very definite plan of the stores that I want to sell to and how I want to grow my business.
A.L.: I’ve had a great following that really understands what I do, but sometimes when I go to a new city, the ladies, they kind of feel around. They don’t really understand with the made-to-order thing, they have to wait six weeks.
WWD: Do you find it more difficult to get an editor to see your collection than buyers?
G.P.: A designer can do their own sales, but I think to do your own press is really difficult. Because I started off in Los Angeles, I was in an arena where there are so many celebrities. Within a week of my store opening, I had my clothes on Faye Dunaway. There’s also times when you’d like to be very visible in the press and there’s times when you are just content developing your business.
A.W.: We’ve been doing pretty much everything ourselves in terms of sales and the press. Now it’s our second year, and perhaps we’d be looking into getting someone to work with us because there’s obviously only a certain amount that you can do on your own.
WWD: What do you expect this show will do for your businesses?
G.P.: It shows that in this day and age it can be quite credible to have a small business. It can be just as credible as to have a huge corporation, as stores and magazines like to work with you because you’re more accessible.
WWD: But this is also an age of big brands and corporations that have been consolidating, particularly in this industry. Have any of you found it difficult to operate as small businesses?
A.W.: I find it difficult to be the small guy, definitely, when it comes to production people taking you seriously. There’s always an element that want to work with big companies because there’s so many small designers out there who have come and gone.
S.W.: It’s been more challenging on the production side than the stores themselves. Stores always want to find something new and special. The challenge is to make it all happen, to get the fabrics from Europe, to get the patterns made, to get it into production. To keep that cycle going as a new person, you really have to be totally on the ball on every aspect.
A.L.: The contractors that I seek out are usually accustomed to one-of-a-kind dresses, so they’re OK with smaller quantities. But I’m the last in line. They’re like, “I’ll get to you in a month.” So I have to work with them on that.
WWD: Does the amount of time you have to spend finding these resources and marketing yourself become overwhelming? If you worked for a big company, you would be designing and that would be it.
G.P.: I worked for a big sportswear company and my life was miserable. They would come in at five o’clock in the afternoon and expect me to work to 11. And I am a morning person! Any job in this day and age is difficult. There is pressure everywhere. I know I’ll never get fired and I give myself good bonuses.
A.W.: Sometimes it is overwhelming, but I’ve also been in a similar situation working for someone else. That definitely has its drawbacks. I much prefer being independent and having that freedom.
S.W.: There’s a certain amount of naivete at the beginning. Actually doing the job is the biggest step on the learning curve. Getting recognition at the beginning gave us the feeling that we could do it. We just needed to find out how.
WWD: Are you profitable at this point?
[General sustained laughter.]
G.P.: With new accounts I got last season it is, but I have to do so much more work at this point. I have friends who have their own businesses — companies that are very successful — and they constantly like to tell me that it doesn’t get any easier.
A.L.: We figured out that if we do a certain amount of trunk shows, then that will keep the company profitable. If we do any less, we’re scraping by.
WWD: Is there a critical point that you reach where you don’t want to sell anymore or you don’t want to become a big corporation and sell out?
G.P.: I think it’s really a question of how much work do you want to do and how much money do you really want to have. When each piece is very labor intensive and creative, I have to think, “Do I really want to do this or do I want to do a more salable and viable product?”
The thing is, I do this all day, every day. This really is my life.
A.L.: I’m constantly adding to my product and my image. I smell something and I think that would be so me, or I see a shoe and I think if that was different, it would be so me. The idea of packaging and building the whole image is so exhilarating and it could be so many things that reflect you.
WWD: Have any of you talked to companies about fragrance or accessories licensing yet?
A.W.: I think we’re too young a company. It’s only been two years. It’s definitely a route that we might do.
A.L.: I’m doing bridal for Bergdorf Goodman. They want me to add shoes and handbags, which I would be so excited to do, but I have no idea how to source that out. I’ve never done that.
G.P.: When you consider that these are small businesses and that this is very personal, it really is a case of biting off more than you can chew.
WWD: In terms of developing your image, how important is it to have celebrities wear your clothes at this stage in your careers?
G.P.: You’ve got to do it very carefully. I have a huge press book from L.A. which I don’t use now because it just spilled over to where you become a slave to it. It becomes expensive as well. Some samples just get trashed. You are in this business because you want to express something that is your unique view and to have someone very high-profile wear it, it takes on a bit of their profile as well.
A.L.: Most of the them I’ve been friends with a long time so they really respect what I do and when they buy something or borrow something they’re always very respectful of it. It’s sent back cleaned. But when I send things to L.A., they come back four weeks later rolled up in a ball in a FedEx package.
It’s hard because it does cost money and they want you to make an $1,800 gown for free for a celebrity who may or may not even wear it. That part is kind of hard even though I know it would be amazing to have major celebrities in Hollywood wearing my things.
WWD: How will you continue to build your images next season and how do you continue to distinguish yourselves in a field of so many young designers?
A.L.: I’m not comparative like that. I just do my own thing and I appreciate what everybody else is doing.
S.W.: We have to keep our identity as well. If you’re trying to please everyone, you lose your sense of identity, and that’s a problem as well. You have to keep true to yourself. There’s always going to be 150 designers out there, and you have no control over what other people do.
WWD: Is there a need for more organizations that give exposure to young designers?
A.L.: There should be a charity!
GP: But this is a good organization. A lot of corporations would jump at the chance to sponsor a fashion show, but this company makes sense. It’s not Betty Crocker’s fashion show, you know.
WWD: Do you have any questions for each other?
GP: How much have you got done?