DELTA BURKE: MAKING THE BIG LEAP
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Actress-turned-designer Delta Burke is feeling a little frustrated these days.
Never mind that her book “Delta Style” (St. Martin’s Press), which hit bookstores in March, was already in its second printing within a month, and she had just been interviewed in the midst of a hectic 15-city book tour to promote it, including appearances on “Oprah Winfrey,” “Dateline” and “Rosie O’Donnell.” For Burke, the journey in fashion has been a little rocky.
Best known for her five-year stint as Suzanne Sugarbaker on the sitcom “Designing Women,” Burke, 41, has had such an influence on women’s style that she launched a plus-size fashion licensing company called Delta Burke Designs in 1995. It has reached $30 million in wholesale volume and includes swimwear, lingerie, sportswear and jeans. The collections are in more 800 doors, including Dillard’s, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, and are available through the Frederick Atkins buying service.
More recently, and only after a lot of persuading, her eveningwear line, including prom dresses licensed by Onyx, has just started testing in 50 doors, including Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s and Younkers, although Burke was hoping for a rollout.
“Everything seems like it has been a struggle,” said Burke, who was interviewed recently in her hotel suite at the Waldorf-Astoria here. Dressed in leggings and wearing no makeup, she looked a bit weary.
“Stores are so cautious,” she said. “They want to test everything. How much do you have to see to know that it is really real?”
Welcome to Seventh Avenue.
Burke also wanted to build in-store shops for her sportswear collection, but decided to scrap the idea after getting a cool response from retailers. Instead, she is pushing for point-of-sale signage. And some of her top priorities in building her fashion business have been the toughest to sell to retailers.
“I knew that lingerie, eveningwear and swimsuits would sell the best, and they were the last three I did,” she said. “Pitching sportswear was easier. I had to prove myself with the other categories to be able to do what I really wanted to do.”
Burke admits that such caution is surfacing in all industries.
“In the sitcom business, you used to get a full order of 22 episodes. Now, if you get picked up in a series, you are lucky to get six orders,” she said. “Sometimes they take you off after one show. Everyone is getting more cautious. I see it everywhere I go.”
This attitude, said Burke, is especially true in the large-size business.
“Stores really want to do this, but there are so many preconceived ideas about what these women want,” said Burke, who fluctuates between size 14 and size 16. “The stores have certain stereotypes.”
Burke said her collection has done well so far, particularly the five easy mix-and-match pieces, which are all in matte jersey. They include a jacket, skirt, pants, top and dress, wholesaling from $32 to $85.
She has also applied the mix-and-match separates approach to her other categories, like denim.
That’s a philosophy she learned from her grandmother, who worked in sales at Belk’s Department Stores while Burke was growing up in Orlando, Fla.
“My grandmother was a saleslady, and I remember her teaching me about separates, about how to mix and match,” she said.
But that’s not the only fashion advice she received. She recalled that her grandmother and her mother used to dress her up in elaborate costumes. She was also among the first of her peers to get into trends.
“She [her grandmother] would call my mom and say, ‘I got this for Delta. So come on down.’ I was one of the first among my friends to wear the midi.”
Burke writes in her book that she was the only girl at her first formal dance in junior high draped in a white lace mantilla, for instance, and the only person in the Florida school system to show up for class on “Cat Day” in black HotPants, fur mittens, a stuffed tail and little ears.
Burke used her fashion sense to her advantage, competing in teenage pageants in Florida and winning 18 straight titles. In 1974, she represented Florida in the Miss America pageant, where she won a talent scholarship. She used the money to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
From London, she moved to Los Angeles, where she immediately began working. She starred in two miniseries: “The Seekers” and “The Chisolms.” She had a leading role in the series “Filthy Rich” and starred in the HBO series “First and Ten.” She followed that with her Emmy-nominated role in “Designing Women.” She formed her own production company called Perseverance Inc., which produced the ABC series “Delta.”
It was during her time on “Designing Women” that Burke’s weight gain was the subject of much publicity. Her difficulty in finding the right clothes prompted her to start the fashion venture, where she plays an active role in designing and marketing the clothes.
“Delta Burke is a great role model,” said Michele Weston, fashion and style director at Mode magazine, which caters to the plus-size woman. “Her strength as a designer lies in swimwear. It is sexy and really modern. We are featuring two of her suits — a one-piece and a two-piece — in the June issue.
Burke, who lives in New Orleans with her husband, actor Gerald McRaney, said that she wears only her own clothes. Her favorites are her riding jacket, leggings and dusters with scarves.
As for keeping up with runway trends, Burke said: “You try to stay with what is going on.”
She noted that she has been doing sheer for six months, a look that has gotten a good reception among her customers. Skirts with slits have also done well.
On the other hand, Burke said that she went overboard in lace and gold lame last season.
“I don’t think the consumer was able to understand it,” she said.
Two-piece swimsuits have also been a tough sell to plus-size women, she said.
Burke sees plenty of opportunities to expand her business. After a successful launch with Butterick Co. last year, Vogue Knitting is launching four patterns for Burke’s sweaters for fall.
Burke said she would also like to have her own freestanding stores, which would feature her own accessories and clothes. Other plans include developing cosmetics, skincare and fragrances.
In addition to the U.S., Delta Burke Designs sells to Canada and Mexico, but executives said they are not planning to expand that business until the American business is fully developed.
As for pursuing other TV roles, she’ll consider a few projects, but for now she said: “I want to just focus on my women. This is crucial. We are on the verge of making our dreams come true.”