NEW YORK — The Searle label is 10 years old this year, and it has quietly established itself among the elite names in outerwear, with a combined wholesale and retail volume of $45 million.
But Steve Blatt, Searle’s president and designer, thinks he has an image problem. In fact, he says he has “no image as a designer.” To change all that, he is launching a luxe sportswear and dress collection for fall.
Blatt, who gave up using his birth name of Searle personally many years ago, fears his fashion legacy will be limited to being a “coat man.” He began his career as a coat and dress buyer at Bloomingdale’s in 1960, and two years later, struck out on his own to open T. Jones, a boutique on Third Avenue here. That retail venture continued through 1987, when two stores “changed their name overnight” to Searle, Blatt says, and a wholesale operation began.
“We had always manufactured for ourselves, and then we made a couple of coats for Bloomingdale’s, and that was the beginning of the wholesale business,” Blatt says. “It seems that forever after, I’ve been stigmatized as a cloakie. I should have made something else.”
In taking his first step toward shaking that stigma, Blatt aimed high. In Wednesday’s runway show — Searle’s first — he dabbled in many of the current trends, sending out his own Eighties ode — complete with leather jackets, super-short skirts, “I Spy” trenchcoats and well-tailored tweed power suits with long jackets and slim pants. But the very thing Blatt’s trying to get away from, he still does the best: coats, including reversible shearlings in mauve, a Mongolian lamb chubby and long baby llama funnelneck coat. Unfortunately, for evening, he took on a little too much, manifested in some downmarket-looking gowns, including a gold holograph slipdress.
This first effort isn’t likely to be his last. “We’re doing the show mostly because we want to prove to everybody that we just don’t do laundry,” Blatt says. “Whenever anybody talks about our name, it’s always about what great coats we make. But I have a point of view I want to get across that goes beyond that. We’re interested in clothing and accessories that are practical, that are beautiful, cutting edge, but that are wearable. We may have our heads in the clouds, but we have our feet on the ground, and that’s partly my retail training.”
Blatt’s approach to retailing has been offbeat, with five of his own stores located within a tight radius on the Upper East Side here: four stores on Madison Avenue and one on Third Avenue with annual sales of $20 million.
But Blatt doesn’t want to invest in any more stores, so he’s banking on expanding the wholesale end of the business, currently generating $25 million in sales.
“I prefer to broaden our image with the luxe line and into shoes, handbags, hats and sweaters,” Blatt says. “I would also like to have designer shops in the stores, as we expand into more product.”
The multilabel wholesale business consists of the designer-price Searle line, the Searle Studio bridge line and the better-price Steve label. The Searle Collection launched Wednesday is priced above Searle.
“We’re also thinking about another line tentatively called S by Searle, to fall between bridge and better, what the market is calling less bridge,” Blatt says.