CALIFORNIA WEANIN’: THEY LIKE NEW YORK
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — They’re from Los Angeles, but they’re bored by the beaches and the blondes and they’re ready to flee the freeways.
They are four Los Angeles contemporary and young designers, who are aggressively building a New York base — either by becoming bicoastal or abandoning the West Coast altogether.
While their reasons vary, these designers are out to develop a New York image through a number of strategies, including showrooms and design studios here as well as developing their own freestanding stores.
The most dramatic move is being taken by Elaine Kim, the designer and owner of Product, who this year moved her entire business, including production, to New York. Marina Rossi has also left L.A., but is keeping her production and a showroom there.
Janet Howard, who has her signature label and contemporary line Misc., closed her showroom at the California Mart in February and moved her sales staff to her New York showroom, but for now is keeping her design studio and corporate office in Los Angeles. And Rix is keeping production and corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, while developing its New York presence with freestanding stores, a showroom and design studio.
“I enjoyed being in Los Angeles; it gave me a great start, but I am seeing this shift to New York as growing up,” said Kim. Product, her five-year-old firm, is known for body-conscious matte jersey and crepe designs.
“We’ve had a grass-roots following, from a hip, young crowd in SoHo to a fashion-forward crowd in Los Angeles,” Kim continued. “We did not have to be all that organized then. Now we are going into the second phase of the business. We want to expand our customer base, market base and production base.”
Kim last year closed her downtown design studio in Los Angeles and this year moved her manufacturing and headquarters to New York. The designer had always had her sales and marketing office in New York; she never had a showroom in Los Angeles.
As part of her strategy to establish her New York base, Kim opened a 2,300-square-foot design studio on 40 Wooster Street, relocating the showroom above it. The showroom had been in back of the flagship store at 71 Mercer Street. With that move, Kim was able to double the size of her three-year-old store to 2,500 square feet.
Kim continues to operate a store on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Product, which wound up with a wholesale volume last year of $5 million, is expected to post $8 million this year, she said. Current accounts include Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Kim hopes her New York base will enable her to develop more of an international business. She currently sells to department and specialty stores in Japan and Hong Kong and wants a Western European base. Her overseas business accounts for about 20 percent of volume.
Being in New York will also give Product a better access to fabrics, she said.
“In Los Angeles, everything is jeanswear and junior-oriented,” she said. The line is produced in the New York area, while fabrics are sourced in Italy and France.
Kim says she finds plenty of design inspiration here — especially in the art galleries.
“It is wonderful to be near SoHo galleries, and I am so close to Chelsea,” she said. Her holiday line was inspired by an exhibition at The Drawing Center that featured “chalkboard art” — white chalk on a black background — by artist Tacita Dean.
“It gave me lots of ideas for sheers and different surfaces,” Kim said.
Spring bestsellers at retail include fake suede belted trenchcoats and fake suede dresses, a crepe ribbed cardigan, worn with a strappy tank, and matte jersey scoopneck T-shirts, she said.
Pants and dresses retail on average at about $175. Coats are $385.
For contemporary designer Marina Rossi, who is known for her knits and fabric innovations, the main reason for moving part of her five-year-old business to New York this year was image.
“I don’t want to be considered an L.A. designer any longer. No matter how much I screamed and shouted, all the stores wanted me to do was knock off Prada,” said Rossi. “I’ve already been here just a couple of months, and I feel that I am already being taken more seriously.”
Rossi opened a 1,500-square-foot showroom at 231 West 39th Street in February and is looking for an apartment and design studio on the West Side. She is still keeping her 800-square-foot showroom at The California Mart and is maintaining a house in Los Angeles. Production is still done out of Los Angeles.
“I used to go to New York once every couple of months, but now I’ll be spending more time here,” she said.
Rossi was interviewed at her first fashion event here, an event that drew many buyers from East Coast stores such as Macy’s East and Bloomingdale’s, a base she is aiming to build. The line is primarily in West Coast stores. Following the show, which was held April 3 at her showroom, Nordstrom picked up the line in more stores. She would also like to open a store in SoHo by yearend.
Marina Rossi is in about 600 accounts, but hopes to be in 900 within a couple of years.
Last year’s wholesale volume hit $6 million; this year, she is expecting sales of $8 million to $12 million.
About 60 percent of the business is from overseas accounts, mostly from the Pacific Rim. Rossi believes that building a New York base will help her develop a European business, which is now minimal. She is keeping her Los Angeles office to help serve stores in the Pacific Rim.
Like Kim, Rossi said that being based here will give her more access to fabrics.
“I am very stimulated by the fabrics I see here,” said Rossi, whose fall collection features stretch cashmere, knit boucle, stretch Lurex and burnout prints.
Two years ago, Janet Howard, who has her signature label and Misc., a contemporary line, began making the transition to becoming a New Yorker, renting an apartment in Chelsea. In February, she moved her sales staff to her three-year-old 1,000-square-foot showroom at 80 West 40th Street. At that time, she also closed her showroom in Los Angeles. The corporate office and design studio remains in downtown Torrance, Calif., but that might change, she said. She has a house outside of Los Angeles.
“I don’t want to be considered a Los Angeles designer. You almost get a tainted image there of being just a sweatshirt maker or a knockoff artist,” said Howard, who showed her fall collection on 7th on Sixth Thursday.
“I want to really focus my energy in New York. Los Angeles is too sterile and blank, and you don’t really see what everyone is wearing because everybody is driving on the freeway. It’s not a walking city the way New York is. You don’t get that inspiration you get by being here. The Oscars is the only time when people out there really dress up. Most of the time, L.A. women are just wearing jeans, a T-shirt and blazer.
“I went to this great party at the Spy bar, and I got so inspired,” she said. “You don’t have that kind of energy in Los Angeles.
Rix, which jumped on the scene five years ago offering brightly colored rayon and Lycra spandex tops, is now developing a bicoastal image.
“Being in New York offers us a totally new perspective on styling, a whole new outlook,” said president Rick Guido, who runs the firm with his wife, Debra Josephson, who is also the designer.
Rix, which maintains a showroom, a 2,000-square-foot design studio, a 20,000-square-foot distribution facility and factories in Los Angeles, is using its New York showroom and design studio, which opened a year ago, to develop closer ties to buyers, he said. It is at 214 West 39th Street.
The New York showroom and design studio total about 1,800 square feet.
In addition, Rix opened a SoHo store on Spring Street in December and is set to open two on eastern Long Island, one in Westhampton on May 15 and the other in East Hampton on June 1.
Rix also operates stores in Beverly Center in Beverly Hills and a unit in Aspen.
The SoHo store is expected to post sales of more than $1 million in its first year, with the Westhampton store expected to post a first-year volume between $600,000 and $750,0000 and the East Hampton store between $750,000 and $1 million.
Guido said he now wants to open a 2,000-square-foot sample design room near the New York showroom. It is slated to open in June and will help provide faster turn on merchandise for the New York-area stores, he said.
Ultimately, he would like to transform the design studio in Los Angeles to a production design room and keep the New York design studio as the place for “the real creating.”
He also hopes to use New York contractors.
As part of its strategy to strengthen its design image, the company is breaking its merchandise into three separate lines, starting with June delivery. In addition to Rix, which will feature basics such as stretch T-shirts, the company will also offer a dressy bridge collection called Debra Josephson, and a contemporary casual sportswear line called Debra Josephson Rix.
“I love New York, and I miss it, and I am physically moving back to New York with my wife and daughter this summer,” said Guido, who was born and raised here.
He does plan to keep his home in Los Angeles. It is behind Sunset Strip, and its ambience is more Manhattan than Malibu, he said.
“There is a wide variety of people there, from young actors to hookers, the homeless and lots of just crazy people. We [his family] need to be around that when we are out there. It reminds us of New York.”