READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — The glitter is glimmering, the rhinestones are studded and the beads are all sewn up.
Mackie’s back in town.
Much like an aging screen actor staging his comeback performance, Bob Mackie — Mr. Show Biz — has returned to Seventh Avenue’s ready-to-wear scene.
With a licensed bridge line of suits landing at stores now for a second season, his eveningwear collection in its second year and a bridge dress line that bows this month for spring retailing, Mackie nearly has rebuilt the brand empire that crumbled four years ago — and then some.
Sales of Bob Mackie Collection, the eveningwear line, which is a joint venture between Bob Mackie Inc. and Abraham Talass Inc., hit around $4 million in its first year — twice its original projection, according to market reports. That’s the same volume posted by Bob Mackie Originals, the designer’s last rtw collection that closed amid controversy in 1993.
Mackie by Bob Mackie, the bridge suit line produced here under license by Lavan Fashion Inc., is on target to reach $5 million in first-year wholesale volume, according to principal Ben Berookhim. The bridge dress collection, Bob Mackie Boutique, which has been licensed to Talass as well, is projected to hit the same mark in its first year.
Each line is expected to reach $10 million at wholesale within three years, according to Marc A. Schwartz, chief operating officer of Bob Mackie Design Group Ltd., which controls licensing of the Bob Mackie trademark.
The company’s 13 other licensees — ranging from men’s ties and women’s fur coats to Barbie collectors’ plates and stationery — will generate close to $100 million in retail sales this year, Schwartz said.
Many of those licenses predate Mackie’s troubles in 1993, when there were 14 licenses bearing his name generating a volume of about $35 million, in addition to the designer’s $4 million eveningwear line.
Schwartz, who joined the company as Mackie’s personal and business attorney about a year before the designer shut down his rtw line, has been a key architect of rebuilding the business.
By 1993, sales of the designer line had dropped by 20 percent over five years, and an article in the June 1993 issue of Vanity Fair raised allegations that Mackie had accepted loans from the Gambino crime family and repaid them by outfitting their wives. At the time, sources confirmed the Gambino connection to WWD.
“That was absolutely ridiculous,” Schwartz said recently. “The whole thing was based on a source who was a disgruntled employee.”
There was never a criminal investigation, and, as the company is privately held, little information came to light about its financing. Mackie said last week he and his partner, Ray Aghayan, own the Mackie companies.
Mackie, looking back to 1993, calls the closing of his rtw business “a bump in the road.”
“It was good to totally stop,” he said. “It seemed so drastic at the time. But then, all of a sudden, I said to myself, ‘Unless things are going well, it’s just as well not to be doing it if you’re miserable.’ It’s very hurtful to work that hard on something and have it fall apart.”
Mackie cites the failure of many specialty stores during the retail recession of the early Nineties as central to the collapse of his old rtw business. He cited the closing of key accounts such as Sara Fredericks, Elizabeth Arden and Martha’s.
“All of a sudden, half of my clients were not there, and people were talking about grunge,” Mackie said.
The designer also noted that during that period, women weren’t exactly clamoring for his trademark theatrical concoctions of taffeta, beads and sequins that retailed for upward of $7,000.
But a number of market factors are on Mackie’s side this time.
Particularly important is the success of the designer’s licensed products, which continued to grow quietly even in the absence of a high-profile runway presentation. Among them, perfumes sold through Riviera Concepts, furs by Corniche Furs and a collectible series of Barbie dolls kept Mackie’s name in the public eye during his three-year hiatus from Seventh Avenue.
Mackie’s existing eponymous fragrance, launched in 1991, has an annual retail volume of about $10 million, while the April launch of Perhaps, his latest women’s fragrance, is projected to generate $20 million in its first year.
Mackie — who has maintained his celebrity status alongside his famous clients, who include Cher, Carol Burnett and Angela Lansbury — has also hawked a line of “wearable art,” mostly accessories, on QVC for the past five years.
Also key to Mackie’s return is that the company has slashed the prices of its high-end line by more than 50 percent, compared with his old collection. Dresses retail from $1,200 to $3,500. Schwartz and Mackie said the lower prices attract a younger clientele.
Another factor is the strength of the eveningwear market in general and a return of glamorous looks, as cited by several retailers. The retailers said bridge suit and dress departments are underserved by designer labels, particularly ones with an approach closer to eveningwear than career.
“We have moved into an element of business where ‘need’ clothes have become very important,” said consultant Gloria Gelfand, director of international marketing and merchandising at Marketing Management Group. “Bob Mackie represents the classification of need, and if he comes in at the right price point and the clothes look very good, I think he will do well.”
Gelfand noted that in rtw departments, Mackie won’t receive the kind of floor space allotted to bridge sportswear labels like Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Anne Klein II. But the strength of Mackie’s name and his visibility could draw customers to the suit or dress areas if Mackie designs with a “younger, not young” approach, she said.
“The brand has to have a constant evolution,” Gelfand said. “You can’t afford to give up the consumer base that you have, but you’ve got to understand that a percentage of the line has to be treated new.”
To that end, Mackie has hired Kenneth A. Pool as women’s design director, to lighten his load and bring a more youthful interpretation of his eveningwear into the bridge lines, which wholesale for $145 to $295.
Saks Fifth Avenue featured several of the Mackie by Bob Mackie suits in its fall Saks Folio catalog that arrived in homes just over one month ago.
“We’re really happy with the suits so far,” said a Saks spokeswoman. “The sell-through is 60 percent, and having been in homes for only a month, we’re pretty sure we’ll sell through 100 percent.”
Beverly Rice, senior vice president of fashion and merchandising strategy at Jacobson’s Stores, Jackson, Mich., said, “I thought Bob Mackie really did an interesting job of getting away from the image of show pieces that are only for movie stars and getting into really wearable clothes. I give him my thumbs-up.”
Jacobson’s is restructuring its bridge rtw department, Rice said, and because she feels suits are reemerging as a category, her buyers are contemplating carrying the Mackie suit line. The store is also considering one of Mackie’s suits for a national ad.
Rice said she is impressed with Mackie’s return to rtw and is confident of its financial structuring.
“He, like everybody else in retail and wholesale, when going through hard times, has to get out paper and pencil and figure out what went wrong,” Rice said. “He is a very talented designer and learned good lessons. I give him full credit for having turned that corner.”
Sherry Cassin, executive fashion director for The Doneger Group, said several of the buying office’s clients have placed orders for Mackie’s designer collection and suit line.
“There is this whole return to glamour and the idea of being dressed again,” said Cassin, who gave the line high marks.
Cassin said offerings in the bridge suit and dress market have been bland for the last few years.
“We’re very excited to have Mackie back and the image that entails. It’s also a great name that is loved out there in the hinterland,” Cassin said.
She expressed confidence in Mackie’s company, noting that the structure of the licensees builds a strong support for the designer’s top collection.
Restructuring the company around diversified licensed products has been Schwartz’s primary strategy for the past five years, he said.
Now that those efforts are beginning to pay off, he has a number of projects on the drawing board and eventually hopes to turn the Mackie label into a globally sold lifestyle brand.
“Ralph [Lauren] dictates the whole brand as lifestyle concept,” Schwartz said. “That’s what we’d like to do.”
A national brand ad campaign has been discussed, as has opening retail concept stores within a year. Schwartz said taking the company public has also been talked about, but it is not under serious consideration.
Meanwhile, the “Sultan of Sequins” is continuing his song-and-dance routine, rather than taking his bows. His 10th-anniversary Barbie — Madame du Barbie — reaches stores for holiday selling; he launches a line of stationery this month, and he has just returned from North Carolina, where he was negotiating a license to create a line of wood furniture.
To top that, this month marks the 30th anniversary of Mackie’s and Aghayan’s first Emmy Award for costume design, for their work in “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” Mackie has been nominated again this year, his 16th time, for costuming Angela Lansbury in “Mrs. Santa Claus.”
And Mackie has bigger plans in mind. If the bridge collection develops as planned, he intends to bring more glitz back into the eveningwear collection and raise the prices again.
“I want it to be a laboratory for experimentation. I miss doing that,” the 57-year-old Mackie said. “It’s not exactly four seams and a zipper now, but I could have pushed it a little further. I want it to be a little more out there than it is now.”