JOSEPH SABA COMES TO TOWN
Byline: Patty Huntington
SYDNEY, Australia — Not too many people in New York have heard of Joseph Saba.
But if the Australian designer’s plans work out, that will soon change.
On Sept. 20, he ventured into Manhattan’s SoHo, which has been sizzling with new retail, with a new megastore selling his own Saba label.
Undeterred by his relative anonymity, 57-year-old Saba of Melbourne has signed a $6 million, 15-year lease over the former Circle Gallery at 468 West Broadway. He spent about $180,000 transforming the 7,000-square-foot space into a split-level freestanding superstore. The unit, among the biggest fashion stores in SoHo, is three times the size of his largest Australian operation in downtown Melbourne.
“It’s a big step,” conceded Saba, in an interview here this summer. “Some people have been saying that we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, but I don’t think so. I think what we’re doing is sensible. That’s why we’re going to go there as retail. Open one store. We’ve done our homework on this.”
So far, the SoHo store has gotten off to a good start. According to a Saba spokesman, bestsellers have been a chocolate brown rayon and Lycra spandex sweater, retailing for $110. The store has sold 70 units. Another bestseller has been a Chinese silk brocade miniskirt, retailing for $145. Forty-five units were sold.
“Business is going very well. Management has been very happy with the traffic,” added the spokesman.
Together with monthly deliveries of his Australian woven production and Hong Kong-sourced knitwear — much of which has been developed specifically for the American market — Saba will be exporting 34 years of Australian retail experience to New York.
The line, at the high end of bridge, sells on a par with his Australian prices. Retail prices run about $65 for a T-shirt and $100 for a blouse; dresses are from around $195 to $325, a long skirt is $110 and a blazer is $465.
A self-confessed “fabric freak” from a family of clothing manufacturers, he opened his first retail outlet, selling men’s shirts, at the age of 25 in Melbourne’s traditional heart of the garment trade, Flinders Lane.
Four years and several shops later, Saba jumped onto the beginning of the Australian jeanswear boom, launching the unisex Staggers label. Together with Arnold Chessler, his current partner in the New York venture, he even marketed the jeans brand in the U.K. and briefly in the U.S.
In 1974, Saba opened his first import store at 121 Toorak Road, South Yarra. By the end of that decade, there were 13 Saba shops in the state of Victoria. Initially concentrating on leading English labels like Betty Jackson, he moved with the times and when the Japanese designers came to prominence in the early-to-mid-Eighties, Saba shops — alongside Tony Newsham’s Trellini outlets — became meccas for the signature black minimalist tailoring of Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake.
From the outset, Saba had also sold his own locally made house brand. Initially accounting for 10 percent of his volume, the Saba brand always reflected the designer’s men’s wear origins, later adopting the sober tailoring of the Japanese.
By the late Eighties, however, Saba’s mood had grown as black as his signature minimalist tailoring. Being an Australian importer of designer clothing, notably Japanese labels, was a fruitless effort at the time. The Australian dollar weakened, the yen fortified, prices went up, the market softened — conditions which, exacerbated by spiralling interest rates, later pushed Tony Newsham to bankruptcy.
In 1989, Saba was forced to scale down his imports, gradually replacing them with bumped-up production of the Saba brand. He pruned the stores to nine.
“It just wasn’t feasible to have that number of retail outlets in the central business district,” he reflected. “I had to alter. Times were changing. The CBD was older. Melbourne was older. I had to weed out the stores that weren’t profitable. We had to trim back wages. We really had to make a lot of tough decisions.
“I think it was the worst period of my whole life. I used to go home at night with a thumping headache, night after night, [thinking] about the problems we had and overcoming them. But you can have lean times.”
By 1991, Saba was retailing almost entirely his own label, his traditional “Double Bay/Toorak” clientele staying with him unfettered, it seemed, by the absence of Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons or Issey Miyake. The only downside was that they were generally at or over 50 — the same age as Saba. In 1994, in a bid to lure new, younger business, Saba made perhaps his most significant decision to date: to entrust his marketing entirely to the hands of a professional.
It has been a highly successful partnership. Under the creative direction of Simon Bookallil, Simon Lock’s youth-dedicated Spin Communications agency has produced an increasingly directional series of Saba catalogs, print and outdoor advertising campaigns, which has clearly helped expand the business, pushing the brand to front-of-mind with a younger audience.
Today, Saba boasts that he dresses three generations of Australians. In addition to his contemporary imagery and product mix, he has also paid significant attention to the environment within his freestanding stores. Now numbering 17 across Australia, each store, including the New York unit, is uniformly fitted out by architect Charles Steinic with a chic amalgam of blond timber, metal and glass. There is also a thriving domestic and Southeast Asian wholesale business and a Saba perfume on the drawing board, due for release late next year.
Excluding several franchised Australian stores, Saba’s retail and wholesale business generates a volume of $16 million. The business is split 60/40, women to men. Although up to his 6,000th style number, Saba is still producing favorites from a decade ago — “Saba basics,” he calls them. They include classic, pleatless pants for men and women, and basic women’s pencil skirts, in updated fabrics and colors.
“I’ve always done things with not too much fuss,” noted Saba. “It’s based on classics. But it’s classics with edge.”
“He just had the stores that had the right product at the right time,” said Effie Young, managing director of the fashion marketing agency Style Council in Melbourne. “He understood what was happening internationally and was able to interpret it with a very ‘Australian’ kind of quality. And so what happened was he became a ‘destination’ retailer because of the exceptional labels that he had. As he pared those labels down and concentrated more on the development of his own brand, his clothes started reflecting the minimal stylishness that had always been present in his stores.”