THREE FOR THE FUTURE
SO FAR IN 1997, THE CHICAGO APPAREL CENTER’S 20TH-ANNIVERSARY YEAR, WWD HAS FOCUSED ON VETERAN INDEPENDENT REPRESENTATIVES IN THIS COLUMN. HERE IS A LOOK AT THE NEXT GENERATION, A SMALL GROUP OF NEW SHOWROOMS RUN BY YOUNG BLOOD.
Byline: Elaine Glusac
Four Chicago Designers Unite
Jutta Zuloaga, Christine Bazan, Calvin Hom and Medini Joshi
It is August, and the first market for a new showroom stocked with the wares of four local designers. Contemporary sportswear designer Christine Bazan is anxiously showing her line of short velvet holiday dresses to a potential buyer. When the buyer leaves, Bazan sighs, “She didn’t like the darts.”
With no rep between her and the customer, Bazan admits hearing direct criticism is the hardest part of the business. But Bazan, like showroom-mates Jutta Zuloaga, Calvin Hom and Medini Joshi, is dedicated to selling.
Their union is a product of a now-defunct Chicago designer showroom project. Sponsored by the Apparel Industry Board, the showroom housed a collection of new-to-market designers. The four met there and decided to pool their resources to continue selling in the market.
“We’re not the kind to sit around,” said Bazan. “We wanted to go out and do it.”
Zuloaga’s work stands out in the room of mostly contemporary styling with hand-loomed knit separates made of textured yarns. They include rayon boucle and ribbon in skirts, jackets and sweaters priced $150 to $270.
Calvin Hom, who, with Christopher Lam, designs Christopher Calvin, makes minimalist sportswear, usually with some detail accent like a leaf applique, contrasting buttons or blanket-stitched trims. The collection of jackets, pants, skirts and dresses ranges from $42 to $89.
Medini Joshi sells her clean-lined sportswear and career collections of jackets, pants and skirts for $40 to $105. Christine Bazan does contemporary sportswear and dresses for $40 to $100 and a children’s collection, $20 to $59, in matching fabrics.
The quartet have mixed motives for operating the showroom. Some want to find a rep to take their lines, others are content to go it alone.
In addition to designing, sourcing fabrics and overseeing production of their lines, the designers are responsible for orders and shipping.
But it’s the feedback that hits hardest, “because we’re emotionally attached,” to the clothes, said Zuloaga.
“But we’re the best people to sell it because we know it,” added Bazan.
“It’s easier for me,” said Hom. “I don’t wear [my] designs.”
Attitude Plus Fashion
Dressed 2 Kill
The 13th floor got a blast of sass when the reps behind Dressed 2 Kill painted the walls a screaming shade of yellow with their logo in black and opened their doors last January.
Granted, Mike Stevison had worked in the building for 11 years, but partner Kendall Larned was a newcomer to the fashion world, having left a career as a helicopter flight paramedic. Together they formed a dynamic duo and, aided by a third partner, Shelley Mapp, who is Stevison’s sister, they brought fresh zeal to the business.
“We’ve got the energy to give the Apparel Center a swift kick in the butt,” said Larned. “We’re trying to use our energy to focus on rebuilding the Chicago Apparel Center to what is used to be in the Eighties.”
A high aim, but so far, on track. With the exception of Fitigues, the Chicago-based casual sportswear line that closed its own showroom to join the new venture, Dressed 2 Kill brought new lines to the building including bridge powerhouses Tahari and Garfield & Marks, as well as edgy contemporary lines like Theory and Easel. Luring the work of designer Cynthia Steffe was their latest coup.
Their ambitions don’t stop in the showroom, however. They plan to open a second room in suite 1364 (at press time, opening for the October market was uncertain), making room for more lines.
“We want to make the showroom so much fun that [retailers] want to come to market,” said Larned.
“But we have a very laid-back attitude,” he added. “We want them to feel like they can write [orders] or they can not.”
The emphasis on big-name lines is aimed at attracting the region’s stray stores back to Chicago.
“We’re trying to get the stores that don’t come to market, that go to New York, Los Angeles or Dallas, and bring them in here,” said Stevison.
Estimated annual earnings of $25 million are far above plan. The D2K team works hard for the money. They spend roughly 70 percent of their time on the road, leaving a staff of four to man the Chicago showroom.
The eye-catching showroom decor includes ash chairs, some linen-covered, gold-textured wallpaper and concrete floors. It’s all part of the image, another selling point.
Said Larned: “Your own personality gives those clothes even more personality.”
Going Solo in Style
John Muller’s bridge showroom is a fish out of water among the 12th floor’s junior and better goods. But the rent was reasonable and Muller settled in a year ago after roaming from room to room for the previous year.
“I know who I want to sell my lines to, and I’m persistent in getting them to come here,” said Muller.
That’s confidence talking, not sales pressure. Muller takes a low-key approach in his showroom. White walls with a black and white sketch or two, cement floors with a painted silver stripe and leather-covered chrome chairs from an old barber shop create a stylishly spare environment for displays of Lafayette 148, Sportswear Studio and Autumn Cashmere, Muller’s only lines.
“I knew the customer and I knew what I wanted to do, which is to have a small, focused package that appeals to bridge stores.”
His narrow focus gives him “definition,” he said. Sweaters, knit sportswear and a few artist-made scarves all work together without repeating the same look, a practice he considers a pitfall of some multiline showrooms.
“You have to consider the time frame of the buyer, too. When they make an appointment with you for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s genuine. They have other appointments following that. So if I had more than the amount of lines that I do, I feel that I would be infringing on their time and it would create resentment.”
His background was in production and customer service with Jessica McClintock in San Francisco. A friend sold him on Chicago, where Muller got a job in Bernice Burg’s showroom and fell in love with the business.
“I love the constant change, not just in the clothes, but in travel, too,” said Muller, whose sales will approach $4 million this year.
“It’s an exciting business. There’s a certain kind of glamour. Glamour is such an empty word, it’s an untouchable entity, but this business has a certain glamour to it at times, and that’s something I look forward to.”