Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — When Joan Helpern, the petite matriarch of the Joan & David apparel and accessories empire, arrived in Manila for store openings in September, a short item about her visit got better position on the front page of the Philippines Star than a news story about President Clinton’s reelection campaign.
For Helpern, that was one of the highlights of a whirlwind tour of the Pacific Rim, where the first freestanding Joan & David shops opened this fall. Chatting at her offices here overlooking Central Park, Helpern said she was treated as if she were a celebrity or visiting dignitary — and the newspaper blurb was just one example.
During her stop in Seoul, Helpern ran into Calvin Klein, who happened to be driving by on his way to a shop opening of his own. When he popped out of his car and began chatting with Helpern on the street, they drew the kind of crowd — complete with attendant paparazzi — more familiar to actors or rock stars.
These Joan & David shops are the first of at least 30 slated to open in the region in the next two years.
The 17-day tour took Helpern to five countries: The Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, all for the first time; Hong Kong and Japan.
The following shops have opened or are planned:
The Philippines: One footwear-only in-store shop opened in Manila, in partnership with the Tantoco family, owners of the Rustan’s specialty chain, which has been working with Joan & David for five years. They are building one more in-store shop for the full line. It will open next spring.
Japan: In partnership with Mitsui-Misaki, a shop opened in the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, another in the Hilton in Osaka and a third in the new Imperial Plaza in Osaka. New in-store shops opened at Takashimaya in Osaka and at Takashimaya Shinjuku in Tokyo.
There is a new Joan & David in-store shop in the Seibu Yurakucho department store in the Ginza in Tokyo, and a shop will open in Seibu Ikebukuro in Tokyo in the spring. Finally, an in-store shop opened in the Sogo department store in Kobe.
“We’ve had a seven-year association with Mitsui for footwear only,” Helpern said. “Now we are doing the total Joan & David and Joan Helpern lines.”
South Korea: In partnership with Dae Dong, one full-line shop opened in Seoul, and another in-store shop in a store yet to be determined is to open next spring. An in-store shop is already in the Galleria in Seoul.
Taiwan: A Joan & David shop opened at the end of August in the Regent Hotel in Taipei. Two additional Taipei locations are to open next spring, one freestanding and one in-store.
Hong Kong: Helpern is expanding with Dickson Poon, her partner in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. Poon is also a partner with Ralph Lauren, Bulgari and Escada, and he is Joan & David’s partner at Harvey Nichols in London. An in-store Joan & David shop opened Thursday at the new Harvey Nichols store in Leeds, England.
The first J&D opened in the Peninsula Hotel, a second opened in the Landmark Hotel Nov. 1, and a third will open in Seibu in February.
Singapore: A freestanding J&D opened Oct. 19 in the Promenade Shops on Orchard Road, the Madison Avenue of Singapore City.
The shop sizes vary, but generally range from 2,000 to 3,500 square feet.
“They are real collection boutiques, not diffusion shops,” Helpern said. “They have been merchandised with a little of everything that we do, to see what the focus should be for that particular city. The guarantee is to have 30 stores in the Pacific Rim by the end of 1998, but at the rate we’re going, we’ll reach that number sooner.”
Joan & David’s annual volume is estimated at more than $100 million.
“About seven years ago, a reporter asked me about the volume of the company, and how old I was,” said Helpern, who declines to be specific about either. “I told her, ‘Why don’t you say that Joan and the business are both pushing 100.”‘
Helpern said apparel makes up about half the business. The company’s signature apparel is sold only in the its own boutiques.
“I haven’t wanted to expand to other stores. I was tired of all the nit-picking, of retailers saying, ‘I don’t want this, and I don’t want that and if it’s an hour late I’m going to cancel it.’
“And we wanted to hold the price points while keeping the quality high, so we eliminate a step. We go straight from design to manufacturing to distribution in our own shops or in-store shops.”
This allows the company to merchandise the way Helpern wants, and not have to deal with a retailer picking and choosing, she said.
In addition to the new group of stores, there are 80 other distribution points around the world for apparel, accessories and shoes.
The ready-to-wear is all limited edition.
“Almost everything mixes and matches, and works with the last collection and will carry forward into the next,” she said.
Helpern, who runs the business with her husband, David, designs all its products, from accessories to apparel.
“The accessories are fun for me,” she said. “They’re very therapeutic. They don’t have to fit [a body], or fill a production line in a factory. It’s fun to play with beads and crystals. Again, it’s all limited edition. Same thing with the umbrellas, and the cashmere shawls, which are made by an old-fashioned process in the hills of Italy. The same with suede rtw.
“Luckily, these things that are therapeutic for me seem to be therapeutic for whoever’s buying them as well.”
Helpern said the company’s strong suit is the product, but its marketing and advertising “need work.”
“That’s part of my old hangup that says the product must speak for itself,” she reasoned. “But that’s not happening now. What’s happening is that the consumer is being presented over and over with what one should do. So either I have to find a lot of money and jump on the bandwagon, or be left as a very happy, nice, small, unnecessarily limited collection that nonetheless is going worldwide — softly.”
Things might not always be so soft around the office, however; Helpern admits she has “a temper.”
“And I lose patience,” she said. “If you’re very good, I’m wonderful to work for. If you’re not, I’m terrible. I have very high standards, for myself and everyone else. We’re perfectionists.
“People are being asked to invest with us,” she said. “We have to give them something for it. We can’t give them air.”