AGNES B.: WILL SHE PLAY IN THE MIDWEST?

Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK — Agnes B. has long been content with a cult following. Now it wants something more: a wider audience.
Agnes B. operates two SoHo stores — a women’s unit on Prince Street and a men’s store on Greene Street. There are also women’s stores on Union Square and at Madison Avenue and 80th Street.
The company is planning to open a second men’s store here, possibly on 57th Street, according to Agnes Trouble, the company’s founder and designer, who goes by the name Agnes B. She was in New York last week to present her spring collection at Industria, a downtown film and photography venue.
“We are going to do a label, Agnes B. Lolita, for children,” she said. “We might open one shop for that in New York.”
According to Yves Seban, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Agnes B.’s U.S. volume will be $12 million in 1996. He expects sales in 1997 to reach $17 million.
Agnes B. wants to see whether there is an audience for her classic-but-hip clothes in Chicago and other Midwest cities.
“Chicago is the big test for us in that it is a real American city,” Seban said. “We wonder, are we going to do well in the Midwest? You can consider New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles very cosmopolitan, although Chicago is actually getting more cosmopolitan.”
The Chicago store opens in January on Walton Street, which is parallel to Oak Street, a trendy shopping area.
The company next plans to open stores in Miami, Washington and Seattle.
“How do we reach a wider audience? Because basically it’s word of mouth.” he said. “In Europe it’s OK because of the population density. Here we have to go very slowly.”
The company is also wondering how its urbane attitude will play in shopping malls.
“We have an agreement with South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.,” Seban said. “We don’t have a lease yet. It’s a test again. I think as Europeans, we really have to understand the American demographics, and if it means we have to be present in a few malls, then we should be.”
That is a concession, since Agnes B. is used to doing things her own way. For instance, she sits out fashion week, preferring to show her clothes to small groups of editors a few weeks later.
“I don’t like shows — I never liked shows,” said Agnes B., who has a reputation for being shy. She doesn’t even put on a show every year, only when the spirit moves her, she said.
This year it moved her, and she went from Paris to London to New York to Tokyo to Hong Kong with her collection.
She seemed relaxed for someone who has been so busy.
“Agnes has no assistants whatsoever,” Seban said. “She designed every piece herself.”
Agnes B. is known for supple leathers and signature knits. At Industria, there was a lot of that. The designer also went more fashion-forward with asymmetrically cut skirts, sheer tops and simple jersey dresses that fell below the knee.
The company has a significant presence in the Far East, with 45 stores in Japan, in a joint venture with a businessman, and two in Hong Kong.
Agnes B. said the company will open stores in Spain and Italy next year.
She is, however, reluctant to sell to department and specialty stores — she tried that before.

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