CYNTHIA STEFFE’S STEADY COURSE

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — If Cynthia Steffe had a motto, it would be “slow and steady wins the race.”
The designer, who opened her line in 1989, is one of the few left of a crop that some had called the next generation of American design. Among her contemporaries with their own businesses in the late Eighties were Rebecca Moses, Charlotte Neuville and Carmelo Pomodoro, but economics or illness have taken a toll on that group.
Steffe, however, along with husband and business partner Rick Roberts, continues to maintain a steady double-digit growth pace, with wholesale volume this year reaching $18 million. In addition to her designer line, which is sold in about 150 accounts, she has the bridge line Francess & Rita, which has about 250 to 300 accounts. Both are evenly split between department store and specialty store distribution, and Francess & Rita accounts for about 60 percent of the company’s volume.
Staying in business in today’s grim climate is all in the strategy, say Steffe and Roberts.
“In the Eighties, all you had to do was get stuff into the stores,” said Steffe in a recent interview in her headquarters at 550 Seventh Ave. here. “You could make mistakes. Today, you can’t afford to make a mistake. You really have to know your customer.”
“The year we went into business was the same year that Saks was sold, Altman’s closed and Bloomingdale’s declared bankruptcy. It was the beginning of the great retail upheaval,” said Roberts. “There used to be four department stores in every city, and every store has a designer area. Now, there’s one or two stores in each city and there are a handful of designer areas. You have to work to get a bigger piece of a smaller pie.”
When asked how they go about doing that, the couple replied in unison: “Product.”
Steffe has been thinking about product since she was a student at Parsons School of Design here, where she won the Golden Thimble award for fashion design during her senior year.
After graduating in 1981, she worked for The Anne Klein Co. as an assistant to Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio. She left in 1983 to become head designer at Spitalnick, a start-up sportswear company headed by Irving Spitalnick, where she worked for six years. She left in 1989 to launch her business with Roberts.
The current strategy for the designer line is to “increase the quality as well as the price,” said Steffe, who noted that she believes her emphasis on interesting detail and construction is added value to the designer customer.
“The designer customer wants the latest style, but she’s also concerned about quality,” said Steffe. “As a designer, I have to think, how can I make this jacket look current, but yet not have it go out of style in five years?”
Part of the increase comes from the premier fabrics required by the designer business, said Roberts.
“Materials that were just designer or bridge fabrics are all over the moderate market now,” he said. “We have to keep trading up.”
Prices on the designer line will go up 10 to 15 percent for fall 1996, said Steffe. It currently wholesales from $129 for an acetate and viscose skirt to $599 for a beaded matte jersey zip-front cardigan.
In addition, said Roberts, about 97 percent of the Steffe line and 85 percent of the Francess & Rita line are manufactured here.
“That gives us a great ability to control the production, but it’s also a better use of our money,” explained Roberts. “You don’t have to open letters of credit six months in advance.”
“And you can react faster to need,” added Steffe.
In a time when image counts for a great deal in the consumer’s mind, Steffe has also been cautious about embarking on any costly advertising or promotions plans. The company only recently hired Susan Portnoy from Nicole Miller to handle public relations full-time.
And while other firms have been quick to jump on the runways at Bryant Park, often to mixed reviews, Steffe has chosen to do two small, well-received shows in her showroom.
“We’ve always been conservative in nature when it comes to big decisions,” said Roberts. “Our first strategy was to do good product, and worry about the press and the promotions later. We put the biggest proportion of our dollar investment into product development.”
Roberts said that of Steffe’s 35 full-time employees, 14 work in the sample room. But he added that now, as part of the tactic to hold onto bigger pieces of the smaller pie, “We’ve started to spend aggressively in the advertising and promotions area.”
“We’ve been doing some cooperative advertising with retailers, but I see advertising the same way I see the runway show,” said Steffe. “I don’t want to do something major until I can make it what I want to be.”
“Two ads in the course of one season doesn’t mean much,” said Roberts.
The four-year-old Francess & Rita bridge line, said Roberts, has become an engine that provides power to other parts of the company.
“Our initial philosophy was to provide more volume for the company,” said Roberts.
“We went after the market of women who wanted something to wear to work but wanted a little more style,” explained Steffe. “In some stores we’re in the traditional bridge area, and some stores call it young bridge.”
Francess & Rita features triacetate, polyester and acetate blend fabrics with details such as lacing, multiple buttonholes and embroidery. It wholesales from $24 for a silk tank top to $69 for a vest or short skirt to $139 for various jacket styles.
But the couple’s focus for this year is the Steffe line. They are looking for licenses for the name and are in talks for international sales opportunities in Europe and Asia.
“We expect to see a big increase in that business,” said Roberts. The couple is also looking for retail space here.
“We really think that’s a key part of the future of retail,” he said. “But if you’re going to have a store, you have to have products to fill it with.”
Roberts said they’re planning for another 20 percent growth this year.
“I think that’s sensible growth,” he said. “We don’t want to have eyes bigger than our stomach.”

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