BALLAS: FROM BIG D TO 7TH AVE.
Byline: Holly Haber
DALLAS — Hoping to follow in the footsteps of Todd Oldham and Tracy Feith, both of whom cut their fashion teeth here before finding fame and fortune in New York, hot new sportswear designer Michael Ballas is leaving Dallas for Seventh Avenue.
Ballas, who was in New York Tuesday, said in a telephone interview that he just signed a new backer who will help him open a showroom there, expand his collection and stage a fall runway show.
Ballas said the new backer is Bernard Bartton, a New York real estate developer. Bartton confirmed that he and his partners now own 51 percent of Ballas’s company. Ballas said he recently bought out his Dallas backers, whom he declined to name, to make this deal.
“This is a dream come true,” said Ballas, 31. “Bernie is a financial genius. He will take me out of the clichA of a Dallas designer, so I’m thought of as a Seventh Avenue resource.”
Ballas hopes to open a showroom and workroom at 550 Seventh Ave. by the end of January. He said he expects to buy an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side this week.
Ballas, who built his business in the last year by catering to professional women, said he’ll now be able to do “a large enough collection to make a statement.”
“It will be more sportswear- and novelty-oriented, versus clean, suit-oriented and matchy, but it will still appeal to an attorney,” said Ballas.
Ballas has been in business only a year, but he has already sold his “classic sportswear with a bit of hip” to some of the South’s top specialty stores, including Neiman Marcus, The Gazebo, Tootsies, Balliet’s, James Davis and Jamie. For the year, which ends in April, he expects to do $2 million at wholesale. He said his new partners haven’t projected volume for the next fiscal year yet.
The appeal of the collection is that it manages to be sophisticated and wearable while maintaining an edge.
“You see just a touch of hip and modern in everything I do, but it’s in a sedate way,” Ballas explained. “I play with opposites a lot. I’ll take a classic line and give it drama with textured fabrics or an unusual collar.”
That’s reflected in styles like his classic ivory wool chemise brightened by a silver zipper and a long silk pointed collar, or the waist-length jacket and straight skirt sewn from an unexpected bronze linen with a shimmering iridescent lavender glaze.
“It’s creative and looked modern, with great color and interesting fabrications,” said Neva Hall, divisional merchandise manager for designer sportswear and couture at Neiman Marcus.
Hall plans to test some of Ballas’s designs this spring in the Beverly Hills store and roll them out to more doors if they do well.
“Certainly we like to support local talent, and we’re pleased that he seemed to have the talent to be around for a while,” Hall added.
At trunk shows, Ballas’s customers are frequently executive professionals, including advertising executives, attorneys and realtors, who want to be fashionable but can’t push their style too far.
Ballas is no neophyte. From 1986 to 1988, he ran his own business, creating a flashy sportswear line that was sold by a number of high-end stores. But, at the same time, he said, he fell into a personal nightmare of drug and alcohol abuse and family tragedy, including the suicide of his mother in 1989.
After rehabilitation at the Betty Ford Center, Ballas resumed designing for individual clients and did a sales stint at the Barneys New York here.
“The difference between Michael Ballas today and years ago is that then I would do these fun groups and think that would be the sell-through,” he reflected. “Today I know it’s important to realize that we’re in this for women to wear clothes.”
Serendipity and a couple of cars in need of a bath helped Ballas restart his business. One day last year, he happened to meet Gazebo owner Shelle Bagot when each of them brought vehicles to the same car wash. He showed her some of his custom designs.
Bagot was so enthusiastic, she signed him up to do an exclusive spring collection. The 88 pieces flew out, with a 90 percent sell-through in three weeks. Top that with a three-day fall trunk show at the store that booked $125,000, and Ballas was in business — with the help of a silent backer.
“Michael’s collection is something new with some design to it — it’s not just a another plain jacket,” said Bagot. “They’re impeccably made and the fit is great. A lot of our customers have compared them, believe it or not, to Richard Tyler,” said Bagot, noting that Ballas’s line is much less expensive.
Wholesale prices for the spring collection are $375 to $450 for jackets, $275 to $450 for dresses and $125 to $225 for skirts.
So far, Ballas has done most of the wholesale selling himself.
“I feel the way of the future is that department and high-end specialty stores want to have that relationship with the designer,” he explained.
Ballas said he will keep an office here for the time being.
Until now, Ballas had contracted the manufacturing of jackets and constructed pieces in New York, while most dresses, skirts and blouses were made here. Ultimately, Ballas expects to do most of the production in New York.
“More and more of my production is in New York, and it’s important for me to be in the midst of the energy there,” he said. “In this business, you have to be a player. There’s no nobility in doing anything small.”