Byline: Katherine Weisman

PARIS — Herve Leger is feeling upbeat these days, despite the long hours he’s pulling to prepare for his ready-to-wear show here on March 20.
With new president Richard Hanckowiak guiding the house, and with the financial backing of Seagram’s, what Leger sees on his horizon isn’t just this season’s show, but the possibility to expand his business in important ways. No plans are on the table yet, nor is there any rush to launch a slew of Leger-labeled goods, but the designer is considering everything from a perfume to lingerie, as well as a less-expensive rtw line, probably in knitwear. Only the first step has actually been taken. Last year, the house signed a licensing agreement with Guido Pasquali, an Italian shoe firm, to make and distribute a Leger shoe collection that will bow this fall. “But I don’t yet see the need for fashion jewelry, or home accessories,” Leger allowed.
A nearer-term project is opening a Leger boutique in Paris. The designer is looking around the Faubourg St. Honore area, where the house is headquartered. But slow and careful development is key for a company that is just getting used to its new size. “We are looking to insure the future of the house,” said Hanckowiak, a fashion veteran and former president of Guy Laroche. “Every choice is critical for further growth. We can’t make mistakes.” Before launching new products, the house’s priority is structuring its activities — couture, rtw and cruise — into distinct operating units. The other priority is to continue to service clients, he explained. “If the company exists today it is because we deliver on time,” said Leger, remembering the house’s understaffed and undercapitalized state when it first ventured into rtw in 1993. “Everyone knew we were in a little trouble. At one point, everyone in the house was doing a bit of everything.”
This improvised system of management, Leger says, could no longer work for a fashion house whose sales soared from $600,000 (3 million francs) in 1992 strictly from haute couture to $10.6 million (53 million francs) in 1994, thanks to the rtw and this season’s cruise line debut. The staff also grew, from 20 to 50 people.
“We are no longer a family business, but a real company,” Leger said.
Until Hanckowiak’s arrival earlier this year, Leger functioned as president of the house as well as its couturier. His sister, Jocelyne Coudroy, is the sales director. “I had to step down from the presidency,” said Leger. “I couldn’t manage that part of the business and continue to create. Plus, we needed someone with pure business vision to help my house take off.” Leger said the first step for safeguarding his company’s future was the partnership with Seagram’s Paris-based Champagne Mumm & Cie. division, which holds a 50 percent stake in the house “I wasn’t looking for money simply to make a fashion collection,” said Leger. “I wanted a long-term business partner to push this house forward. One thing Karl Lagerfeld once told me was never to do this business with your own money.”
And while Leger was prepared to launch his first, albeit tiny, rtw collection prior to signing with Seagram’s, he admitted that continuing the rtw collection would not have been possible without Seagram’s support.
“The fashion business is very fragile. You can close doors because you have no money. On the other hand, the more you sell, the more money you need,” he said.
“If you don’t consider this trade a true business, you’re in trouble,” he continued. “I don’t know how a young house can start today without some outside capital.”
— Fairchild News Service