STEELE SHINES IN MILAN

Byline: Alessandra Ilari

MILAN — American buyers who love to complain about the scarcity of fresh young design talent here got a double surprise this season.
There was somebody new. And — surprise number two — he’s American.
Actually, designer Lawrence Steele shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He did show last spring, and the 31-year-old Virginian’s clothes are already in 100 points of sale worldwide, now including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.
“I am very focused toward the U.S. market. My initial experience comes from there,” noted Steele, who likes to think of himself as an American designer with a European background.
“We are working very hard to be extremely punctual with our deliveries and to offer high service. We all know that the store’s philosophy is ‘the sooner in, the sooner out,”‘ he added.
Yet Steele is picky, and maybe he can afford to be. “I turned down stores such as Henri Bendel and Yati in New York, because I wasn’t sure of the placement of my clothes or of how they would represent my image,” the designer said, claiming he isn’t interested in quantity if it implies compromising the quality.
“I don’t care about selling to lots of stores if I can’t handle the service,” he remarked. Steele’s clothes “are simple and pared down, but with nice detailing,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “They’re a little more ‘done’ than Dries Van Noten,” Kaner added.
“It’s really about cut, the cut of a jacket and the cut of a pair of pants. It all looked very fresh,” Kaner added.
Steele has also sold Harrods, Brown’s and Harvey Nichols in London, and Joyce Ma is retailing the collection in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “At the same time, I want to strengthen our positions in Germany and Italy,” Steele said. “Italy is a tough market and not a receptive one to new lines.”
About 50 percent of the $3.3 million (5 billion lire) Steele says he’s sold so far comes from exports, half of which go to the U.S. He expects to double revenues in 1995.
“I would love to present my collection in New York, as well as Milan, and eventually open a showroom there,” he said.
Steele moved to Italy after college “to get some experience” and wound up working for the late Franco Moschino.
“At Moschino, I learned how to appreciate everyday clothes, but after a while I got tired of working with embellishments and not working on the shape,” he said.
Then he moved over to Prada at what proved to be an opportune time. “Prada had started the apparel women’s collection only one season before I arrived,” noted Steele. “I wanted to experiment with shape.”
That’s what Prada gave him the chance to do. Working out of the house’s Arezzo headquarters, Steele collaborated closely with pattern makers, fitters, cutters and fabric experts.
But it was while he was still with Moschino that he discovered the firm that would eventually back his signature line. The backer, Casor, is a manufacturer based near Bologna. In 1986, Moschino served as design consultant for a Casor line called Gianna Cassoli.
With his own line, Steele steered clear of sexy gimmicks and neon brights that influenced so many designers for spring-summer 1995. Steele favored minimalism, plush fabrics and lean silhouettes.
“I like to keep my silhouettes clean and work with innovative fabrics, unusual combinations or details,” he explained. “I want my clothes to be sophisticated.”
Yet the normally self-assured designer hesitates when he has to describe his collection. “What I like are things that are ambiguous, modern but classic, trendy but traditional,” he allows.
This philosophy is interpreted through an in-depth fabric research. For the 120-piece spring-summer 1995 collection, the innovative textile that Steele molded into sleek jackets and dresses was a silk and steel blend with a taffeta effect. Steele also thinks about the way women shop today. He doesn’t believe in the total look and asserted that women buy their clothes in pieces because they want to create their own closets. “I offer pieces that can be interpreted,” noted Steele. “I think of women who have different qualities and use them on an everyday basis.”
Steele has placed his line in the opening price-point range for designer rtw. Wholesale prices range from $193 (300,000 lire) for a blazer to $282 (438,000 lire) for a silk dress and $387 (600,000 lire) for a linen suit.

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