Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Fashion’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.
For all the dire predictions and economic warnings facing the luxury sector since Sept. 11, big designer brands have not been deterred from opening flashy new stores in New York, like Prada’s SoHo flagship, Burberry’s new Spring Street store and the Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel fine jewelry shops on Madison Avenue.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, smaller companies are continuing to approach the market with new lines and concepts too, even in the face of certain adversity. Their attitudes are defiant and their products cover a wide array of categories, from obscure designer-priced merchandise to more accessible bridge collections. What they have in common is that they are all taking a different approach to building their businesses than the standard garmento strategy.
Ron Leal, a Vancouver-based bridge designer, is launching a high-priced line geared toward women who travel a lot, with backing, ironically, from Amway heiress Pamella DeVos, while the showroom Violet is launching its own house brand called V. There’s new stores opening in the Meatpacking District, new lines on Seventh Avenue and even a new restaurant opened in the Garment District with the support of eveningwear designer Melinda Eng, who sometimes does double-duty as the restaurant’s lunchtime hostess.
Here’s an anecdotal look at a few of the recent launches:

Sterling Pamella/Roland
Vancouver-based bridge designer Ron Leal knows a thing or two about trunk shows. The designer is on the road nearly half the year pitching his sophisticated careerwear and courting a loyal customer base. In Michigan, he met Pamella DeVos, an heiress of the Amway fortune, who hit it off with the designer and is backing him in his first designer-priced venture. She also serves as muse for the line, dubbed Sterling Pamella/Roland.
“It all came about because of all the trunk shows I’ve been doing,” Leal said. “I wanted to design a line that was focused on people that have mobility, an entire collection that you could fit in a bag each season, for women who have a tendency to travel a great deal. These are women who are 40, who have a lot of money and are very involved in political charities. They’re young and vibrant people.”
The line was named Sterling for DeVos’s mother’s maiden name and to reflect its special qualities. Sterling features chunky cashmere knits, tailored jackets and slacks for day and statement evening gowns in silk taffeta or beaded chiffon for night. Everything matches back to a pair of heels and a cashmere and leather duffel bag.
While a few stores will carry stock, most of Sterling’s sales are expected to be generated through trunk shows, with a chantilly lace gown going for $2,600, a jacket for $1,760 and sweaters from $700 to $800. Sales are projected from $7 million to $10 million this year.

V From Violet Showroom
The turn in the economy has been just as tough on showrooms as it has been on young designers, but one multi-designer rep is striking back with a house brand. Susan Patko, a former investment banker, started the Violet showroom a year ago with lines like Art of Wear, Robert Trebor, Hee Haw Melancholy, Underglam and Anya Flint. She also repped the Danenberg Castro collection, a collaboration from Rebecca Danenberg and Anthony Castro, until Danenberg moved to Los Angeles last year to become head designer for the jeans collection Seven.
Castro, who previously worked for Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Perry Ellis, worked out a deal with Patko to create a new line for the showroom called V, short for Violet. It picks up where Danenberg Castro left off, with low-waisted tweed trousers, blazers trimmed with motorcycle zippers and tab-button pants with multiple pleats in the place of a crease. V wholesales from about $65 to $200.
“I like mixing men’s looks with feminine details,” Castro said. “I was inspired by the late Sixties, but I wanted to create a collection that was more classic, with things that could be worn for more than one season.”

Calypso’s Wholesale Venture
Christiane Celle has built her Calypso chain entirely through her own stores, from the first shop opened in 1995 in East Hampton to her 12 locations today. Beginning with the fall season, she is offering select signature styles to specialty stores through her first wholesale venture.
“When I started, I wanted Calypso to be more exclusive,” said Celle, noting that her original concept focused around a few key pieces such as colorful peasant skirts and embroidered silk scarves she designed and sourced herself.
The rest of the store was filled with treasures she discovered while traveling through glamorous locations, from St. Barths to St. Tropez.
As Calypso has developed to include fragrance, beauty, men’s and children’s wear, and the Jamin Puech accessories, Celle now creates more than half of the store collections, expanding to the point that she felt comfortable bringing the collection to other stores.
“I’m not going to have hundreds of stores around the world,” Celle said. “People are always calling for wholesale, but they wanted a quantity I couldn’t provide before. Now I have the capability to open a few more doors where I don’t have shops.”
Celle took a few of her classic bestsellers, like the peasant skirt, knit camisoles and a beaded top, to introduce for wholesale. She hired Susan Eisenberg as vice president of sales and marketing, an industry veteran who has worked with Girbaud and Cimmeron Jeans, to head up the wholesale venture.
The line averages $45 at wholesale, and will be sold at stores such as Fred Segal and Planet Bleu in California, Henri Bendel in New York, Three Sisters in Chicago and Peoples in Atlanta.

Iris Singer’s Spinoff
Iris Singer has built a reputation for modernizing the image of the classic bridge career business for the past eight years with intricate embellishments and a tailored fit on pants, jackets and blouses. But behind the scenes the company was as traditional as any Seventh Avenue mom-and-pop shop, with Iris designing the line, husband Irv running the show and their son, Jonathan, as a partner. But the family has recently been extended, adopting Mary Riale as a partner to head up a new division for fall retailing called Iris.
Riale formerly oversaw merchandising and production for another suit house, Zelda, for 14 years, but she’s turning her focus to design with the Iris collection, a sportswear-oriented line of separates geared for day-to-evening dressing. The collection is positioned a little more expensive than the signature line, with jackets averaging $295 at wholesale. The line is projected to hit $2.5 million at wholesale in its first year.
Riale described the pieces — a tuxedo jacket with beaded embellishment and a rhinestone buckle or a satin-backed crepe style encrusted with crystals at the shoulders with a vintage feel — as being designed for a woman who wanted to make an entrance. Her inspiration was Grace Kelly, who attended high school in Philadelphia with her mother.
“I ran the merchandising and production side for 14 years, so I know what makes the business tick,” Riale said. “Also from having an active social life, I know how effective it is when a woman goes into a restaurant and everyone puts their fork down and stares.”
The company also hired Yvette Gettinger as director of sales to help build the launch. She was previously director of sales for Emma Black.

An Italian Duo
Debra and Joseph Greco have been working the bridge market for years. Debra was at Ann Taylor in 1984 and Joseph was one of the company’s biggest suppliers, but they didn’t meet until they were introduced socially at a party. The attraction was instant — they married in 1990 in Posetano, Italy, and went to work together, eventually at Gruppo Americano, where Greco was a partner before becoming an industry consultant.
In their latest venture, the Grecos are trying their hand with their own business, two upper- bridge priced collections, Il Gilet and Di Vita, formed under a new company called Principe Group at 80 West 40th Street. The collections are meant to be merchandised together, with Il Gilet’s focus on knitwear and Da Vita encompassing more structured sportswear.
Il Gilet means a “little waistcoat,” reflecting its focus on special pieces — easy little cashmere shells, tanks and T-shirt styles embellished with stitches or beads, while Di Vita means “of life,” as the Grecos are embracing an Italian lifestyle with the collections. Di Vita roams broadly from fancy perforated leather trenches and safari jackets to seasonless viscose acetate double crepe suit components to double-faced reversible cashmere wrap skirts. The lines wholesale from $90 to $175 for knits and around $250 for a jacket and are targeted to reach $3 million in first-year sales.

Also Of Note
Howard Farrar, who has recently directed the operations of such eateries as The Globe on Park Avenue South, opened Radius at 111 West 38th Street as something of an antidote to the traditional Italian bistros that have served the neighborhood for decades. He was inspired to move to the area by his sister-in-law, eveningwear designer Melinda Eng, who often complained of the lack of variety in that part of the city.
Radius is designed to look like a stylish SoHo restaurant, with an avocado and orange interior and a giant round bar in the center that is topped by a conveyor belt offering sushi and dim sum plates. The menu is more contemporary as well, with honey ginger ribs, coconut shrimp and popcorn chicken, to cater to the employees of new business that have moved onto Seventh Avenue like advertising agencies and architectural firms.
“The old garment industry profile was more old school, people that would rather just have middle of the road for lunch and then leave the area at night,” Farrar said. “Now that Bates Advertising has moved in and Conde Nast is at 1440 Broadway, there’s a major gentrification going on between 34th and 42nd Streets.”