PATCHING IT UP
AFTER A FIVE-YEAR ABSENCE, LEATHER GOODS DESIGNER CARLOS FALCHI IS BACK.
Byline: Jill Newman
There is no denying that the patchwork handbag belongs to Carlos Falchi. Even 30 years after its original design, Falchi’s signature leather and exotic-skin patchworks appear completely of the moment.
Falchi has been making news since he first came on the scene in 1973, appearing in WWD alongside Ralph Lauren and Holly Harp in a profile of Henri Bendel’s rising stars. Geraldine Stutz, then Bendel’s illustrious president, was so taken with Falchi’s designs that she gave the newcomer his very own in-store shop. Shortly thereafter, Falchi gave up his night job as a maitre d’ at one of New York’s then downtown nightspots, Max’s Kansas City, to design and produce leather goods full-time.
During his heyday in the early Eighties, when he was awarded the prestigious Coty Award, Falchi’s revenue was $29 million, and he owned and operated a factory in Long Island City with 300 employees. When the economy spiraled downward in the late Eighties, so did Falchi’s business. To keep things afloat, he took on financial partners, who licensed his name to a Japanese company for a Falchi Sport collection. Soon thereafter, Falchi and his financial backers disagreed on the direction of his collection. The investors wanted to move into more moderately priced, mainstream accessories, while Falchi preferred to maintain his designer collection.
In 1995, a frustrated Falchi finally walked out and sued his backers to regain control of his name. Though the protracted legal wranglings left him bankrupt, Falchi kept designing for a range of tanneries and brands, including the Chinese footwear company that helped buy back his name and finance his new business.
In August, with the help of new backers, Falchi unveiled a collection that features his signature bags in a fresh array of hand-painted exotic skins, soft slouchy shapes and colorful combinations.
“The business has changed dramatically in the past five to six years,” said Falchi from his new office and factory on West 39th Street. “It’s all a numbers crunch [now]. The retailers buy from institutions, and oftentimes look more at numbers than products.”
He recalled the days when Bendel’s held a weekly open designer day to unearth new talent. “Retailers need a separate budget so they can experiment with newcomers,” said Falchi. “Otherwise, how can they discover the next Prada?”
Falchi intends to build his business slowly the second time around. He has opened select accounts that include Ultimo of Chicago, Brown’s of London and Joyce in Hong Kong. At a recent appearance in Saks Fifth Avenue’s Bal Harbour, Fla., store, Falchi found himself working both with a young woman who had never heard of him and a longtime fan toting a 20-year-old Falchi bag. “It’s great to be able to reach both generations,” he said. “Today, it’s not just all about the name. Young women are buying what they like.”
As in the past, Falchi makes everything in his New York factory, where he takes a hands-on approach to design and production. The fall handbag collection, represented by Showroom Seven in New York, wholesales from $100 up to $4,000 for a crocodile bag. New designs come in a wide array of colors and shapes that range from a small, tidy clutch to a roomy, sloping shoulder bag.
Falchi’s first footwear collection, which is being manufactured and represented by Pancaldi, launched this month with a wholesale range from $100 to $225. The footwear resembles the bags in their unique combination of skins, colors and textures.
In looking back, Falchi said his biggest mistake was that he never learned the financial end of running a company.
“I operated artistically and on my gut instincts. But my story is a good lesson for young designers. They should learn and understand the business side too. And find the right partners.”