THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
EMERGING DESIGNERS MUST FIGURE OUT HOW TO GROW — AND WHETHER THEY SHOULD.
Byline: Courtney Colavita
The dreams are big, and the role models appear plentiful.
Neophyte designers — some with fantasies of being The Name since childhood and anonymously assisting in big-label studios — gaze at the likes of Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Miguel Adrover and think, “It could happen to me.”
But planting the seeds of the next megabrand is a lot different today than it was in the Seventies, when many of the current Italian fashion empires sprouted. For one thing, three decades ago, fashion was about the independent label. Media coverage was minimal, and there were no such things as fashion conglomerates, especially in Italy, where most businesses were family-run and funded.
Now, big companies with deep pockets rule and the self-financed designer has become an increasingly rare entity. Observers say there’s little space for new designers, and if they have any hope of success, they must find a niche in the market and create a unique product.
On the business side, there are options, like working as a designer within a big fashion group, finding a financial partner or entering a distribution arrangement. Recent examples have been Jacobs, who heads up LVMH’s Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear, and in turn had the fashion giant take a majority stake in his own collection; McQueen, who sold 51 percent of his company to Gucci Group; and Kate Spade, who has an exclusive distribution deal with Neiman Marcus.
But there are still those like Neil Barrett, who launched his signature line 21/2 years ago, who are trying to do things the old-fashioned way. He’s going it alone — for the moment — and he is just one of several Milan-based designers who is proving that he can build a business on his own, and at his own pace.
Recently, at his showroom on Via Savona, Barrett was in the thick of meeting with buyers after an exhausting week. The 35-year-old from Devon, England, had just presented his fifth men’s collection, and was putting the final touches on his women’s collection. On top of everything, he was fighting a nasty cold.
“It’s all been a bit weird,” says Barrett. “I never would have believed this is where I would be — that I’m paying the salaries of 28 people.”
Indeed, since 1999 when he left Prada (where he developed its men’s wear) and launched his signature collection, Barrett’s staff has grown to its current size — from three people — and his retail presence has doubled to 180 doors worldwide. He’s also launched a women’s line.
“I try to plan everything and just take it step by step,” he says. “I realize I’m in no hurry to do anything, unless I’m going to do it well.”
Barrett’s rise in fashion, while impressive, is a result of talent, self-restraint and meticulous planning. He knew his “dream job” was Prada Uomo before such a line even existed.
“I waited years before I sent [Prada chief executive officer Patrizio] Bertelli a letter about doing a men’s collection, because I knew you play your cards only once in life,” Barrett recounts.
Barrett is running his company with similar conviction. Last September, he left his consulting job with Samonsite to focus more on his collection. But he’s looking to consolidate rather than expand.
“I’m not interested in changing clients — I’m interested in keeping the clients that I have,” he says.
For now, he’s also interested in remaining the sole owner of his company. Although he says that he has had offers to sell, none have been the right match.
“Hopefully, one day someone will come up with the perfect deal, but for now, I’ve said, ‘Forget it.’ I’m too young to be bought out, the company’s too young to be bought out,” he says.
Another designer who is happily self-financed is Sicilian-born Maurizio Pecoraro.
“It’s a great satisfaction to control every aspect of your creative vision, from conception to final product,” says the soft-spoken Pecoraro, in an interview at his Milan showroom.
After nearly 15 years of working as a freelance designer for Gianni Versace, Thierry Mugler, Les Copains and several other companies, Pecoraro decided to launch his own high-end line in 1998.
“I was always a bit indecisive about starting [my own line]. The cost alone is enough to prevent anyone from taking the risk, but there were several friends who really pushed me forward and made me believe I could do it,” he remarks.
During his debut season, Pecoraro hit what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle: His distributor canceled their agreement just two days before his first women’s collection was to bow. “It was a disaster. I had almost lost all my strength to go on,” he says. Faced with the prospect of not being able to deliver — or even sell — his clothes, he started working the phone and persuaded a few leading buyers to stop by his showroom. His persistence paid off. That season, he sold 2,000 pieces for a total of $365,000. The experience ended up being good for him, in retrospect. “I’ve learned how to handle distributors, how to work with buyers and truly make my line commercially successful,” he says. For 2001, he expects sales to hit more than $4.5 million.
But Pecoraro also understands that growth will depend heavily on greater financial backing.
“I would love to open my own store, or spend more in advertising, but for now, we’re not capable of that kind of investment,” he points out, adding that within the next few years, he will most likely look for an outside investor. “I’m not sure what kind of deal I will enter into, but I know it has to be something that gives me both creative freedom and financial security.”
Like Pecoraro, designer Victoria Grantham realizes that she can only take her new business so far without a capital injection from an outside partner.
The striking English designer, who got her start with Donna Karan in New York, and helped launch Louis Vuitton’s men’s collection, launched her own men’s line last January.
The collection featured luxurious knits, classic trousers, outerwear and a limited-edition jewelry collection.
“I probably left Vuitton a little prematurely, because the industry hadn’t yet connected my name with the collection,” says Grantham. “My urge to have my own company was too strong. It was greater than me.”
The past year for Grantham has been a true test of stamina and organization. She moved to Milan from Paris, got married, had a baby and set up shop. So amidst dealings with Italian bureaucracy, changing diapers, working with manufacturers and trying to sell her collection, Grantham is bearing a heavy load.
“I definitely see myself entering some kind of deal, whether with a large group or a manufacturer or a producer,” she says. “But for now, I’m focused on building the right foundation. I don’t want the company to grow very quickly. I want to do it very slowly, very gradually.”