Byline: Sarah Raper

PARIS — Garret-crawling has never really been Saks Fifth Avenue’s style.
But that’s changing. The tony upscale retailer, known for building designer businesses with such stalwarts of elegance as Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander, is launching an initiative to juice things up with a crop of edgy designers that until now never saw the inside of a Saks shopping bag.
The retailer wants to dramatically expand the offerings of young designers in its New York, Beverly Hills and San Francisco stores. For several months, buyers and merchandisers were rethinking the way up-and-comers could be bought and displayed for maximum impact.
And when an expanded team of Saks executives, including visual merchandisers, headed off to Europe to dig out some new resources, they knew they wouldn’t be spending all their time in comfortable showrooms or waiting for major runway shows to start at the Carrousel du Louvre.
“We’ve looked very carefully at the current designer mix at our stores throughout the country to determine what’s needed to move them forward,” said Joseph M. Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Saks, in a recent interview here.
“The changes involve both bringing in new designers such as Yohji [Yamamoto], Veronique Branquinho, Neil Barrett and Olivier Theyskens, but also intensifying our business with key core vendors such as Celine, [John] Galliano, Dior, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors,” said Boitano. “We went into this with an open mind and we looked at all the opportunities. In Europe, we climbed the extra staircase and went on appointments on a whim. Now we’re focusing on showcasing all the new talent we found in three key stores.”
The new initiative reflects how Saks is rethinking its total designer business. While looking for new resources, corporate officials acknowledged last year that designer goods, as a percentage of Saks Fifth Avenue’s overall apparel business, might shrink a point or two. Designer performances at each door will be closely examined.
Although Boitano and other Saks executives declined to comment on which houses would be affected, industry sources told WWD that Loewe and Balmain, which recently fired its designer, Gilles Dufour, would both be dropped by Saks for next season. Other labels, including Valentino, Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Lacroix, would be available in fewer doors.
Saks Fifth Avenue has been under pressure from its parent, Saks Inc., to strengthen its margins. Designer merchandise, if not sold at the opening price, tends to be heavily marked down.
Demonstrating that Saks is still committed to designers, Boitano said that starting in July, there will be 10 new names at Saks, compared with one — Theyskens — added for the current season and two last fall.
In addition to Yamamoto, Branquinho and Barrett, they are Maurizio Pecararo, Samsonite, Jean-Paul Knott, Sebastian Rodriguez, Martin Margiela, Junya Watanabe and Yamamoto’s second line, Y’s. Some will be available at one location, others at several. Most changes will take place at the New York, Beverly Hills and San Francisco units, but there will be additions at the the Highland Park, Ill.; South Coast, Calif.; Boston; Bal Harbour, Fla., and Houston stores. Boitano declined to be specific about how the changes affected budgets, saying only that most additions were paid for by shifting spending in the existing open-to-buy.
The revved-up designer buy is Boitano’s boldest move since joining Saks from Bergdorf Goodman a year ago. He was executive vice president in charge of women’s there. It is also Saks’ most aggressive drive to beef up its designer presence in years. In the early to mid-Nineties, Saks president Rose Marie Bravo and the senior vice president and fashion director Nicole Fischelis roped in new designer brands and built up others, like Christian Lacroix and Giorgio Armani.
Boitano said the current strategy was a continuation of what they started.
“They made an important directional change for the company,” he said. “They brought Jil Sander to Saks, expanded Armani and Chanel, and picked up Dolce & Gabbana. Over the years, the designer market has changed, and we want to continue to make sure that Saks Fifth Avenue is on the forefront of those changes.”
The visual presentation experts who took notes at every garret showroom in Milan and Paris are working on ways to translate the young and avant-garde designer environments into the store. The old system of cramming several young people onto a rack is out. Instead, the store is developing new shelving units and tables that flaunt each designer’s personality.
“This is a much more complete merchandising for younger designers than we have ever had,” Boitano said. “What’s changed is to have a clear strategy to bring these people to the store and to showcase them. Young emerging talents can get lost in a store like Saks Fifth Avenue.”
The upcoming fashion shift on Fifth Avenue, in Beverly Hills and in San Francisco will not be subtle, said Boitano, although many of the new names won’t make it to the majority of Saks’ 62 doors.
“I hope our regular customers will notice immediately that we have added new excitement to our assortments,” said Boitano. “I don’t want to alienate any customers, of course. But fashion is about excitement and emotion, and that’s what will come through in these stores.”
Most of the names that are coming into Saks might sound familiar as regulars at Barneys New York and even Bergdorf Goodman, which is moving to get its edge quotient up. Executives at both of those retailers declined to comment on the new Saks strategy.
Boitano said the new names would be featured in the windows of the three key Saks stores and clients would be notified through the store’s usual direct marketing channels. He said locally targeted advertising would communicate the changes, but he declined to disclose budgets or to say whether spending would be increased.
Saks’ new accent on emerging designers will be good for everyone, Boitano argued. “We strengthen our image as a leading fashion resource and we can offer them our access to the New York press, visibility in terms of our windows, placement in our catalogs and participation in our Saks Fifth Avenue Club [the store’s service for preferred customers]. It’s the hub of our relationship with the designer customer and very key to selling this merchandise,” he said.
“Probably the most important thing we offer, though, is a new relationship with them. We recognize that these people are learning and are still small.” However, he said Saks had not relaxed any of its standard procedures for payment or deliveries to accommodate the recruits. “Many of these designers are more professional earlier than young designers used to be.These young designers are more aware of getting the products produced. They are very concerned about who will make their designs.” He noted that Branquinho, who recently showed her fifth collection, initially refused to sell to Saks because she felt she wasn’t ready to work with such a big store.
Boitano said exclusivity was not a dictate. “Exclusivity helps us, but we also understand that different brands need to proceed differently. We do want close cooperation continuing through to the selling floor, so we’ve encouraged personal appearances.”
Commenting on quantities, Boitano said, “There won’t be three shifts on a rack, but quantities have to be realistic too. With any new young designer, we always want to get to the next season and to report that we had a great success. The key question for us, however, is whether our buy is representative. And we have asked many of the younger designers along the way, ‘Do you feel that this represents your collection. Is there an important piece that we have overlooked?”‘
During the Paris leg of their fall buying trip, Boitano and Linda De Frances, Saks vice president and divisional merchandise manager — and another Bergdorf Goodman alum — did the rounds of up-and-comers with Saks’ local representative, Brigitte Bensimon. One stop was the apartment-cum-showroom of Jean-Paul Knott, just off the Place des Victoires.
Knott, 33, who is in his first season and previously spent 12 years assisting Yves Saint Laurent with the couture, couldn’t believe his good luck. “You’re always excited when you hear that retailers are coming. Usually the first few seasons they only come to look,” he said.
“This finishing is amazing. It’s a definite selling point,” said Boitano.
Knott shows off a raincoat with sleeves that can be unzipped to leave a sleeveless tunic. “That option is nice and beautifully done. It’s not confusing,” said De Frances. There are full linings in pants and jacket shoulders based on men’s tailoring techniques. Prices range from approximately $400 for lined wool pants to $1,220 for a wool gabardine zipped coat. Most of the collection is produced in Belgium, where Knott is based; knits are done in France and Scotland.
Next stop for the Saks team is Sebastian Rodriguez, an ebullient 27-year-old with Spanish origins who trained at Central St. Martin’s in London and has a knack for modern-looking knits and leather pieces. This is his third collection.
A merino knit tank top retails for about $470, leather pants for about $1,775. The knits are produced in Italy and the other pieces, including paper-thin leathers, are produced in France.
Throughout their month-long buying expedition, Boitano said Saks execs were trying to encourage an exchange with new designers. “We’re offering tender, loving explanations about the needs of our customers,” he said. “Designers respond in different ways to that information. Jean-Paul [Knott’s] collection was much bigger, and we suggested that he focus and edit it. We suggested a change in a sleeve to make it more commercial.”
A sort of crash course in retailing? Boitano laughed. “I guess you could call it that.”