R.J. GRAZIANO: THRIVING AT 25

Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — “I find it very difficult to look back — it’s old hat and old news to me,” said Richard Graziano. Some might think he has a short attention span or little memory, but those who know Graziano well, know he simply likes to keep moving — forward.
Even as his costume jewelry firm, R.J. Graziano, marks its 25th anniversary and is riding the crest of some of its strongest growth ever, yesterday doesn’t seem to interest him.
“I’m happy to be in business and going on to the next thing,” Graziano said from his showroom here at 389 Fifth Avenue.
But Graziano is willing to shed some light on the past, noting that he started out as a costume and set designer for the theater, and was eventually introduced to the fashion jewelry world by a friend who was a buyer at Bloomingdale’s.
“I did a few pieces for them, and that was it. I was hooked,” Graziano recalled. “The stores were very creative then. It was in the heyday of Marvin Traub and his fortnights; it was a scene, and it was thrilling. Making jewelry felt like a natural progression for me. Plus I was making all this money!”
Like other burgeoning jewelry designers, Graziano initially made his collection at home before moving into his current showroom, where he has resided for 23 years. He also operates a factory on West 36th Street here and is part owner of a factory in Providence. Besides all the typical uses, Graziano’s showroom and factories are the repository for his enormous collection of vintage crystal and glass that have been acquired over the years from jewelry factories that were going out of business. Whatever the trend, he has the raw materials to make the next hot item.
Up to and through the Eighties, Graziano’s customer base grew to include some of the nation’s biggest retailers. “I sold I. Magnin, Sakowitz, Foley’s, B. Altman, Bonwit Teller and the entire Associated Dry Goods Group — just about every upscale carriage trade store that has now disappeared,” he quipped, adding that there is no comparison between business 20 years ago and now.
“In those days, the costume jewelry business was product and merchandise driven, brands were not the be-all and end-all, and retailers were interested in really working together,” Graziano said. “Today, stores make their markups with chargebacks to vendors for advertising, real estate and sales help costs.”
Besides all the retail consolidation, the onset of minimalism and the resulting dramatic decline in costume jewelry sales in the late Eighties forced him to seriously evaluate his future.
“I took some tremendous hits financially, and could have quit many times,” he said. “I knew I had to change the way I thought. So I went after specialty chain stores and became determined to get into electronic retailing.”
Graziano’s first foray into home shopping was during a stint with QVC, an experience he credits with teaching him how to run a multilevel operation. “QVC was like college,” he said. “I learned how to adapt products for specific customers, what looks good on television, how to package and romance a product, how to pay attention to quality control.”
He moved onto the Home Shopping Network five years ago, where his program airs six times a year. At HSN, Graziano became reacquainted with Jeffrey Taraschi, whom he knew from Taraschi’s days as a Macy’s executive. Fifteen months ago, Taraschi became executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Home Shopping Network.
“Richard understands fashion and color and can translate them for our customer,” said Taraschi. “He’s a very effervescent guy who loves working with people, whether he’s in a store doing a trunk show or on the air. His quick wit and one-liners are part and parcel of what makes him special. He genuinely gets excited about great product, and it’s contagious — there is no fabrication with him.”
As for Graziano’s longevity in the industry, Taraschi said, “Richard has evolved over time and his strength comes from being able to interpret and evaluate where the business is going. Plus, he works as hard or harder than anyone. In order to stay current, you have to be a student of the business, and he is. He puts his ego behind and tries to really understand where the customer is going.”
Graziano said his business was better than it ever was in the Eighties, although he refuses to even hint at what that volume might be, describing sales as in the multimillions. Industry sources estimated Graziano’s sales to be close to $20 million.
Unlike many designers who would be enthralled with the idea of a retrospective of his work, Graziano dismissed the notion. “I can’t even look at the old stuff — it was what it was. I’m that way with everything. If I could renovate my apartment every nine months, I would. I just love change.”
He also likes to work with a variety of retailers, from the mass market to the upscale designer arena, a feat rarely accomplished by accessories designers.
“I have a supermarket mentality,” Graziano said. “I like brand names and store names and I want to work with both. We produce jewelry that retails for $50 and jewelry that retails for $450.”
His account list includes Bloomingdale’s, Saks Folio, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Marshall Field, Neiman Marcus by Mail, Jacobson’s, Burdines and a variety of mass market and chain stores. Though Graziano currently sells to e-tailers, including Nordstrom.com, Firstjewelry.com and Eve.com, and his own site will be unveiled in September, he isn’t completely enamored with e-commerce.
“So far, the Internet hasn’t been a particularly hot area,” Graziano said. “We’ll have several categories on our site: trend, collectibles, bridal, home and a section for ‘as seen in magazines.’ It’s strictly experimental. If it works, fine, but if it’s not financially successful, I’ll bow out.”
Although he had few good things to say about department stores, Graziano lauded chain stores and fashion magazines.
“The magazines have really refreshed themselves, and they are all so much more interested in accessories. We are averaging about half a dozen credits a month now.”
Last year, the company set up an 800 number that is now used in all credits, and Graziano said he had been impressed with the amount of calls they got for merchandise.
“We sold over 500 pairs of one earring style in two months from just one magazine credit. People today want things much faster, and the majors just lumber along.
“The chain stores are much more interesting — look at Old Navy and Ann Taylor Loft. And I would love to be in Target! Try to find the same great looks in department stores. They just can’t maximize a great look.”
Always moving forward, Graziano isn’t content to grow by adding depth to his established accounts. “I would rather go after new business. I always have to diversify.”
His latest favorite market is museum stores, which he described as the “great unknown. People just don’t buy in the same traditional ways anymore. We have to look for new places to reach them.”
An active and sometimes vocal critic, Graziano described the accessories industry as “old and creaky. Market weeks are an ancient way of doing business. Today, stores come in when they want to, or you go to them. Collections are part of the past as well. Now, it’s about items and open sell — as it should be. You can make two items and do just as much business as you did with a full-fledged collection.”
Carol Quist, who has represented Graziano from her Dallas showroom for 18 years, credited Graziano’s staying power to his multiple talents.
“Besides being a talented designer, Richard knows how to conduct a business,” Quist pointed out. “It’s rare to find designers that have both abilities. Plus, he’s always at the beginning of a trend curve, is true to his word and ships on time.”