MULQUEEN’S JUMPING JACK FLASHBACK
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — For Jack Mulqueen, a window that was shut for 30 years is opening again.
Mulqueen has had a lot of incarnations in his 37-year career.
His early days were spent at Jones New York and establishing Jaeger of London in the U.S.; he was known in the Eighties as “Fast Jack,” the knockoff king of Seventh Avenue, and last year he made headlines after stepping down as chief executive officer of a venture that tried to tie Benetton with Sears, shortly before it failed.
But fashion is cyclical, and so are fashion careers. Mulqueen is back on the scene with a signature sportswear line, exclusive to Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and their related Internet and catalog business, that sprouts from a look he saw 30 years ago in the collections of Mary Quant and Biba in London; in those of Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo and Daniel Hechter in Paris, and then sprouting in cities along the Cote d’Azur by the summer of 1971.
It was an “international Riviera” look — feminine silk blouses adapted from men’s tuxedo and dress shirts and pants fit very close to the body on both sexes — that Mulqueen also helped to popularize in the U.S. with his own blouse and dress business, the Jack Mulqueen Co., and through its licensed collections for Valentino, Mary McFadden and Zandra Rhodes.
It had developed into a $150 million business by 1981, with freestanding shops in New York, Palm Beach, Chicago and Bal Harbor, but Mulqueen, a fast car and boat buff and a fast man himself then, tried to race the business to $500 million in the next two years. Unfortunately, it was at a time when the silk business became saturated and retailers leaned heavily upon manufacturers with chargebacks, and he was forced to shelve his signature line in 1986.
Since then, Jack Mulqueen has been primarily a private label business, acting as a contractor for Jaclyn Smith for Kmart, the Kathie Lee Collection and other suppliers, with an estimated annual volume of $50 million.
But everywhere around him, Mulqueen, now 56, is seeing what he calls “confirmations” — little bits of evidence that portend a change in fashion, one where the feminine blouse will act as a catalyst for a sea change in design aesthetics.
“The industry has gone flat from a fashion point of view,” Mulqueen said. “It’s all over the place. There’s no definite look, and the fun of being in the fashion business has been totally dissipated.”
Mulqueen is nostalgic for the fun that fashion was in the Seventies, at least the fun it was for him. By the end of that decade, he was on the top of the fashion heap, revered somewhat in the way Allen B. Schwartz is today, except Mulqueen was still considered part of the jet-set elite.
He was being profiled in French Vogue as “un roi de la soi,” photographed with his Rolls Royce, Maserati and Rybovich yacht. A New York Sunday News article asked, “Would you buy a blouse from this man?” and detailed his life as a knockoff king — “I don’t cut in dozens or grosses,” Mulqueen said in the 1981 story. “I cut tonnage.”
His name was bold on billboards around the city and in advertisements in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Mulqueen himself appeared in some of the ads. He was one of the first designers to cast nonwhite models, and, as a result, helped launch the career of Iman, one of his regulars.
There are bits and pieces of that lifestyle still hanging around Mulqueen’s Seventh Avenue showroom, like a silk throw pillow embroidered with the phrase, “You can never be too rich or too thin or have too many silk blouses”; photos of his boats and cars on the walls, and a Louis Vuitton ashtray, slightly chipped, that he found in Paris long before its brown and gold stamped monogram was considered elegant. That a fashionable smoker would covet it today is proof again to Mulqueen that the blouses he is showing are right on target.
So is the return to prominence of Gucci in the last few years and now Tom Ford’s additional role as creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, another iconic label of the Seventies. Blouses of the frilly style of that day also prominently appeared in fall collections from Gucci, Prada and in several other major shows.
Then there is the upcoming film remake of the Seventies television series “Charlie’s Angels” and the coincidental return of stylistic references from the show that mirrored the blouse trend.
A New York Times article about the show in April certainly didn’t dampen Mulqueen’s mood. He made color copies of the issue and now hands them out frequently, since he had a subtle hand in wardrobing the series through a joint venture with a vendor to Alan Austin, the defunct Beverly Hills specialty store that supplied the Angels’ outfits.
“I have taken a brand off the shelf and said, ‘Let’s rework this and launch it at the level of a Ferrari or a Formula One,”‘ Mulqueen said.
The launch of the Jack Mulqueen label, priced in the gold range, will take place in July at 28 doors of Neiman Marcus and at the Bergdorf Goodman store here, and Neiman Marcus Direct will feature five styles in its holiday book.
“When blouses were big, it was a huge business,” said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Neiman Marcus. “There could be huge potential for this category.”
The retailer was looking for strong blouse presentations, as the look appears to be a key category for fall, she said.
“We like these because they had modern styling and we see them as part of a trend presentation for fall,” Stordahl said. “We’re already selling some of the blouses we got in for spring from Dolce & Gabbana, from some of our bridge collections also and certainly from Prada.”
Mulqueen is projecting a first-year wholesale volume of $5 million, after which he will target key stores in other countries, like Holt Renfrew in Canada and Harvey Nichols in England.
“My objective, if my thought process turns out to be exactly on target and if we are on the edge of this whole thing being about to happen, is to roll out full-blown areas in very key markets,” Mulqueen said. “Then it becomes our responsibility to continue with newness so the product is a natural sell.”
The core of the launch is silk blouses and variations in crepe de chine, georgette, charmeuse, organza and stretch gabardine with a 5 percent Lycra blend. The blouses are artfully shaped with laser-sharp darts into feminine takes on looks as exotic as a fluffy man’s tuxedo shirt and as traditional as a flat, fitted dress style with French cuffs and an attached 72-inch scarf at the neckline that can be wrapped over the back or tied into a bow.
Each blouse has pearlized shell buttons etched with the Mulqueen name.
“We’re not going techno, we’re going super luxury,” Mulqueen said. “The customer hanging out at the Hotel Monte Carlo during race week is the customer we want.”
He is also incorporating wool and silk gabardine jackets and pants, as well as 30-gauge solid and animal print cashmere T-shirts in eight styles. There are military-cut jackets and one-button blazers; in pants, Mulqueen offers a fitted flat-front, high-rise model and a jeans cut.
Blouses wholesale from $60 to $90 and are priced with a roughly 65 percent margin to retail from $185 to $250. Pants will wholesale around $90 and jackets will cost $195, while cashmere T-shirts are $75 to $95.
While Mulqueen acknowledged that key styles in the line mirror what is happening in other designer collections — he even pointed out that one of his silk shirts wholesales for $60 compared with a similar look at Gucci that costs $495 at retail — he said believed the quality of textiles and sewing in his blouses will made them stand out, and he is not using the terminology “knock off” in describing the line.
Instead, he pointed out that his inspiration comes from styles from Saint Laurent and Versace from the Eighties, the same ones being referenced by the other designers.
“We’re reaching back into our historical data and reworking all the products,” Mulqueen said. “We have mountains of library information here to call on, enough to do collections for the next five years.
“What we have that is different is technology in respect to the raw materials,” he said, adding that the sewing abilities of Asian factories and machinery make feasible the 30-gauge cashmere and printing techniques.
But his plans for a label and graphics for Jack Mulqueen draw an inevitable comparison to Prada’s Prada Sport label. On a silver background, there is a red stripe with white capital letters spelling “Mulqueen” in a similar font.
He said he was inspired by Prada’s participation in the America’s Cup competition this year and came up with the label after seeing its logo on the hull of a Prada-sponsored ship, combined with the holographic silver background of a business card he picked up at the DKNY store on Madison Avenue.
“We’ve always used a red and white graphic or a combination of silver and black or silver and navy for the Jack Mulqueen logo,” he said. “The only difference from our point of view is that we’ve dropped ‘Jack’ from the label. A lot of people use that type of copper plate font in a Roman style.”
Either way, he’s clearly looking back at the root of his success.
But, Mulqueen vowed, he won’t be known as a Seventh Avenue knockoff artist this time around, as long as that window remains open.