Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Elie Tahari was once the king of the interview suit, but he sometimes cringes when reminded of that. Diane Von Furstenberg, for a long time, has been a synonym for the wrap dress, but it pains her to think that could become her definition.
Stylistically, Burberry has gone a whole other direction from its iconic check-lined raincoat in recent years, while Shoshanna Lonstein’s people are considering this tagline for its first ad campaign: “We don’t make bras.”
To a large degree, some of these vendors, who from their conception have been classified as ready-to-wear manufacturers, have reinvented themselves as lifestyle brands that incorporate categories beyond a core product.
For Burberry, plaid bikinis and dog sweaters have become as important as trenches, while in Tahari’s showroom, prime real estate is reserved for fur-trimmed tweed skirts and suede halter tops, while his suit division is shown from a back office.
Changes like these that are developing in the rtw categories of suits, dresses and coats reflect not only the growing importance of brand image across the apparel spectrum, but also the significance of being perceived within fashion circles — by retailers and press — as modern, young and relevant. It’s a necessity that has caused some serious personality disorders within dress and suit categories, where vendors sometimes feel their association with the roots of the garment business has given them an unfair reputation for being stuffy and old-fashioned.
To counteract that perception, some old-line rtw vendors are taking broad measures to transform their public personas into fashionable lifestyle brands, particularly through their marketing and public relations arms, by gearing advertising and press toward images that promote aspects of the brand other than those that cement the stereotype of its signature products.
“It’s been a real struggle to get away from the wrap dress,” said Leah Forester, director of image and communications for Diane Von Furstenberg. “We can’t turn our backs from it — it’s our history and the mother dress that started it all. But I don’t send it out for editorial. From that standpoint, it’s a dead issue.”
Throughout the rtw market, there is a movement to shun its traditional labels, those primarily assigned by department stores to facilitate buying by category. Meanwhile, some contemporary vendors are complaining that they are too edgy and progressive for the rtw label and should be considered “young designers” or a similar variation, following the lead of upper echelon designers in the much beleaguered bridge category. They recently waged a successful campaign to become known as “gold range,” which they feel has a better ring to it.
Much of their efforts have to do with public relations and the importance of brand image, but vendors also see a financial advantage to selling across a broader range of categories or selling their core items in other departments with a higher profile.
Burberry is probably the prime example of a company that in the past few years has successfully exploded its public image and boosted its importance as a vendor beyond retail coat departments, although Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive officer, stressed the firm has not abandoned the coat business, pointing to the importance of trenchcoats as a fashion statement for fall.
When the company set out to modernize the image of the brand, under the creative direction of Roberto Menichetti, it considered logical brand extensions in the same way the company has done throughout its 143-year history, Bravo said, noting the firm had wardrobed expeditions and created tents and sporting equipment.
“In some ways, this product extension has been with us from the very beginning,” Bravo said. “Creating what logical extensions there are with any brand is what marketers are doing today.”
In the U.S., Burberry’s wholesale business is predominantly in the outerwear category, but accessories like cashmere scarves, handbags and hats are beginning to take a bigger stake and, importantly, changing the way consumers demand its product. The company has been besieged with requests for a Burberry check bikini it showed for summer, but its available supply is sold out, Bravo said.
“The demand and press coverage we’ve had around the globe has helped change people’s perception of what is Burberry,” Bravo said. “Before it was ‘I’ve had my Burberry raincoat for the last 20 years and I don’t need another one for 10 years.’ Now people really want that bikini, and it’s unavailable.”
Searle, another label primarily known for its upscale outerwear, embarked upon a similar brand extension around the same time as Burberry, having launched its first sportswear collection in 1997, but the company has faced a tougher road at breaking out of its coat mold.
Steve Blatt, Searle’s designer and president, started the sportswear line with Heike Jarick and showed a few seasons with 7th on Sixth, but it received tepid reviews, and Jarick quit last August to pursue her own line. Now Blatt has hired Erin Chalub as design director for a signature sportswear line, and Liza Crystal, formerly a buyer at Barneys New York, as merchandiser for his five freestanding stores in New York, meanwhile incorporating other labels like Emma Black, Lotta and Maharishi into the retail mix.
Last week, Searle launched an eveningwear collection designed for the store by Alexandra Lind, a designer who was part of Moet & Chandon’s Designer Debut in 1999 and whose pricy signature line is popular among socialites. The Alexandra Lind for Searle collection retails from $345 for a top to about $850 for dresses, and, Lind said, will be expanded into a larger group next year.
“We want people to think of Searle as a destination for great clothing,” Crystal said. “I don’t want to say you can never buy a coat there again, but I’d like customers to be able to find something to wear that evening or to the beach and to meet their immediate needs, because women’s lifestyles have changed so much.”
Searle is looking to position itself alongside young designers, finding a “good mix” between that market and contemporary in an effort to reach young female shoppers, the kind that have successfully been attracted to stores like Scoop, which also has a large presence on the Upper East Side, Crystal said.
“Department stores have their own place, boutiques have another,” observed Crystal. “Right now, the young contemporary market is very hot. If we put things out there in the right market and presentation, the customer is very interested.”
For Tahari, the transformation from career suits to fashion sportswear came about most pointedly with the introduction of Theory, its stretch-based separates line launched in 1997. The company now sells to six divisions within department stores between the two lines, with sportswear, dresses and suits being key categories, but suits being less important than they once were.
“Suits were in fashion 20 years ago,” said Elie Tahari, noting that when he describes the company, it’s as a designer sportswear house and not as a suit firm.
“We have a suit line, but that’s not our strength today,” Tahari said. “The perception out there is that we have changed from a jacket-driven company to more fashion-forward, cutting-edge, hip clothes.”
Tahari said he’s made a concentrated effort over the past two years to improve the fashion of his line as well as to improve his corporate infrastructure, hiring key sales executives who understand the significance of promoting a fashionable image. He’s also just beginning to advertise, with a commercial launched last month on Time Warner Cable.
“I’ve always felt the inside needed to be strong before we concentrated on the outside,” Tahari said. “A really new collection is the most important expression of our image.”
Tocca started as a dress company with seven styles and Marie-Anne Oudejans as its designer, but the company now has three divisions — rtw, home and beauty, said Edoardo Mantelli, chairman. Oudejans left to pursue other lines in 1998, and Tocca is now designed by the team of Ellis Kreuger and Sue Stemp.
“We arrived at a good time in fashion when you could play a little bit with colors,” Mantelli said. “When we started selling, I could barely believe it. As it became obvious that this was becoming more of a company and people were giving us their attention, we started putting our attention into what fashion is.”
It wasn’t necessarily business strategy the company focused upon, but rather coming up with clear ideas of what Tocca product should be to fit into the lifestyle of its customer base.
“We’re more of a lifestyle company,” Mantelli said. “We’re not just a designer company. For ready-to-wear, we’re ever evolving, offering more of a timeless product that is quite exotic and very feminine.
“Dresses are still a very strong part of our business, but we’re doing jackets and pants, developing accessories and giving birth to a Tocca jewelry line next spring. We can’t be naive and sit back waiting for everything to come to us.”
While Tocca still considers dresses to be a central part of its business, Mantelli said the vendor mostly deals with contemporary sportswear buyers at stores like Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
Von Furstenberg’s Forester added that the company’s brand extension from its 1997 wrap dress launch to shoes made by Christian Louboutin, an evolving retail concept, and a sportswear line bowing for spring 2001 all carries the spirit of the wrap dress — if not the dress itself — as well as Von Furstenberg’s exclusive prints she and her staff develop in her West Village studio.
“It’s not so much about the wrap, but about the spirit that style embodies,” she said. “The tie on the shoe or the gathering on the side of a tank have the same freedom of spirit and easiness.”
Von Furstenberg incorporated bikinis, pants, skirts and blouses into her resort collection, shown last week, as a prelude to the sportswear line.
“We’re keeping it true to the identity, but with a twist,” Forester said. “The wrap dress is always the first thing people mention, but I’ve noticed in the past year a gradual move away from that, and it’s not just fashion people.”
Presenting the collection as a cohesive group, where dresses are merchandised with related separates, has been helpful at beefing up sales and image for the company. It’s not that Von Furstenberg doesn’t want to be known as a dress house, but the company wants to show that there’s more to its image than one look. And although the line is priced roughly within the bridge category, it is sometimes called contemporary — though Forester would prefer “affordable designer.”
“Lingerie, sportswear, no matter how many extensions we do, we will always be known as a dress house,” Forester said. “It’s working for us now because the dress industry is growing. It’s almost like the market has caught up with us.”
While most vendors are averse to being called bridge, there are conflicting views on the contemporary label. While some executives called it condescending, others see it as the right place to be, since, unlike bridge, it’s been exceptionally strong at retail for the past few years.
“We’re still overcoming the perception that we’re a lingerie company,” said Felicia Marie Geller, vice president of sales for Shoshanna, who said she still faces customers who ask for bras that match designer Shoshanna Lonstein’s dresses but that were discontinued after the line was launched.
“If we ever took out advertising, it would say, ‘We don’t make bras,”‘ Geller said.
Shoshanna, primarily a dress resource, has expanded into coats, knits and pants. At some stores, the line is carried in contemporary dress and sportswear departments, but in others, Geller said, it’s a challenge to convince buyers to view the line as a collection.
“Once you’ve developed a strong relationship with a buyer, and it’s a dress buyer, it is difficult to try to have the collection represented outside of that department, particularly if they’ve been our supporter and the one who brought us into that store,” Geller said. “It’s difficult to have double exposure.”
The contemporary label weighs more heavily upon Yigal Azrouel, a designer whose collection covers sportswear, leather outerwear and dresses. Donata Minelli, director of sales and marketing, has launched an informal campaign to come up with new terminology for designers who are edgier than contemporary stalwarts like Laundry by Shelli Segal and ABS by Allen Schwartz.
“Contemporary is trend driven, not design integrity driven,” Minelli said. “This line has a design appeal. So much of what today is is perception. If you hear contemporary, you have an idea of the quality and integrity.”
She would like to incorporate something along the lines of “advanced signature innovators,” although that’s quite a mouthful, and one that would likely annoy those established in the designer sportswear realm. Her position has demanded some diplomacy with buyers, particularly those representing departments Azrouel doesn’t want to sell.
“It’s more important for us to hold off until we can get into a department where we hang with the right collections,” Minelli said. “I think people respect that.”
Azrouel is also promoting a more upscale image by moving to a new showroom in August at 225 West 39th Street (where Calvin Klein’s retail planning division is currently located) that will also house his production. It will be designed as a “Maison,” creating an environment to showcase Azrouel’s creative process.
A freestanding retail store in New York is also in the works for 2001, according to Minelli.