DESIGNING WHERE PRICE MATTERS MOST
Byline: Shirliey Fung
NEW YORK — Most people have never heard of designers Liane Okamitsu or Ellen Becker, but with their designs bringing in respective sales of $30 million and $100 million last year, it’s likely they know someone who owns something one of them has created.
Okamitsu and Becker are two designers in the moderate market, a tier in which designers do not have to be household names and trendsetters as much as savvy merchandisers and product developers.
“Designing for the moderate market is 65 percent marketing and 35 percent design,” said Barry Zelman, who is senior vice president of Delta Burke and heads the label’s design team.
Moderate designers have their work cut out for them. They get none of the glory of the higher tiers, but all of the pressure to deliver. They must design within the confines of a tight and competitive price structure and make clothing for a customer who may not always be ready for all the trends.
“Timing is one of the difficulties,” said Becker, who is vice president of merchandising at Requirements and heads the company’s four-person design team. “I have to ask myself if I have to wait a year before the customer will understand the trend.”
Moderate designers must offer fashionable merchandise, but not overstep and offer an item that may be too trendy for their customers.
“The moderate customer might not keep up all the time with the latest fashions,” said Okamitsu, head designer at blouse vendor Jordon. “They want newness, but they don’t want to be wild.”
Increasing competition and a market that demands low price points adds another set of challenges.
“The moderate market never had such competitive price points five years ago,” said Zelman. “Five or six years ago, everyone had higher price points.”
This competitiveness forces designers to pick fabrics and designs that allow price tags to remain low.
“It does take a lot of creativity to design something to fit into the retail parameter. You can’t add rhinestones, you can’t use $50-a-yard fabric,” said Okamitsu. “With these restraints, it’s hard to do new and creative designs each season.”
Until they have passed the first hurdle of keeping price points low, moderate designers cannot even begin to think about the artistic portion of their jobs. Indeed, designers in this tier must first put on their creativity caps to come up with ways to keep down costs.
In the past three years, vendors have overwhelmingly turned to foreign sourcing as the main tactic.
“We are now doing 85 percent import, compared to 75 percent domestic three years ago,” said Zelman.
Brenda Lin, head designer at Notations, a blouse vendor, also pointed to having strong ties to overseas manufacturers as the main way for Notations to stay competitive.
“We can turn quickly because of our strong production department and the sourcing situation that we have in countries like China, Indonesia, Mexico and India,” she said.
Kurt Erman, president of the company, said, “We’ve been sourcing in China since 1982. We just started doing silk three or four years ago, but because of our relationship with these manufacturers, they’re willing to give us better prices.”
Jacqueline Quinn, head designer and vice president of the new Quinn New York line, said: “Designing for the moderate market is like reversing a car — you’ve got to know what the garment will sell for and that will dictate what fabric you use.”
She saw a need in the market for moderately priced updated looks and decided to start her own line in that price zone, which will hit stores next spring.
To cut costs, Quinn partnered with a vertical mill in Korea that handles everything from the print-making to the packaging of the garments. She estimated that this partnership cuts her costs by 20 percent.
“Stores want to pay the same price they paid 10 years ago, but they want more expensive fabrics,” Quinn said. “You have to cut somewhere, it might as well be the middle man.”
The terms of Quinn’s partnership are key. The mill is Quinn New York’s main investor and Quinn is considered the inhouse designer. Because the factory has a stake in the business, it’s willing to prioritize Quinn’s orders, produce with tighter lead times and manufacture small quantities at large-quantity prices.
For Quinn, having this frugality in production means that she can upgrade to a slightly more expensive fabric or add better buttons or embroidery to her designs.
Part of Requirements’ plan for cutting costs includes joining with a larger company to have increased purchasing power. After knitwear manufacturer Hampshire Group acquired the vendor in September, the company has been able to make larger purchases at better prices.
Requirements’ vice president of sales, Marc Abramson also points to the timing of his company’s purchases. He and Becker buy at the end of the year or manufacture during open quota periods. Moreover, they buy items without having actually made a sale to retailers.
“In anticipation, I buy during down time,” Abramson said. “The factory will come to us during a slow time and give us an advantageous price.”
Once price has been met, moderate designers must then start to think about designing with an eye toward volume. As Quinn said, if there is one mantra for the best way to do this, “It’s not just about fabric and design. It’s about knowing your shipments, knowing your customer.”
“The moderate floor has so many different people vying for the same customer, it’s important that we all understand who we’re designing for,” said Zelman, who works with focus groups to pinpoint the Delta Burke customer’s needs and wants.
He added that buyers want to see that manufacturers have a clear idea of who their customer is.
“If the buyer sees us designing merchandise that’s similar, they’re not going to give up floor space for the same look for two different people,” he said.
When Okamitsu is designing, she is constantly thinking about her customer’s profile.
“She’s 35-60, she’s a working woman who doesn’t have a lot of money to shop,” she said. “She doesn’t want to have to think about putting an outfit together and the items she buys have to fit with things she already has in her wardrobe.”
Having a good sense of who her customer is has allowed Okamitsu to secure a place for Jordan in the marketplace.
“We have found a niche with printing and embroidery,” she said.
Delta Burke and Notations also have become print-driven companies.
“You can find solids in the private label programs that you find in the stores,” said Zelman, explaining why he leans toward prints. “Our customer is excited by prints. It gives them color and they feel like they’re getting more for their money.”
Lin agreed, noting that she works with art studios to insure that Notations has the freshest prints possible.
“We keep our styling as simple as possible and focus on our prints,” Lin said.
Designers also look back to what’s worked before for style cues.
“I dig up old stuff,” said Lin. “When the blouse came back, I dug up our old career blouses from the Eighties and updated what we had.”
Becker often relies on her 23 years of experience in the moderate market when putting together a line.
“I ask myself, did the customer understand the trend before,” she said. “For instance, I know that my customer always understands plaid.”
“We tweak, we don’t change. In some cases, the same body can run five or six years. We just put in a new color or add some embroidery,” said Okamitsu. “When our customer likes something, she’s very loyal to it. So the challenge is not to come up with the newest thing, but to take something and adjust it.”
Often, she will take two ideas that have worked and combine them. For instance, she once took a windowpane box pattern from one shirt and a successful embroidery from another and combined the two to create a new look.
“Our designs go from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c’ and down the line,” said Mel Nathanson, president of Jordan. “When we start designing, we talk first to the stores about what did well the year before.”
Buyers can often help direct a line with input about what sold well in the past season. Vendors keep in tight contact with buyers monitoring week-by-week sales, but it’s important for vendors to be wary of their requests.
Last spring, for instance, Becker said buyers loved an Indian-inspired skirt and a bright colored T-shirt with embroidery and small mirrors. But once the pieces hit the selling floor, the customers did not respond.
“The buyers wanted us to be updated, but we went too far in print and color,” said Becker. “We were in a print cycle and that was one of the hottest trends. Not wanting to miss a trend, we went for it and did it in the brightest colors. The colors with the forward prints were too much. If I could do it again, I would have done the prints, but not in the bright colors.”
Becker often uses Requirements’ smaller volume private label as a testing ground.
“We have certain customers to test design ideas on, on a small scale,” Abramson said. “We also have an updated label, Nouveaux, that we use for testing at certain stores. Something that works in either one of those could be interpreted for Requirements.”
Another tactic Requirements uses is to throw an item in the group that will drive multiple sales. The company may lose money on the item itself, such as a cashmere-like sweater, but it allows it to sell a jacket, pants or a skirt.
Current position: vice president of merchandising, Requirements
Education: Fashion Institute of Technology
Background: Requirements, nearly 20 years designer at private label company Oxford Industries, 3 years;
Favorite Designers: Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Issey Miyake and Kenzo. “I like a little of everything. There’s not one particular look that I like. I like the European designers.”
Current position: head designer, Notations
Education: Fashion Institute of Technology
Background: Notations, 5 years; assistant designer at moderate outerwear company Lou Levy, 4 months; apprenticeship with Italian tailor John Sidoti, 2 years.
Favorite Designers: Gucci, Prada, vintage, Parallel, Max Mara, Vivienne Tam and Manuel Fernandez.
Current position: head designer and vice president, Quinn New York
Education: Grafton Academy of Fashion Design, Dublin, Ireland;
Background: European MTV music award charity fashion show, 1999; import designer for John Roberts Inc., 5 years; head designer at Nena Models in London, 7 years; apprenticeship with Willi Smith, 1985.
Favorite Designers: Paul Smith, Chanel, Laineigh Keogh, John Rocha.
Current position: head designer, Jordan
Education: Pratt Institute of Art and Design
Background: Jordan, 11 years; head designer and merchandiser at Laura Jayne, 2 years; designer at blouse house Nilani, 4 years.designed dresses, 5-7 years.
Favorite Designers: Armani, Stella McCartney and Theory.