NEW YORK — Charles Nolan is a designer who’s always worn his liberal politics on his sleeve, so it seems fitting that for his comeback collection he would take the grass-roots approach of his most recent mentor, former presidential candidate Howard Dean.
His first signature line will launch in August with a freestanding store in the Meatpacking District here and a 40-door rollout at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Nolan had a lively career in the bridge sportswear market for nearly two decades as a head designer of Blassport, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein, until one day last April when he unexpectedly decided to leave Seventh Avenue to join the Dean campaign. Nolan — who has long been involved in the Democratic political machine with his partner, Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee — stumped and wrangled cash from his many connections, introduced Dean to the fashion elite and spoke of taking back America with the same fervency that ultimately cost Dean his nomination bid.
Near the end, when Dean made his infamous primal scream at the Iowa primaries, Nolan read the news while in London, “where the tabloids made Dean out to be a psychopathic nut case,” he recalled Monday. “When I got back, I watched the tape and I realized it was more like that crazy gym coach every one of us has encountered, who is only trying to get you motivated.”
As it became clear to the designer that Dean’s campaign stood no chance of going forward, Nolan channeled what he had learned from the candidate — motivation and the belief that one person can make a difference — into the concept behind his first signature collection, Charles Nolan New York.
“I missed making clothing way more than I thought I would,” Nolan said. “I thought I’d be satisfied working in my garden, but I was not. When I realized I could do this my own way — not follow the rules of the industry and actually have a real business — that’s what changed everything.”
Nolan’s original concept was to open his own store in the Meatpacking District where he could sell small runs of his designs, ranging from a $35 T-shirt to an $8,000 coat, mixed in with used books, jewelry, handbags, antique furniture, found objects from his travels around the world and anything else that he felt had the look of Charles Nolan. While he is finalizing a lease for a 1,800-square-foot space within the neighborhood, to open in mid-August, Nolan has since expanded his concept with a three-year exclusive with Saks that will include in-store shops housing his collection in 40 stores nationwide, also beginning in August.
That deal, with roughly 35 styles planned for each Saks door, will do a lot to establish Nolan’s as a serious business, although he is not inclined to think of it that way. Retail sources pegged its launch at around $18 million.
“I wanted to have a shop that was more about ideas than just clothing,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was reports or thinking about numbers or percentages. I wanted to think about the customer and what she needs next.”
Nolan is working with many of the industry contacts he made in his career, such as Helen Noh, his partner in the Charles Nolan New York venture, who is manufacturing about 75 percent of the collection in her factories in Shanghai. He is also renting showroom space at the Red Door Studio from custom designer Frank Tignino, who was his first boss on Seventh Avenue, and working with some of the same patternmakers until he is able to move into the Meatpacking District space. Nolan and Tobias are funding the retail venture themselves, using personal savings. Tobias is the author of “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need,” as well as numerous personal investment software programs.
“The difference between this and what I did before is that this is mine,” Nolan said. “As egotistical and as silly as it sounds, this is all about me. Nobody can tell me what a Charles Nolan dress is supposed to look like.”
Evoking that sense of history, Nolan began his collection with a black-and-white polkadot ballerina’s tulle skirt, which was based on a look he designed while he was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He also dipped into the realm of luxury fabrics, those too pricey for his days at Ellen Tracy or Anne Klein, such as double-face wool and cashmere blends, wide waffle knits and his most extravagant piece, a black coat made of thousands of hand-stitched black yarn fringes, priced to retail for about $8,000. Nolan avoided pricing the collection within a certain classification, noting there are items that also range from a $225 camel double-face wool skirt or a $525 unconstructed loden cashmere blend jacket.
Nolan commissioned his friend, the accessories designer Nancy Bacich, to create handbags — a range of styles with a signature horsehair tassel in pink, green, black or bright red. He plans to carry several of her signature pieces, as well as objects from other product designers, plus oddities like a set of antique reproduction chairs he bought at a Tepper auction recently that he will reupholster in bright, “wacky” colors, saris from India or traditional Chinese wedding headdresses made of pressed silver, which he acquired on his recent journeys. One such headdress, covered in silver dragonflies and peacocks, he plans to turn into a chandelier.
“It’s basically a space where I can have sort of an endless tag sale,” Nolan said.
As he begins to preview his collection to the press today, Nolan noted that he expects to field a lot of questions regarding his political experience and present leaning. For the record, he is now supporting Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, but looking around the showroom, some might wonder why Nolan designed so many pieces in one of his favorite colors, red.
“I love red — red is not a Republican issue,” Nolan said. “Listen, I’d be happy to have Ronald Reagan back at this point. By comparison, he and Nancy weren’t that bad. She liked clothes.”