Designers looking for a leg up and a home on the Upper East Side have a new place to turn: Code.
This story first appeared in the January 25, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The 10,000-square-foot hybrid store, showroom, café and event space for designers at 800 Fifth Avenue — a port in the storm of New York’s fashion scene — is the brainchild of Moshe Lax, who was nudged into his new fashionable life by his wife, Shaindy, Hillary Beckman and Ivanka Trump.
When Shaindy found that it was no easy feat to break into department stores with her detailed fashions for kids, Lax turned to Beckman, a friend with a long list of fashion industry contacts, including childhood pal Tracy Margolies, sister-in-law and filmmaker Fabiola Beracasa Beckman and Bergdorf Goodman executive Elizabeth von der Goltz.
“I told him that the stars have to align, and even then, you may be a blip on the radar and never gain traction,” Beckman said.
Lax and Beckman concluded that the fashion industry is fragmented, struggling to stay one step ahead of consumers’ shifting tastes and still reconciling e-commerce with brick-and-mortar.
“There’s a hole in the market,” Beckman said. “There’s nowhere a new designer can go to get all the eyes, especially those of editors and heads of fashion departments.”
Lax hopes to change all that with Code, which also owes a lot to the newly minted first daughter, who has moved away from fashion to establish herself in Washington.
“I learned about the fashion world and business from Ivanka Trump,” said Lax, who is also president and chief executive officer of Dynamic Diamonds and partnered with Trump to launch her jewelry business.
“I don’t know if I would have had the vision and clarity for this project without her. Diamonds was my late father’s business. Real estate is really my comfort zone,” said Lax, noting that retail rent is one of the biggest costs for designers opening a shop. “Even department stores are real estate plays with the shelf space.”
Code will offer help with lining up investment capital, mentorships, public relations, branding and marketing services and business expertise to the 20 to 30 designers chosen to participate in its six-month residency programs.
Designers will have access to shared work spaces and meeting rooms and can get assistance in developing or refining their business plans. Signage, visual merchandising and marketing will be provided by Code.
There’s a monthly fee based on a sliding scale and no deposit or leases required.
“The high price of leases is strangling designers,” Beckman said. “We’re not taking a percentage of their sales. If a designer is taking off, would we invest in that designer? Yes. If we put together a bank/investor, we might want a piece. We can also provide factoring.”
Code is removed from the Fifth Avenue shopping corridor, which starts two blocks to the south. Situated in a residential apartment building opposite Central Park, the space lacks the elements traditionally considered essential for retail success, such as frontage and neighboring brands to generate foot traffic. But then Code’s creators see it as an oasis from the scrum.
“We have a very long lease,” Lax said, adding that his investment in Code “is not economically burdensome. Eliot Spitzer is the landlord. My father was a big admirer of Eliot.”
Code is an idealistic venture — at least for now. The project has the luxury of being picky about the talent it chooses.
“We’re OK financially for a couple of years,” Beckman said. “The first year isn’t about revenue. We’re lucky we’re in a position to do that. It gives us the freedom to choose amazing talent. It would be really cool if we were the catalyst for the upward trajectory of several designers every season.”
Lax added: “The spirit of Code is a community and gallery, rather than just a space. We’re going to preserve that feeling. I look at Code as being at the center of a symbiotic relationship with the market.”
With exposed brick walls, polished concrete floors, custom furniture and rotating art exhibitions, Code aims to strike an upscale tone. A complimentary café serving wine opens onto a 15,000-square-foot garden with reflecting pools that will be used for events.
Gray Kunz will be the first in a series of rotating chefs at Code. Lax was an investor in Kunz’s Manhattan restaurants and said: “Gray will run the program and find young chefs. He’ll help choose the talent going forward.”
“We want Code’s cafe to be the next Freds,” Beckman said, referring to the restaurant at Barneys New York’s Madison Avenue flagship.
Code is trying to line up interest for its designers. So far, Aruna Seth has joined up. The London designer’s shoes were worn by Pippa Middleton to the wedding of her sister, the Duchess of Cambridge, to Prince William. Tiffany Trump also wore Aruna Seth to the inauguration of her father, Donald J. Trump.
Lax had a front row seat to all of the inaugural events.
“I introduced Jared [Kushner] to Ivanka,” he said. “I knew him from real estate. He had just bought the Observer and it was launching commercial real estate coverage.”
Trump and Kushner were an instant hit. “I was at lunch with them and it was like I wasn’t there,” Lax said. “The whole paradigm shifted.”
The fashion industry is experiencing its own seismic shift and Lax is positioning Code to benefit. He hopes the space will appeal to European designers having difficulty breaking into the U.S. market and established brands trying out new concepts.
“We’re looking to create a web site that’s social, newsy and streamlined and customized for consumers on one side and the industry on the other,” Beckman said. Added Lax, “Our goal is to take Code all over the world.”
“We’re talking to retailers and e-commerce platforms, including [Karen Katz,] chairman and ceo of Neiman Marcus and Moda Operandi’s Lauren Santo Domingo,” Beckman said. “Kering and Richemont are interested in launching new concepts by established and new designers at Code. We’ve had many meetings with LVMH.
“Elizabeth intends to recommend designers,” Beckman said, referring to von der Goltz. “The CFDA said it’s happy to push overflow designers our way.”
Code is expected to grow organically. Designers may be added or subtracted. And those who achieve success may leave and return later.
“We listened to designers,” Beckman said. “We’re reflecting their needs. We’re creating a safe place for the industry. Code is about curating the designers just right.”
“We don’t have a boxed-in vision for Code,” Lax said. “The beauty of Code is that it’s fluid. We’ll adapt very quickly.”