The designer of the discontinued Susan By Night and By Susan labels has turned to a different concept in her latest endeavor. It’s a continual traveling trunk show of sorts, where she peddles her high-end sample collection each season, swatches and measuring tape in hand. There is no cash outlay or inventory, and customers get to pick their own fabrics and ask for a nip here, a tuck there and a hem wherever they want it.
It’s made-to-order without the hefty price tag and it is the concept of Lunenfeld and tailor Michelle Carchedi Hill, both of Philadelphia. The line, called Susan Lunenfeld for M. Carchedi, bowed for fall and is comprised mostly of suits for day and evening, wholesaling from $150 for pants and skirts to $250 for jackets. Sales are projected at $1 million to $1.5 million the first year.
Hill — trained by her father, the late Michele Carchedi, one of about 11 master tailors in the U.S., who studied at the prestigious Santarelli e Castelucci in Rome and had his own custom business here for 40 years — met Lunenfeld at a custom tailors’ association meeting this summer in Philadelphia. They were the only two women at the gathering, so they immediately began to talk. For three years since her father’s death, Hill has continued to service his client list of about 400 men and 25 women who have for years come from as far as Boston, New York and Miami to get suits made by him each season.
Lunenfeld had had many incarnations and successes in the business and was looking for the next thing. Trained as a costume designer, she had a short stint as a costume restorer at Moore College of Art and Design rejuvenating a 19th-century lace collection to its original splendor. That led her to creating her first wholesale collection and shop in Philadelphia called By Susan, filled with revamped and reconstructed vintage laces.
The lace line had a 15-year run. A top seller at the Rod Owens showroom, it was sold to boutiques, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel and I. Magnin. When the fashion tide changed to minimalism, she bought bathing suit fabric and created a line of little black dresses and stretch cocktail suits she then called Susan By Night. Top stores came again and even Fran Drescher wore them regularly on “The Nanny.”
“I thought I was set for life,” Lunenfeld reflected. “I sold millions of those suits and dresses,” Lunenfeld said a bit wistfully.
Then the bottom fell out. Lilli Rubin, her third-largest account, went bankrupt, owing her $250,000. She had to let go all of her 15 employees and taught herself every aspect of the business in hopes of getting another idea during the process.
Then she met Carchedi and the two came up with the concept of this custom closet. “It is a perpetual trunk show,” said Hill, noting that the two will concentrate on suits in casual and formal styling. “Susan’s pieces are tailored, yet feminine. She balances everyone out, no matter what their shape.”
For fall, there are seven jacket models, six pants styles and four choices of skirts. Hill said, “If stores want to purchase a sample line, they can — and they can change anything, or order any fabric.”
Hill has worked for years with fine cloths from Italy, Belgium, France, Spain and New Zealand, but Lunenfeld was always competing to keep prices competitive because her production was domestic and had to use less-expensive goods. She now gets to design with Jasco jersey, super-180 wools and fine brocades and crepes for special occasion. Lunenfeld’s signature styles are a Forties-inspired jacket and a military style.
“Talking to friends, I would always hear that nothing fits when they go to stores,” Lunenfeld said. “I now design a collection that can be tailored to a customer’s specifications.”
To date, the collection is sold at Joan Shepp and Berta Sawyer in Philadelphia; Cohoes, Chari and Talk of the Walk in New Jersey; Donnakers Boutiques and Bonilla Enterprises in Florida, and Ballins in New Orleans.