What do an environmentalist, a lingerie designer, two sisters and three Europeans have in common? They’re all determined to make their new collections the next big thing.
“Whenever I tell people that I make lingerie, the eyebrow invariably gets lifted,” says Sophie Simmons, settling into a rickety wooden chair at a sleepy cafe in New York’s West Village. However, the knowing expression and the naughtiness it implies aren’t merited. Simmons, 33, doesn’t design the sort of ooh-la-la lace and satin creations that belong in the boudoir.
Simmons’ debut line, Dessous, is a small collection of delicate, Italian cotton pieces in a well-edited rainbow of pretty pales, inspired by the underwear worn by her French mother and grandmother.
“We used to go skiing in Switzerland and there were always these boutiques where you could find this underwear, camisoles and long underwear that was sexy but still functional,” Simmons explains.
The nine Dessous styles for spring include a few camisoles, briefs and one-piece teddies with very slim straps that crisscross in back. All are subtly embellished with a tonal embroidery inspired by the abstract floral design Simmons found on a vintage Japanese calendar. The effect is more sweet than sexy, but not saccharine. Think Sofia Coppola, not Jessica Simpson.
Simmons grew up in Paris with her mother, but she speaks with an American accent courtesy of summers spent in Maine, and when she was 16, she moved to Washington, D.C., to finish high school and live with her father. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, Simmons worked briefly for swimwear designer Malia Mills, who is still a good friend, and for Michael Kors. But she claims that it was Jill Anderson, a designer who sold her own wares through her East Village boutique, who gave Simmons a real education in production.
Simmons’ entrée into the business of fashion was through Thread, the hip bridesmaid dress company she founded in 1999 with friend Beth Blake, a fashion veteran who has worked at Vogue and Chanel. They began by happenstance when Blake turned to Simmons for help because she couldn’t find a maid-of-honor dress for her sister’s wedding. The pair came up with a simple ivory number for Blake and the other girls in the wedding party. The design was a hit, garnering a dozen immediate clients, wedding guests who wanted similar dresses made for their nuptials. The duo eventually opened up Thread boutiques in Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Bridesmaid dresses were a really profitable business,” says Simmons. “There was nobody in the market, and it was a very easy business model – people would buy and pay us up front and we would make the pieces.” A year ago, Simmons decided she wanted to do something different, so she parted ways with Blake in an “amicable divorce” and immediately began to research her new line.
Today, says Simmons, the tricky financial dance involved in wholesaling is a different story. “Now I look at my balance and say, ‘Negative. Wow, I’ve never been negative before,'” she adds with a weary laugh. But Dessous, which wholesales from $14 for underwear to $88 for a teddy, will be sold at Catriona MacKechnie, a lingerie shop in New York’s Meatpacking District, as well as Satine in Los Angeles, Dylan in San Francisco and Therapy in Austin and Nashville, Tex.
While she has high hopes for her new line, Simmons says she doesn’t envision men buying her wares as sexy gifts. “It’s for women to buy for them themselves and have two or three and, after a year, buy another because they want a new lace peeking through,” she says. “The concept is to get the company to be like an Eres or Hanro, something synonymous with quality.”
– Meenal Mistry
In the spirit of the European Union, The Avant is bringing together designers from different countries under one fashion flag. The Barcelona-based contemporary line is the collaborative effort of three women living in various European zip codes – Barcelona’s Silvia Garcia Presas, Amsterdam’s Nicole Schutz and London’s Lucy Fine – as well as numerous other guest players around the Continent who contribute to the collective. Amazingly, says Presas, “we work by e-mail, basically, and see each other twice a year.”
Despite the minimum face time these designers get with each other, the setup seems to be working just fine, resulting in a collection of fluid silhouettes with a louche, undone attitude. Presas believes the multicultural influences give the line an added advantage. The designers oversee specific areas: Schutz handles knitwear, Fine does accessories, and, as creative director and brainchild, Presas is the glue that brings all the pieces together.
Born and raised in Barcelona, Presas, 29, clocked in a few years at the Psychology Central University before realizing that she would rather “give shape to those thoughts I had in mind related to human beings,” she says. “Studying psychology and not being able to work with a real object was very frustrating.” She enrolled at the Winchester School of Arts to study design and eventually received a postgrad degree at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art. “I had the need to build something personal with my hands and with my mind,” she adds. Presas then worked the local Catalan retail circuit and was a design assistant at Marina Rinaldi before starting The Avant in 2002.
Together, The Avant collaborators won Gen Art’s 2005 Express Design Vision Award for women’s ready-to-wear. Their spring collection includes a lineup of androgynous, deconstructed dresses, extralong-sleeved cardigans and poufy skirts that play up intricate layering, tucking and pleating – details that Presas calls “wrong and beautifully unbalanced.” In keeping with the all-natural theme of the cotton, silk and wool fabrics, the color scheme doesn’t shout louder than a pale blue amid neutral brown and cream. Spring also marks the first season the line will be carried in the U.S., at both Monmartre and Esthete in New York, and in Salt in Los Angeles. Wholesale prices range from from $49 to $53 for tops to around $90 for jackets.
– Nandini D’Souza
Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words eco-friendly fashion? Birkenstock sandals, perhaps. Or maybe the paint-bearing denizens of PETA, stampeding the runway shows. Certainly not a prim tuxedo blouse, or an Empire gown in soft gold metallics.
But that’s exactly what Bahar Shahpar has in store this spring with her debut line, Agricult. The environmentally conscious designer – key fabrics in the collection include organic wool jersey, linen and hemp – is staunch in her refusal to play to the stereotype of granola chic. With influences from colonial America, and a touch of Edwardian Gibson Girl, Agricult is more Laura Ingalls Wilder than hippie eco-activist. Available at Seven in New York, the looks include organic cotton shells ($40, wholesale), puff-sleeve linen waistcoats ($275) and linen lace and silk gowns ($350).
“My first and foremost aim is to create a beautiful collection that people are going to want to wear, regardless of where it comes from,” says the Iran-born, Jersey-bred designer. “I didn’t want to compromise that in favor of socially responsible decision-making.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Shahpar, 29, is any less an eco-fanatic than her Greenpeace peers. She’s the founder and creative director of Raw Meat, a year-and-a-half-old design firm that focuses on environmental concerns and is the umbrella organization for Agricult. Even the frontier influence at the core of her collection is significant: “It’s the spirit of pioneer women,” she explains. “There are so many parallels to our modern times. These were women who were not afraid of work, who were aggressive and leaders in their own right. It was a completely new environment and they had to start from scratch. That’s what people are realizing today. Environmental issues, social issues – we can’t just keep sticking to the status quo.”
Shahpar hasn’t always been so devout. Although now she’ll eagerly launch into a heated discussion on mass consumption and the advantages of hemp over cotton, it wasn’t long ago that glass-and-paper recycling was as environmental as she got.
“No pun intended, but it developed organically for me,” says Shahpar, who received a degree in developmental psychology at Duke University. The designer took a similar approach to fashion; she was working as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children when she decided to “get out of the headiness of psychology.” Her career then went from makeup artist to entrepreneur (she opened an art gallery and multimedia production studio in San Francisco) to accessories designer in London.
Given Shahpar’s education and vast knowledge, fashion design may seem an unlikely profession, but after a little prodding, she admits that her design roots go back to her childhood. “When I was a kid, I used to write down on my calendar every single outfit I wore from age eight through high school,” Shahpar says with a laugh. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone that.”
– Venessa Lau
Flowers of Romance
if only blanche and baby jane hudson had taken a page from the Meyer sisters, things might have turned out a little differently in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” The Meyers, Monica and Maureen, have little sibling rivalry, despite having grown up together and living with each other in a Bowery Street loft. And never mind the long hours they now log with one another as they design their joint label, Flowers of Romance, which debuts this spring.
“We have our moments,” says Maureen, 29, a former graphic artist who’s worked for Calvin Klein and Rafe Totengco. “We get along really well – no screaming matches.”
So while 24-year-old Monica, who’s worked with Susan Cianciolo and Natalie Chanin of Project Alabama, is moving out of that shared apartment soon, it’s hardly due to any sibling unpleasantries. The change will create extra workspace for their fledgling line.
Flowers of Romance is exactly the kind of collection the name suggests: soft, feminine, romantic clothes, but sans the froufrou frills popular in seasons past. The offerings include gentle patchwork vests and skirts in hand-dyed linen; allover embroidered jackets that hint of Art Nouveau designs, an oft-cited influence for Monica and Maureen, as well as embellishments like hand-stitched stuffed heart charms and twisted floral appliqués. Wholesale prices range from $148 for a cotton jersey shirt to $1,250 for an antique lace dress, complete with hand-embroidered sashes. Eva boutique in New York’s NoLIta neighborhood has already bought the new collection.
The label’s origin is as sweet as its clothes, despite the fact that Flowers of Romance shares a moniker with a late Seventies punk band, not to mention a Sex Pistols song. The designers were referencing a photo exhibit of roses by Japanese artist Motoko, which was similarly titled.
“It talked about flowers and how you [first] see their beauty, but they also represent many other things,” explains Monica. “That’s what I want from our clothes. Of course, I want them to be beautiful, but there’s so much more behind the beauty – the handwork, the story, the different emotions that have been brought in.”
All of which is found in the handcrafted, homespun quality of their collection, whether in the quilted pieces or the simple, almost homely, silhouettes. “It’s not so harsh,” Maureen says. “I like the warm feeling of it.” Monica, of course, agrees: “It just has more of a personality.”