Just as things were winding down before Christmas, Derek Lam got a call from Laura Bush’s office. The First Lady wanted to drop by Lam’s showroom with her 23-year-old twin daughters to meet the designer and pick an inaugural outfit for Barbara, who had seen his work on Style.com and in Vogue.
“I wasn’t sure we could make it fast enough to do it justice,” Lam said, recalling his initial reaction to the White House phone call. “I thought, regardless of what my politics are, it would be impolite to anybody who expresses interest in my work to say, ‘I won’t try.’ My biggest concern was that she was warm enough…making sure she didn’t have any wardrobe malfunctions during the inauguration.”
At the inauguration, Barbara Bush wore Lam’s pale yellow tie-neck blouse with an ivory wool bias-seamed skirt, and pale blue double-faced cashmere trench. The designer said Bush’s inaugural choice has given a boost to his list of retail appointments during fashion week, and it has garnered him much press, particularly from news outlets abroad.
The timing couldn’t be better. Lam’s fall collection, to be presented at the Milk Studios on Friday, will be his fifth, and one that marks a new chapter in the 38-year-old designer’s career. Lam, who sells to stores such as Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, just signed a distribution deal with Milan-based L.A. Distribuzione with hopes to build his collection in markets like Germany, Italy, France, Japan and other parts of Asia. He also has plans to launch a capsule handbag collection for resort.
“We realized Derek is not just designing for an American customer but a global customer,” Jan-Hendrik Schlottmann, the company’s chief executive officer and Lam’s companion, said. “We had interest from European and Asian stores. To service them better, we thought it was necessary to have a presence in Europe and a second sample line.”
A Chinese-American who speaks fluent Mandarin, Lam has particular potential in China, which so far hasn’t produced an internationally acclaimed cadre of homegrown designers. Lam grew up in San Francisco and moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design. He worked at Michael Kors’ signature and bridge collections for a total of eight years, and had a two-year stint in Hong Kong at moderately priced retail chain G2000.
“It was clothing at very good prices, a lot of volume, weekly reports about what sells and what doesn’t sell, and what the customer is responding to, which was a great learning experience,” Lam said of G2000. “Working with Chinese factories to upgrade the quality of what fashion means in terms of constructions, I saw another side of how clothing is designed, developed and sold.”
Today, Lam employs eight people in his Meatpacking District studio. He produces 95 percent of his collection in Cremona, Italy, in a factory the designer became familiar with at Michael Kors.
“It’s one thing to say you make beautiful samples. It’s another to say, ‘I am happy with what my name is on once it’s in the store, the quality, the construction and the make,’” Lam said. “The customer is so intelligent. She has so many choices. Clothing at designer prices is expensive. She wants fashion, she wants quality, she wants the integrity of a label.”
Last year, Lam reached a wholesale volume of $1.4 million. Schlottmann said the business doubled each year since its launch, and given that momentum, he predicts sales to rise to $3.5 million this year.
“People ask me if I regret not starting this earlier, and I say, no, it was the right time,” offered Lam, who designed the first collection under his own name at 36. “Of course, when I look at Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler [who are in their 20s], it’s wonderful. They say, ‘What people don’t know can’t hurt them.’ Sometimes you become too cautious if you know too much and you don’t take the leap of faith, because you know the pitfalls of fashion. For them, it’s wonderful because they look at things from an obviously different point of view.”
Besides First Daughter Barbara Bush, Lam’s designs have graced the likes of Nicole Kidman, Queen Rania of Jordan, Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, Hilary Swank, Natalie Portman and Marisa Tomei.
“Derek makes a unique mark on fashion because he is a fine tailor and has a knack for designing a curvy, feminine silhouette that is elegant yet fresh,” Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel for Nordstrom, said. “He carves his own niche by using unexpected hues and patterns, and he knows how to drape, which is a special talent. He also has a fabulous eye for couture-quality fabrics with none of the grandiosity.”
Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys, echoed the sentiment. “From the get-go, Derek was able to capture his fit,” she said. “You get to the fitting room and understand. The customer loves the fit, and he has such admiration for quality.”
For fall, Lam was trying to imagine a seasonless wardrobe, with layers of light clothes that can be worn in cooler as well as warmer climates. In the future, he would like to explore more ecologically sound fabrics. Lam said he was deeply impressed by a recent trip to an eco-resort in Mexico, and he created a design for the Verdopolis project, for which Earth Pledge and Barneys asked more than 30 designers to create an eco-friendly piece of clothing. The Verdopolis fashion show is this Tuesday.
“I would love to go back and investigate some of the fabrics,” Lam said. “A lot of mills showed me bamboo. It’s a fast-growing plant that grows naturally and doesn’t destroy the soil. I didn’t get it. I said, ‘I am used to silks, give me the silks.’ Now I’d like to see if it can be developed to make these products really work in the luxury market.”