View Slideshow

BERLIN — Strenesse Gabriele Strehle is riding a wave of growth in the American market.

For the spring 2005 season, the German contemporary fashion house expects to expand its U.S. retail distribution to 120 doors from 84. “We started showing the spring-summer collection in August, and we can see that there’s a big boom just around the corner,” commented Peter Kappler, director of marketing and international sales. “And we can deliver.”

Strenesse has not always been able to gracefully meet the demands of the American market, acknowledged both Kappler and Gerd Strehle, the company’s chief executive. After a false start in the Eighties, the Nordlingen, Germany-based company has been present in the American market via agents since 1994, when the collection of contemporary women’s designer sportswear was gently pushed into the limelight by Bergdorf Goodman.

“We had very good sell-through, but we didn’t really observe the market rules regarding service and delivery rhythms. In the end, we weren’t successful because we had no organization [in the U.S.],” Strehle said.

That’s changed. In 2000, the firm set up an American subsidiary, Strenesse USA, in New York. “We’re now working like Americans in the U.S. and have people that understand the rules when it comes to infrastructure and deliveries,” Kappler commented. “American retailers want earlier and more frequent deliveries. They need a permanent flow of merchandise. Germany doesn’t have this rhythm, but because of American demands, we’ve pushed up our timing.”

Strenesse has built its American business on a strong specialty store base, including Bergdorf Goodman; A’maree’s in Newport Beach, Calif.; People’s in Atlanta, Ga., Susan in San Francisco and Burlingame, Calif.; Tootsie’s in Houston, and Joseph’s in Memphis. New to the lineup for spring are Stanley Korshak in Dallas; Auer’s in Denver; Capital in Charlotte, N.C.; Daniels in Grand Rapids, Mich.; David Lawrence in Seattle, and the national luxury magazine-catalogue-Web site

America currently ranks fourth among Strenesse’s top markets after Germany (together with Switzerland and Austria), Japan and Italy. “But the biggest potential for the future is the U.S.,” Kappler said. Global sales to around 900 wholesale accounts in 36 countries have been placed at 225 million euros, or $275.6 million at current exchange rates, at retail, excluding licensing revenue. Sales for the current fiscal year, which ends May 31, 2005, are expected to grow between 5 and 10 percent.

This story first appeared in the September 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the U.S. isn’t the only market where Strenesse is growing. The company is currently preparing to open 20 shops in China in the next two years with a local partner, with the first two slated to bow in Beijing and Shanghai in January and February. Strenesse also is expanding strongly in eastern Europe and, in 2003, new stores and shop-in-shops opened in Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw.

“And the Middle East is very strong,” Kappler said. “Both markets [Eastern Europe and the Mideast] are becoming more refined, which makes it a great time for Strenesse.”

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, it is strengthening its profile in France. “We’re at Colette, we’re opening our first shop-in-shop in Galeries Lafayette and, in Milan, we’re in Corso Como. A lot is changing for us. We’re in a thunderstorm that’s being pushed on us from above,” Kappler said.

How to explain this change of weather? Designed by the notoriously shy designer Gabriele Strehle, Strenesse Gabriele Strehle is a hip yet realistic collection one insider described as “trim and slim fashion for a downtown girl who works uptown.”

“The product is first of all not mainstream,” Kappler said. “And we’re not a megabrand. Women seem to be searching for something else today, something more unique. And now we’re getting the payoff, because we’re seen as a modern alternative.”

On the runway, Strenesse Gabriele Strehle has a decidedly waif-like appeal, a size 2 aesthetic that rankled some midsized industry professionals when it was previewed at CPD in Düsseldorf in August. “When you do a show today of fashion for the young-thinking woman, the image is string-bean thin,” Gerd Strehle remarked at the time. “That’s the ideal, whether you find it good or not. The top models starve themselves.

“But our size 4 is the same as it was 10 years ago, and 38 or 8 remains the key size. The cut looks slim and body-conscious, and our woman, no matter what size, wants to feel her clothing on her body. That’s what makes Strenesse different,” he stated.

Kappler added, “We’re not a skinny girl line. But our woman, regardless of where she is in the world, is body-conscious.”

At home in Germany, where the economic and retail climate remains cloudy at best, Strenesse Gabriele Strehle also is seeing strong demand. “At the moment, things are incredible. Sell-through has been extremely good for the last half year, and suddenly, we’re back,” Gerd Strehle reported. “It’s the consumer who’s taking things into her own hands. She’s tired of all the negative news in the newspapers or in politics and wants to make her life positive. She wants to have a bit of fun again.”

He said the price-cutting tactics that have affected all levels of the German market are now “getting nowhere. The consumer is recognizing that, although she has a lot in her wardrobe, having bought four or five items for the price of one, she has nothing she can take pleasure in. And she wants that pleasure again.”

Strehle also regards the rise of the vertical chains in Germany with equanimity. “The Spanish are arriving in torrents, but they’re bringing youth face-to-face with fashion that they can buy. Shopping is becoming a leisure activity, a hobby and these are our future customers. That’s the positive side,” he said, “when we make sure we’re there for them and look young enough.”