WWD: Please sum up the state of American fashion as you see it?
Alex Bolen: I think it would be awfully presumptuous of me to sum up the state of American fashion. I have one point of view, which is the point of view from our company and that’s a view as a manufacturer, as a retailer, as a designer.
I think that the term “American fashion” is perhaps a bit of an anachronism, one that used to mean some things design-wise. I think American companies were known for certain things, sportswear, whatever — and everybody’s doing everything now. And I don’t say that with any sort of sense of regret. I think it’s an evolution. So the idea of American fashion is a little more amorphous.
Now, New York-based fashion companies, that’s something else. Los Angeles-based fashion companies may have some different opinions on the matter. But I think that we as a group of manufacturers in New York could do a better job of looking out for our common interests.
I am not one who is particularly in favor of a group thing. I don’t think that solutions are one-size-fits-all, and I think that everybody has to, I wouldn’t say fend for themselves, but everybody has to figure out what’s best for them. I think that applies generally to how we conduct our businesses.
Having said that, there are things that I think we as a group could be doing better in terms of common interests. For our company, anyway, issues like immigration and trade have forever been problems. They feel particularly problematic right now as businesses become more global.
I have tremendous problems recruiting people, especially on the design side. We think of ourselves as a design-led company. I’ve recently been looking for people in our sample rooms, leadership roles in our atelier. Those folks are difficult to find in New York. They’re less difficult to find in Europe, but to get them from Europe to the U.S. is incredibly difficult. Our visa programs are massively outdated.
I can’t get people here because H1B visas are taken up by the likes of Microsoft and IBM, within a nanosecond of those visas becoming available. For me to get a qualified premiere for our sample rooms is incredibly difficult. I can find them, but to get them here is tough.
Likewise, we’ve been searching for somebody on the creative side for embroideries. Those folks, by and large, who’ve demonstrated success for companies that make clothes the way we do, they’re in Europe, they’re not in New York, and getting them here is a problem. I would love to find ways to reform that immigration in a way that we could get more talented people easily in New York. So that’s number one.
WWD: That speaks to the ability to do luxury in the U.S. Is the industry here set up for luxury?
A.B.: I’m a big believer that the market speaks. So there’s supply and demand. Certainly, there is less supply of the sorts of creative services that we want to consume here in the U.S. It hasn’t been that way forever.
I recently acquired some clothes for our archive, clothes made by Oscar in the late Sixties. The embroideries that were done on Seventh Avenue were as good as any that are coming out of Europe right now. So this manufacturing base existed, but things change.
I don’t say that we need to go back to that. I think that two really big issues — immigration and trade — are ways that New York-based fashion companies can try to make a level playing field in terms of creative talent and in terms of ways to sell our goods to customers, not just in the U.S. but overseas, in ways that are fair for all parties involved, if I’m not deeply into the land of platitudes there.
The second issue I’m alluding to is one of trade. We’re an odd duck because we manufacture about half of our stuff here in the U.S. and half of it in Italy. So we face the issues both as an importer and an exporter, both of talent and of goods. It’s difficult both ways.
Trade over time — it’s death by a thousand cuts. Many, many things have happened. And so to unwind that knot of issues is complicated. I do wish that we, as New York-based, American-based fashion companies were fighting to try to level the playing field for talent and for an ability to market our wares globally.
WWD: Does the CFDA do enough to address these issues?
A.B.: No one from the CFDA has been in touch with me recently about asking me to help them with something or offering up something. There’s just no contact. So I literally don’t know what they do. I read things in the paper, and I don’t mean to minimize their activities on behalf of promoting younger designers. I think that’s important.
But the issues that we’re talking about, immigration and trade, could be well taken up by that sort of an organization. The issues that face people like Monse, that Laura and Fernando face, and the issues that Oscar de la Renta faces, are different but they’re not totally different. And we could really work together.
WWD: Your thoughts on NYFW?
A.B.: We have had no issues whatsoever attracting people to our showroom after our fashion show. So I cannot say that New York Fashion Week is not working for us. I do think it could work better. I do think that there are ways that people who are not in our position could make their shows more accessible to people. There seem to be some organizational issues. But those don’t really impact us.