WWD: What is the state of American fashion today?
AMY SMILOVIC: People feel that they’re in this rat race, on this gerbil wheel we’ve all built for ourselves. You could characterize American fashion as dominated by brands that are completely faceless and driven by venture capitalists or private equity, or it’s driven by struggling brands who are trying to figure out: “I’m 22, I just graduated and I’ve been sold this idea that you, too, can start a line tomorrow.” I’m not in either of those camps. I’m not burdened by the investors checking in on me, and I hate that these 21-year-olds are sold this bill of goods, that they should open a collection tomorrow. I’m a big believer in going out and getting lots of life experience and applying that to opening a business.
WWD: What are the strengths of American fashion?
AS: Typically, Americans would be described as optimistic. My European friends are always saying, ‘it’s always sunny in America; you guys always have this rosy outlook.” You never see runway shows that are too angry. As tough as it’s been the last two years, that general optimism comes through. Right now, these European brands — it seems like they’re eating everyone’s lunch with a lot of creative greatness.
WWD: The weaknesses?
AS: We sell globally, and I’m still shocked that American department stores come in and the buyers are like, ‘I buy everything that’s $395 to $795,’ and another buyer buys $795 to $1,500, and someone else is $1,500 and above. No customer walks into a store and says they’re $795. A customer comes in and says, “I’m looking for a dress. I’m kind of shy and I want it to be a little higher neckline and clean.” They describe themselves in attributes, then they get to price. [Outside the U.S.], whether it’s a new e-commerce site or a department store or a store in China, they come in and say, “Hi, I’m the modernist buyer. I buy everything that’s clean and modern, and I know that customer inside and out.” They don’t come with a mathematical, overly merchandised approach. You see it’s starting to change in the U.S. Intermix has got this incredible team in place now, and they’re buying through passion and what they love. You can feel it all the way down to their store staff…[Still] it’s more exciting overseas right now. It just is.
WWD: Anything else?
AS: As a woman in this industry, I find this is where America is so behind what has happened internationally. When you look at Stella, Clare Waight Keller, Phoebe, Maria Grazia, Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé — the number of high-profile women that get so much respect. They’re really championed. In America, it’s Philip, Alex, Narciso, Prabal, Thakoon, Derek Lam, Altuzarra. What do you have to do as a female designer in America? Look at the winners of the CFDA. Seven out of the last 10 years have gone to men, and when it did go to women, two were to The Row and one to Rodarte. What’s the criteria for passing through at the CFDA? Personally, for me, this is where social media has opened up so many opportunities. There are no gatekeepers at magazines to go through to be validated. I don’t need to be endorsed by a magazine to have a really thriving business among women consumers around the world. The female thing blows my mind here. Why are 90 percent of the graduates of Parsons female, and why did I name mostly male designers who have been recognized by the CFDA? It’s crazy, the disproportion there. You can argue that a lot of these female designers are laughing all the way to the bank. If you look at who’s selling on the retail floor, it’s female designers at the advanced and contemporary level. They’ve been relegated to the contemporary space…Advanced young designer — American department stores don’t really have that as a category. In Europe and Asia, there’s more of a line of demarcation.”
WWD: Is the international fashion community biased against American fashion?
AS: When you have brands whose fundamental structure is to be modern and new, Europe is like, “yes, that’s interesting to me,” whether it’s Tibi, Proenza Schouler, Joseph, Alexander Wang.…The bulk of American brands are, “We studied some trend reports, it’s about these seven colors; a bohemian top in nine variations.’ When those brands show up and knock on the store doors, they’re like, “We have Joseph, or we have Isabel Marant. If it’s going to be formula, why would we take you on?” So, yes, they’re biased against the brands that are formulaic; so is America. When you are a true brand offering new content and new ways of thinking each delivery, I don’t find any bias internationally.
WWD: Do American brands do enough together to strengthen the industry?
AS: I’m not sure what designers are supposed to be doing together. I was in advertising and I worked for American Express. You didn’t have Visa, American Express and Mastercard saying, “we really ought to get together.” That’s not realistic. What is realistic — cross-functionality, some designers getting together with some department stores, some specialty stores, e-commerce players, an influencer — that dialogue I would love to hear. I don’t see Alexander Wang and me sitting down and saying, “what should we do?”
WWD: Are you pleased with the current organization of the various New York Fashion Weeks?
AS: Right now it works for me. I do it on my own.
WWD: What do you think of the June Fashion Week idea?
AS: That is not of interest to me right now. I’ll never say never in this industry.
WWD: The takeaway from the CFDA’s Boston Consulting study was that when it come to shows, each brand should do what it sees as best for itself in terms of timing, etc. Thoughts?
AS: As a business owner who watches every dollar, [the CFDA study] is probably not where I would have spent my dollars. I think you have to have a lot of mutual respect for everyone’s timelines. When everyone is out running around, these buyers cannot be on this ridiculous Ferris wheel. To me, this needs to be driven by consideration of the buyers’ schedules. They’ll never be there with open arms and ready with a checkbook to write if they’re completely worn out.
Last fashion week, the comment I heard from the buyers and influencers was that the schedule had lightened up, and they felt they could breathe for the first time. That’s very positive.
I hope fashion doesn’t implode. As much as people like to bash fashion shows, I love doing fashion shows. It forces your creative vision to come together, and you get to tell your story. Social media and e-commerce make things live on. Now, a fashion show that happened in February — you’re still feeding on it. It goes up on your web site. Things have so much more longevity than they ever did before.