NEW YORK — In many ways, Tocca is celebrating its 10th anniversary by going back to its roots.
The girly dress and sportswear house is planning to reissue its original sari dress, a runaway hit that put Tocca and its founding designer Marie-Anne Oudejans on the fashion map in 1994, with exclusive distribution at Stefani Greenfield’s Scoop stores in the New York area and in Miami beginning next month.
The project came about when Greenfield bumped into Tocca principals Edoardo Mantelli and Gordon Finkelstein recently at a baggage carousel at JFK International Airport here, and began to reminisce about the buzz that surrounded the label when it started.
“Tocca is all about the ultimate summer dresses,” Greenfield said. “And this expresses the quintessential femininity of summer.”
Although Scoop has not carried the collection for several years, Greenfield said she and many of her customers had fond memories of its breezy, colorful prints, India-inspired embroideries and frilly details, as well as the accessible prices. For example, the sari dresses begin at $150 retail.
There was a perception among retailers, however, that Tocca had been operating somewhat under the fashion-plate radar since closing its store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood several years ago after a series of high-profile designer departures in the late Nineties led Mantelli and Finkelstein to turn down the focus on the society page personalities working in the back room. To a great extent, Tocca had come to be defined in many minds by its iconic $38 scented candles — 180,000 of them were sold in 2003.
Oudejans, who won the Perry Ellis Award in 1995, parted ways with Mantelli in 1998, in the same week that Anne McNally abandoned her short-lived plans for a Tocca dress line and heiress Samantha Kluge walked away from Tocca’s beauty division. Alex White, who is now the fashion director of W, succeeded Oudejans briefly as creative director and, during that time, introduced designer Ellis Kruger, who has remained there but with a low profile.
“Marie-Anne got us started with the social press,” Mantelli said. “Now, it’s a real company and a real business.”
Finkelstein added, “That was essentially a launching pad for us. After that, we had to make clothing that fit and didn’t get returned. Ellis has been here close to five years and we have absolutely all the confidence in the world in him. But it’s never been about credit, it’s really been about the brand.”
As part of its 10-year celebration and in recognition of Kruger’s continuity, the company is beginning to promote his personality and his involvement in creating the prints and applications featured in the collection. Tocca, which has sales in the neighborhood of $15 million, is also beginning to scout out spots for a new retail location, as it looks to increase the profile of its fashion offerings.
Kruger, 38, has never been one to seek attention for himself, viewing the past five years as an opportunity to get to know the Tocca identity as much as to consider it his own.
“I’m not into the cult of the designer at all,” he said. “I never wanted it to be Ellis Kruger for Tocca. It had a legion of fans and a strong identity already. I just wanted to play with it.”
A native of Zimbabwe, Kruger grew up on a tobacco farm, but left at age 15 to live in Australia and became a naturalized citizen there. Through a visa program he was able to live for two years in London, where a friend introduced him to Katharine Hamnett, who gave Kruger a job and paid for his education at the London College of Fashion.
Kruger was inspired by fashion, but ended up focusing on art projects and was by hired by an eccentric older man to restore a chateau in France — a project that ended up lasting four years. He then moved to New York and landed a job with the art gallery-magazine Up & Co. and did odd jobs, freelancing for Daryl Kerrigan, dressing Lenny Kravitz for a concert tour and working on Woody Allen films.
Kruger is as eclectic as his background, known on occasion to turn up at events wearing a satin smoking robe or an old cardigan with the elbows worn through, and approaches the Tocca collection as an artist, taking inspiration from paint stores and a late Sixties sense of personal freedom, as he creates floral water colors that will ultimately become prints.
“My own style would be very much what Tocca is,” he said. “There is a certain nattiness I apply to myself. I love old school, Brooks Bros., handmade shoes, ultraluxe dad’s clothing. I love V-neck cashmere sweaters in strange colors, gaudy suits and strange pieces of vintage. I really try and make everything whimsical.”