NEW YORK — When Emanuel Ungaro began designing on his own in the mid-Sixties, the fashion establishment thought his mad mixes of prints were off the wall.
Today, his sits on top of a $250 million fashion empire, one of the few couturiers who still owns his house, with licenses for women’s lines, men’s wear, accessories and perfume, and boutiques and in-store shops around the world.
Ungaro was in town this week for the official opening Wednesday of his new shop, which was relocated to 792 Madison Avenue, just half a block south and across the street from the previous location. It is a slightly smaller space, but now it is a corner site with big windows, bathed in natural light from two sides.
He is also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the introduction of his collections in the U.S. Next year marks 30 years in couture, and 20 years since he launched his fragrance business, a license of Chanel Perfumes.
He characterizes his career as obsessive and full of risks.
In 1968, a year which he considers pivotal in his career as well as for fashion in general, Ungaro opened his Parallele boutique in Paris with his first rtw collection. It was then that he began mixing prints.
“I got a terrible reaction from the fashion community,” he recalled. “Everyone said I was crazy. But I continued. For me, it was a necessity. It was freedom.”
He called 1968 “a turning point,” illustrated by the need to translate the new feelings of young people into clothes.
“I wanted to be myself, with a brutal sense of creation, a new language and a new feeling. I can do that because I am my own boss, my maison is [funded by] my own money, and I can take the risks I want.”
He does not dwell on past collections.
“When a collection is finished, it is finished. You have to forget it and enter into another world,” he said. “Right now, I’m completely obsessed with spring ready-to-wear. I wake up in the middle of the night to write things down about the collection.
“You have to have the courage to take the risk, and the obsession, to open a new space of freedom,” he added.
The boutique’s opening party on Wednesday evening brought a crowd of 300 Ungarophiles, who agreed the new shop was superior to the old one.
“It was a great opportunity to get this corner space,” said Bonni Keller, who owns the boutique in a joint venture with Ungaro Paris. “This shop is like being in someone’s home. The old boutique was much more like a corridor.”
“We already have plans to expand,” Ungaro added.
Keller said she would expand if additional space becomes available.
The fête drew a sea of Ungaro’s vibrant prints as well as a slew of retailers, including Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive of Bloomingdale’s, Rose Marie Bravo, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Louise Evins, vice president and general merchandise manager of Henri Bendel, and Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus.
“We’re having a very good season with him,” Bravo said, adding that she doesn’t view the boutique as competition for Saks.
“In some ways I think it enhances the whole imagery,” she said.
“This is considered his best year,” said Keller, who has been associated with Ungaro for almost 20 years. “I cannot think of any other designer that has consistently performed and continues to flourish.”
Through franchise arrangements, Ungaro has six other U.S. boutiques, and one each in Toronto and Montreal. His collections are sold in specialty and department stores across the U.S.
Keller owns Ungaro boutiques in Palm Beach and Bal Harbour, Fla., and also owned the former Madison Ave. shop.
The new 1,550-square-foot shop, though smaller, actually allows more display space, Keller said. It has curved wardrobe cabinets of warm gray and black wood, a huge round mirror display unit for the fragrance and treatment collection, and undulating shelf units that echo the sensuous, feminine style of the clothes.
Four black leather chairs and end tables form an intimate conversation area in the center of the space, and elaborate displays of fresh flowers accent the room.
Ungaro’s rtw lines — Parallele and Solo Donna — accessories, fragrance and treatment products and men’s neckties are sold at the boutique. Keller projected sales of about $3 million for the first year, but noted that in the weeks since opening July 20, it has exceeded plan by about 15 to 20 percent, notable because the summer is traditionally slower than other times of the year. Keller said the new shop is expected to generate 10 to 15 percent more than the previous store.
Carlo Valerio, executive vice president of Ungaro Paris, said pre-fall sales and trunk shows have been strong in New York and Paris, and even in Italy, where the economic climate has been difficult this year.
In the U.S., women’s rtw accounted for 52 percent of Ungaro’s apparel business, excluding accessories and fragrance, in 1993. That was an increase of 19 percent over 1992 sales. Revenues for 1992 more than doubled from 1991 because of the introduction of Emanuel, the bridge line.
Worldwide volume, including men’s and women’s apparel and accessories, was $250 million last year, Valerio said.
The couture line bears the label Emanuel Ungaro, while women’s rtw is separated into three labels:
Emanuel Ungaro Parallele, the designer-priced line, accounts for 38 percent of women’s rtw. It is marketed worldwide via license with GFT, the Italian manufacturing giant.
Emanuel Ungaro Solo Donna, the diffusion line, accounts for another 19 percent, and is marketed by GFT everywhere except Japan, where Takashimaya controls distribution.
Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro, the bridge-priced line, is marketed by GFT USA and is sold only in North America. It generates the remaining 43 percent. Retailers consider it a major success.
Even after 30 years, Ungaro said each collection brings its own jitters.
“I am very surprised when I see a colleague, on the day before or the day of a collection, eating a full lunch in a restaurant,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it. I can’t even drink a glass of water.”
Ungaro’s training began as a child, when he apprenticed to his father, a tailor who emigrated from Italy to Aix-en-Provence, France, where Ungaro was born.
Ungaro said his father and the master designer Cristobal Balenciaga were the two greatest influences in his life, and both were men of great dignity. Ungaro worked with Balenciaga in Paris before starting his own house in 1965.
Interestingly, his two influential figures never saw his collections in Paris. His father, who remained in Aix-en-Provence, saw the collection only once, when it was brought to town.
“My father’s main concern was when I was going to come home to visit him,” Ungaro reflected. “It was only when his friends said they had seen my name in New York, or Japan, that he started to ask me about my business.”
When Ungaro wrote to Balenciaga to tell him he was going out on his own, the great couturier never acknowledged him, nor did he ever come to see the atelier, he said.
But Ungaro said it did not bother him, noting that he respected his mentor’s position as a master in the fashion world.
Ungaro calls Balenciaga “the most beautiful technician ever in the world,” and said, “not only was he the major influence on my life, but he was influencing the whole of the couture. The technical way Balenciaga did things was fascinating,” he said. “No one to this day knows how to make a sleeve fit like he did.”
Ungaro said he runs his house now like Balenciaga did — “always fitting, fitting, fitting, with rigor and discipline. Some young designers today sketch, and they tell someone else to make [the garment]. Like Balenciaga, I know the technique of making the garment. And knowing the technique is part of the job.”
American-born fashion, he said, is different from European fashion, but is “perfect” for its market.
European — specifically French — fashion is different because of the long traditions in France, and “the sophistication and expertise we have had for so many years, because we have had so many masters. I built my house on haute couture. That doesn’t happen here.
“America has more of a mass market,” he continued. “It has department stores, which we really don’t have in France. The tradition and needs of the American woman are different. They approach fashion in terms of day-to-day life. It must be comfortable and simple. American fashion is good for this country. Europeans are more elaborate.”
Reflecting on the current state of la mode, he said fashion needs some direction.
After “the nightmare of punk, grunge and funk,” Ungaro said he hopes fashion is headed back to “glamour, joy, sex, seduction, rationality, discipline and craftsmanship.”
“I am not creating to please myself,” he said. “I create to please women, to give them the necessity to have my clothes. When a woman tells me she ‘can’t live without this dress,’ I am happy, because I’ve touched the heart of that woman.”
“Never,” he declares. “There’s no reason for it. Only an idiot is really ever satisfied.”