Los Angeles designer Allen Schwartz made his multimillion dollar fashion mark in the early 2000s by being able to turn around interpretations of red carpet gowns for the mass market in a matter of weeks.
“I was really the first social media star,” he said, referring to the massive amounts of press he got for his ABS label the morning after the Oscars, when he’d reveal his dress picks.
For nearly 40 years, he has ridden the wave of California contemporary — launching ABS in 1982; finding success with his dress business in department stores; licensing other categories, including denim, plus sizes and men’s wear, and in 2017 pivoting to advanced contemporary with Allen Schwartz, a brand targeting specialty boutiques.
Reading the trends once again, for spring 2020, he’s stepping into the sustainability conversation, with the brand’s first upcycled collection, featuring matte and crepe satin tailoring made from a polyester repurposed from recycled plastic bottles, and Nineties throwback floral dresses from 100 percent recycled poly chiffon. The brand is also working with recycled rayon and vegan leather, and has switched to packaging made from 100 percent post-consumer waste.
It is designed by creative director Bianca Bernal, the Glassell Park hipster to Schwartz’s West Side garmento. Styles include a fuchsia satin crepe blazer with bracelet sleeves over matching trousers, pussy bow blouses and bra-top dresses reflecting a new dressed-up mood. “All this stuff is coming back; we’re using words like ‘trousers,’ which we haven’t used in years,” said Schwartz during the Brand Assembly trade show, dressed in Fear of God plaid pants, a Gucci sweater and sneakers.
Bernal has been working with Schwartz for eight years, first at ABS heading up the day dress division. (There are currently seven different licensed categories under the ABS brand umbrella, but Schwartz has no involvement in the operations.) It was her idea to incorporate sustainable fabrics into the new Allen Schwartz collection.
“Our fabric mills started developing recycled, regenerated fabrics. And they feel the same, so there is no reason not to use it. If we can do better, why not do better?” said Bernal, wearing the brand’s Carmen satin robe coat.
“I became more conscious of it because, let’s face it, this is a business of waste,” added Schwartz, admitting that he is still learning about sustainability.
During their first L.A. market last week, the brand opened 12 new accounts, bringing the list of U.S. retailers to 39, and international to 13. The spring collection, $190 to $600, begins shipping mid- to late February.
One of the reasons Schwartz has been able to be nimble over the years is that he’s always manufactured in L.A., and he’s happy to hold forth on why that’s helping him weather the storm now, too, even if his volumes are a fraction of what they used to be: “Business has been so atrocious that a lot of people aren’t around. We’re very conscious about being very conservative. This way, when you’re stuck, maybe you are stuck with 15 pieces…”
“Instead of thousands, which create this off-price market where everything loses its value,” Bernal finished his thought. “That’s why your TJ’s, Ross and Nordstrom Rack are breaking the bank — off of the sloppiness of the manufacturers,” Schwartz continued. “Hope is not a strategy.”
At 70, Schwartz still loves fashion. He arrives at work at 7 a.m. “He’s always the first one there,” lamented Bernal. “And he’s always shopping.”
He likes to leave early to check out the latest boutiques.
“I like the business, I’m an early bird, it’s who I am and what I do,” Schwartz shrugged. “The fashion business keeps you aware. I don’t want to wake up and think because I’m 70, I’m not with it.”
He’s happy to pontificate about why he thinks department stores, once his bread and butter, are in trouble. “The department store almost singlehandedly ruined this business, they can’t sell fashion, they get taken in by brands,” he said. “In the last four or five years, all they did was hurt me. A store I shipped $1.8 million gave me back $750,000 plus swaps.”
And yet, he’s still hopeful. “You have to be triple sharp, you have to change with the times. As long as we put out classic merch in sustainable fabrics with a little bit of a twist, we should be OK.”
“I wasn’t around when Allen made a huge volume. He had such a huge business,” added Bernal. “But the industry has changed. He is aware of that. The way success looks now is different. We are successful because we are still around and we can do what we like to do with integrity.”