Friday, May 02, 2008

Fashion Mayday

from the nytimes of 3/8/08 (but not the pic)
It’s free-agency season in American fashion.
Isaac Mizrahi, the everyman’s fashion oracle, is about to leave behind his wildly popular cheap-chic clothing collections at Target to be the creative director for Liz Claiborne, the stalwart shopping-mall label.
Dana Buchman, a longtime favorite of customers at upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, is decamping this fall to the budget-conscious Kohl’s.
And Tommy Hilfiger, a constant in department stores like Dillard’s and Bon-Ton for two decades, now says he will sell his clothes only at Macy’s.
Over the next year, an unusually large group of famous clothing designers, motivated by lucrative deals, plan to shift their retail allegiances, in many cases abandoning stores and customers who have supported them for years.
So like angry sports fans wounded by a the trade of a star player, consumers (and even stores) are left to wonder: What ever became of loyalty?
The sudden flurry of designer address changes — J. C. Penney, Gap, Old Navy and Wal-Mart have also recruited their own designers over the last six months — is likely to create jarring transitions for American consumers as they try to navigate the once-familiar aisles of their local clothing chains, wondering where to find Isaac, Dana and Tommy, among others.
“There will be a period of dislodgment and disenfranchisement,” said William L. McComb, chief executive of Liz Claiborne, whose efforts to revive flagging sales hinge upon his company’s aggressive wooing of Mr. Mizrahi from Target.
After Claiborne announced the move in January, Target responded by saying it would end its relationship with Mr. Mizrahi at the end of the year, leaving, for now, a void in its lineup.
The motivation behind these defections and poachings is equal parts economic and egocentric. Clothing manufacturers are responding to a seemingly insatiable appetite for fashion across every income bracket. They are also benefiting from a lively, and occasionally vindictive, competition between mass retailers (Wal-Mart and Kohl’s) and the traditional department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor) that remain after years of industry mergers.
When it comes to luring designer brands, it seems that popularly priced chains are suddenly on equal footing with their glossier rivals.
For decades, department stores like Saks had a virtual lock on designer clothing labels, until Mr. Mizrahi broke that barrier with his collection at Target in 2003, which, rather than burying his career, became an estimated $300-million-a-year success.
Once the stigma of crossing into mass-retail territory lifted, such high-low designer partnerships became commonplace, with Vera Wang selling a line at Kohl’s and blue-chip names like Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney creating lines for H&M.
All this activity has raised a bar for traditional retailers like Macy’s, which rarely had to fend off competition from below. Its 2005 merger with May Department Stores, which created the country’s largest department store company, was in part an effort to use size to wield more influence over designers.
The democratization of design forced Macy’s to claim exclusives it never before needed, and to punish designers who cut deals elsewhere. When Ms. Wang went to Kohl’s, Macy’s dropped her popular lingerie line. The chain cut orders from Liz Claiborne after the company offered a line called Liz & Co. to Penney.
“If the product is available in 50 different points of distribution in a five-mile driving radius, convenience becomes the No. 1 reason to buy a brand,” said Terry J. Lundgren, chief executive of Macy’s. “And so we lose.”
That’s why Macy’s, which has begun promoting its designer relationships in television ads, persuaded Mr. Hilfiger to drop his other partnerships, infuriating regional department store chains like Bon-Ton, Belk and Dillard’s that had promoted his brand.
“The stores we exited were very upset,” Mr. Hilfiger said. “I’m sure we’ll lose certain consumers in certain areas, but I’m sure the gain is much greater than the loss could potentially be.”
In recent months, the designer poaching has devolved into open warfare among retailers, leaving some battlefield casualties.
Only a year ago, Dana Buchman was designing a $6,950 leopard-patterned swing coat made, with real mink, for the affluent women who shopped for decades at high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
But as Liz Claiborne tried to reorganize its business because of declining sales from department stores like Macy’s, the company decided to close the Dana Buchman line and reinvent it as a bargain-conscious brand for Kohl’s, where no article of clothing is sold at full price, and most are under $100.
Ms. Buchman does not expect most of her customers will follow her there. Judith Galubchick, 60, a loyal Dana Buchman shopper, is worried that the Kohl’s line “will be lower-quality product” than what she buys at Ms. Buchman’s store off Madison Avenue in Manhattan. That location is expected to close March 26.
“It’s very sad for me,” Ms. Galubchick said, dressed head to toe, she proudly announced, in Ms. Buchman’s fashions.
“It’s traumatic,” Ms. Buchman said of losing customers. “Traumatic.” But, she added, “I am not stuck on one kind of retailer, or one kind of customer. It’s a big country and everyone wants fashion.”

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