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Penney's Banks On Hankins

Anthony Mark Hankins is spreading the word about his signature collection for J.C. Penney, a line that is aimed at black and Hispanic women.

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Byline: CAROL EMERT


WASHINGTON -- Anthony Mark Hankins, vice president and design director of Anthony Mark Hankins Ltd., is spreading the word about his signature collection for J.C. Penney, a line that is aimed at black and Hispanic women.


The 25-year-old Hankins is "putting a face on" Penney's, building loyalty to the company and to his label and drawing in millions of dollars from a consumer segment he feels has been "underserved."


"You need to get out of Macy's and get the hot stuff, get the new stuff, get the brother's stuff," an exuberant Hankins told a gathering of about 30 people at a recent black women's empowerment conference in suburban Washington.


"Make friends with your closet," he exhorted, pulling garments off a rack to show how pieces can work in different combinations -- with a hat for church, without a hat for work.


"Wear an ethnic-print jacket during the day and exchange it for a shiny gold vest after work," he said.


Hankins encouraged members of the audience to be realistic about their size and throw away all of the old, small clothes in their closets.


"You know you ain't gonna get back into that size 10," he admonished. "Now go and buy some of these pants with an elastic waist."


By the end of Hankins's half-hour presentation -- a wardrobe workshop -- the group had seen dozens of outfits built from his coordinated separates, dresses and suits.


"You can build an image if you follow a designer -- that's what people do with Calvin Klein," he advised them. "The only difference is that I'm not living over Central Park, I'm living in the 'hood."


"No you're not, Anthony," interjected his mother, who had come down from the family's hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., for the event.


Sales of Hankins's apparel hit more than $20 million at retail last year, and volume is expected to double in 1994. It comes from pants that retail for $38, jackets for $62, two-piece suits for $79, cotton sweaters for $34 and dresses from $69 to $89.


Marshall Beere, divisional vice president of women's sportswear at Penney's, said, "It's an updated fashion-forward line, and I think it appeals to all women who are interested in the newest colors and silhouettes. It's been quite successful for us and has shown nice growth over the last couple of years. We think it adds some fashion excitement to the rest of the products we offer."


He said he thinks the line has the potential to be in 500 of Penney's 600 major stores.
"Anthony's a very talented guy," said Beere. "He's got the ability to adapt to whatever fashion-forward looks are important."


Hankins, who studied at New York's Pratt Institute and the L'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, says he's perfectly happy designing for the mass market.


"The last thing people need is another Donna Karan, another Bill Blass," he said in an interview before the workshop. "I'm willing to come forward and say I'm proud to do a jacket for $62 and put my name on it."


His determination to clothe real people started at age seven, when he made his first suit, for his mother, from a Butterick pattern.


"It was awful," he said, covering his face with his hands at the memory. "It had lace on the sleeves, it was all crooked and the fabric was really cheap. But she wore it."


These days, Hankins's mother won't wear anything that doesn't have her son's name on it, he says. She provided a loyal cheering section at the workshop, murmuring, "That is nice, Anthony," as each new outfit appeared.


Hankins's fashions also appealed to others at the workshop, who swarmed him after the show. Hankins says he gets a lot of valuable feedback from shoppers, who tell him about their color preferences, fit problems and items they feel are missing from his collection.


He has used such information to create four lines -- misses', women's, petite and tall -- producing about 200 looks annually. His designs appear in four Penney's catalogs, including the African-American-oriented Fashion Influences. Currently, 324 stores carry at least one of his lines, up from 62 stores when the label was launched a year and a half ago.


Hankins points out that despite the moderate price points of his collections, he does not skimp on providing pockets, generous facing and interesting details such as special buttons. Most of his garments are made from synthetic fabrics such as polyacrylics and synthetic mixes that include rayon and cotton.


Designer B. Michael, who is best known as Oscar de la Renta's hat maker, also sells hats through Penney's that coordinate with Hankins's outfits.


In November, Hankins is shipping a modified collection to three of the five Penney's stores in Mexico. Skirts sold in Mexico will be shorter, blouses skimpier, denim apparel will be embellished and the ethnic patterns will be replaced by turquoise and fuchsia prints.


Hankins joined Penney's in September 1990 as a quality control inspector, learning production. In the summer of 1992, he presented a sportswear line to Penney's executives. They began producing it. Two months ago, Hankins resigned to become vice president and design director of his own company.


Now he is working for Penney's on a contract basis -- he still has an office at Penney's headquarters, as well as a studio in downtown Dallas -- and is supported by a controlling group of investors called Ramone Moya Ltd., Dallas.


Bruce Ackerman, a 38-year Penney's veteran who became Hankins's mentor when Ackerman was director of minority supplier development there, took early retirement from the company to become chief executive officer of Hankins's firm. And Hankins is now developing other projects, such as a young men's sportswear line.


The line, AMH Sport, will offer the colors, fashionable styling and interesting textures that young black men want but often cannot afford, said Hankins.


-- Fairchild News Service

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