Designers Staying Flexible in Austere Times

Given the global financial crisis and consumer anxiety, ready-to-wear designers obviously are proceeding with caution into the new year.

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Going into the new year, Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said retailers and manufacturers need to forget the beat-last-year mentality.

“We’ve adjusted our overhead, our inventories, our sales expenses and so many other things that we don’t want to look at the past to adjust the future,” Konheim said. “Basically, our entire plan is what we see going forward.”

The company is doing away with such “fluff” as making up a few signature gowns for stylists to show to their red-carpet clients for big award shows. Adhering to the adage that “80 percent of the business is done from 20 percent of the line,” there will be a greater emphasis on editing the collection and resisting the temptation to develop items solely for potential editorial coverage, Konheim said.

Designer Nicole Miller will be making more in-store appearances, which generate about $45,000 in wholesale volume each appearance “even in the worst of times,” he said. Those trips will be financed with more dollars that had been earmarked for advertising, Konheim said. In addition, the company has hired merchandising specialists who will visit stores to straighten up stock and color coordinate collections.

“One of the shortcomings of stores cutting back on staff is the sales floors are liable to look messy,” Konheim said.

Once Zero + Maria Cornejo opens a new store and atelier on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, the company plans to explore other retail opportunities, according to Marysia Woroniecka, Cornejo’s business partner.

“We are going to focus even more on our strengths,” Woroniecka said. “We offer a very distinct perspective on what a contemporary, creative, professional woman looks like. We are a designer collection at a lower price point than most and we are finding that, with both our wholesale and retail clients, this is a distinct advantage.”

The label’s wholesale business increased about 40 percent and its retail volume climbed 10 percent compared with the previous year, Woroniecka said. By keeping production predominantly in New York, the company can maintain tight quality control.

“Without seeming overconfident, we honestly feel that we are uniquely well positioned to thrive in this economic environment,” she said. “We plan to stick to our guns and just do better than what we always do.”

While the plan is, for the most part, to focus on existing categories, Zero + Maria Cornejo added a pre-fall collection for the first time this year. A small swimwear group is in the works for spring 2010.

Lela Rose also plans to offer retailers sharp prices for her signature collection, “merchandise with a lot of value for the money and a very well-edited collection to help with buyers’ conservative budgets,” she said. “We are offering more styles at the opening price point to the designer market, so that the overall collection averages out about 10 percent less than 2008.”
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