NEW YORK — It's shortly before noon on a warm fall day in Manhattan's Garment District, and students from the Fashion Institute of Technology are rushing off to classes with portfolios in hand.
Two blocks away and 18 stories up, Brian Atwood is sitting in his apartment, which is meticulously decorated with classic photos of Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol and towers of architecture books. He is reflective, thinking about how far he's come since his own days on the campus.
"It's come full circle," said the designer, who launched his footwear career in 1996 at Versace.
Atwood, who left his latest high-profile gig at Bally earlier this year after his collections for the fashion house drew mixed reviews, is ready to make it all about him.
"It's a huge moment," he said. "It's been a lot of hard work, [but] everything I'm doing now is completely mine. It's definitely exciting to give all my energy [to my own brand]."
Atwood partnered with The Jones Group in late August to roll out contemporary line B Brian Atwood for fall '11, and he is determined to grow his eponymous collection into a global lifestyle enterprise.
Business is on track to be up more than twofold for 2010, and Atwood has been steadily building his retail roster, which now includes more than 100 doors.
Saks Fifth Avenue has increased its buy significantly over the past year and now carries about 20 styles.
"[Brian] has an incredible sense of color and materials, [and] there is always something new and exciting every season," said Tracy Margolies, VP and DMM of women's footwear at Saks Fifth Avenue.
With strong partnerships in place, the designer is ready to push the boundaries of the label, which racks up about $10 million in sales, according to industry insiders. Atwood is seriously considering branded retail, which could bow by the end of next year, and is eyeing new categories, especially ready-to-wear and handbags. Also on the wish list: men's shoes, jewelry and sunglasses.
Atwood also believes there is major potential in the contemporary segment, which has been a bright spot for many retailers. If all goes according to plan, the designer predicts the lower priced line, set to retail for $200 to $500, could eventually make up about half of his overall business.
The five-year partnership with Jones has afforded Atwood the ability to work with an industry powerhouse, and Jones will become a much bigger player in the designer space.
"[Our strategy is] to nurture design talent into highdemand, global branded businesses, [and] Brian is an ideal fit," said Richard Dickson, CEO of Jones' branded businesses.
While he's been attracting attention from big footwear players, Atwood has also continued to build his following in Hollywood, where he has always had a loyal fan base. "Brian's designs are a true reflection of who he is as a businessman and innovator: sexy, elegant, smart," said Kate Hudson.
There's no bigger Atwood fan than stylist and friend Rachel Zoe, who consistently names the designer's sleek Maniac platform pump as a must-have for the red carpet.
"[Brian] brings my sole fantasies to life again and again with innovation and major style," Zoe said. "Every girl wants to be in a pair of Atwood heels."
That's becoming even more of a reality as his star continues to rise.
"It's all been very organic in coming together in this amazing way," Atwood said. "All of the hard work is paying off."
FN: You've generated a lot of buzz with the Jones deal. Why was now the time to dive into the contemporary world?
BA: [My team] had discussed doing a less-expensive line four or five years ago, and I said no. The brand wasn't ready. Five years ago we were a baby. We weren't really in the marketplace in the way we needed to be, and putting [a lower-priced collection] out there then would have confused the consumer. But now, after nine years, we've really started to build something, and it just seemed right. It's a really perfect way to reach a broader audience. If we keep the same values as the main line, make it the best quality it can be and give it the same energy we put into the namesake line, why not? There are so many women out there [wanting our shoes]. Let's get them all in Brian Atwoods.
FN: What made Jones the right fit for the partnership?
BA: Their distribution channels and production capabilities are endless, and to see what they have done and still can do with Nine West, Boutique 9, Joan & David, Stuart Weitzman and [all their other brands] is astounding. Jones has a great team of really knowledgeable people, and the thing that impressed me a lot was the energy. Everyone was so excited and positive. You could feel something big was happening, and that was euphoric.
FN: How will B Brian Atwood be different from your main line?
BA: It will have certain elements that I stand for, whether it's color or fabrication, but it will be more East Village cool and a little less red-carpet.
FN: You spent nearly 15 years working at major fashion houses, and now you're designing for only your own name. How are you adjusting to the change?
BA: I only designed for myself for a quick year-and-a-half between Versace and Bally, and it's exciting to give it my full energy [and] creative thoughts, on everything from the leather to the lining. I've hired a team in Milan, [which] is flying here to meet me next week. It's a young, international group, and it's great to have them [on board] and inspired.
FN: Would you ever consider designing for another large fashion house again?
BA: No. It's now about building [Brian Atwood].
FN: What's the most fulfilling aspect of being in the footwear industry?
BA: Besides making women happy? Because that's my No. 1. Women and their shoes is such a magical and personal relationship, and for people to save their money and spend their income to buy my shoes is the biggest compliment I could receive. [As for the industry specifically], I love that it still feels [small]. It's such a huge industry, but I love that it almost feels like a home-run business. People will give you their opinions, and other shoe designers aren't afraid to talk about their successes. It's not that much of a back-stabbing industry, which is really a plus.
FN: What are some of the frustrating things?
BA: Deliveries, factories, production — all of that is always challenging, but it's something everyone is dealing with. Of course, [footwear is technically] more difficult [than ready-to-wear], with shoe [parts] coming from all different places. I can't just do it at a sewing machine. I need the structure, the heel, the upper and all the components. ... I source mainly from Italy and some from France. We're very local, and it's convenient that I'm in Milan and my factory is less than an hour from where I am. So if there's drama — and there always is — I can easily get there.
FN: How does your international lifestyle influence the way you design?
BA: It's always been very important to me to have that link to Europe, and Italy has been that link. You definitely get a different flair just being [there]. Being in New York is great because you see so many different things on the street, and then you go back to Europe and see a totally different aesthetic.
FN: Will the Jones deal help you expand your own line?
BA: This will certainly help plans for other divisions move along. We'll look into retail space, whether it's in the next year or the following year. We've spoken about doing a small online store [for the main line] with just our top [styles], like the Maniacs, and a very tight [selection of the] staples, and that could happen as early as February. I [don't want it to be] competitive with our retailers, but I see it as something a little special and done by us, like the Italian expression, "fatto in casa." I like that little term, like "made in the home."