Monday, March 10, 2003

Designers go downscale

Goal: Sell fashions in mass-market retail chains

By Anne D'Innocenzio
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - As chief designer and president for the trendy label Bisou Bisou, Michele Bohbot was used to creating clothing in sizes no larger than 10 and selling to upscale department stores like Bloomingdale's. Those days are gone. The 13-year-old Los Angeles-based company, whose profits were hurt by department stores' ongoing problems, decided to close all 500 of its upscale store accounts, and in February started selling a line that goes for half the price at J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

Bohbot is now designing garments up to size 16 and throwing fashion shows in the gritty Bronx, not the tony Upper East Side.

"It was a tough decision, but I have the opportunity to dress more people," said Bohbot, whose sportswear and accessories line is expected to generate $200 million this year at retail. That compares to only $80 million in sales last year from the company's wholesale and retail operation.

And Bisou Bisou believes it could eventually be a $1 billion business.

A growing number of high-end designers are heading to mass-market chains in search of big financial gains. While some are abandoning their upscale accounts, others like Cynthia Rowley, Isaac Mizrahi and maternity designer Liz Lange hope to achieve success in both tiers.

"People eat foie grass and then macaroni and cheese the next second," said Mizrahi, who's creating an affordable clothing and accessories line for Target, to be stores in August. That's his first major foray into the apparel business since 1998, when his financier, Chanel Inc., stopped funding his company.

Meanwhile, he wants to bolster his small made-to-order designer business, and wants to resurrect his licensed business in shoes and other fashion categories at high-end stores.

Target was the first mass chain to show how profitable teaming up with a designer could be. Two years ago, it signed a deal with Mossimo Giannulli, whose accessories and clothing collection generated nearly $1 billion in sales in 2002, according to the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company.

Target later cut one-season deals with such names as interior designer Philippe Starck and Todd Oldham, both of whom created a line of home accessories.

In January, Liz Lange unveiled a less expensive apparel line for mothers-to-be at Target, while Cynthia Rowley and her business partner Ilene Rosenzweig launched a bedding, bath and intimate apparel line collection under the label Swell at Target.

Chains like Penney and Sears, Roebuck and Co., eager to woo a more fashion-conscious consumer, are trying to emulate Target's success, analysts said.

Penney spokesman Tim Lyons declined to divulge details of the retailer's partnership with Bisou Bisou, only saying it is a licensing deal. Sears spokeswoman Lee Antonia said: "We're looking at designers where it makes sense."

More partnerships are expected, said Jeff Cohen, co-chairman of Earthbound LLC, who put together the deal between Mizrahi and Target. He's working with three other high-end designers for similar deals with other mass chains, he said.

This is all great news for customers like Sherlon Curry, who was recently at a Bisou Bisou fashion show at the Penney's Bronx location.

"I don't often shop here for clothing. The styles at Penney's cater to an older crowd," said the 35-year-old Bronx resident. "This will keep me coming back."

But while consumers are benefiting, some experts worry about the effect the trend will have on the overall fashion industry.

"Designers are chasing the consumers' bucks," said John Champion, vice president at Kurt Salmon, a retail consulting company. "There is some risk that it homogenizes fashion."

He added, "And it's one more challenge for the department store. They are being compromised."

Some believe designers who try to sell to both high and low end stores run the risk of losing their cachet, but designers don't see it that way.

"The world has changed," said Lange, who sells her upscale collection through her own stores, a Web site, catalog and a few specialty stores. She notes that many consumers shop at both discount and high end stores. In fact, she said she wants to encourage her own customers to buy T-shirts at Target and buy their work wear from the upscale line.

For designers, creating a line for the mass chains offers fewer headaches than selling to department stores that have become more demanding amid the difficult environment.

These designers can also capitalize on the national merchant's big advertising budgets.

"There is no department store pressure, no production pressure," said Marc Bohbot, chairman, CEO and husband of Michele Bohbot. The company closed its production facilities and now only keeps a design facility in Los Angeles.

Bisou Bisou said it is able to keep the quality high and the price low because of Penney's ability to buy fabric in large quantities. The fashions, which sell from $18 to $70, are also promoted in Penny's catalogs and on its Web site.

"It is empowering the brand," Bohbot said.

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