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As a nearly 20 year Fashion Industry Vet, I've made TheFE my place to cover and discuss everything fashionable from books, to designer ready-to-wear to couture. All aspects of a fashionable lifestyle are included. BIG NEWS: I'VE MOVED TheFE TO WORDPRESS to take advantage of their superior publishing platform. See you there!!


Friday, October 29, 2010

Fashion V. Clothes: Post #5: The Branding Game

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If you are a dyed in the wool fashionista, fashion is your religion. As such, you must abide by the fashion commandments. Perhaps the most important fashion commandment is: “Thou Shalt Not Over-License”. The danger that comes from over licensing is that it devalues fashion, whether it be RTW, belts, bags, and shoes and turns them into mere clothes and junky accessories.

The most glaring and well-known example of a fashion designer guilty of defying this commandment is Pierre Cardin, the subject of this column. [I’ll save Halston and the J.C. Penney debacle for another day].
I hadn’t though much about Pierre Cardin since High School, when one of my favorite pieces of jewelry was a gold plated “Pierre Cardin” necklace. Back then, I didn’t know much about M. Cardin other than: he was French, one could buy designer items from him at Bloomingdales’, and it was cheaper than the Gucci bag and LV monogram bags I lusted after.
Cardin products were so available, and even then, in the back of my mind as the sales clerk rang the register for that necklace, I wondered, ‘Is this really a designer item? Shouldn’t it be harder for me to get this?’ The supply and demand aspect of making an item exclusive fashion [or just clothes] is a difficult tight rope for designers to walk when they’re seeking to brand themselves.
M. Cardin will forever be remembered as the man who opened-up the Pandora’s box of branding. His empire included everything from haute couture to sardines, and boy, were they ever available! You could purchase Cardin designs anywhere and everywhere, from the Midwest to the Far East. In 2000, his empire was estimated to be worth$4.97billion and he had 190,000 people working in 840 factories. The amount of money his brand generated is mind-boggling. The obvious lure to designers to go the brand extension route is the huge amount of money branding oneself can generate. But then there’s that matter of exclusivity. As a designer, you need to ask yourself a few questions. 1. Am I over-extending myself to the point that I’m no longer creating fashion?' 2.Have I lowered my standards to the point that I'm just cranking out mediocre products with my label slapped on it that will only sell to gullible duty free shoppers who will buy it as long as there's a designer label slapped on it?
3. Is this how I really want to be perceived?
As a consumer, when shopping for say, a bottle of olive oil, I have to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to buy a bottle of olive oil because it has “Pierre Cardin” scrawled across it rather than a bottle of Sclafani or Bertolli?’ For that matter, last weekend I passed on a bottle of “Christian Audigier Vodka”,
even though it was on sale for $25 in favor of the tried and true Absolut. Also, what business does a fashion designer [or Donald Trump for that matter] have “designing” a consumer staple other than to make a buck? It’s not the kind of thing that earns you respect in the fashion business, nor does it have anything to do with fashion. I can’t imaging that fashion designers such as Duckie Brown will be coming out with a “Duckie Brown balsamic vinegar” anytime soon.
Availability kills the notion of exclusivity. Even back in the late seventies, I wondered why it was so easy to pick up a piece of designer – anything. Back then; the word “designer” really did connote exclusivity. The New York Gucci store closed its doors during the office lunch hour, because they didn’t want secretaries and sales assistants coming in to buy. The Ladies of leisure were actually lunching at that time, and had the rest of the day until cocktails to shop.

This past season, when Tom Ford tried to bring that concept back, I gave him a mental high-five. There’s a fly in the ointment though. While I love the idea of fashion being exclusive, I don’t love the idea of being excluded from the party. As I jokingly said to PR Paul Wilmot a few weeks after Tom’s show, “I did not make the list, nor did I expect to, but I sure wanted to be on it.”
Taking it beyond fashion for just a moment, Groucho Marx had a point in his infamous remark, “I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. ”
While I could buy Pierre Cardin – just about anything – I don’t want to, because so can anyone else. A logo should mean something. A Birkin bag still holds that allure of exclusivity because you just don’t see a lot of them unless you happen to be walking on Fifth Avenue, up by Bergdorf’s.

“Logomania” put a big dent in designer exclusivity.
Logomania was that horrible moment circa 2002 that was dubbed thusly because of the inordinate number of logos consumers were encouraged to wear. The mantra was “the more, the better!”
Logomania represented the total opposite of what Mr. Ford was trying to achieve with his hyper-exclusive presentation. It was as if designers opened the door to what was once a very private club and invited anyone and everyone who could afford to pay the door fee inside. On the darker side, it also generated a huge wave of designer knock-offs. You’d be on the #6 subway going downtown, and every other woman riding was wearing something with a GG or LV or CC emblazoned on it.
I recall flipping through the pages of Vogue, aghast at this reigning trend. It looked “common” as the British so disdainfully put it. I continued to cringe as that particular fashion week, when fashionistas proudly donned designer logos on every square inch of their bodies. All those logos devalued the brand, what’s exclusive if everyone’s wearing it? The most heinous example was a long Louis Vuitton logoed coat. While I can’t recall who wore it, I sure remember the coat – ugh. It was Louis Vuitton but I couldn’t image a fashion icon who wore LV, such as Audrey or Jackie wearing this piece, not even on Halloween.

This is not to say that tasteful branding is not possible. Designers such as Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren have proven that theory out. Mr. Blass was the first to successfully put some “class” into branding. A few years later, Mr. Lauren started his empire, which is probably now the biggest fashion branding success story ever. [Mr. Lauren deserves an article all of his own, which I’ll be tackling later, after a visit to his newest NYC store.]
Mr. Blass “had it all”, and was responsible for helping lead the way for others such as Ralph and Tommy [Hilfiger] to create their multi-billion dollar empires built on “the world of [Tommy, Ralph]. A notable exception to outside logos “working” was Ralph’s RRL line. Somehow, wearing RRL to the gym was not…. Embarrassing, nor did he lose his fellow CFDA members’ respect for doing RRL.

Bill Blass had his fellow designers’ respect because he dressed fashion and society’s elite such as Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Harriman, and Happy Rockefeller.

His Bill Blass Collection designs
retailed in all the best stores: Bonwit Teller, Lord and Taylor, and Neiman-Marcus and he made money – a lot of it. Unlike M. Cardin, though, no one ever accused Mr. Blass of being foolish or greedy in his brand expansion.
On the more commercial [yet still fashionably so] was the beige Chantilly-lace dress he created for model Jean Shrimpton for a Revlon lipstick ad that thrust him even more in the limelight.
In 1968, he took the next big step and established a Rentner licensing and franchising subsidiary, Bill Blass Inc.
Unlike M. Cardin, he carefully picked and chose what he would design.
There were: shoes, hosiery, scarves, gloves, luggage, jewelry, and wristwatches, and a car. He designed the “Lincoln Mark VII Bill Blass Model” from 1984-1992. Back then, a Lincoln was perceived as an elegant Town Car. The Ladies Who Lunched rode in them to get from their Park Avenue homes to La Grenouille and Mortimer’s. When he added furniture to the equation, Blass completed the circle of “the world of”.
His own homes, the 22 acre estate in New Preston, CT, and Sutton Place pied-a-Terre, were familiar to the society women he dressed and entertained. Unsurprisingly, in 1997, he made a deal with Pennsylvania House, and introduced a 50 piece Bill Blass furniture collection. A few years before his death, he’d pared his licenses down to 42, before selling it all in 1998. His final presentation in the Bryant Park Tent was theatrical and the most memorable fashion show I have ever attended.

All of his “ladies” showed and proudly watched, rapt, in the front row. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, as we all knew this was Blass’s swan song. It there ever was a fashion moment; this was it.

Taking things back to the present, how about Pierre Cardin? When Assouline’s Mimi Crume sent me the digital version of Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation to review, I resolved to go and see the real book before reviewing it. My chance came during FNO at the Assouline Party at the Plaza.
Flipping through the book was like savoring a gourmet meal – it’s an experience that’s not to be rushed. Half an hour later, I reluctantly left to go uptown to Missoni, reflecting on some of M. Cardin’s groundbreaking designs.

The book was a fitting tribute and wonderful retrospective of a singular career. This is the part where the credits should roll and say “THE END”.
To my dismay, I read in and I that M. Cardin wanted to keep going and going…. And going.
Question: Who ITALS puts on a show with 200 looks?
Answer: No one in their right mind, that is no one who would like to keep their over-scheduled audience of editors and retailers from nodding off after look #50.

As Fashion Pundit, Abe Gurko
so aptly said, “Far be it from me to not have the utmost respect for the man who changed the industry. After all, he made pens chic. With his ground-breaking contribution to licensing coupled with his reputation for futuristic fashion, at a time when Cosmonauts were circling the globe, Cardin tapped into the zeitgeist of the 60’s and etched his place in fashion history.”

Silly circus show or not, I still want the book, because at that point in time, M. Cardin designed fashion, not clothes.
Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation, takes you from M. Cardin’s early years, working for in 1946, to the opening of his own couture house in 1950, and shows some of his most memorable architecturally futuristic fashion.
Prosper & Martine Assouline celebrated Pierre Cardin and the U.S. launch of his book Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation with a cocktail reception and book signing at the ASSOULINE boutique at The Plaza Hotel, on Tuesday. As I couldn’t make it, I immediately bought a copy online, to make sure I’d have one for my home office collection. Looking throught the book, I can take pleasure in viewing the designs that made M. Cardin one of fashion’s greats and forget about the olive oil and sardines for a while.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Naeem Khan’s s/s2011 Collection: Collectible Fashion

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Many of the world’s best fashion designers are men. That’s always puzzled me as they can never actually try on the clothes and truly know what it feels like to wear them. It’s an argument Donna Karan made years ago when she brought out her iconic “five easy pieces” collection of black basics she felt all women needed for their busy lives. Obviously, there is a way around this problem, as there are some very talented male designers, such as Naeem Khan, who know just what their female clientele wants and have loyal followings as a result of getting it right.
In lieu of trying the clothes on for themselves, male designers rely on muses and feedback from the women they design for and retailers such as Neiman’s Ken Downing. Ken’s “girls”, he told us, [pointing to his blackberry] consult and confide in him, and tell him – really tell him – what clothes and accessories they love.

As far as muses go, Naeem has his wife, jewelry designer, Ranjana Khan,
to draw inspiration from on a daily basis, and perhaps, his show stylist, Mary Alice Stephenson. Ranjana is gorgeous and exotic and Mary Alice
is blonde and beautiful in that classic Old Hollywood way. Both women look very different, but both look fantastic in Naeem Khan.

The smart designers listen to “their girls” and deliver strong fashionable collections that move women to faithfully buy every season. Some clients even become collectors. Fashion design is like pulling off the perfect recipe in that there has to be a perfect balance of ingredients.
In our backstage chat, Naeem spoke about his philosophy. “My formula” he stated, is very simple: it’s classic, it’s glamorous, and I keep tweaking, every season. I want to deliver classic, wearable glamour that is so wonderful that it is worthy of collecting. I have lots and lots of women who collect me. People have been collecting these [pointing to a rack of the s/s2011 collection], maybe since the day I started, six or seven years ago.”

As I first replayed our interview, I considered Naeem’s philosophy. The words “classic” and “wearable” do not often go with “glamour”. Classic and wearable are in one camp, and glamour, falls in another. Right?
Naeem Khan, like Oscar de la Renta, is one of those rare designers who have made their careers by consistently delivering drop-dead head turning glamour that’s not even remotely vulgar.
Naeem is very aware of curbing any tendencies of excess. “In my case, because of the clothes being so intricate, you have to be really careful. You can really overdo it. Overdo it – really. When you keep cooking for 30 years, though, you become a master chef. I have to make sure that I give my customer newness every year, and that it’s to the time.”

You need self-confidence to wear one of Mr. Khan’s creations. The list of celebrities who wear Naeem Khan is diverse but all of these women have self-confidence oozing from their pores. Angie Harmon, Elizabeth Hurley,

Michelle Obama,
and Kim Cattrall all project extreme femininity and self-confidence whenever you see them in photographs. Put them in a Naeem Khan dress and the result is that classic glamour that all women look for when they tune in to watch their favorite celebs walk down the Red Carpet. If you’re a basic black girl who’s happy with her five easy pieces, you may want to look elsewhere. If though, you decide that you really are a Naeem Khan woman, rest assured that you will in no shape or form resemble a walking Christmas tree in one of his creations.
Naeem is extremely in tune with his clientele’s horror of looking foolish. “When you make fashion, you have to make clothes for the real woman. I make very very intricate clothing. When you are doing my kind of clothing, my philosophy is clothing has to be real, It’s going to land up in the store, and it has to sell.”

He concluded our interview by saying that one-day, he hopes to have a retrospective of his work.
Maybe in a few decades, the MET’s Costume Institute would have one dedicated to the “Best Oscar Dresses, 1990-2020, featuring Naeem, Oscar, Armani, and Marchesa as some of the period’s top looks.
In the meantime, Naeem’s clients continue to buy and his presence on the Red Carpet continues to grow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jeweler Ranjana Khan, Backstage at the Naeem Khan s/s2011 Show

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A great fashion show is memorable because of the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the styling and the accessories.
I’m dedicating this post to one of the supporting players who helped make the Naeem Khan s/s2011 show a memorable and fitting end to NYFW.

Like her husband, Naeem, Ranjana creates beautiful, high-end products, which are sold at top retailers Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods.
Around two years ago, Ranjana made a career change and shut down her Phoenix Hand Embroidery Company, which worked with some of fashion’s top houses including: Stella McCartney, Jean Paul Gaultier and Lanvin. Remember those tulle-covered pearls at Lanvin? If you never got one of those wonderful bib Lanvin necklaces, don’t despair, Ranjana RK for HSN black ribbon bib necklace
at $229.90 qualifies as “fashion” for about one zero less at the end of the higher end version.
Before you wrinkle your nose at the name “HSN [Home Shopping Network] have a good look first. Her lower-priced RK for HSN represents the “low” end of the equation – but it, unlike Rachel Zoe’s faux coyote vest for QVC, looks anything but down-market.
On the "high" side of the spectrum is the Leather-trim bib with black lava rocks with marble and onyx stones in various shapes and sizes, available at Neiman's for $950.
These two necklaces, and the crystal silk drop earrings
exemplify how Ranjana has successfully straddled high-low accessorizing. And finally, at the very tip top of the high-end side are the unique pieces she collaborated on with Naeem for his latest collection. I got to see the ones that didn’t make it onto the runway and each and every one of them was a stunner.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Academy of Art University s/s2011 Show

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Photos by Randy Brooke
This season, the Academy of Art University student show 2011 show premiered six women’s wear and one men’s wear collections. The AAU show is one of my favorite shows on the bi-annual NYFW lineup. It's not just because I'm an online instructor for AAU's Fashion Department - it's much more than that.

People in fashion tend to be jaded, to great or lesser degrees, which comes from constant rejection and the risk of "putting yourself out there" when you present your creative body of work, whether it be your modeling, writing, PR, styling, or design talent.
What's different at the AAU backstage scene is the sense of "feels like the first time" excitement that just can't be duplicated. The atmosphere is stressful, of course - what backstage scene isn't? but I stayed far longer than I'd intended, caught-up in the festive atmosphere, and arrived late at the Assouline Book Party uptown at the Plaza.
Being late was worth seeing the little girls dancing and posing about in the brightly colored dresses that were inspired by a number of British influences including cricket, the television series “Brideshead Revisited,” British interiors, and the uniforms
of Oxford University.
The eclectic dresses were a collaboration between textile designers, a group of Technical Designers, Fashion Designers and Textile Design students all working together. As Oprah so famously said, "It takes a village".

After stopping to chat with AAU's Dino Ray Ramos, he took me over to meet
Maria Korovilas, M.F.A. Fashion Design. On the way there, I stopped to admire Cara Chiapetta's Helmut Newton-y black dress, thinking how professional it looked. No wonder, Cara's won the Fashion Group Foundation Scholarship, and participated in an LVMH Creative Briefing Design Challenge, interned for N.I.C.E. Collective, as well as for Michael Kors. Her muse for this collection was Bridget Fonda’s character Nina in the film “The Point of No Return”.

A small gaggle of photographers and I were transfixed by the incredible tambour beading coat
Maria was applying some final touches to. Simultaneously working and speaking, she explained that she was resewing some of the nuts and bolts "just in case" to avoid a disaster on the runway [like the metal bits falling off - that did not happen]. Tambour Beading is a specialty which originated in 1770, and was established in Paris by Charles de Saint- Aubin.
There were workrooms dedicated to making beadwork for the French court, who prized these intricately worked garments.
After completing classes in Tambour Beading at AAU's School of Fashion, Maria incorporated metal encrusted pieces and details into her collection. The hand beading took her over 600 hours to complete. The starting point of her inspiration was the Jenny Lewis song “You Are What
You Love” from which she pulled visual and conceptual references for her collection.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Joanna Mastroianni and Elene Cassis s/s2011 Collections

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The last lap of NYFW ended nicely thanks to the highly wearable retro inspired dresses we saw the last afternoon of shows. Once we arrived at the Mastroianni studio, I was happy to have braved the drizzle.
There was a definite sixties vibe at
Joanna Mastroianni's s/s2011 collection, which she unveiled as a laid-back presentation at her Manhattan atelier. The atmosphere was more akin to a swank cocktail party at an art gallery, rather than yet another presentation. It was the chicly cozy white space, the designer's adorable Pomeranian, Natasha, and house mascot, and above all, the clothes.

Twentieth century English potter,
Clarice Cliff, was Ms. Mastroianni's muse for this collection. Cliff was known for her cheerful patterns, vibrant colors, and bold outlines. The pottery’s collage effect
works well with Mastroianni’s signature, mixed-media treatments that combined embroidery, patent leather and a palette of sunshine yellow, tangerine, chartreuse, lapis and black and white. The run of show notes made further reference to the role of pop culture in this collection. "Some sculpted shapes reference the Sixties to satisfy our current fascination with midcentury modern aesthetics escalated by “Mad Men.”
There was a definite sixties reference, particularly when it came to the black and white bracelet sleeve collarless jacket and a YSL Mondrian style colorblock mini dress with patent leather detailing. Modern of the moment accessories such as Lucite sandals and the popular runway hair [Barbie doll updos] made it look updated rather than just a straight blast back to the past.

Right after, we made our way West in the rain to see
Elene Cassis' s/s2011 collection show.
Elene Cassis was the perfect show to go to after seeing Joanna Mastroianni's collection. Both designers referenced the sixties, but each did it in their own way. While Joanna showed an orange strapless chiffon dress,
Elene Cassis countered with a long sleeved one in linen. Joanna's color blockdresses juxtaposed black and white with pops of color and Elena's played black and white off each other with interesting detailing
such as colored pentagon shapes and pointed collars.

Both versions looked great. Best at Elene Cassis was her pretty "Lauren" peony print dress
meant for a romantic night in the Caribbean.