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What the Designer Has in Store

Martin Grant Tailors His Presentation, Too

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page C01

PARIS -- Martin Grant is slowly making a name for himself as a designer who creates clothes that are quietly feminine, audaciously tailored and not likely to become painfully outdated anytime soon. Grant presents his work in Paris, in small, unassuming shows that put his audiences within arm's reach of the garments. Oftentimes, Grant does not have a show at all. Instead, he will present his collection by appointment -- just you, the designer and a model. He will do the latter today, when he will unveil his fall collection without fanfare. And if the past serves as precedent, his presentation will be an antidote to the circus atmosphere that rages through Paris during fashion week.

But the Paris-based line is not Grant's only concern. He is also the designer of the Barneys New York Collection, which is the specialty store's private label. It is a business that accounts for 10 percent of the store's women's ready-to-wear sales. Unlike many department store private labels, which offer watered-down trends for the most timid fashion customers, Barneys New York Collection is a reflection of the store's aggressive fashion philosophy as well as the aesthetic of Grant. Grant's name is not publicly attached to the collection, but it is undeniably his sensibility. It has his flair for exact tailoring and his feminine flourishes. Piece by piece it exemplifies the impact that a shapely collar or an abbreviated sleeve can have on the mood of a garment.

Martin Grant has been making his mark with quietly feminine, audaciously tailored garments such as the one above, from his spring 2005 collection. (Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)

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Grant's moonlighting at Barneys is an example of the ways in which designers work both in the spotlight and in the shadows -- sometimes simultaneously. For consumers, it also underscores the reality that a designer's point of view can be had in many ways and the fact that his name is missing from the label doesn't lessen his impact on it. And as Grant points out, the benefits of designing for a larger brand -- besides the paycheck -- help to make him a better businessman as well as a stronger designer.

The past fashion seasons have been lucrative for Grant because his work fits nicely into the industry's interest in clothes that are pretty and tasteful, and that reveal a tailor's sure hand. "It's definitely a climate that's appropriate for what I do," Grant says. "We're now at a nice level of recognition." His signature collection is available in a host of American luxury stores, such as Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the fall, he made a trip to Saks in Chevy Chase to meet with customers and, of course, sell them on his aesthetic, which has slowly crystallized into something that is identifiably his.

Grant has been designing since he was a teenager in Melbourne, Australia, where he grew up. His grandmother was a seamstress and in looking back, he realizes that he was always interested in clothes and design. Just recently during a trip home, his mother brought out a handful of drawings that Grant had made as a kindergartner. All of the women -- headless and armless -- were wearing ball gowns.

As a young man, Grant moved to London and apprenticed as a tailor, but essentially most of his skill is self-taught. After a year in London, he moved to Paris -- not speaking French and without knowing a soul. He spent the early portion of his career as a dressmaker for private clients. "Because of the made-to-measure work, I made lots of ball gowns and wedding gowns," he says. "It's great training because you get so involved with the person and the family.

"There are certain clients I'll still do things for," he says, "but it's kind of nice not to do that anymore." Having to juggle the interests of a client and her family, after all, is not the most efficient and stress-free way to design a frock.

Grant formed his company in 1996, and for the most part he has been building his business -- which has five employees -- one strong collection after another, rather than through the hyperbole of buzz.

"A lot of times," he says, "it's the journalists who want that."

His glittering moments have been few. And in today's currency, they are not worth all that much. Back in 1999, model Naomi Campbell dramatically arrived just minutes before one of his fashion shows and announced that she would be walking for him. To have the well-known model swivel her hips down his runway was an unexpected coup, one that had been finessed for him by Vogue magazine editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley -- a friend to Campbell and, at the time, a new admirer of Grant's work. Campbell's appearance helped to win Grant a few mentions of the gossipy sort. The gossip led to curiosity, with folks wondering, "Who is this Martin Grant?" They came to find out.

He has also attracted the attention of Lee Radziwill, who is the sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and who is known for her wealth, her good taste and her busy social calendar. In the era of nonstop celebrity coverage, every designer -- even those who don't work at it -- has a famous name attached to his work. And for a designer such as Grant, who traffics in good taste and restraint, a dash of society razzle-dazzle is just the right touch.

Radziwill attended Grant's spring show in October, sitting unobtrusively amid the intimate audience gathered on the edges of the Paris neighborhood known as the Marais and causing only a small stir, predominantly among the photographers who are always on the lookout for persons of note.

Radziwill discovered Grant's work on her own, having purchased his designs in New York at Barneys. "She lives half the time in Paris, and she looked for my clothes in department stores here and couldn't find them," Grant recalls. "She called and asked if she could come directly to me. She said she was friends with Andre Leon Talley, so I figured she was important." And indeed, Talley does have a reputation for friendships with a large percentage of those on the international social register. Grant was so startled by the phone call that he could barely process it. "I said, 'What's your name again?' " Grant admits, with an embarrassed smile. Having clarified precisely who this Radziwill woman was, he now expresses appreciation that "someone historically associated with good taste" supports his work.

A few days after his spring 2005 show, Grant sits in his showroom, which is only a few small rooms -- the paperwork and desks separated from the frocks by just a few feet. Grant, 38, has short dark hair and is of medium height, but he is so slender that he seems almost breakable. It is no surprise that his midmorning snack consists of an espresso and a cigarette.

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