Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Some designers play their roles well. They are exhaustingly animated, quick with witty cocktail talk and effortlessly exuding universal sex appeal. In more than one way, Akris designer Albert Kriemler seems miscast. With his short salt-and-pepper hair and his black-rimmed rectangular spectacles, he has the bookish manner of a graduate student. He does not fidget or gesture broadly; his physical stillness is a prelude to conversations that require time and focus. Kriemler speaks in fully realized paragraphs rather than in snappy sentences. And he gives a new acquaintance friendly encouragement to visit exhibitions on architecture, which is his personal passion, and Gustav Klimt, whose paintings are this season's fashion inspiration.
Kriemler, 45, is not spoken of with the familiarity that is common in the fashion industry. He's no Giorgio or Donatella, no Ralph or Calvin. He most definitely is not a Tom, as in Ford, formerly of Gucci, who had much of the industry -- male and female -- in a matinee idol swoon over his every dalliance whether creative, financial or image-making. Neither Kriemler nor Akris engages in that sort of bravado. At least not yet.
The family-owned company has quietly built a reputation for dressing women of authority and means in a manner that is both luxurious and understated. Kriemler recognizes that simply because the fashion sensibility of official Washington is reserved and authoritative, it is not stodgy and sexless. It does not mean that these women are uninterested in fashion.
"You can deal with economic matters and still like style," said Constance Morella, U.S. representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and former congresswoman from Montgomery County. At the time, she happened to be in Paris, sitting through her second fashion show -- first Valentino, now Collette Dinnigan -- on a Sunday morning in March.
Akris has succeeded, in large part, because it is one of the few high-end brands that still makes the kind of blazers that women feel comfortable wearing to a law firm or to greet a head of state. The clothes identify the wearer as well-heeled, but without any of the identifying markers of social climber, fashion groupie or arriviste. The collection speaks of diplomacy and self-confidence for a customer who is concerned with the way in which the public will read her attire.
"It's pure luxury and it's understated. The fit is consistent and the look is clean," enthuses Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, which has had an in-store Akris boutique for about five years. "We love Akris. We love the family. We love the clothes."
Kriemler has lured many of his customers away from stalwart labels such as Chanel, whose stylish designs and logos are readily identifiable at 100 paces and offer a virtual soliloquy on wealth and class. (The Akris shop at Saks Jandel occupies the floor space vacated by Chanel.) He has also swiped customers from Giorgio Armani, Escada and even St. John -- which in the slow-to-change fashion culture of Washington is akin to persuading Linus to put down his security blanket.
"I do simple clothes, but I try to do interesting clothes. They're feminine, without the frills and flowers," Kriemler says. "We're trying to dress women in a modern way."
The company might have continued with its quiet growth among the moneyed and powerful had it not been for a particularly Washington kind of endorsement. In February, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first official visit to Europe, she wore Akris. She was dressed in a cognac and black-checked Akris suit when she met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and later with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Her ensembles received glowing critiques in Europe. Britain's Daily Telegraph said "Condoleezza Rice is without doubt the most glamorous occupant of the office of Secretary of State of the United States, not to say one of the most astute." Media reports had the French declaring her "impeccably groomed and seductive." The Germans found her "coquettish." The Sunday Times called her "America's most glamorous diplomat." Rice followed up less than a month later by wearing a lilac Akris jacket to the Palestinian conference.
"I was totally surprised," Kriemler says. "She discovered us." Rice made her Akris purchases locally from Saks Jandel, the designer says.
Before anyone thinks that Akris had observers reducing Rice to an expensively attired Barbie doll, her reputation for being both smart and powerful went unblemished. Washington women -- and men -- fret that even the hint of fashionability will deflate their intellectualism like a hatpin pricking a balloon. Rice's stylish power-brokering travels suggest that Akris might be one of the few labels that can alleviate that fear.