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Fashion Sense

Albert Kriemler,fashion
Designer Albert Kriemler greets customers before a showing of his fall 2005 Akris collection at Neiman Marcus in Washington. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

The Rice effect cannot be quantified -- at least not yet. But it has increased the Swiss company's standing as a fashion house with international appeal.

"In the U.S. it is too early to judge if the looks she chose had any impact on our customer. However, in Europe, it was a much bigger deal as many of the major publications in Germany noticed what she was wearing and compared her fashion sense to local politicians, with Ms. Rice being the clear winner," Kriemler says. "I think it boosted our profile and pushed us into the spotlight.

"For me, this was such an important international moment. I have to say it was a thrill to see one of, if not the most powerful woman in the world, wearing an Akris suit."

Akris, whose suits can sell for $4,000, has seemingly risen out of nowhere -- without peddling more lucrative accessories or fragrances -- to become a top-selling brand in Neiman Marcus and the company's Bergdorf Goodman division in New York. It rivals Chanel in sales even though it lacks a distinctive logo, an iconic silhouette, a Hollywood-based champion or an instantly recognizable brand name trailed by a plume of glamour. The privately held company does not divulge retail sales or profits, but its value has been previously reported at around $500 million, a figure the company has not disputed. There are about two dozen Akris shops throughout the world, including a Madison Avenue flagship opened last year.

Kriemler was in Washington in April and presented his fall 2005 collection to customers at a luncheon at the Neiman Marcus in Mazza Gallerie. It was an abbreviated version of the show he'd mounted a few weeks earlier in Paris. That show marked only the second time the company has presented its work as part of the official Paris fashion week calendar, a privilege that has to be approved by French fashion's governing body, the Chambre Syndicale.

"In 2000, we got membership, but it took another four years to get an official place on the four most important days," he says. Akris presented its collection on a Friday afternoon, just after Chanel.

In fashion's international capital, the runways are dominated by theatrics, intellectual musings on the fundamental construction of attire and theories of self-definition. Pure, creatively accessible clothing is a rare find. Akris is an anomaly.

The company was founded in 1922 by Kriemler's grandmother, Alice Kriemler-Schoch, who launched the brand with her simple, dotted aprons. Albert Kriemler grew up around bolts of cloth and the steady hum of sewing machines and by age 10 knew he wanted to work in fashion. But he also felt compelled to prove himself. Kriemler didn't want to work for the family business.

At 19, he planned to apprentice in the Givenchy atelier and attend fashion school in Paris. But in 1980, when his father's right-hand man passed away, Kriemler postponed school to pitch in. He has been with the company ever since, taking full control of Akris's creative direction a few years ago.

His brother Peter, a lawyer, signed on in 1987 to run the financial side of the business. Akris's production is centered on St. Gallen, Switzerland, in company-owned factories and it has about 500 employees there.

Akris has always dealt closely with its customers and collaboratively with the retailers who carry the collection, with much of the brand's success generated through trunk shows and word-of-mouth. "In this country and nowhere else, do you get this analysis of 'Who is this customer?' " Kriemler says, of an American tendency to painstakingly dissect all retail data.

Through his travels, from Washington to Chicago, Houston, Miami, New York and Dallas, he has learned, among many things, that American life is "extremely social." American women are particularly attuned to fabric. They are inclined to finger it more intently than women in other countries. And he has found them more accepting of his streamlined design aesthetic. It's no wonder that Kriemler admires designers such as Armani and Jil Sander, who are distinguished by their almost evangelical fervor for the integrity of fabric. Sander "was extremely creative on the fabric side for the whole industry," Kriemler says. "Armani was there, always there, but Jil Sander took fabric to another level. And for this I will always admire her."

He respects Gucci for setting a new standard in marketing. Akris cannot introduce a fragrance, which it would like to do, Kriemler says, until it develops a stronger visual image.

Today's challenging economic climate and decreased interest in hyper-sexy, ostentatious fashion have been beneficial to Akris. "Our business grows in times of trouble," Kriemler says.

Akris is now looking to burnish its fashion reputation to attract an audience that is not satisfied with merely classy clothes, but wants a wardrobe with more panache. This will be a challenge because the clothes are known for their subtlety and their attention to tailoring -- elements that do not translate easily to the runway or in a glossy photograph. Kriemler speaks proudly of how it takes an Akris artisan two years to learn to sew one of its signature double-face cashmere jackets. And then it takes that practiced artisan 2 1/2 days to make a single jacket.

At his Washington appearance, a U-shaped table -- adorned with chocolate-scented flowers, Cosmos atrosanguineus -- cupped the narrow runway. And a cast of loyal customers and possible converts watched the fashion promenade. These were the true faces of luxury consumers, women taking care to fend off fine smile lines as well as those who have confidently acquiesced to the inevitability of wrinkles. There were businesswomen, diplomats and those with vaguely familiar names linked to White Houses and congressional sessions past and present. Afterward, they shopped in the focused manner of women who do not consider acquiring an appropriate wardrobe a source of entertainment but rather a professional necessity.

"I need something for cocktails," says a woman wearing a sea-green, pin-tucked jacket that she has plucked from the rack of Akris samples. She peers intently at Kriemler. "What do you think of this?"

"Perfect," he declares without hesitation or further inquiry, because apparently cocktails are cocktails and it doesn't matter where they are sipped or when. "Now you need something to go with it."

Kriemler dutifully slips into the huddle of afternoon shoppers. His tall, lean frame in its narrow black suit is surrounded by a small flock of expertly coiffed heads bent in close examination of restrained beadwork and featherweight, double-face cashmere.

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