Business as Usual
So far, none of the designers mounting spring haute couture collections this week in Europe has canceled a show because of the Persian Gulf war, though many of their American customers, as well as some editors and retailers, are rethinking their travel plans. Editors at Conde Nast, which owns Vogue and GQ, were told late last week to get corporate approval for all overseas travel, according to a source there. A spokesman for Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Conde Nast, said no decision had been made about whether to specifically restrict travel to the shows.
Editors at Mirabella and Harper's Bazaar said they'll reassess their plans as events develop in the Middle East. Woodward & Lothrop still plans to send four executives, as usual, to Paris, but other stores may reduce their entourages. There certainly will be fewer private clients at the shows. Eleanor Lambert, who handles press for Hartnell, the British firm that recently hired Marc Bohan, said several women have decided to skip Bohan's London debut, among them Ivana Trump. A spokeswoman for Chanel expects that some American clients will cancel, and Gianni Versace will go on with his show at the Ritz in Paris this Saturday but not the dinner afterward. "He decided it wasn't the right moment for a dinner," his publicist said.
"I've been on the phone to London, Paris and Rome, and everybody's talking about the Middle East," said Camilla Mackeson, the U.S. publicity director for Valentino. She's heading to Italy this week. Valentino plans to celebrate his 30th anniversary in business with a two-day party in Rome on March 7 and 8. There will be a retrospective of 300 outfits, along with the usual round of receptions. "It's nice to still have something to celebrate," said Mackeson, somewhat glumly.
The recent essay on the merits of uniforms in District public schools caused the fashion editor's phone to ring -- more than once. While the majority of callers defended uniforms, mostly on the grounds that they remove distracting fashions from the classroom, a number tackled the debate from some unexpected angles.
Twiss Butler, an Alexandria housewife active in feminist causes, has been following dress code rules since the early days of Title 9 legislation. "What nobody notices is that when uniforms come back, sexual stereotyping comes back with them," she says. "In their jackets and ties, the boys become young men, while the girls are typically styled as little girls." In other words, if little boys won't wear short pants, why should girls have to wear skirts?
Valencia Mohammed's children attend D.C. schools where uniforms are optional, but she's lobbied against the issue since it was first raised in 1987. "It's a Band-Aid approach in order to keep from focusing on the real problems in the schools," she says. "It's just cosmetic, and all for show. It would look good if 81,000 students were trotting around the city in uniforms."
Onward and Upward
It seems there will be an encore performance of the Washington Designer Mart. The December event, put on by the Fashion Group of Greater Washington, raised more than $10,000 -- along with interest from local designers who want to be involved in the next one. Nasreen Wills, regional director of the Fashion Group, says the board plans to "refine" its second designer sale so that quality standards are higher. That was one criticism heard among customers at the two-day event held at The Washington Post. The sale is open to all area clothing and accessories designers, and Wills expects the review process to begin early next fall. Twenty percent of proceeds will go to the Nina Hyde Scholarship Fund, up from the 10 percent earmarked at the first mart.
It would appear to be an inauspicious time to launch a designer boutique, but Paula Abu Rahmeh clearly thinks otherwise. She's the woman behind the Gianfranco Ferre store in Chevy Chase, which will open the first week of March. A longtime client of the Milanese designer, Abu Rahmeh moved to McClean five months ago from Jordan and says that, while she has no experience in retailing, she has organized fashion shows "all over" the Middle East. She says the franchise is a joint effort with her husband, whose principal business is construction. As for Ferre, "I think he's the best designer in the world at the moment," says Abu Rahmeh, who will sell both men's and women's clothes.
Big Mac Attack
Bob Mackie, the ever-cheerful designer whose fashion shows rival a Vegas chorus line, is coming to Washington for Valentine's Day -- appropriately enough. The sartorial sweetheart of self-possessed women (think Cher) will be at Bloomingdale's on Feb. 14, beginning at 10:30 a.m. with a private brunch for 30 or so regular customers, and then at 1 p.m. for an hour-long public appearance at the Tyson's Corner store.
Whenever Patricia Terrell saw one of her silk ties around the neck of a stranger, her reaction was swift: "That's my tie!" Thus was born Mai Tai, an after-work enterprise that in less than a year has developed into a full-time business. So far, Terrell's been selling her limited edition ties -- as well as ascots, pocket squares, cummerbunds and scarves -- by word of mouth; over the holidays alone she sold about 400 ties. A marketing major in college, Terrell, 31, also finds customers through her newsletter, Sew What. Though she still works for an insurance company, she's looking to expand her tie business with more sewers. Ties are priced from $45 and can be ordered by telephoning 202-882-0610.
Dialing for Dollars
Minding the store has taken on a whole new meaning in this lackluster economy. Retailers now talk about fashion with "good value," while designers are promising stores "price-conscious" clothes. "I'm hearing the word 'price' more than ever before," says Alain Chetrit, owner of Silhouette and Hugo Boss. Val Cook, meanwhile, is developing a new customer: the tourist. The vice president of Saks-Jandel has been meeting with area hotel representatives and may advertise in selected trade magazines. "Why not go after that market?" she says. Woodward & Lothrop has been catering to out-of-town travelers for years through a direct phone link to Washington hotels.
Woodies is paying more attention to younger designers -- with trunk shows and store events -- to attract business. General merchandising manager Elaine Hough Bauer says designers such as Randolph Duke and Gordon Henderson offer fresh looks for "price sensitive" women. But Cook believes customers are not in the mood for an aggressive sales pitch. "They don't want to feel pressured right now," she says.
Designers are also rethinking their strategies. "If a woman can't get in to see the clothes during a trunk show, we'll send a video and a set of swatches to her," says David Rubin, president of Jennifer George, where sales are up 10 to 15 percent. And because many smaller stores have cut their travel budgets, Charlotte Neuville has prepared packets of information so they can order by phone. "We don't want to push too hard, because if merchandise doesn't perform at retail, it won't perform at wholesale," says Marilyn Kaplan, president of Neuville, where sales are just below last year's numbers.
But if women are slow to shop, they're not necessarily slow to buy. Despite reduced advertising, Silhouette recently sold five Moschino suits, priced around $1,200, before they even hit the selling floor. Customers had seen the suit in Vogue and called the store.