Earlier this week, the designer Malcolm Harris blasted an e-mail to fashion writers, stylists and personal shoppers in which he decreed that his New York-based company, Mal Sirrah, would no longer provide free clothes to celebrities. The rather lengthy message, which read like the fashion industry's version of a "Jerry Maguire" manifesto, declared that designers must stand up for themselves, preserve their integrity, behave like smart businesspeople and stop giving away the very merchandise they should be selling.
Harris is the little guy shaking his fist at the system and declaring himself outraged.
He ranted all over the Internet what other, better-known designers have said privately or more diplomatically. Several years ago, in fact, Tom Ford, then creative director of Gucci, caused a small stir within the industry when he complained that some fashion stylists were encouraging their clients to be dress hogs -- asking multiple designers to create couture Oscar gowns from which they could choose.
Current business practices have designers regularly providing free garments to actors, musicians and socialites. The idea, of course, is that the cost of the garment will be offset by the publicity that comes from having a celebrity photographed in one's wares. If the system worked smoothly, that might be a fair trade. But as Harris accurately explains, just because a designer turns his company topsy-turvy to produce a one-of-a-kind garment at the request of a starlet who has laid her hand on a Bible and promised to don it for a red-carpet promenade, doesn't mean she won't decide to wear something else at the last minute. And since celebrities are constantly being photographed, the free clothes are not just for the occasional red carpet anymore. They are for talk show appearances, parties . . . a trip to Starbucks.
As a result, small design houses like Harris's can do themselves in trying to sate the fashion appetite of celebrities.
"I adore this business. I adore it," Harris says. "What I don't adore is this new element of mooching."
Harris has been in the fashion business for more than a decade. He worked as a stylist and he helped to build a successful clothing business under the label Katsumi & Malcolm, which is now based in Tokyo. His earliest encounter with a celebrity came in 1998 -- a date he can reel off like it was tattooed on his hand -- when Madonna visited the brand's showroom, based at the time in downtown Manhattan. The singer ordered a dress. When Harris and his partner Katsumi Edono had problems getting the necessary fabric, "Madonna pulled out her checkbook," Harris says. She paid for the fabric required for her order and then some. Good celebrity! Over the next few years, Katsumi & Malcolm became more successful; it relocated to Tokyo and evolved into more of a contemporary T-shirt brand.
Between his time in Tokyo as well as some time off on the beaches of south Florida, Harris was away from the New York fashion swirl for five years. He returned last month with a collection of high-end frocks under the label Mal Sirrah, which is his family name spelled backward. He debuted the collection, young and flirty and pastel, in a runway show in the Harlem brownstone where he lives.
Afterward, the frustration began to build. It started with the rudeness he encountered.
"I have these young stylists coming in and out and they do this thing that blows me away," Harris says. They make a mess. "It's like they're going into Saks and dumping all the merchandise on the floor and then turning on their heels and walking away."
"They don't even feel the need to be gracious," he says. "They feel celebrity is king and it out-trumps everything else."
Mostly, though, Harris is a businessman who simply cannot fathom why anyone trying to build a company should willingly engage in such bad financial practices.
"I'd really like to take a count of every dress that has appeared in People and find out what's the revenue actually generated. Is that enough to sustain a business? Not an ego, but a business?" he asks. "I might be wrong. I'm willing to be wrong. But I doubt that I am."
If a large fashion house had made a similar declaration, it would have attracted more attention. But in truth, the big brands have little reason to rebel. They're in a better financial position to bear the costs of producing a one-of-a-kind gown that may never be worn. It's the smaller brands, whose designers are wide-eyed over a possible publicity windfall, that are more likely to be damaged. For example, part of eveningwear label Badgley Mischka's financial woes, which ultimately led to the sale and restructuring of the company, can be attributed to the brand's emphasis on producing, selling and giving away red-carpet gowns.
And for a small company -- in which it is the designer himself who attends to all of the details -- investing time, energy and money in a frock that never sees the light of day can have a particularly demoralizing effect.
"I enjoy dressing these cute little girls," Harris says, "but I don't want to feel that I'm turning over my soul to you."
It used to be that the relationship between a designer and a star was equally beneficial. Part of Audrey Hepburn's iconic fame is directly related to the clothes that Hubert de Givenchy designed for her. Giorgio Armani rescued Michelle Pfeiffer from the worst-dressed list. Catherine Deneuve and Yves Saint Laurent are inexorably linked. And most recently, Carolina Herrera and Renee Zellweger have formed a mutually beneficial relationship.
But such partnerships are rare. It is hard to say precisely when celebrities gained so much power and the scales began to tip in their favor. With so many people now proclaiming themselves "celebrities," one would think that their clout would be diluted. Instead, designers build their marketing plans around red-carpet credits. Being able to claim a few famous clients is considered mandatory for success rather than a nice flourish. The rise of hip-hop stars made flashy displays of free merchandise common and acceptable. And now celebrities get gift baskets worth tens of thousands of dollars just for showing up for lunch.
Harris has no illusions that he will change the traditions of the fashion industry overnight. Mostly, he just needed to speak up for himself. And some celebrities, he says, are opening their wallets. He's working with the singer Joss Stone, he says, and she's paying.
"This season alone there were at least 200 designer shows in New York. Maybe 20 of the 200 will be back next season," he says. "I'm just trying to stay in the fight."