THE MODELS POSE AND PIVOT, AND HARRIET KASSMAN LOOKS BORED.
This is the part that friends and customers don't understand when they hear that she's about to make one of her semiannual excursions to Paris and they start trilling about the fabulous time she'll have. At this very moment, Kassman could toss one of her spike-heeled pumps a hundred yards to the right and hit the Eiffel Tower. If she took off the other and heaved it in the opposite direction, it would splash into the Seine. She walked right between two of the world's major tourist attractions on her way into this exhibition tent and barely had time for a glance.
Kassman doesn't come to Paris to contemplate beauty, except on a hanger. It's been years since she visited one of its museums. She can scarcely summon enough French to order an omelet. Her mission, pursued single-mindedly and wholeheartedly, is to find smashing fall and winter clothing with which to stock her two Harriet Kassman shops and induce her customers to run up their charge accounts. So far, she's seen nothing sufficiently smashing among the Roger Sakoun designs being modeled in a corner of this tent on the Left Bank, where scores of non- household-name designers rent space and woo retailers.
Kassman drums her manicured fingernails against the laminated tabletop. "I would love to get excited," she mutters to buyers Petra Winkler and Elizabeth Baldwin.
The three of them flew in yesterday from Milan, where they happily ordered high-end, high-style sportswear from Gianfranco Ferre and Laura Biagiotti and Genny. Saturday, they'll head for Munich, a largely untapped fashion well for which Kassman harbors great hopes. In the interim they'll traverse Paris. They'll avoid the flashbulb-popping runway shows at the Louvre, where the Women's Wear Daily crowd goes to be dazzled (Kassman favors workshops and showrooms where she can get right up close and rub the fabrics between her practiced fingers). They'll dash from one appointment to the next all day, sit up writing orders half the night, try to fit in a couple of decent dinners. They might catch a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe if it happens to lie on the taxi route between Lacroix and Givenchy; they might not.
A model slithers out in a short -- very short -- black knit dress outlined by gold buttons, briefly stirring the group's in- terest. "All you need is legs," Kassman comments.
"And a nice rear," says Baldwin, who's jabbing at the calculator, converting francs to wholesale dollars and figuring the mark-up. "And no stomach." But the dress gets the nod.
Kassman's stores -- there are two, the older and larger one at 4400 Jenifer St. NW, in Friendship Heights, the new one downtown in the Willard Hotel -- usually do a brisk business in Sakoun. It will be less brisk this fall. When the time comes to "write" -- to set down the style numbers and sizes and colors and prices of the selected garments -- the disappointed Kassman crew chooses a few dresses and suits, just 13 styles.
It merely proves what Kassman always says: "You should never marry a designer. You can have a nice relationship, but you shouldn't get married." By which she means that designers have great years and off years; no one's a genius every six months. A department store may contract for an Oscar or a Calvin boutique and be obliged to stock the entire line every season, like it or not; Kassman prefers to avoid commitment. There are a number of these maxims, Quotations from Chairman Harriet. She's tiny and raspy-voiced, never goes out without makeup and some elegant ensemble, has worn three-inch heels for so long that her feet probably have a permanent tilt. She won't tell her age, "because I don't act it and I don't look it so we don't have to dwell on it." She does say she dropped out of college to help prop up the family dress shop in Daytona Beach, Fla., when her mother died in 1941, however, so anyone can do the math.
She's been coming to Paris since 1977, when she opened her uptown store after working at Claire Dratch and then at Saks Jandel. "Everyone's dealing from the same deck," she was advised by her husband, Gene, who died in 1984. "You have to find things no one else has." Now, 60 percent of her buying budget is spent on this European marathon, the remainder in New York. With fall clothing contributing most heavily to any retailer's bottom line, this is a crucial shopping trip.
NO CABS, SO KASSMAN & CO. HOOF IT across the Pont d'Iena. Beneath them, ba~teaux full of wide-eyed tourists glide along the Seine, glittering in the sunshine of an unusually pleasant spring day. But what's preoccupying Kassman, as she hikes half a mile along the Right Bank before hitting a taxi stand on the Avenue George V, is that they'll be late for their appointment at Christian Lacroix. Kassman hates to be late. But, yes, by the time the cabs deposit them at the Hotel Bristol, where the flamboyant Lacroix has taken over a ballroom, they are late -- hungry too -- and matters degenerate from there.
There's nothing wrong with Lacroix's super-ornamented, more-is-more clothing. A showroom assistant grabs an empty rack and wheels it around the room, and it soon fills with samples that Kassman wants to see modeled: a fringed fuchsia coat embroidered in gold, outfits with Tyrol-inspired appliques that Kassman thinks are "yodely" but Winkler insists are "different yodely," a patterned pink unitard of the sort known all over town this season as a cat suit. "He's calmed down a lot," Winkler says of the designer responsible for the poufed skirt. Kassman looks pleased, even more so when the luncheon buffet appears.
But before the modeling and order-writing can begin, Kassman picks up disturbing news from one of the staff: Her archrivals from Saks Jandel have been in to buy the line. This is a serious affront. Saks Jandel had dropped Lacroix after his first season, and Kassman had been quick to pick him up. She and Saks Fifth Avenue (so much larger that she doesn't see it as a direct competitor) now carry Lacroix's ready-to-wear exclusively in Washington, with Saks Jandel carrying only Lacroix's pricier Luxe line -- or so Kassman has thought. Finding out otherwise is so upsetting that she's stabbing at her chocolate gateau with a fork.
Kassman takes competition very seriously. She'll drop a designer (Gianni Versace is the latest example) who opens a Washington boutique. A woman paying $6,000 for one of Lacroix's evening suits, Kassman is convinced, doesn't want to worry about someone else in her set buying the same get-up a few blocks farther up Wisconsin Avenue. "For a man I love so much," she says gravely to Marsilio Marsilli, the Lacroix CEO who has hurried over to try to calm the coming storm, "I am very disappointed in you."
She's quietly insistent; he's mollifying but vague, attributing the change to the integration of the standard and the Luxe lines. "I hate to do business in this approach," Marsilli sighs. Perhaps Mrs. Kassman could put Lacroix in her downtown store (roughly half the size of the uptown flagship), far from her competitors up the street. "I'm not going to put it downtown," Kassman says firmly. She wants to know how he's going to "right continued on page 57
KASSMAN this wrong," and she's ready with two suggestions: He should ship her order first (a possibly hollow victory, she acknowledges later, since shipping was so unpredictable last year that Lacroix's pants arrived weeks before the tops). And he should give her stores editorial credit (so that where-to-buy guides in fashion magazines will list Harriet Kassman in Washington for Lacroix). Marsilli makes no promises but urges that she proceed with her order and "we can try to work it out." Kassman places her hands on his across the table, smiles and says that, yes, she'll proceed, "but I'm not going to let you alone. I'm going to bother you."
When he leaves, she takes a restorative glass of wine. "How do you think you stay in this business?" she says. "By being a sweet little lady?"
It wouldn't matter so much, except that Kassman and her associates love the Lacroix stuff. They even want one of the cat suits, Kassman kvelling about "what a great window that would make." Some buyers "leave paper" at this point (i.e., they "write" and hand in their orders). But Winkler, Baldwin and Kassman prefer to go back to their hotel on the Rue Cambon, take off their shoes, hit the calculator. They'll argue good-naturedly about which items they really want, which are too expensive, which are "old friends" (i.e., too like something they stocked before). They'll drop off their order tomorrow morning.
Before which time they'll also:
-- Cruise quickly through a display of Lacroix accessories in an adjacent hotel room, murmuring "fabulous" like a mantra and make an appointment for Thursday evening to place an order.
-- Drop by the gilded Hotel Crillon to order a dozen elegant coats, jackets, capes and raincoats from a Swiss-based firm called Pierette B.
-- Gather in Winkler's hotel room to decide that, no, they want only 10 items from Roger Sakoun after all. But they don't want to stop doing business with him. "This is the first time he hasn't had a terrific season," Winkler says. "I think we should leave our foot in the door." WEDNESDAY
THE JEAN-LOUIS SCHERRER SHOWROOM is an elegant little parlor, white and gold and chandeliered. The buyers take their places behind long tables while waiters float by offering juice and croissants to ease the ache of being at one's post, ready to appraise the knitwear, by 9:30 a.m. Minus the dramatic lighting and long sashays down the runway that marked the major Scherrer show in the Louvre courtyard earlier in the week, the modeling lacks some of the pizazz associated with Paris fashion. Kassman, however, is more than happy to trade the glamour for the convenience of concluding her business with Scherrer -- or anyone -- in one visit.
"It was beautiful," Kassman says after the last model's pirouette. "Lovely. Now we gotta figure out what we can sell."
Ordering Scherrer is always an ordeal. It took well over an hour to show his collection of more than 150 ensembles. Trying to ascertain which of those jewel-toned jacquard knits come in which colors and which come with skirts as opposed to pants (and should they order the shawl or the belt?) consumes hours. But the items are too expensive to order cavalierly.
Take the knit tunic in a forest green print, which Kassman likes with leggings and a cape. The price given, in francs, is the "first cost," direct from the factory. For clothing manufactured domestically, the general rule of thumb for U.S. retailers is to double the first cost to arrive at the retail price. European imports involve significant shipping and duty costs, however, so the suggested retail price of this stuff is likely to approach three times the first cost.
Baldwin, punching at her calculator and using a conservative exchange of 5.3 francs to the dollar (lower than the actual current rate, but who knows what will have happened to the dollar by the time designers start shipping?), announces that the forest green ensemble will wear a price tag of $2,900 or so. The gray leopard-look suit with the mousseline blouse -- in Paris, jungle prints have refused to die -- will have to sell for about $3,000. The prices of evening wear are even more throat-constricting: A bronze sheath trimmed with a swath of faux leopard will retail for more than $11,000. "Buy three," Kassman murmurs sarcastically. She is always looking for a quality suit she can sell for less than $2,000, a downtown lunch-at-Galileo dress for $700 to $800.
Although she recognizes that her customers can and do pay more for a silk shirt than many Americans pay for a month's rent, Kassman does not want to seem cavalier about these prices. "When I think about it, the percentage of the market we sell to is so small, so small," she says. But it's large enough. A few devoted customers spend in the six-figure range annually. Kassman's son Nick, general manager of the privately held company (she's the chairman), projects retail sales for the six-month fall and winter season of about $1.75 million. And, Harriet adds, "we have always gone over our projections, every single season."
Still, she can't afford to be careless. However glamorously impractical some of these fashions look, they're subjected to pragmatic scrutiny. Everyone's sighing over the pretty plum-colored coat with the silk blouse, comparatively reasonable at $3,000 retail. But Scherrer seems to have found the two pieces sufficient. Kassman disagrees: "At that price, I'm gonna send them out looking for a skirt?" No sale. Later in the week, as Winkler and Baldwin are waxing enthusiastic over a cocktail dress with a dramatic attached chiffon cape, Kassman will lob a blunt question at the attending salesperson: "How do you shorten it?" And one of Thierry Mugler's slightly bizarre creations, a white satin suit with a black velvet bustle, will be subjected to a simple wearability test: Kassman asks the model to take a seat, so they can see if sitting on the bustle causes decolletage problems in the front. "Excuse me for staring at your bosom," Baldwin says politely to the model. No sale.
Someone will buy those things, though. As Kassman's mother used to tell her -- another Quotation from Chairman Harriet -- "there's a lid for every pot."
FRANTICALLY JUGGLING APPOINT- ments -- if they substitute Isabel Allard for Givenchy this afternoon, can they manage Jacqueline de Ribes on Friday? -- the trio arrives at the modest Freiberger salon off the Rue du Faubourg-St. Honore in late afternoon. Caroline Freiberger, very blonde, very carefully made up and wearing one of her own navy suits, gives a running commentary as two even more carefully made-up women model her designs. The dresses all have names -- "Lydia," "Greta," "Gina."
"This is so good for Washington," Freiberger says of a silk number called "Doris." "All the receptions and cocktail parties -- Washington is a very social city."
Kassman passes on "Doris." She has her own ideas about what's good for Washington. The Washington woman, she likes to say, is "fashionable but not faddy." She's less casual than a Califor- nian, not as drab as a Bostonian, not so very different from a New Yorker. She doesn't, for some reason, like epaulets. And she doesn't want her skirts to hug her fanny.
Kassman et al. will order the minimum three pieces, in various sizes and colors, of 10 styles, including "Dina" and "Clara."
"Delivery?" Winkler asks, the standard closing inquiry.
Beginning in July, concluding by October 15, Freiberger says.
"Oh, no, no, no," Kassman protests. Her customers will be well into the social season by then. End of September, Freiberger amends.
That leaves just one detail to be negotiated. "Four percent, 10 days," says Baldwin. Translation: Within 10 days of receiving the shipment, Harriet Kassman will send Freiberger a check, taking a 4 percent discount for paying cash.
"LC," counters the sales assistant.
"After four seasons?" Winkler sounds incredulous, though such back-and-forth is expected. An LC -- letter of credit -- means that the retailer's bank makes the payment, applying the charges against a line of credit. Usually demanded for new accounts, an LC ensures that the vendor gets paid. But since it adds a couple of hundred dollars to the retailer's cost, and that can add up, Kassman prefers to pay by check.
Three percent, 10 days, comes the counterproposal. Freiberger agrees. Handshakes all around. THURSDAY
THIERRY MUGLER LIKES TO SHOCK. HIS show last week ranged "from Barbarella to burlesque, from outer space to the Berlin Wall," says Women's Wear Daily. Seated around a white plastic table in the Mugler showroom, Kassman and Winkler and Baldwin gaze calmly at black vinyl bike shorts and royal blue cosmonaut boots, sequined rompers over fish-net stockings, pointy bustiers. Then one of the models flounces by in a skintight black suit festooned with chartreuse spider-webbing. It rather resembles the stringy foam that kids squirt out of aerosol cans. "Oh, my God," Kassman says. There's a white sequined dress whose skirt is as round as a pumpkin, its hem rolled and plumped like a sausage. "Oh, my," says Kassman. And there's a black rhinestone-trimmed jacket shown over a, well, it looks like a diaper with a jeweled crotch. "These things," Kassman declares, "don't get sold."
But a sprinkling of Mugler will show up in Kassman's stores. To quote from Chairman Harriet: "Everybody, at one time or another, likes to look sexy." The key is editing, overlooking the scandalous, finding the wearable, tailoring the order for customers who aren't six feet tall and emaciated. "You have to see through it," Kassman explains. "You change it around."
Those shapely jackets shown over nothing but black fish-net hose, for instance. Kassman will order the matching skirts that weren't dramatic enough to make it onto the runway. And the skirts she orders will be considerably longer than the thigh-toppers shown here and throughout Paris. Designers are still in love with teensy skirts, if they don't dispense with skirts entirely. But when they're shipped to Harriet Kassman and other U.S. retailers, the skirts will measure a reasonable 21 to 24 inches, with most customers wearing them just at the top of the knee. The Mugler skirts will also be ordered, at least by Kassman, a size larger than the jackets (Washington women, recall, don't like fanny-cupping skirts).
The Kassman buyers don't want to be too conservative, though. Everyone's intrigued with a clingy little dress, stretch fabric between long strips of vinyl that turn into pointy feathers at the neck and hem, with vinyl sleeves that peel off. "I think it's beautiful," Baldwin says. "Fascinating," Winkler agrees. Kassman objects, but only briefly. They order the dress in black vinyl, Kassman offering to take whoever sells it to lunch at the Jockey Club, and 14 other styles. Ten days, 3 percent. FRIDAY
THE PACE GROWS INCREASINGLY FREnetic as the week winds down. Yesterday, Kassman and crew subwayed from Mugler to a leather specialist in a garmentish district near the Pompidou Center. Bought three suits and two shearling coats, which, the proprietor assured them, come from "Spanish lambs, best in the world." They found a cab and dashed back to the high-rent district for their appointment at Givenchy. Bought a dozen outfits. They returned to the Bristol last night to comb through the Lacroix accessories. Selected maybe 50 items -- tasseled pins, chain chokers, exceedingly dangly earrings that Baldwin calls "bust-dusters."
They did manage to squeeze in a wonderful dinner in a little restaurant where everyone else seemed to be in the rag trade. "I felt like I was on vacation for a whole two hours," Kassman says later. When her husband was alive, she saw more of the City of Light. He was a musician and educator and had studied in Paris; he took her to museums and cathedrals, told taxi drivers where to go in fluent French, ordered the wine. Now, she concentrates on buying. She and her colleagues spent much of the night and this morning writing orders.
In the brief lull before they're expected at Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes's elegant stone mansion, there's a bag lady of sorts coming to their hotel. Rahma Khazam is a Londoner based in Paris who designs suede and leather bags; Baldwin heard about her from "somebody who was a friend of somebody." Kassman loves ferreting out little-known sources like this. She has found a designer in Italy whose labels she actually removes, in hopes of discouraging competitors from tracking him down. "Anyone," she sniffs, "can buy Saint Laurent."
Khazam, young and mop-haired and innocent of slick marketing techniques, lugs green plastic trash bags full of her samples into the hotel lobby. She pulls out purses shaped like bat wings and amoebas that will retail for something like $900. Kassman and company are impressed; Baldwin asks Khazam to send a price list.
Meanwhile -- no time to dawdle -- the comtesse is waiting. Various orders remain to be written and faxed. And early tomorrow morning, Kassman, Winkler and Baldwin will board a plane for Munich.
IT COULD STILL ALL GO AWRY, OF course. Too warm a fall, and those shearling coats from Spanish lambs could languish on the racks. The effects of having a nearby competitor selling Lacroix -- despite Kassman's protestations, Lacroix won't cancel Saks Jandel or accede to her requests -- are unknowable. A certain amount of merchandise is destined for the end-of-season sale. In fact, Kassman buys enough to be sure there's something left for the sale, which lures customers who then also buy full-price clothing. But too many leftovers will eat into her profit margin.
Back in Washington, though, with Paris reduced to a Metro map on her office wall, Kassman is feeling sanguine about her fall purchases. She shows a visitor around the uptown store, where she will preside proudly over her annual fashion show and dinner on September 12. Out there in the marble corridor of 4400 Jenifer St., she'll have large round tables set up. She'll clear the displays out of the store's right wing to set up for dinner, and serve coffee and dessert here in the left wing, where the sportswear normally hangs.
She'll introduce half a dozen new young American designers, but she'll also be sure to show her ladies the things she bought in Europe. The black vinyl Mugler dress will come down the runway, and the Lacroix cat suit (if it arrives in time), Scherrer's suits and Rahma Khazam's handbags.
Then, early in October, Kassman and her sidekicks will be off to Milan, Paris and Munich once more to buy the spring line. She's expecting to see a few long skirts sneaking in among the skimpies, subtler shades after last spring's hot colors, designers mixing drifty chiffons and georgettes with crisp linens. The clothes won't be startlingly different -- "Fashion," Chairman Harriet intones, "is Evolution, not Revolution" -- but they won't be the same. They're never the same. She can't wait.
Paula Span covers New York City for the Style section.