NEW YORK —Gia Ghezzi is hunched over a photo of a model stomping the runway at Altuzarra’s fall fashion show, and she’s dazzled by the outfit: A calf-skimming velvet skirt paired with pointy, lace-up boots and a sheer turtleneck blouse.
Yet she knows plenty could go wrong if she tries to sell this look to her customers.
“It has to have some sort of major sex appeal — otherwise it’s going to look so grandma,” Ghezzi says to the designers sitting alongside her at a conference table.
Ghezzi is fashion director at Intermix, a Gap-owned chain of stores known for its trendy mix of upscale clothes, some of which are designed in-house by Intermix’s creative team and others that are made by labels such as Proenza Schouler, Rag & Bone and Cushnie et Ochs. Intermix targets affluent women — from college students to moms of grown kids — who seek out unique, of-the-moment pieces and for whom fashion is a means of expression, not an afterthought.
Ghezzi is the chain’s creative force, and with chief merchant Denise Magid, she leads Intermix through a perennial challenge in the apparel business: translating the outlandish and wildly expensive clothes seen on the runways of Paris and Milan into looks that women want to wear on a date, at Sunday brunch or when presenting in the boardroom.
As they buy and design the merchandise that will hit their 43 stores this fall, the Intermix team bats around some not-at-all frivolous questions: Has the fringe trend peaked? How do we work more color into our night-out looks when our go-to designers have so much black in their collections? Can we create a budget-friendly version of that $5,000 embellished top we saw on the runway?
Intermix’s bottom line depends on getting the answers right. (Gap doesn’t disclose revenue or same-store sales figures for Intermix, so it’s difficult to know whether they’re hitting the mark. Gap, which is struggling mightily to boost sales at its flagship brand and Banana Republic, has said that it hopes to tap into Intermix’s knowledge of high fashion and trends as it tries to get those brands out of their ruts.)
Even as the retail sector has come to rely heavily on data science to shape everything from marketing to merchandising, Ghezzi and Magid say that, at Intermix, the process of identifying trends and must-have pieces remains something of an art.
“It’s instinct,” Magid said.
Yet that’s not to say the process hasn’t changed: H&M, Zara and Forever 21 have built souped-up supply chains that get hot trends into stores within weeks. This has stepped up pressure on Intermix and other trend-focused retailers to speed their design and buying processes.
That’s a tricky challenge for Intermix: It doesn’t control the manufacturing of the dozens of brands it carries. And even for its private-label clothes, it’s hard to bring H&M-type speed to lower volumes of production with finer fabrics and craftsmanship.
These faster turnarounds leave little room for error as Ghezzi and her team try to divine what women will want to buy a few weeks or months down the road.
Each season, the process starts with assembling a trend report, effectively the Intermix bible.
It doesn’t cover every trend Ghezzi and Magid saw as they crisscrossed the globe in February and March, going to fall runway presentations and market appointments — only the ones they believe Intermix should pounce on.
First up this year is one they’ve dubbed “hippie swagger.” Its page in the report showcases pieces such as a dramatic fringe-trimmed gown from Chloe and a floor-grazing Zimmermann maxi dress in a rich shade of cognac.
Sure, they picked these looks because the aesthetic is on point for their customers, but there’s a hard dollars-and-cents agenda behind all that fringe and suede.
“We felt like it was transitional,” Ghezzi said. “We have to always keep that in mind. With 15 hot and temperate [stores], during the kickoff of the season, it’s still really warm.”
In other words, these are fall pieces shoppers might be tempted to buy even when it’s beach weather.
They’ll also try to capture a vibe they call “ ’70s sophisticated swagger.” (If you’re scratching your head wondering how that’s different from “hippie swagger,” think “American Hustle”-style trench coats and wide-leg trousers instead of Woodstock-ready ponchos.) They believe this theme will appeal to women seeking a “desk-to-drinks” wardrobe. Both concepts feature plenty of cognac and camel, colors they’ve zeroed in on as the most dominant for this fall.
The trend-scouting doesn’t stop there: Intermix also identifies items the team believes will be must-haves. This fall, Ghezzi and Magid are banking on a big comeback for the turtleneck, which has been in the fashion backwater for years.
Now it’s all over their “buying board,” a long hallway in their Flatiron District offices that’s lined with photos of every clothing item they plan to put in their stores. In August and September, the turtlenecks emerge: a fitted sweater with zig-zag stripes, a flowy white-and-camel top, a knit sweater dress.
Telegraphing an “it” piece is a gamble, of course. There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks to consider. Their Southern stores, for instance, will want lightweight versions because cozy, chunky ones won’t sell in a swelter. Plus, they imagine women won’t quite know what jewelry to pair with turtlenecks, so mannequins and in-store stylists are going to be crucial to show how to put a look together.
Once they’ve landed on the trends to run with, they’ve got to figure out how to get them into their stores. That’s where the buyers and designers come in, creating a curated mix of pieces that are in sync with runway styles but aren’t quite as expensive.
In a tiny showroom on the sixth floor of a Midtown high-rise, a model in a white cocktail dress is slipping into her umpteenth pair of shoes.
She poses elegantly in the tasteful nude pump with a low, chunky heel, but even the shoe’s designer, Edgardo Osorio, sees it right away.
“It’s not the Intermix girl,” Osorio says gently but bluntly.
Intermix’s senior buyer of designer shoes and bags, Fabianne Espinola, can’t help but agree. The model moves on to the next shoe.
Espinola is at a buying appointment at the New York showroom for Aquazzura, a footwear line that debuted in 2011 and has been a darling of fashionistas, who have snapped up its glamorous, sultry styles.
As Espinola surveys the showroom, she’s looking for pieces that suit the trends and color palettes Ghezzi and Magid have selected. Some are slam dunks, such as a cutout bootie that fits with the ’70s trend and the cognac color palette.
Other choices are more challenging, and that’s when you see the two teams slip into a ritualistic retail two-step: Aquazzura does everything it can to politely nudge Intermix to buy a big haul of shoes, and Intermix works to judiciously but graciously pick only the pieces it is sure it can sell.
Espinola loves a pair of crystal-studded lace-up flats — but not their retail price of $1,100. That’s too much for the Intermix shopper to spend on a casual shoe. The Aquazzura team says they can make them without the crystals for Intermix, and they could be sold for $695. That keeps them in Espinola’s “yes” pile.
Later, Osorio shows Espinola a glimmering pair of evening heels that hadn’t made her first cut. Once she sees them on the model’s foot, she warms to them, but with a $1,600 price tag, she knows it will only work as a limited buy: These will be for Intermix’s Madison Avenue store and its e-commerce site. A wallet-buster like that won’t sell well in smaller stores.
The tattoo on Ghezzi’s right forearm says “in pursuit of magic.” That seems to be exactly her mind-set as her team of in-house designers present fabric options for the night-out tops and dresses they are working on for fall. Some offerings don’t wow her, such as a sample of Skittles-colored leather squares connected by black thread. But she lights up when they pull out swatches of orchid and magenta velvet.
“Stop! I have goose bumps,” she squeals.
These private-label designers have to plug the holes in Intermix’s lineup left unfilled by other brands — perhaps because the look wasn’t exactly right or the price was eye-popping.
This season, designers Vanessa Spencer and Donna Potter have been tasked with elevating the selection of night-out tops.
“We saw only black dresses in market,” Ghezzi said. “So now we want to figure out how it can be more glamorous.”
The purple velvets just may hold the key.
“How can we do something where we piece all of these together?” Ghezzi asks Potter and Spencer, examining the swatches scattered on the table.
The ideas ping-pong from there. Potter and Spencer will develop a camisole in these fabrics that a woman can throw on with jeans for a night on the town. But they like the fabric so much, they won’t just consider it for tops. They’ll also cook up a casual-cool dress and a body-hugging dress to wear to events. If the fancier dress doesn’t feel right for fall, they can kick it to the holiday season, when these festive pieces are always in demand.
As they wrap up the meeting, Ghezzi can’t help but get ahead of herself.
“If there’s one color I’m sure of for resort” — that’s their next design season — “it’s this one,” she says, pointing to a canary-yellow dress in their inspiration packet. “And this is actually perfect. The perfect shade. I know we’re typically afraid to go yellow —”
“It has that warmth, and the depth . . . ” Potter cuts in.
“Yeah, it’s like sunshine!” Ghezzi says.
“Exactly. And it’s not just that bright, random, lemon yellow,” Potter says.
“Totally agree,” Ghezzi says.
Just like that, next season’s look is taking shape.