The Style Council
Three up-and-coming designers are building companies that could change the way you dress.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - Just about every fashion designer starts small. Before Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren became eponymous empires, they were entrepreneurs, struggling to get their designs seen (and worn) by the right people. They succeeded thanks to a rare combination of talent, business acumen, and the perseverance to ride out the early bumps inherent in any startup.
Those same traits are evident in the emerging designers profiled here, Adam Kimmel, Jasmin Shokrian, and the duo Johnson Hartig and Cindy Greene of Libertine, all of whom have distinguished themselves early in their careers by turning out sophisticated, original, beautifully rendered clothes.
"I try to carry things back in time, to create a feeling that brings back older values," says 26-year-old men's wear designer Adam Kimmel (adamkimmel.com). That approach may seem odd in someone so young, but the core philosophy behind his year-old clothing line is to put disjointed elements together in surprising juxtapositions. Throughout his spring 2006 collection (his second), Kimmel starts with old-school, classically tailored clothes and injects nearly every piece with something unexpected.
The collection includes a trench coat, a three-button blazer, and a utilitarian jumpsuit--all made from casual terry cloth. Kimmel also dreamed up a tuxedo in navy-blue sweatshirt jersey. And his impeccably tailored suits, the crux of Kimmel's collection, are stitched from the heavy cotton of workmen's uniforms.
Kimmel says he drew inspiration from Willem de Kooning, the abstract expressionist painter. "He was a pure creator, and he stuck to a code of the old masculine values," Kimmel says. "He used to wear the worker fabrics and the overalls. So I found a warehouse that supplies cottons to blue-collar-uniform companies. I brought them to Italy and put them into high tailoring. I've always had fun doing that--trying to mix everything up."
While he may come naturally by the art, Kimmel relies on a college buddy to run the tiny company, which takes in annual revenues of nearly $1 million. His clothes are selling at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, Rolo in San Francisco, Dover Street Market in London, Collette in Paris, and Four Doors in Tokyo.
One recent Tuesday, designer Cindy Greene was putting the finishing touches on a jacket in the tiny studio of the fledgling label she co-owns, Libertine, headquartered in Los Angeles and New York City. Karl Lagerfeld, the revered designer at Chanel, arrived unannounced and purchased almost half the line's spring 2006 samples. "He bought tux jackets and many shirts, and any piece that had the season's crystals," Greene says. "But nothing that had a skull"--a popular Libertine motif--"because he said he already has one." (A Lagerfeld rep confirmed the shopping spree.)
Libertine starts with vintage, highly classic "WASPy" clothes, says Greene's Los Angeles-based business partner, Johnson Hartig--such as collared shirts with French cuffs, tweed blazers, and pleated dresses--to which it adds an artsy-punk edge by emblazoning them with offbeat graphics. These range from the macabre (skulls, spiderwebs, and hatchets) to the botanical (leaves and vines reminiscent of Chinese drawings) to the very American (Abe Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, and the occasional eagle).
Greene, 34, and Hartig, 35, founded Libertine four years ago, almost by accident. Greene, then creative director of DKNY Apparel Graphics, took a vintage shirt and silkscreened a gorilla and a raccoon on it and sent it to her Los Angeles friend Hartig. An artist and self-taught dabbler in fashion, Hartig took in the side seams, frayed the collar and cuffs, added contrasting stitching, and wore the resulting concoction to a party. It was a hit.
Today the Libertine line sells at Barneys, Harvey Nichols in London, and Loveless in Tokyo. Among the brand's fans are Brad Pitt, Mick Jagger, Scarlett Johansson, and artist Damien Hirst.
According to Hartig, the company's revenues are up about 65% over last year, on track to come in at almost $3 million for 2006. The business model of recycling vintage clothes offers some lucrative possibilities. "If we buy a $5 jacket and wholesale it for $500, that's an increase of 10,000%, so it's a lovely profit margin," Hartig says. "Unlike other companies, of course, the amount of clothing we can produce is limited, because each piece is touched by our hands."
Even when Jasmin Shokrian was studying painting, sculpture, and film at the Art Institute of Chicago, she followed fashion obsessively. For one assignment she stood outside the local Barneys department store and photographed any passerby carrying a Prada bag, real or fake. For another, she submitted a blank canvas with a giant hyper-real Prada label painted on the back. (This was during the '90s at the height of the Prada craze.)
While working at her first job, assisting an architect and interior designer, she began tapping her talents as a sculptor. Before long she had stumbled upon the idea of creating a very sculptural take on clothes. In her early collections, otherwise simple silhouettes spill over with romantic drapes, asymmetries, and layers. Often her pieces incorporate an incongruous twist, such as a strategically placed cutout or a shape of black fabric at the small of the back. Her spring 2006 line debuted in the fall in New York City. From the front, the all-silk collection consisted of primordially chic shift dresses paired with equally chic belts, jackets, and capes. The twist? "When she walks away," Shokrian explains, "there's an interesting shape in the back of the silhouette."
After 4 ˝ years, Shokrian's company (jasminshokrian.com), based in Los Angeles, brings in annual revenues of less than $1 million. "I've done all my own PR for the most part, all my own sales," she says. "We do all the production in-house. Everything is made by hand. You're constantly learning how to increase your business."
It doesn't matter who you are or what you offer, new ideas are a tough sell. Click here for more.
For a growing number of retailers, "Made In America" clothing is a good fit. Find out whyTo write a note to the editor about this article, click here.