BY DESIGN : Q & A : Allen Bruce Schwartz : A Cool Copycat
Los Angeles garment manufacturer a.b.s. is at the eye of an international fashion storm. Named for founder and design director Allen Bruce Schwartz, the $50-million company made its mark by offering timely, high-quality copies of more expensive designs through its own boutiques, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Bullock’s.
This summer, Gianni Versace launched a public attack on Schwartz after a version of the Milanese designer’s pink safety-pinned punk dress turned up in the window of an a.b.s. boutique in South Miami Beach right next door to Versace’s new store.
At that time, Schwartz was unavailable for comment. He’d started his summer vacation to escape the obsessive glare of publicity surrounding close friend O.J. Simpson. (“I believe in his innocence totally.”) But as a.b.s.’ spring-summer 1995 line--which includes many couture-inspired looks--heads to market, the 49-year-old Schwartz talked about Versace’s charges with writer Maureen Sajbel.
Question: Designers and retail stores have done quick, less expensive copies of haute couture and European ready-to-wear clothes since WWII. Why do you think there’s a heated debate now over copying?
Answer: It’s strictly a bully tactic. (Other designers) see us coming up with similar feelings and trends that are open to anybody. They get nervous. They start threatening stores like Saks and Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and going public.
The nerve of this guy, Versace, walking into an a.b.s. boutique and making one of my girls cry and causing a scene. Like he was a Picasso. I called the landlord and said next time he came in I’m calling the police.
Q: Is it true you had a fairly accurate duplicate of his pink dress with the safety pins in the window?
A: Yes, but I want you to know where this comes from. This comes from street fashion. There are girls walking around with safety pins in their belly buttons, in their noses. We see the same things. My design team is combing the streets of London, Paris, St. Tropez, Soho, thrift shops, Melrose, Tribeca,everywhere.
Q: Have you been sued or threatened?
A: Absolutely not. He hasn’t even written a letter. I will tell you that Mr. Versace is the one who better look in the mirror. He’s the big knockoff guy. He knocks off Chanel. And then he puts his own flair on it. He’s not doing anything new. The Versace line that I see looks like a direct copy of the wardrobe of “Miami Vice” of 10 years ago, with all the pinks, pastels, bright colors and Nik-Nik shirts that came in engineered prints. He just made them in the ‘90s and took credit for it. Isn’t it funny that Giorgio (Armani) or Karl (Lagerfeld)never make mention of (the subject of copies)?
Q: They don’t have stores right next to yours.
A: I think Versace saw the thing staring him in the face. So he got his Irish up. That’s his problem. I think he threatened to pull his line out of several stores. He insinuated that a.b.s. has dresses similar to his. Well you know what? That’s what I’m all about. I’m about making runway clothing for $3,500 that I interpret to look right at $180 to $230. That’s my genius.
Q: What’s a comparison of price?
A: The Versace-type dress that he mentioned this particular time was about $1,200. Ours was $140.
Q: You’ve admitted that you once took an Armani jacket apart to see how it was constructed.
A: Absolutely. I admire the construction of Armani’s clothing. I’m inspired every single day of my waking life . . . by what a cab driver is wearing for a hat . . . by a fabric that Armani may run. Anything can inspire me. I’m tuned in. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve never looked at an Armani or Versace. If they want to be honest, they probably have done the same thing, conversely speaking.
My real inspiration comes from movies, the street and the timeliness of what’s happening.
Q: There must have been some land-speed record broken last year after the couture showed short skirts. Barely had we seen them in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily when you had them in your stores.
A: In a week.
Q: With that kind of speed, can you virtually match any trend going on?
A: Absolutely. That’s why a.b.s. is getting all this constructive criticism.
Q: You consider this constructive?
A: Absolutely. When that Versace article broke, we must have had 100 calls that day from buyers for appointments to come up and see our line who’d never bought our line. Specialty store owners throughout the country who said, ‘Gee, we didn’t know you did those looks. We always wanted a version of that for a little less money.’ It’s the finest form of flattery.
Q: Any downside?
A: The downside is when they don’t talk about you.
Q: What do you think of the verdict in the Yves Saint Laurent vs. Ralph Lauren case, in which Saint Laurent successfully sued Lauren for copying his women’s tuxedo dress?
A: I really felt that it was an overplay and I think it will probably be reversed anyway. It was grandstanding by Saint Laurent. And it was tried in Europe. If it came to the States, it would have made it into the paper for about a minute.
Q: What do you say to answer a statement made by a Saint Laurent lawyer: “Each time a piece is copied, its value diminishes. From the moment the clientele sees a dress everywhere, they lose interest.”
A: It’s hogwash. There’s no such thing as a woman coming in from Connecticut to buy her couture and sitting and having caviar at a department store and buying her whole wardrobe. There may be a quarter of 1% of the population that buys that way today. That customer is over.
Q: You’re not counterfeiting. That’s a completely different thing--that’s illegal. What you’re doing--closely inspired designs traditionally called knockoffs--is perfectly legal.
A: Absolutely. Fashion is open to anybody. That’s what fashion is. Should we turn our back on a kilt because someone else innovates it? If I innovate a stretch dress or taffeta, is someone else going to say, ‘Oh I better not do this’? What is this? Being on the trend is what drives the whole business. That’s what’s driving a.b.s.