A runway for one
As the scattering of events that passes for fashion week this spring gets under way, the region’s independent and emerging designers find themselves without a “big tent” Los Angeles Fashion Week at precisely the same time retailers and consumers are feeling the full force of the economic squeeze. Spending is down, shelf space is tight, and trunk shows and personal appearances are fewer and farther between.
But necessity being the mother of reinvention, L.A.'s design community has midwifed a “bricks and clicks” approach to help it reach more customers while spending fewer dollars. Some, such as Society for Rational Dress designer Corinne Grassini and red carpet fixture Kevan Hall, have decided to open their showrooms and ateliers to the general public. Others, such as Whitley Kros, Chip & Pepper Jeans and skate shoemaker Vans, have ramped up their online presence with blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages.
Both approaches have the same result: The designers’ product, aesthetic, vision and inspiration are communicated directly to consumers, bypassing the traditional infrastructure that includes retailers, runway show producers and the media. It’s hyper-personal fashion -- a runway for one.
For Hall, whose retail atelier at 8313 Beverly Blvd. opens Friday, the original motivation was logistical -- he found himself spending too much time shuttling between a production facility and a showroom and design space. “So when this building opened up, we decided to combine it all under one roof,” he said. But because he also has a customer following that seeks him out for custom-made, one-of-a-kind pieces, he decided to create an environment conducive to that.
The result is a 5,000-square-foot retail atelier with dark wood and gray slate floors, light gray walls, streaming sunlight and a view of the Hollywood Hills. Customers who enter the second-floor space can buy ready-to-wear pieces from the retail area just past the receptionist’s desk. Celebrity stylists and VIP clients can pull red carpet gowns from a third-floor area Hall calls the “stylist’s loft.” Runway-show videos of past collections will loop on a flat-screen TV, and his office will be tucked behind two mirrored doors.
“We also plan on having intimate teas and luncheons with some of our ladies,” Hall said. “A client can pull together 10 of her friends, come in. We bring in lunch, run the videos of the shows and they get a chance to meet the designer and have a consultation. I wanted to make the environment feel like a beautiful apartment where people can feel relaxed enough to shop and just hang out.”
Hall says that though he didn’t embark on the retail atelier project (which has been in progress since he relocated to the space a year ago) solely out of economic concern, he expects it to be a boost to his business.
“With everything that’s going on in the retail world, I’m glad I can have both -- my own retail as well as bring in the specialty stores around the country that we work with,” (a list that includes Mimi in New Orleans and Stanley Korshak in Dallas).
Grassini says she started to think about ways to be more efficient in the production and sale of her Society for Rational Dress clothing line when the economy began to go bad. Her answer, like Hall’s, was to throw open the doors. She calls her showroom-workspace on Santa Fe Avenue in downtown Los Angeles “an unrestricted retail environment.”
“I realized that we have quite a bit of space here that I’ve opened up for sample sales and private shopping events in the past, and thought, why not open it as a retail location for all the goods we have in stock from store closings and canceled shipments? I’ve already got the space, so there’s no downside to it -- no risk.”
Grassini’s found other ways to be more efficient too, repurposing stock fabric leftovers and trim from past seasons. “We might cut a couple new pieces in fabrics we have laying around -- kind of trying to reuse and recycle some of the things we already have.”
Called Reserve, the appointment-only store was to open officially Saturday, and Grassini already sees an added benefit. “Not only do I get the feedback directly from the customer, but when people come into someplace like my showroom or Kevan’s, they’re building a rapport with the designer. They’re coming to the studio where the patterns are cut and the samples are made. It makes the manufacturing process a little more real to customers.”
Another thing that makes a label feel more real is the kind of social interaction the Internet can provide. Designers’ home pages, blogs and e-commerce sites are hardly new territory, but the level of interaction has become more sophisticated -- and personalized. A little over a year ago, the Vans brand launched a blog called Off the Wall, which trolls pop culture for high-profile appearances of the skate shoe.
In November, the company went cutting edge by adding a Vans Twitter feed -- in essence a micro-blogging service that blasts “followers” (subscribers) with 140-character messages. And, just last month, L.A.-based Chip & Pepper Jeans launched a blog of its own that’s a folksy riff on everything from Tom Arnold’s wardrobe choices for “My Big Fat Redneck Wedding” to maternity jeans and founders Chip and Pepper Foster’s love for Canada -- all of which inevitably circle back to a piece of purchasable Chip & Pepper paraphernalia.
But Whitley Kros, the L.A. label launched in October 2007 by Marissa Ribisi and Sophia Coloma, took things a step further when they started blogging last June -- not as designers, but as the fictitious, globe-trotting Whitley Kros character who serves as their muse/model customer.
“The Chad has not left my bed in 6 days. Christmas came and went. He finally left this morning to get clothes and buy cigarettes,” reads the Dec. 28 blog entry. “Below is my friend’s hand on the balcony of his flat in that little tiny city island of Paris,” reads the most recent one, which was accompanied by a photograph.
Clicking on a ceramic squirrel on the home page reveals some of Whitley’s favorite artists (including Beck, husband of Ribisi and contributor of artwork), places (Rose Bowl Flea Market) and things (a Spanish latte from Urth Caffe). “You can see where she’s traveling, and see her boyfriend and all of these things that elaborate [on a character] we’d already developed,” Coloma said. “And we’ve found that the blog has been an effective way of marketing during the current economy.”
Coloma said that several other bloggers have started to follow their peripatetic character, which widens exposure even further. In addition, Coloma and Ribisi do occasional trend reports and have started to do what’s now become de rigueur for labels of all sizes -- sending e-mail blasts that name-drop celebrities who’ve been spotted wearing the label. “It’s very low cost -- apart from labor -- and since Marissa and I can do it, it’s a pretty cost effective way to market [the brand] in a tough economic time.”
She said the brand’s MySpace and Facebook pages serve as a conduit for the sort of customer interaction and feedback that usually happens at trunk shows and in-store appearances -- and help drive traffic to their online store. (They’re also exploring Twitter, though they haven’t made that leap yet).
“We’ve sold to Russian and Swedish customers. We’ve got customers in a bunch of different countries,” Coloma said. “So instead of one customer spending $500, we’re finding that they’re spending $100, so we just have to find at least five times as many people. And we’re doing that -- reaching the world with no overhead.”
Hall, Grassini and the Whitley Kros duo all plan to maintain some physical presence during what would be L.A. Fashion Week. Grassini was invited to participate in the Gen Art/BOXeight/kickoff runway show March 13, Hall is hosting a solo runway show and 700-seat charity luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Thursday evening, and Whitley Kros is hosting a presentation/art installation tonight. But they’ve also made it clear that with a sour economy and the fashion calendar in chaos, they can still connect the catwalk to the customer -- one or two at a time.
And whether it’s online or on premises, there’s an added benefit to runway 2.0: Everyone gets the best seat in the house.
Kevan Hall Designs, 8313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 658-7979, opening Friday, www.kevanhalldesigns.com. Society for Rational Dress launches Reserve, 255 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles. By appointment only, by e-mailing email@example.com. Whitley Kros’ “personal” blog online at www.whitleykros.com/blog.