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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fashion's Latest Comeback Attempt

A 1990s design star is trying to rise again with a new collection

Eighteen years ago, designer Christian Francis Roth was on top of the designer fashion world. At age 21, he had won over critics and retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue with his inventive pieces, such as a suit featuring a fried-egg motif and dresses with sleeves designed to look like giant crayons.

He was among the first designers to introduce grunge-inspired looks on high-end runways. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York obtained more than 20 of his pieces for its permanent collection, and in 1990, the year his first full line debuted, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him its prestigious Perry Ellis award for emerging talent.

"It was astonishing to see so much technical virtuosity in someone so young," says Harold Koda, chief curator for the Met's Costume Institute.

But while Mr. Roth's $2,000 dresses sold well, his company didn't generate profits. And his focus on design, rather than on running a business, proved to be his downfall. In 1995, he shuttered his high-end label and put out a lower-end line for two more years before finally giving up.

Now, after 11 years of toiling in obscurity as a designer for midtier brands such as Tommy Bahama and Nordstrom's private-label Caslon line, Mr. Roth is hoping to join the ranks of Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham and others whose earlier businesses failed and have since managed a comeback. His new line, called Francis by Christian Francis Roth, is scheduled to be shown at fashion week in New York next month.

The line will be priced well below high-end labels like Versace and Chloe; jackets will cost $425 to $675, and dresses, $350 to $525. The clothing will be manufactured in China, which Mr. Roth sees as a way to produce well-crafted pieces at more affordable prices. And he has the financial backing of Peonie Ng, owner of Gold Palace Corp. Ltd., a Hong Kong company that made clothing for middle-market lines such as Bernardo, which is sold at Macy's and Bon Ton, and is trying to break into the high-end business. Mr. Roth and Ms. Ng, equal partners in the venture, also plan to launch a lower-priced line in China and Korea in the next few years. The decision to finance that, however, will hinge on how many retailers pick up the Francis line at Fashion Week.

Starting a designer apparel business now could be risky. The fashion industry has been hit hard by the economic downturn, as shoppers have scaled back on apparel spending. Retail sales of women's apparel are expected to decline this year, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., market-research firm.

And while many fashion insiders remember Mr. Roth, he's largely unknown to a new generation of shoppers. David Wolfe, creative director for Doneger Group, a retail consultancy based in New York, says retailers may be less likely to try unproven lines or only willing to place small orders. Still, Mr. Wolfe says that Mr. Roth could have the benefit of "being that oxymoron of 'proven newness' -- he's brand new, but we've heard of him before."

Mr. Roth acknowledges it's a difficult time to launch a new brand, but he believes he's better equipped to build a successful business now than he was in the 1990s. Before, he says, he thought mostly about his designs. Now he's also focused on addressing the needs of retailers, who want a range of pieces, not just a few, splashy items; his runway show will feature about 30 ensembles. "I think I am a better merchant now, now that I've worked for some of these bigger companies," he says.

Gold Palace, which employs 650 employees and has two factories, in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, had been looking to diversify and was seeking a designer to create a global fashion brand. Billy Chan, a spokesman for Gold Palace, says the company was taken with Mr. Roth -- they met while working together on Bernardo. "We were impressed by his designs, "Mr. Chan says. "He's very adaptable and he has a network in New York -- we felt his product would go on to have big sales."

But having a partner means not having total control. Mr. Roth and Mr. Chan have clashed over how the new line should be unveiled. Gold Palace believes a more modest showroom display is the way to go during fashion week. "At this early stage, I don't think we need a big show -- a small one that is very tidy and organized is better," says Mr. Chan. Mr. Roth argues that his clothes will best attract retailers' attention -- and orders -- if he presents them in a runway show. "I think we need to see the clothes on models," Mr. Roth says.

After months of back and forth on the issue, Mr. Chan has given Mr. Roth a budget of $10,000 to $20,000 for his show, both parties say. So instead of holding it in an official fashion week tent in New York's Bryant Park (a format that can cost more than $100,000), Mr. Roth plans to stage it in a church gymnasium next to his studio.

The 39-year-old designer's preoccupation with fashion began in New York City, where he grew up. As a boy, he found himself drawn to the city's stylish women, their clothing and the places they shopped. By age 14, he was putting on his Walkman and heading to Bergdorf Goodman, browsing the windows, wandering through the store and examining how garments were constructed. When he got home, he'd mock up covers of Vogue filled with images of what he'd seen.

In high school, Mr. Roth landed a summer job working for Koos van den Akker, and went to work for the Dutch-born designer full time when he was 17. In 1988, with a loan from his mentor, Mr. Roth struck out on his own: He designed seven jackets and showed them to buyers from Saks and other stores. That first year, Mr. Roth rang up $45,000 in wholesale sales. Within two years, he says, he was doing $250,000 in wholesale, a figure that would triple after his first fashion show in 1990. Women's Wear Daily dubbed him the "Doogie Howser of fashion."

At the height of his career, Mr. Roth was logging $2 million a year in wholesale sales -- a respectable figure for a small specialty-apparel business -- but still wasn't turning a profit. His label's high prices -- because of manufacturing only in the U.S. -- were a hindrance to his expansion. With labor costs for a jacket hovering around $300, Mr. Roth's retail prices were well over $1,000. His Hobo jackets, with cartoonish applique patches, retailed for $1,550. His "scribble" suit, with details that looked like they'd been sketched on with a giant pencil, went for $2,500.

"Small and special -- that's how people saw me," Mr. Roth recalls. "There was no room for growth." Now, he says, he incorporates what he believes merchants and shoppers want into his production process.

In July, for example, Mr. Roth did something he never did in the 1990s -- he invited retailers to preview his Spring 2009 sketches and offer feedback. After Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing noted during his visit that he liked bright colors and sellable separates, Mr. Roth immediately began stitching together new samples of colorful silk chiffon blouses.

"If [the line] looks as great in person as it does in the [sketches] and his prices are competitive with similar lines, he'll do well," Mr. Downing says. "I'm anxious to see it."

Mr. Downing says he'll decide whether he'll carry the line at Neiman Marcus after he sees Mr. Roth's show at Fashion Week.

By: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Wall Street Journal; August 16, 2008