231-922-9460 | Google +

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Local Color: Shopping at Hometown Designers

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

Foodies transformed our dining tables by teaching us to buy organic lettuce and tasty fresh eggs from local farms. Now, it's increasingly possible to "buy local" with fashion, as more small designers turn to selling directly to consumers in a tough economy.

Beyond the big corporate-owned fashion brands, many excellent designers sell clothes, shoes and accessories from their own storefronts and studios. Michelle Obama has popularized Maria Pinto, a designer in Chicago who has built a regional clientele. But Ms. Pinto is just one of the country's rising local designers -- people who may have just laid down their shears when they show you around the shop.

At the Hunt & Gather shop in Vancouver's Gastown district last Friday, chic designs hung in the front of the store -- and in the back, designer Natalie Purschwitz felted wool for shawls, a process that involves raw wool, hot water and soap. "I'm working during the day while people are shopping," Ms. Purschwitz says. "It's crazy, I know."

Do you know any terrific designers who sell directly to consumers out of their studios? Tell us what they do, where they are, and how we can reach them on Heard on the Runway.

Shopping at small shops isn't as fast as dashing into Zara or H&M, which have predictable merchandise from Los Angeles to Paris. But for consumers, the benefits are as clear as the crisp flavor of locally grown foods: The clothes are exclusive, and the designers often offer alterations and special orders -- as well as the pleasure of personal interaction with them.

That's true luxury -- without the layers of markups, showroom overhead and shipping that are built into the prices at upscale retail stores. "You don't pay for marketing for my shoes; you pay for craft," says George Esquivel, who sells custom-made shoes in Los Angeles to clients including the basketball player Yao Ming. Mr. Esquivel's shoes have an artisanal quality -- no two pairs are precisely alike, and he can make them to fit any foot.

Local designers are often willing to custom-make their designs. "I can hammer out a bangle to fit any hand," says Judith Bright, a Memphis, Tenn., jewelry designer whose work can be found on the TV show "Gossip Girls" and at Henri Bendel.

Then there's the psychological satisfaction of finding good designs in your own neighborhood. The carbon footprint of locally bought designs is smaller than clothes that were designed in Paris, assembled in China and sold in Chicago. And, of course, it's fun to name-drop a small designer: You sound so in-the-know.

Though it's an intrinsic pleasure for the customer to "meet the artist," it's less obvious that designers would want to mingle with customers. Yet many artisans say that has become an increasingly important part of their business.

In the South End of Boston, Sara Campbell sells elegantly tailored womenswear from her shop on Plympton Street. Her design studio is in back. If you try on a dress or suit, it may well be Ms. Campbell who assists you. She thinks buying local is catching on. "I think society is going back to it -- you know, the old barber shop," she says.

Both Ms. Campbell and Ms. Purschwitz used to work out of private studios and sold their designs to retailers. When they needed new workspaces, they both happened to find studios that had storefronts. VoilĂ . Ms. Campbell says her shop is more profitable than her wholesale sales. "It's where my margin is," she says.

For designers, direct sales offer an instant payoff and a bigger cut of the profits than sales through stores. But studio sales are productive in other ways, too. Elaine Kim, in Los Angeles, began selling her graceful silk and wool designs from her studio this fall, and these days she can often be found moving from customer to customer, discussing different ways of wearing a garment. "I've learned so much about what works, what people want right now, says Ms. Kim, adding that customers seem pleased by the exclusivity of such sales.

Jason Evege sells his finely made bed linens online, but he has been holding what he calls "atelier moments" when customers come to his New York studio, Linoto. "That hands-on experience -- with fabric, customers and a team of expert seamstresses -- is the 'grounded' part of fashion that I really love," he says.

Many of these local designers report that customers tend to buy more when they're served by the designer rather than another salesperson. Little wonder: I find designers offer the best advice about how to wear their creations.

Customers may also be swayed by the rich experience of shopping in a design studio. When I visited the L.A. store Undesigned by Carol Young recently, the designer was editing photos for her Web site as she sat by the cash register. Dora, her beagle, waddled out to greet customers. In Ms. Young's design studio in back, patterns for her neatly minimal dresses, jackets and pants hung from one wall, while a big cutting table hid two sewing machines.

I have a number of items in my closet from local designers, and I cherish each item and the memory of buying it. When my driver in Milan last fall mentioned that his mother designs shoes with a label called Rose's Roses, I asked him to take me to her studio on the fashionable Corso Lodi. Next thing I knew, the designer, Rosa Aiuto, was helping me try on a pair of heels (which I bought at close to the wholesale price). You never know where such adventures can lead -- it turned out that she had designed the shoes for Vera Wang's spring 2009 runway collection. I'll be back.