Being Brian Atwood

NEW YORK — It’s shortly before noon on a warm fall day in Manhattan’s Garment District, and students from the Fashion Institute of Technology are rushing off to classes with portfolios in hand.

Two blocks away and 18 stories up, Brian Atwood is sitting in his apartment, which is meticulously decorated with classic photos of Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol and towers of architecture books. He is reflective, thinking about how far he’s come since his own days on the campus.

“It’s come full circle,” said the designer, who launched his footwear career in 1996 at Versace.

Atwood, who left his latest high-profile gig at Bally earlier this year after his collections for the fashion house drew mixed reviews, is ready to make it all about him.

“It’s a huge moment,” he said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, [but] everything I’m doing now is completely mine. It’s definitely exciting to give all my energy [to my own brand].”

Atwood partnered with The Jones Group in late August to roll out contemporary line B Brian Atwood for fall ’11, and he is determined to grow his eponymous collection into a global lifestyle enterprise.

Business is on track to be up more than twofold for 2010, and Atwood has been steadily building his retail roster, which now includes more than 100 doors.

Saks Fifth Avenue has increased its buy significantly over the past year and now carries about 20 styles.

“[Brian] has an incredible sense of color and materials, [and] there is always something new and exciting every season,” said Tracy Margolies, VP and DMM of women’s footwear at Saks Fifth Avenue.

With strong partnerships in place, the designer is ready to push the boundaries of the label, which racks up about $10 million in sales, according to industry insiders. Atwood is seriously considering branded retail, which could bow by the end of next year, and is eyeing new categories, especially ready-to-wear and handbags. Also on the wish list: men’s shoes, jewelry and sunglasses.

Atwood also believes there is major potential in the contemporary segment, which has been a bright spot for many retailers. If all goes according to plan, the designer predicts the lower priced line, set to retail for $200 to $500, could eventually make up about half of his overall business.

The five-year partnership with Jones has afforded Atwood the ability to work with an industry powerhouse, and Jones will become a much bigger player in the designer space.

“[Our strategy is] to nurture design talent into highdemand, global branded businesses, [and] Brian is an ideal fit,” said Richard Dickson, CEO of Jones’ branded businesses.

While he’s been attracting attention from big footwear players, Atwood has also continued to build his following in Hollywood, where he has always had a loyal fan base. “Brian’s designs are a true reflection of who he is as a businessman and innovator: sexy, elegant, smart,” said Kate Hudson.

There’s no bigger Atwood fan than stylist and friend Rachel Zoe, who consistently names the designer’s sleek Maniac platform pump as a must-have for the red carpet.

“[Brian] brings my sole fantasies to life again and again with innovation and major style,” Zoe said. “Every girl wants to be in a pair of Atwood heels.”

That’s becoming even more of a reality as his star continues to rise.

“It’s all been very organic in coming together in this amazing way,” Atwood said. “All of the hard work is paying off.”

FN: You’ve generated a lot of buzz with the Jones deal. Why was now the time to dive into the contemporary world?

BA: [My team] had discussed doing a less-expensive line four or five years ago, and I said no. The brand wasn’t ready. Five years ago we were a baby. We weren’t really in the marketplace in the way we needed to be, and putting [a lower-priced collection] out there then would have confused the consumer. But now, after nine years, we’ve really started to build something, and it just seemed right. It’s a really perfect way to reach a broader audience. If we keep the same values as the main line, make it the best quality it can be and give it the same energy we put into the namesake line, why not? There are so many women out there [wanting our shoes]. Let’s get them all in Brian Atwoods.

FN: What made Jones the right fit for the partnership?
BA: Their distribution channels and production capabilities are endless, and to see what they have done and still can do with Nine West, Boutique 9, Joan & David, Stuart Weitzman and [all their other brands] is astounding. Jones has a great team of really knowledgeable people, and the thing that impressed me a lot was the energy. Everyone was so excited and positive. You could feel something big was happening, and that was euphoric.

FN: How will B Brian Atwood be different from your main line?
BA: It will have certain elements that I stand for, whether it’s color or fabrication, but it will be more East Village cool and a little less red-carpet.

FN: You spent nearly 15 years working at major fashion houses, and now you’re designing for only your own name. How are you adjusting to the change?
BA: I only designed for myself for a quick year-and-a-half between Versace and Bally, and it’s exciting to give it my full energy [and] creative thoughts, on everything from the leather to the lining. I’ve hired a team in Milan, [which] is flying here to meet me next week. It’s a young, international group, and it’s great to have them [on board] and inspired.

FN: Would you ever consider designing for another large fashion house again?

BA: No. It’s now about building [Brian Atwood].

 

FN: What’s the most fulfilling aspect of being in the footwear industry?
BA:
Besides making women happy? Because that’s my No. 1. Women and their shoes is such a magical and personal relationship, and for people to save their money and spend their income to buy my shoes is the biggest compliment I could receive. [As for the industry specifically], I love that it still feels [small]. It’s such a huge industry, but I love that it almost feels like a home-run business. People will give you their opinions, and other shoe designers aren’t afraid to talk about their successes. It’s not that much of a back-stabbing industry, which is really a plus.

FN: What are some of the frustrating things?
BA: Deliveries, factories, production — all of that is always challenging, but it’s something everyone is dealing with. Of course, [footwear is technically] more difficult [than ready-to-wear], with shoe [parts] coming from all different places. I can’t just do it at a sewing machine. I need the structure, the heel, the upper and all the components. … I source mainly from Italy and some from France. We’re very local, and it’s convenient that I’m in Milan and my factory is less than an hour from where I am. So if there’s drama — and there always is — I can easily get there.

FN: How does your international lifestyle influence the way you design?
BA: It’s always been very important to me to have that link to Europe, and Italy has been that link. You definitely get a different flair just being [there]. Being in New York is great because you see so many different things on the street, and then you go back to Europe and see a totally different aesthetic.

FN: Will the Jones deal help you expand your own line?
BA: This will certainly help plans for other divisions move along. We’ll look into retail space, whether it’s in the next year or the following year. We’ve spoken about doing a small online store [for the main line] with just our top [styles], like the Maniacs, and a very tight [selection of the] staples, and that could happen as early as February. I [don’t want it to be] competitive with our retailers, but I see it as something a little special and done by us, like the Italian expression, “fatto in casa.” I like that little term, like “made in the home.”

FN: What other categories would you like to venture into?
BA: Ready-to-wear is very high on the list. I’m all about the glamour and the sexy part of dressing women. It would have some gorgeous dresses and maybe a fur and great leather jackets, things that women wear and love to be dressed in. And I would like to get into handbags, jewelry and sunglasses. If it fits and makes sense to the brand, then we should be open to doing it. … I’ve even played around with doing a men’s collection, but men aren’t like women, so it’s a little more complicated, but so much fun. If I get really excited about something, I want to do it. … I’d want to [launch new categories] with the core collection first, so [if we’re going to do additional categories with B Brian Atwood within three years], we have got to move on this.

FN: Are there any new markets you’re targeting?
BA: We’d like to grow in Asia and have been looking at India, [more spots] in the Middle East and Brazil. Brazil fascinates me, and much like what happened with Russia a few years back, [we’ve] started to see more money and creativity coming out of [the country]. … I’ve [also] spoken with Jones about looking into producing some of [B Brian Atwood] there. Of course, they’d have to get to know the factories, but they’re open to it. What’s coming out of Brazil looks really great.

FN: Who else do you admire in the designer world?
BA: Tom Ford does a great job. He keeps his product at a high level and builds the anticipation and excitement behind it. Louboutin has also done an amazing job with everything he has done, [like] controlling his own shops and going into certain markets. I’ll always have a huge respect for Manolo. He’s such a gentleman and always creates such a classic and elegant shoe. I really admire integrity and every aspect of that, from design to not getting wrapped up in all the BS of the industry. It takes a pretty solid person to do that.

FN: How important has Hollywood been in bringing attention to your brand?
BA: It’s a big part of it, and I love it [when celebrities] wear the line. It supports the business and keeps the excitement going, especially as social media and reality TV have [created] such a celebrity-based society. [But] you can’t really get caught up in the whole Hollywood aspect. The important thing is keeping a vision of who we want in the [brand] and maintaining that level [in the product].

FN: You’re quite active on Twitter. How has social media played into your business?

BA: It’s an amazing tool for promotion’s sake, and I love it. People like to see [what’s happening], so I try to give them interesting tweets about what I’m thinking. Sometimes I’ll be at my desk and come across some beautiful colors or see something [really inspiring] that I want to share. I tweet every day, but it’s not every 5 minutes. I’m not saying, “Oh, I’m going to grab coffee.” There’s more fun and creative ways to use it. [And] there’s a part where you have to hold back. I’ll tease [followers] and show them one shoe from a new collection, but that’s it. The next time they see it will be in the stores or on the website. It’s fun to put up your inspiration and about celebrities wearing [the line], but I am very careful about putting too much out there. You don’t have to saturate the market with your product when it’s not even out [in stores].

FN: What’s your advice for designers just starting out?
BA: Just stick with it, don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t compromise what you believe in. It’s so important to love what you do and to [maintain] your integrity. If you feel a certain way about something, don’t be afraid to do it and don’t allow yourself to be influenced by outside opinions too often. That goes for design, shoe design, everything. People who really do believe in what they have to offer always succeed.

FN: Would you ever consider selling part of your business to an outside investor?

BA: Definitely, [but] it’s not something I’m talking to anybody about right now. You have such a personal relationship with your company. It’s your blood and sweat, sleeping on the floor and having leather piled up around you. It’s something you don’t give up easily. And for someone to come in, they would have to understand that work, the ethics, what the brand stands for and be totally and completely sold on it. It is a marriage, and ideally, you would want a partner you could learn from. You [need] to get something besides just [financial support]. That’s why it’s a fine line. It’s very tricky.

 

Brian On …

Hollywood favorites:

“Rachel [Zoe], my BFF, is such a muse, but that’s an obvious love affair. Lauren Hutton and Faye Dunaway have always been favorites, but I also love Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz, Marion Cotillard and Lea Michele [of ‘Glee’]. She always looks great and is so adorable.”

Best celebrity moment:
“My first red-carpet moment, with Debra Messing at the SAG Awards in 2002. She wore this gladiator laceup. It was amazing.”

The collaboration game:

“It’s always nice to get a separate set of eyes and another opinion. It’s fun, especially when it’s with friends, [like Zoe, who I designed a boot with, and Victoria Beckham, with the shoes for her ready-to-wear collection]. The second it becomes a hassle or a pain, then I have to look and see if that’s something [I want to continue].”

The biggest hits over the years:
“One of my favorite shoes [from the first collection] was Dangerous Blossom. It was this handmade flower, [and] each petal took 30 hours to make by these women in this mountain area in Cantu, Italy. The flower was silk and lace and it had crocodile lining inside. It was so off the charts. [But] the Maniac is the huge success. It’s everywhere. It’s Maniac mania.”

Notable misses:
“The tie-dye boots [from spring ’09] were kind of the mishap, and I still [hear] that. I did this beautiful tie-dyed suede and it was so gorgeous, but it didn’t work out because each shoe was different. People didn’t always get that that was the cool part. They didn’t want to look down at their feet and see that the shoes were not the same.”

Biggest lessons learned during his time at Versace and Bally:
“Being hired by Gianni Versace and to be the only American working in Europe for him [was] kind of like being an artist and Picasso saying, ‘Here, come in and work in my studio.’ It was a pinch-yourself [opportunity] because it doesn’t happen that often. I took in the whole creative process and really learned to do what you believe in. With Bally, it was challenging because they [were] a huge company with an [established] aesthetic they needed to dust off a bit and make more modern. It was challenging in that respect because you [were there creatively] and certainly had to respect what Bally stood for. I really learned a lot about business on such a large scale.”

 

Dream job had he not become a designer:
“Architect or rock star. I’m really good at karaoke.”

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