CEO Summit: Designer Styling Strategies

Designers Nicholas Kirkwood and Mary Norton sat down with licensing exec Danny Schwartz on the summit’s final day to discuss pricing, manufacturing, distribution and branding in the fashion space. Though they operate in three separate markets (dubbed by Schwartz “good, better, best”), the fashion players found plenty of common ground. One point they agreed on is the challenges facing all fashion companies. “This is a test by fire,” said Mary Norton. “Great talent will come out of this period, but you’ve got to be tough.”

On consumer shopping habits:

DS: The customer is extremely cautious, she’s shopping less and looking for sales. … We could possibly gain customers who were aspiring to high-end salon shoes. We’re delivering phenomenal price value.

NK: My customer is looking for more niche product and a point of difference. My more particular pieces are doing quite well at the moment. … Right now is a time to focus on your brand image and realize what your niche is. I have stripped my collection of all basics.

MN: We are seeing women buying either really disposable fashion or saving up to buy [luxury product] such as Jimmy Choo and Nicholas Kirkwood. The $395-to-$595 [range] is a difficult space right now. Evening has changed, so we’ve broadened our offering to include daytime. [The downturn] also changed the way I design. In 2007, I used [more] exotics. It’s easy to do great things with unlimited funds — it’s a lot harder on a tight budget.

On distribution strategies:

MN: Among customers in my boutiques I find the wilder the shoe, the better. But the wholesalers are not on the same page as the consumers, in my opinion. That’s why it’s hard to be a new player in this time.

NK: I decided I wouldn’t open any department store accounts until this mess is over with in order to safeguard my independence.

DS: Department stores are not trying new brands at the moment, they are consolidating brands. You have to try to sell worldwide. If you rely on U.S. department stores, you could be [shut out].

On manufacturing:

NK: The customer recognizes quality, and I wouldn’t want to make shoes anywhere other than Italy. China is getting a lot better now, but it’s not there. … A bright spot is that small designers are more likely to find factories because minimums are down right now.

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