The new chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc. talks to Deirdre van Dyk about fashion foibles, true talent and how to tailor the bottom line to fit the future
You've got a new show for Bravo, Tim Gunn's Guide to Style. What's it about?
Hopefully, it's going to be a new flavor of makeover show. I'm not a fashion Svengali. I'm a fashion therapist. It's not about throwing a bunch of clothes at someone in a dressing room and saying, "Here, wear these, and all your fashion foibles will be over." We look at her closet, what she always wears, what still has the tags on it.
You recently landed this big corporate job. Why the switch from Parsons school of design?
When Bill [McComb, CEO of Liz Claiborne Inc.] called and dropped this opportunity in my lap, I was in a puddle. The easy thing would have been to stay at Parsons. But I thought, Leave on a high note. I am a mentor to 350 designers across 46 brands. I am not designing, and I am not editing. I am a sounding board. I am there to remind them that the bar has been raised, that we need to make irresistible clothing.
How are you going to encourage them to do that?
Before Bill's arrival, the company tended to look only at the bottom line and forgot about design, which was frustrating for the designers. And the customer got tired of seeing the same old thingI'm speaking about the Liz Claiborne brand exclusively. But Richard Ostell, who is the creative director of Liz Claiborne, is a phenomenal designer. The fall line knocks my socks off.
And yet the first-quarter earnings dropped 65%. How do you plan to save the Liz Claiborne brand?
We have to reposition that brand. At least we're not saying, "Oh, woe is us, it's the retailers' fault." We're looking inward, and we're saying, "We have to take control of our destiny."
Do customers just want comfort now?
Yes, but they also want to look great. And we need a sweat-suit alternative. We've become a nation of slobs. And my refrain is, If you want to dress like you never got out of bed, then don't get out of bedstay in it!
What is Liz Claiborne going to do for the customer?
Liz wants to produce fashion, not mere clothes. And there's a difference. We're certainly steering as far away as we can from anything that says dowdy, dreary, stodgy. We want to make her modern and turn the product over more quickly than we have. The customer always feels, If I just wait until next week, I'll be paying 30% less. So the product needs to have that irresistibility, where the customer feels, If I don't buy it now, I may not find it again. Like the H&M and Zara mentality. I think we need to be there.
Now, of course, we have to talk about Project Runway. How did you get involved?
I originally came on board as a consultant. I think the reason they created this role was because I think they were afraid the designers wouldn't talk. Heidi would give them the challenge. They'd go into the workroom, and they'd simply work. So they sent me in to ask, "What are you doing and why?" But since the designers did talk, I thought I would end up on the cutting-room floor.
What about past winners? We haven't seen much from Jay McCarroll or Chloe Dao.
Well, I feel bad for Jay. Jay was in many ways hampered by a very constraining contract. And we learned from that. Chloe and Jeffrey [Sebelia] had very different contracts. I really believe Laura Bennett's an outstanding designer. But she's not hungry. She's got a rich husband and a nice lifestyle.
Who do you think is the next great designer?
I'm always looking with great interest at the Proenza Schouler boys. They're the closest thing I can think of to prodigies in fashion. They're constantly innovating. They're not saying, "We've achieved a success with Xwe're going to stay there."
Who do you think was a great visionary of the past century?
Coco Chanel, because she completely changed lifestyle for the Western woman. Completely. Without her, we couldn't have had Claire McCardell. Without McCardell, we wouldn't have had Halston. Without Halston, we wouldn't have had Donna Karan. There are these moments when you know things have changed.
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