Stores seeking fresh new faces

Susan Scafidi in Crain, March 22, 2009

Media Source

By Adrianne Pasquarelli

On April 3, dozens of wannabe designers bearing armloads of their creations will line up on the sidewalk outside Bloomingdale's 60th Street entrance, eager for their shot at the big time. The department store, owned by Macy's Inc., is hosting its new B-Seen event, an open casting call where prospective designers showcase their wares.

“Hopefully, we'll see some burgeoning designer, someone who will become the next Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan,” says Stephanie Solomon, fashion director at Bloomingdale's, which staged its first formal B-Seen event last month and will also hold calls in the spring and fall.

Fading interest

Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and others are all trying to inject new life into their fashion offerings at a time when shoppers' interest is fading right along with their financial health. The open casting call, pioneered nearly 50 years ago by upscale store Henri Bendel, is one of several ways that stores are trying to uncover new talent, generate extra buzz—and, hopefully, reverse falling same-store sales. Meanwhile, a host of young New York designers are finding that the recession may be the best time to make their mark.

“The stores are looking to goose their lineups with designers who people haven't seen before and aren't tired of,” says Susan Scafidi, intellectual property and fashion law professor at Fordham University School of Law. “There is a hole to be filled.”

To heighten the impact of new discoveries, Saks recently spent months renovating the contemporary apparel department on the fifth floor of its New York flagship. Called Workshop, the 3,600-square-foot space boasts an industrial design, with a concrete floor and exposed ceiling pipes. The format, which will be rolled out to additional stores this fall, will display emerging labels like Vena Cava, along with exclusive items, including a floral dress from Elizabeth and James.

“It's important to differentiate our assortments,” says Colleen Sherin, fashion market director at Saks. This strategy will set Saks apart from the competition, she notes.

The need for an extra edge is as clear as the store's frayed bottom line. February same-store sales plunged 26%, and last week credit ratings firm Moody's downgraded Saks' debt to B3, deep in junk territory.

While Bloomingdale's is faring slightly better than Saks, the store is beating the bushes for fresh talent.

“We're entering a transformation in retail,” says Ms. Solomon, who is hoping her new discoveries will help lead the way.

Meanwhile, Henri Bendel is redoubling its efforts. The store expects a crowd of hundreds at its famous Open See call Monday.

Fashion Director Ann Watson predicts that recently laid-off bankers and advertising execs will show up.

“You'll find a lot of people tapping into their creativity,” she says.

For scores of young designers like Carlos Santiago, it all adds up to a rare opportunity. Mr. Santiago, who specializes in women's cocktail dresses, attended Bloomingdale's call earlier this month.

“People are tired of the same old labels,” says the 34-year-old.

Similarly, Douglas Reker, who founded his own label a year ago, is waiting to hear whether Barneys will pick up his fall collection, which was inspired by miniature figurines. In the meantime, the 31-year-old freelances, designing fabric prints.

“I'm in the process of interviewing at Liz Claiborne,” Mr. Reker says.