FASHION DESIGN: All the trimmings are the main course
NEW INTEREST: More fashion design students are pursuing a career in the accessories market which is healthier than the apparel business in the United States
A YEAR before Paula Cheng graduated from Parsons the New School for Design with an M.F.A. in fashion design in May, she won a contest organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create designs inspired by the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the museum.
Cheng focused not on bumster pants nor showstopper gowns, but on black platform-heeled shoes and sandals with winged tiers of fur that have already been pictured on Italian Vogue’s website.
“I’m planning to use shoes to get my name out there,” said Cheng, 26, who also has the aspirations (but not yet the capital) to start a knitwear line. “It would be great to see my shoes in Macy’s.”
Ten years ago, fashion design students might have said they most wanted to emulate the careers of Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg or Michael Kors.
Today, role models might include Rebecca Minkoff, Pamela Love or Brian Atwood — all accessories designers.
In a stubbornly stagnant economy, the stylish woman who typically preorders the latest frock for a fete-filled summer in the Hamptons might instead stretch her budget by adding a purse, shoes, hat or iPad case to her existing wardrobe.
At parties, perhaps she’s hoping no one has noticed that she’s shopped her closet. But the fashion industry has.
“The accessories business is healthier than the apparel business,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group.
Indeed, accessories and related merchandise at Michael Kors accounted for about 75 per cent of total revenue in 2012, a company spokeswoman said.
“Women’s fashion, for the last 18 months, has been running negative numbers,” Cohen said.
“Over the last six months, accessories have been two per cent ahead over the last 12 months. That may not sound like a lot, but in the fashion sector, that’s great.”
Footwear, luggage, small leather goods and glasses are doing particularly well, he added.
Hats are also hot after the wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William, which featured the out-there fascinator, said Vasilios Christofilakos, chairman of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s accessories-design department.
“It stirred the globe and shook it up a little,” Christofilakos said.
“We’re getting new interest in millinery, especially from a lot of men. Now hats are in, but edgier and designers are playing with non-traditional fabrics.”
Gigi Burris, a milliner who graduated from Parsons in 2009, said when she did her senior thesis collection, she made a hat with every garment.
After graduation she got her first print editorial in Elle magazine and started her namesake line in 2010.
“The market is so saturated with people that are doing apparel, and I saw a hole in the market for hats,” she said.
Clara Yoo, head designer for handbags and accessories for Limited Brands, graduated from Parsons in 2008.
“When I took accessory design courses there were, like, five students,” she said. “Now, it’s amazing to see how many students are doing it.”
Around Manhattan, accessory outlets of all kinds are blooming.
A second Designer Shoe Warehouse opened in March on 34th Street, following its first location in Union Square.
Last month, Barneys introduced its revamped shoe salon, featuring 58 per cent more square footage for women’s shoes and 36 per cent more for men’s.
The Saks shoe department is also planning an additional 10,000 square feet.
Longchamp, the handbag designer, has opened its first Fifth Avenue store; the eyewear designer Robert Marc opened a new boutique on Madison Avenue; Atwood and Vince Camuto both have plans to expand, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
Ready-to-wear designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Monique Lhuillier are starting shoe lines, and Victoria Beckham has introduced an eyewear line.
The Accessories Council has set up trunk shows to match less-established accessory designers with retailers, to help build an infrastructure for those trying to get their first store order, said Karen Giberson, the organisation’s president.
The rise of e-commerce and social shopping sites like Etsy, BaubleBar and AHALife have also been helpful to accessory designers, in part because they don’t have to tackle the issue of fit, as apparel designers do, said Amy Jain, a founder of BaubleBar.
“Fashion jewellery is generally one size fits all,” she said, and “also very compact and light in weight, which is incredibly helpful in streamlining fulfilment processes and expenses.” Old media are also encouraging the surge in the category.
Last year, Project Runway introduced Project Accessory, a spin-off.
“Shows like that are exposing other parts of the industry and making it interesting to students,” said Rachel Fishbein, an alumna of the Fashion Institute of Technology who is designing shoes at Simply Vera and Dana Buchman.
And in June, Hearst announced that Elle Accessories magazine will return in October.
“It’s an indication of how important accessories are,” said Scott Schramm, senior vice-president and general merchandise manager at Henri Bendel, which surprised many in March 2009 by announcing it would no longer sell clothes in favour of accessories.
Bendel started its Open See programme almost 50 years ago, inviting new talent twice a year to showcase and pitch accessory sketches.
In June, Bendel announced its first online Open See in partnership with Swarovski Elements.
Designers submitted sketches through the Henri Bendel Facebook page. The winner, Lizette Avineri, 22, of Brooklyn got a US$1,000 (RM3,000) Bendel gift card and US$1,000 in cash for her design of a Swarovski rope necklace, which will be sold at 25 Bendel stores in the spring.
Many schools beside Parsons have arranged accessories competitions.
LIM College in Midtown collaborates with the Accessories Council on its contest, during which students develop a product or plan to drive sales to a specific category of
Michael Londrigan, chairman of the Fashion Merchandising Department, said LIM has seen more students pursuing a career in the accessories market, especially in sales, buying, marketing and product development.
“During difficult economic times the accessory market tends to do well, and the entry to market is easier to overcome from a financial standpoint,” Londrigan wrote in an email. In fall 2008, 10 students were enrolled in the accessory design curriculum at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
This fall there will be 80, according to Michael Fink, its dean.
“An increasing number of our students are responding to retail trends by focusing their talents on accessories — a field that while may not be recession-proof, certainly has withstood the economic downturn,” he said.
The college’s accessories faculty has increased from one professor in 2008 to five this year, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the school’s fashion faculty, including a master shoemaker, a bespoke shoemaker and handbag designers.
At Parsons, professors like Simon Collins, dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons, are teaching students about leather treatments, designing for different customers and ways to cut down pricing.
The school has conducted competitions whose prizes include internships or having their prototypes produced at Shoe Polytechnic; Allen Edmonds; PPR, which owns luxury brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen; and Coach, whose designer, Reed Krakoff, is an alumnus.
Joel Harding, the winner of last year’s Coach competition at Parsons, wrote on the school’s blog that he changed his academic focus from women’s wear to accessory design.
“Accessory design is a new focus area within the fashion department, so it is a very exciting, groundbreaking time,” he wrote, echoing many students’ belief that designing the bangles, belts and bags that adorn the dress is just as alluring as designing the dress itself.
On a recent humid and rainy afternoon, Cheng; Carly Ellis, who is 25 and from Liverpool, England; and a handful of other recent Parsons graduates spent hours musing, sketching and fastening necklaces, hats and belts in preparation for New York Fashion Week in September.
They loaded their materials onto large gray rectangular tables that filled a stiflingly hot studio at Parsons’ Seventh Avenue location.
Ellis was waiting for her model to arrive so she could shoot a look book for her accessories.
The 12 pieces in her collection hung from a clothing rack, and the neon-coloured rope and plastic made a striking contrast against the room’s oatmeal-coloured walls.
Not sure how she was going to style her necklaces, rings and cuffs for her shoot later on, she took a step back, her eyes studying each one.
“Every piece is so critical,” Ellis said. “The accessories are just as important as the clothes.”