Employed by Design

Today's climate dictates that high-end black designers choose employment over entrepreneurship

Jones New York, Polo Ralph Lauren and the ones with a proven track record. There’s not a lot of space left for newcomers.”

Even if a designer did work out a deal with a major department store, it would be very difficult to maintain the relationship unless a larger company provided the financing. “If you jump into a business deal without any financial backing, it’s suicide,” cautions Ernest Brown, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Parisian department stores, a division of Saks Inc. Brown oversees the firm’s 44 stores and manages 12 buyers. He has a purchasing budget of $250 million. “Generally, when I go in to preview a line, I usually see two to three deliveries-garments for July, August and September, for example,” he explains. “I’m looking at the stuff six months in advance, and if I like it, I commit with a purchase order.” This is a contract for payment, but the manufacturer still needs hard cash to fill the order. And according to Brown, the reality is that “it could be a year before you get your first check.”

Therefore the majority of black designers will also have to work for a more established label, as Robinson did, if they are going to survive in today’s climate. Even some of the more widely known black designers have traded in their entrepreneurial track shoes for runs with more established labels.

“High-fashion designers have told me that financing is the big problem,” says White. “If there was a big financier, we have great black designer
s such as Tracy Reese, Patrick Robinson, Byron Lars and Kevan Hall, who would be great investments.” But as it stands companies are generally not investing in high-end designers because casual and urban fashions are the current trend, and even designers of these items have their challenges. Nevertheless, designers can work as employees and still express their creativity, be rewarded financially and make the connections they need to later branch out on their own.

PAYING THEIR DUES
“There are designers who have been [working in the corporate arena] for years. They have their penthouses and are doing well, but they keep a low profile,” insists designer Constance Saunders, who honed her craft under the Richard Warren label for 15 years. After 10 years of designing for one of the company’s newer lines, Saunders pushed for more exposure for herself. “I insisted that they put my name on the label,” she says.

This move enabled Saunders to gain entry into the major department stores and obtain some brand recognition. After leaving Richard Warren, she then licensed her name to Depeche Mode, a manufacturer that was already making apparel for Ann Taylor and wanted to open another dress and suit division. Apparel in the Depeche Mode Constance Saunders line sold for from $350 to $450. At both companies, her clothes were available at major department stores such as Saks, Neiman Marcus and the better specialty stores. Now Saunders has the experience, name recognition and financial leverage to tackle these same

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