Making Of An Icon


    Designer Kors is going for household-name status with his new lower-price line

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    Re-creating Ralph is going to be more difficult this time around. In the past two years, the better fashion category (second-line clothes created by designers for department stores at lower prices than designer originals) has been saturated with new lines from the very same Ralph Lauren, not to mention Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. And no other designer has attempted to launch so many different product categories at once: more than 10, including a full line of men's wear, women's wear, handbags, belts, shirts, eyewear and watches. "Kors has partnered with people who are very smart and very successful," says Janice Kaplan, executive vice president of ready-to-wear at Federated Department Stores, the retail giant that will feature the line in Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Burdines and Bon-Macy's. "Chou and Stroll know how to market. Look what they did for Tommy Hilfiger. Before them he was a total unknown."

    Chou and Stroll have grown confident in their ability to predict changing consumer tastes and then to satisfy the new appetite. It sounds simple, but just how do you dress 100 million Americans? "Every generation of consumers has a specific taste," says Chou. "In the '80s it was Waspy, which is what Ralph Lauren delivered. Then in the '90s the urban and street look took off, and Tommy Hilfiger owned that. Today the consumer is swinging back. They want smart casual."

    What's interesting is just how calculating Stroll and Chou are about this launch. Time was, a fashion designer would land on Seventh Avenue and either strike the right chord or strike out. These days, no one can afford to be so haphazard. After picking their designer, Stroll and Chou targeted four department-store chains where they saw a void in the designer better market — including Federated, May Department Stores, Saks Inc. and Dillard's. Then they signed several licensing deals including watches and men's suits, shirts and ties. To prevent the stores from cherry picking, they made the unusual stipulation that in order to carry any part of the collection, retailers would have to buy from each category. Finally, they devised a family-theme advertising campaign that would attract a 35-year-old mind-set. As Kors likes to say, everyone wants to look as if they're 35, whether they're 22 and want to be more sophisticated or they're 55 and want to look younger.

    Will the strategy work a third time? So far, it seems to be catching on. At Kors' first personal appearance at a trunk show in St. Louis, Mo., more than 400 customers showed up to shop, despite a power outage. "I know it's going to be a huge seller," says Kal Ruttenstein, the fashion director of Bloomingdale's. "He's very smart, and he's a good designer, and he has finally become a mogul with big money guys behind him." All the more reason the stores are betting on Kors.

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