TEXT, VIVIAN KELLY
The highlight of the week of November first was a late afternoon visit to the Duckie Brown studio, on West 13th Street. I had been invited for a studio visit, and looked forward to revisiting the Fashion V Clothes argument, now that the dust from NY Fashion Wk s/s2011 had settled. Not only did I get to spend some quality time, but I also got an exclusive.
The minute I walked into the studio/apartment [they lived there for years before moving to Brooklyn], I felt the Downtown meets Brit vibe, that air of “cool”
that umpteen stylists and designers strive to create. Few get it right and their efforts to be “original” [“Preppie with a Twist”] usually fail. The Duckies however, fall into the category of fashion iconoclasts. They’re in a league with Grace Coddington, Alber Elbaz, Kate Moss and Stella Tennant. All of them constantly surprise you because you never know just how they’ll style themselves or their collections. One thing they all share- whatever they come up with is always interesting.
Clothes, though, really? Going into women’s usually signals a stab at going for “the world of”. Daniel and Steven just don’t strike me as the sort to crave world domination, so I never really seriously entertained the hope that one day, there would be Duckie for us women.
Daniel casually threw-out the bomb in the first few minutes of our chat and said that The Duckies are going to break into women’s wear. What?? Yes, that’s right. Women’s. The line is called “Mrs. Brown”.
Thinking more about it, going over to women’s makes a lot of sense. Everyone knows that the big money is in women’s wear and there have been some designers who have successfully bridged the gap and made the transition from menswear to women’s’ wear.
Ralph Lauren, the undisputed king of branding, whom we discussed later in our chat, created a “world of” that though redundant, [some old stand-bys: “Safari”, “Prairie]continues to strike a chord with consumers world-wide. Ralph made a humble start, when he managed to sell a few of his ties to Bloomingdales’ and later opened a necktie store using his “Polo” label in 1967. He started women’s three years later and really got in the public’s radar screen when he was hired to make the costumes for “The Great Gatsby” in 1974.
The late great Alexander McQueen, began his career apprenticing on Savile Row, for Anderson and Shepherd and then Gieves and Hawkes. While there, he learned the art of tailoring which would become a key part of the celebrated McQueen design DNA.
Steven, like Lee McQueen, is a crack tailor in addition to be being a visionary designer. His problem, he supposes, is that he is not “a show-off” like the suavely handsome Tom Ford. In typical British self-effacing style, Steven recounted how devastated he was after attending a pattern making class at FIT.
Steven: It’s about feeling that you’re good enough. Years ago, I went to FIT and came back to the studio and cried and told Daniel, “They were so good”.
I didn’t think I could do anything as good as I thought they would. When I went back with my thing, it was amazing to see how good mine was and how shit theirs was.
“Because I needed to know that I could,” Steven said, holding up the piece, smiling.
From there, we dove into the subject of “putting yourself out there” and “show-offs”.
Tom Ford, Steven declared, “is a huge show-off”. Steven and I are obsessed with Ford, his public persona and his stab at trying to make fashion exclusive again and his jump-back into women’s.
After leaving Gucci, Tom started over, founding Tom Ford International in 2005 with longtime collaborator, Domenico De Sole. The latter runs the business end of the brand as he did while he and Tom were at Gucci. In the preface written by W/WWD Editor, Bridget Foley, in the 2004 coffee table book, Tom Ford: Ten Years, Tom stated that he did not want to do women’s again, was burnt out, wanted to go into film. Of course, no one really believed him, and everyone was certain there would be another women’s collection. When he started his Tom Ford label by launching with menswear, I was…disappointed. Maybe, he really had had his fill with all of those Gucci collections, and that was really it.
In retrospect, it was yet another brilliant marketing move by Tom and De Sole.
When he finally did debut Tom Ford women during s/s2011 NY Fashion Week, the show people generated a hailstorm of controversy. His decision to do an old-fashioned fifties-style salon show, in which he narrated the looks to a select audience of 70 caused many fashionistas angst, miffed as they were at not even getting to see an image [forget seeing the actual clothes] of this VIP room show.
Steven, in an oracle-like fashion, had said only two days earlier, that he wished that fashion would go back to being more exclusive.
He’d argued animatedly with Daniel, who feels that fashion should be democratic and stated, “I disagree, call me a snob, but fashion should be aspirational. There’s sportswear, and there’s fashion. Think back to those shows at Dior, in the fifties. Entry was limited only to the select few, and there was a sense of ceremony to the whole thing, versus what we have now – which is this.
Although they applauded Tom for his risky show, Steven feels that it was just going back in time, not moving things forward. “How though,” Daniel mused out loud, “do you make a fashion show new and interesting? What hasn’t been done and is unexpected?”
Daniel shouldn’t worry about this as he manages to surprise us every season, whether it’s by putting on the infamous “back to silence” show that kicked-off with a cacophony of sound and abruptly cut into utter silence, or the latest show that used a full half of the space intended for seating to the models rather than to fill them with show goers.
Daniel says that they do ham it up a bit while taking their victory lap post show, they do it “because it’s expected”.
“How strange it would be” says Steven, if we just stood at the foot of the runway and didn’t smile? That’s not us, we have a sense of humor and that’s just taking yourself too seriously.”
Unlike Tom Ford, [at least his public persona], the Duckies are not big show-offs, haven’t even written a press release about Mrs. Brown. “ I guess we should do a press release to WWD about Mrs. Brown” laughed Steven.
The decision to do women’s started when Milwaukee-based Florsheims offered the Duckies a deal to design men’s shoes for them. It was a marriage between David and Goliath. Florsheim’s is a giant brand that’s been around since the late nineteenth century. After some financial difficulties, the Weyco Group acquired it in 2002, with the idea of putting it back on track. Weyco’s Chairman and CEO Thomas W. Florsheim, happens to be the grandson of Florsheim’s founder. Weyco is upscaling the brand’s profile, thanks in part to its collaboration with the Duckies. This deal has given “the Budweiser of men’s shoes” designer edge. On the flip side, it’s put money in the Duckies’ pockets so they can keep doing what they love – designing cutting edge fashion in limited quantities.
The Duckie-Florsheim deal continues to expand. Women’s shoes and socks are coming soon. Socks will retail for around $25 and the shoes top out in the $300’s. All of this was the result of Daniel’s knack for recognizing the right product placement.
TheFE: You do your own PR, that’s one of Daniel’s big roles, right?
Steven: Daniel is as good as KCD.
KCD did not get us a cartoon of me pinning a kid’s trousers in the New Yorker www.newyorker.com that ran in the “Talk” section of the April 6, 2007 issue.
Daniel: It was the most advantageous piece because Lizzie Widdicombe, who wrote the article, mentioned the Florsheims Robert William Asch wore with our suit to the prom. They saw it, and they called. That was one of the top five editorials we’ve ever had.
Ms. Widdicombe’s piece features a sketch of Steven tailoring a high school boy in Duckie Brown for his prom. The teen, Robert William Asch,
had written the Duckies an email titled, “A Not So Ridiculous Proposition”, asking them to dress him for his prom. When it was all over, Steven decided to gift Asch the $3,800 outfit and happened to accessorize it with a pair of black Florsheims.
TheFE: Now that things are growing, with Mrs. Brown and Florsheim women’s will you be taking on a power PR firm?
Steven: If we had a very specific goal in mind, but Daniel really does it all.
He produces the show. He’s got a background in television and a flair for production and the drama of presentation.
Daniel: I like to do it. We say “no” More often than not. We lend out to stylists we know or like. You have to make the effort. I love it when Deborah Watson comes in. She’s highly edited, she picks four pieces, and you get four fantastic pages.
There are less than 5 images in 10 years that I love, that Florsheim cartoon was one of them.
I’ll do it [the PR] for as long as I can. I can still answer my own phone so I just do. We show at the tent because that press pit is jamming.
All press is good press. If you believe the good stuff you have to believe the bad stuff.
Steven: Tim [Blanks] said to us after our last show, “Now you’ve hit the ceiling, you have to go to Paris”, but we’re New York designers, this is where we live.
TheFE: So your end-goal for Duckie Brown is…
Steven: We want to go forward, to work with new shapes, and see how they break the rules. We question why things are the way they are.
Daniel: You have to pay attention, look for good collaborations; we like to do collaborations that enrich us. At the end of the day it’s about the work. I’d rather have someone do a diffusion line – let’s call it “Just Duckie”. They set up all of the infrastructure and we design it. We’re different than many designers in that we don’t have that sense that ‘it’s not enough’.
Duckie Brown is the sun, and everything emanates from there. We just want to sustain what we have, to see what happens to the body when you make a shift. It’s about doing something that is interesting and indulging our curiosity. It’s not intellectual, as in Hussein Chalaian intellectual. I like being conclusive, not exclusive. What we do is fashion that’s from our gut.