The big busi­ness of bring­ing run­way to re­al­ity

A look in­side In­ter­mix’s method of mov­ing next sea­son’s trends into your closet

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY SARAH HALZACK

Gia Ghezzi is hunched over a photo of a model stomp­ing the run­way at Al­tuzarra’s fall fash­ion show, and she’s daz­zled by the out­fit: A calf skim­ming vel­vet skirt paired with pointy, lace-up boots and a sheer turtle­neck blouse.

Yet she knows plenty could go wrong if she tries to sell this look to her cus­tomers.

“It has to have some sort of ma­jor sex ap­peal — oth­er­wise it’s go­ing to look so grandma,” Ghezzi says to the de­sign­ers sit­ting along­side her at a con­fer­ence ta­ble.

Ghezzi is fash­ion di­rec­tor at In­ter­mix, a Gap-owned chain of stores known for its trendy mix of up­scale clothes, some of which are de­signed in-house by In­ter­mix’s cre­ative team and oth­ers that are made by la­bels such as Proenza Schouler, Rag & Bone and Cush­nie et Ochs. In­ter­mix tar­gets af­flu­ent women — from col­lege stu­dents to moms of grown kids — who seek out unique, of-the-mo­ment pieces and for whom fash­ion is a means of ex­pres­sion, not an af­ter­thought.

Ghezzi is the chain’s cre­ative force and, with chief mer­chant Denise Magid, she leads In­ter­mix through a peren­nial chal­lenge in the ap­parel busi­ness: trans­lat­ing the out­landish and wildly ex­pen­sive clothes seen on the run­ways of Paris and Mi­lan into looks that women want to wear on a date, at Sun­day brunch or when pre­sent­ing

in the board­room.

As they buy and de­sign the mer­chan­dise that will hit their 43 stores this fall, the In­ter­mix team bats around some not-at-all friv­o­lous ques­tions: Has the fringe trend peaked? How do we work more color into our night-out looks when our go-to de­sign­ers have so much black in their col­lec­tions? Can we cre­ate a bud­get-friendly ver­sion of that $5,000 em­bel­lished top we saw on the run­way?

In­ter­mix’s bot­tom line de­pends on get­ting the an­swers right. (Gap doesn’t dis­close rev­enue or same-store sales fig­ures for In­ter­mix, so it’s dif­fi­cult to know whether they’re hit­ting the mark. Gap, which is strug­gling might­ily to boost sales at its flag­ship brand and Banana Re­pub­lic, has said that it hopes to tap into In­ter­mix’s knowl­edge of high fash­ion and trends as it tries to get those brands out of their ruts.)

Even as the re­tail sec­tor has come to rely heav­ily on data science to shape ev­ery­thing from mar­ket­ing to mer­chan­dis­ing, Ghezzi and Magid say that, at In­ter­mix, the process of iden­ti­fy­ing trends and must-have pieces re­mains some­thing of an art. “It’s in­stinct,” Magid said. Yet that’s not to say the process hasn’t changed: H&M, Zara and For­ever 21 have built souped-up sup­ply chains that get hot trends into stores within weeks. This has stepped up pres­sure on In­ter­mix and other trend-fo­cused re­tail­ers to speed their de­sign and buy­ing pro­cesses.

That’s a tricky chal­lenge for In­ter­mix: It doesn’t con­trol the man­u­fac­tur­ing of the dozens of brands it car­ries. And even for its pri­vate-la­bel clothes, it’s hard to bring H&M-type speed to lower vol­umes of pro­duc­tion with finer fab­rics and crafts­man­ship.

These faster turn­arounds leave lit­tle room for er­ror as Ghezzi and her team try to di­vine what women will want to buy a few weeks or months down the road.

Trend-scout­ing

Each sea­son, the process starts with as­sem­bling a trend re­port, ef­fec­tively the In­ter­mix bi­ble.

It doesn’t cover ev­ery trend Ghezzi and Magid saw as they criss­crossed the globe in Fe­bru­ary and March, go­ing to fall run­way pre­sen­ta­tions and mar­ket ap­point­ments — only the ones they be­lieve In­ter­mix should pounce on.

First up this year is one they’ve dubbed “hip­pie swag­ger.” Its page in the re­port show­cases pieces such as a dra­matic fringe- trimmed gown from Chloe and a floor-graz­ing Zim­mer­mann maxi dress in a rich shade of co­gnac.

Sure, they picked these looks be­cause the aes­thetic is on point for their cus­tomers, but there’s a hard dol­lars-and-cents agenda be­hind all that fringe and suede.

“We felt like it was tran­si­tional,” Ghezzi said. “We have to al­ways keep that in mind. With 15 hot and tem­per­ate [stores], dur­ing the kick­off of the sea­son, it’s still re­ally warm.”

In other words, these are fall pieces shop­pers might be tempted to buy even when it’s beach weather.

They’ll also try to cap­ture a vibe they call “’ 70s so­phis­ti­cated swag­ger.” (If you’re scratch­ing your head won­der­ing how that’s dif­fer­ent from “hip­pie swag­ger,” think “Amer­i­can Hus­tle”-style trench coats and wide-leg trousers in­stead of Wood­stock-ready pon­chos.) They be­lieve this theme will ap­peal to women seek­ing a “desk-to-drinks” wardrobe. Both con­cepts fea­ture plenty of co­gnac and camel, col­ors they’ve ze­roed in on as the most dom­i­nant for this fall.

The trend-scout­ing doesn’t stop there: In­ter­mix also iden­ti­fies items the team be­lieves will be must-haves. This fall, Ghezzi and Magid are bank­ing on a big come­back for the turtle­neck, which has been in the fash­ion back­wa­ter for years.

Now it’s all over their “buy­ing board,” a long hall­way in their Flat­iron Dis­trict of­fices that’s lined with photos of ev­ery cloth­ing item they plan to put in their stores. In Au­gust and Septem­ber, the turtle­necks emerge: a fit­ted sweater with zig-zag stripes, a flowy white-and-camel top, a knit sweater dress.

Tele­graph­ing an “it” piece is a gam­ble, of course. There are plenty of po­ten­tial stum­bling blocks to con­sider. Their South­ern stores, for in­stance, will want light­weight ver­sions be­cause cozy, chunky ones won’t sell in a swel­ter. Plus, they imag­ine women won’t quite know what jew­elry to pair with turtle­necks, so man­nequins and in-store stylists are go­ing to be cru­cial to show how to put a look to­gether.

Once they’ve landed on the trends to run with, they’ve got to fig­ure out how to get them into their stores. That’s where the buy­ers and de­sign­ers come in, cre­at­ing a cu­rated mix of pieces that are in sync with run­way styles but aren’t quite as ex­pen­sive.

Find­ing the shoe that fits

In a tiny show­room on the sixth floor of a Midtown highrise, a model in a white cock­tail dress is slip­ping into her umpteenth pair of shoes.

She poses el­e­gantly in the taste­ful nude pump with a low, chunky heel, but even the shoe’s de­signer, Edgardo Oso­rio, sees it right away.

“It’s not the In­ter­mix girl,” Oso­rio says gen­tly but bluntly.

In­ter­mix’s se­nior buyer of de­signer shoes and bags, Fabi­anne Espinola, can’t help but agree. The model moves on to the next shoe.

Espinola is at a buy­ing ap­point­ment at the New York show­room for Aquaz­zura, a footwear line that de­buted in 2011 and has been a dar­ling of fash­ion­istas, who have snapped up its glam­orous, sul­try styles.

As Espinola sur­veys the show­room, she’s look­ing for pieces that suit the trends and color pal­ettes Ghezzi and Magid have se­lected. Some are slam dunks, such as a cutout bootie that fits with the ’ 70s trend and the co­gnac color pal­ette.

Other choices are more chal­leng­ing, and that’s when you see the two teams slip into a rit­u­al­is­tic re­tail two-step: Aquaz­zura does ev­ery­thing it can to po­litely nudge In­ter­mix to buy a big haul of shoes, and In­ter­mix works to ju­di­ciously but gra­ciously pick only the pieces it is sure it can sell.

Espinola loves a pair of crys­tal­stud­ded lace-up flats — but not their re­tail price of $1,100. That’s too much for the In­ter­mix shop­per to spend on a ca­sual shoe. The Aquaz­zura team says they can make them with­out the crys­tals for In­ter­mix, and they could be sold for $695. That keeps them in Espinola’s “yes” pile.

Later, Oso­rio shows Espinola a glim­mer­ing pair of evening heels that hadn’t made her first cut. Once she sees them on the model’s foot, she warms to them, but with a $1,600 price tag, she knows it will only work as a lim­ited buy: These will be for In­ter­mix’s Madi­son Av­enue store and its e-com­merce site. A wal­let­buster like that won’t sell well in smaller stores.

Last-minute primp­ing

The tat­too on Ghezzi’s right fore­arm says “in pur­suit of magic.” That seems to be ex­actly her mind-set as her team of in-house de­sign­ers present fab­ric op­tions for the night-out tops and dresses they are work­ing on for fall. Some of­fer­ings don’t wow her, such as a sam­ple of Skit­tle­s­col­ored leather squares con­nected by black thread. But she lights up when they pull out swatches of orchid and ma­genta vel­vet.

“Stop! I have goose bumps,” she squeals.

These pri­vate-la­bel de­sign­ers have to plug the holes in In­ter­mix’s lineup left un­filled by other brands — per­haps be­cause the look wasn’t ex­actly right or the price was eye-pop­ping.

This sea­son, de­sign­ers Vanessa Spencer and Donna Pot­ter have been tasked with el­e­vat­ing the se­lec­tion of night-out tops.

“We saw only black dresses in mar­ket,” Ghezzi said. “So now we want to fig­ure out how it can be more glam­orous.”

The pur­ple vel­vets just may hold the key.

“How can we do some­thing where we piece all of these to­gether?” Ghezzi asks Pot­ter and Spencer, ex­am­in­ing the swatches scat­tered on the ta­ble.

The ideas ping-pong from there. Pot­ter and Spencer will de­velop a camisole in these fab­rics that a woman can throw on with jeans for a night on the town. But they like the fab­ric so much, they won’t just con­sider it for tops. They’ll also cook up a ca­sual-cool dress and a body­hug­ging dress to wear to events. If the fancier dress doesn’t feel right for fall, they can kick it to the hol­i­day sea­son, when these fes­tive pieces are al­ways in de­mand.

As they wrap up the meet­ing, Ghezzi can’t help but get ahead of her­self.

“If there’s one color I’m sure of for re­sort” — that’s their next de­sign sea­son — “it’s this one,” she says, point­ing to a ca­naryyel­low dress in their in­spi­ra­tion packet. “And this is ac­tu­ally per­fect. The per­fect shade. I know we’re typ­i­cally afraid to go yel­low —”

“It has that warmth, and the depth . . . ” Pot­ter cuts in.

“Yeah, it’s like sun­shine!” Ghezzi says.

“Ex­actly. And it’s not just that bright, ran­dom, le­mon yel­low,” Pot­ter says. “To­tally agree,” Ghezzi says. Just like that, next sea­son’s look is tak­ing shape.

PHOTOS BY STAN GODLEWSKI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

DeniseMagid, left, and Gia Ghezzi guide de­ci­sions about what In­ter­mix, a Gap-owned chain, will sell. Above: An In­ter­mix store in New York.

PHOTOS BY STAN GODLEWSKI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

DeniseMagid, above left, is chief mer­chant for In­ter­mix, and Gia Ghezzi is the re­tailer’s fash­ion di­rec­tor. At left, some of the up­scale fash­ions are shown in In­ter­mix’s Prince Street store in New York.

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