Thursday, January 14, 2010
Meet the Filipina Behind the Olarte-Foussard Showroom
I've long been a fan of the Thai label Sretsis, and I've seen how popular the line is from LA to NY. An amazing feat considering the line is an Asian label borne out of Bangkok. I also couldn't help but wonder how the Sukhahuta sisters and their pretty, whimsical dresses managed to break into the hard to penetrate US market, where being a pretty dress just isn't enough. So for my first article of the year for The Radar, I asked Emee Olarte-Foussard how homegrown Filipino designers can make a go for the international market. She should know, not only is she the owner of the showroom that reps Sretsis here in the US, she happens to be born and raised in the Philippines!
NEW YORK — While retail stores and customers are gearing up for Spring, buyers, designers and showrooms are busy prepping for Fall 2010. Working ahead of the calendar is the norm for fashion folks behind the frontlines. Their timelines and dynamics are totally different, shaping and driving the fashion industry, as we know it.
Belonging to this tight circle of industry movers and shakers is Emee Olarte-Foussard, the first Filipina to own and run a designer showroom in New York City.
Her showroom, a loft in the hip downtown neighborhood of SoHo, is packed with cult labels. Collections from Sretsis (Thailand), MS Martine Sitbon, Abaco and Aris Geldis (France), Hoss (Spain), Humanoid (The Netherlands), Twin-Set (Italy), and Eyedoll (L.A.) sit side by side each other, interspersed with her personal collection of ‘80s vintage and contemporary furniture, lighting fixtures and flea market finds.
Emee, who graduated from UST with a degree in Interior Design, knew she wanted to work in fashion right from the beginning. The initial plan was to go into fashion photography and follow in the footsteps of Man Ray, Bruce Weber and Annie Leibovitz.
While on sabbatical from her post-graduate studies in Los Angeles, she took up photography at Parsons Paris, but was diverted into the business of fashion by way of Les Bains.
Emee shares her story and doles out valuable tips on how homegrown Filipino designers can build a global market.
Who knows, 2010 could be the year born and bred Filipino designers find themselves selling to buyers from New York, LA, Paris and Tokyo. Right on time for Spring/Summer 2011.
On The Radar: How did you get into fashion?
EMEE OLARTE-FOUSARD: When I was growing up, my mom was so much into fashion. She was always well-dressed, I was highly influenced by her. While I was a student in UST, I also worked at Collectiones New York, owned by Mariliese Evaristo. It was the first designer label-driven boutique in the Philippines. I just love clothes for art’s sake! Then I lived in hedonistic Paris in the late ‘80s. My roommate was Alexandre de Clermont-Tonerre, son of the fashion directrice of Chanel, Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnere. We ended up hanging out at Les Bains, where the likes of Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Ines de la Fressange, and Karl Lagerfeld partied. That was a big influence. When I went back to LA, I just started going to LA Mart, where I met my husband Yves, whose sister was with Sonia Rykiel.
When did you start your showroom?
In 1991, I opened a showroom in Los Angeles but we moved to New York after the California earthquake. I started out of a basement in Chelsea showing couture. Imagine, a basement! I cannot forget the memory of Judy Collinson of Barneys coming in her limo, in the snow, and coming in to my basement showroom.
What was it like at the beginning?
It was so tough at first. There were only five European showrooms and here I was, this “Asiatique.” The industry was very New York/Jewish dominated. I started with couture: Rochas. But because I started with couture, it was difficult to not take me seriously. I was dealing with the likes of Peter Cohen, Antonio Marras (now designer for the House of Kenzo), Eric Sartori (the assistant of Azzedine Alaïa who eventually designed for Hervé Léger and Marni) and Marcel Marongiu (now fashion director for Guy Laroche).
I made the jump from couture to prêt-a-porter after 9/11. I remember it was the first day of New York Fashion Week. For two weeks nobody came, I had to send the couture collections out. But with commercial collections, I can work with longer selling times and better price points.
What’s it like working in the fashion industry in Paris and NYC?
It is definitely a high. Imagine, working with the designers, being part of the design process before the collection is launched, conceptual shopping with the designers, working the front and back of the house, going to the runway shows at the tents in Bryant Park, Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, and Milan.
I am often invited to sit front row at Sao Paulo Fashion Week, Madrid Fashion Week, Bangkok and Hong Kong Fashion Week, etc. I get asked for my opinions of the designers and looks shown on the runway. I love it! It’s like working and playing. Working while learning more!
What is the industry really like from an insider’s perspective? Is it as glamorous, catty, and cutthroat as it is perceived to be?
The fashion industry is glamorous in the sense that you meet all these interesting people, seeing them and working with the people you just read about. Catty? Yes, but interesting and opinionated at a creative and social level.
How has the industry changed from when you first started?
Now there are no barriers. If you want to open a showroom you just can. One can come in with very little experience of working in a showroom, selling. You don’t need taste. Back then you had to have discipline, the eye.
Before, collections were serious. It would take a while to develop a collection. Designers were all about a theme, a direction. Now, it’s trend-, street-driven. Some even just need a week to come up with a collection based on what they see people are (already) wearing on the street. There’s no such need for breaking barriers and being innovative. It is based on commerce, whatever sells. I am not saying this in general. There are still lots of exceptional thoughts and ideas, but those are more the exception than the norm.
I still believe it is important to know the history of clothing, the rigor and discipline of understanding how clothes are made. There should be an appreciation for the process. Like I could spend a day staring into the front window of Christian Dior in Avenue Montaigne, looking at one coat of John Galliano’s — the draping, the scallops, the layering of yards of tulle, the fagotting, the pouffing of a sleeve, the talent of being able to do that to a dress without looking like Marie Antoinette’s!
What is the future of the industry now?
It will still go back to the way fashion was, but with a greater awareness of price points. I can see big houses going back to good design. The recession is just all about weeding out the bad grass. The real talented will survive, but they just have to adapt to the changing times.
In your opinion, why is it a challenge for our Filipino talents to make it abroad?
We have a lot of talented designers but they don’t want to invest money on a collection. It takes $20,000 to come up with a 50-piece collection backed by a business plan. You need more resources to buy the materials, manpower to produce 240 pieces per style per color once the orders are placed. Quality control to fine-tune rough edges and to stay on top of everything, trend-wise. Designers must also be aware of the market’s timelines, creating a collection months in advance.
Another challenge is to understand the market of volume and retail — this is not custom tailoring. I think it really boils down to adapting to the volume, which I think is the challenge. Being able to comply with the number of orders, being able to deliver on time, at the quality agreed upon. An investment of $20,000 can easily bring in a minimum of $150,000 to $190,000 worth of orders.
One more important aspect is originality. Transforming their design aesthetic into the modern world. Designs must look young, and interpreted in a modern way. The perfect example would be Pim Sukhahuta of Sretsis. Her label is from Bangkok, yet is a cult favorite in LA and NY, especially among the young celebrities. She learned the formula and she gets it. In a nutshell, it’s about interpreting designs in a way that the American and European market would wear it. Ethnic is good, as long as there is an element of originality. However, it has to be tweaked and adapted to “now” and made modern. Think Suno New York or what R+Y Augousti does for furniture and home accessories.
How can Filipino designers make it in the retail scene here?
You need to really know fashion in an original yet “broader” sense, and if you can, have a showroom to have credibility. You need a platform to sell your ideas, designs and run a profitable business. You can’t go store by store here. You need to sell to the whole country to sustain the business. And if you can, have a budget for press/press office, especially when you are just beginning. Later on, press will take care of itself.
What are your plans for the future?
Open a buying office in Paris and find the people to run it. I also plan on opening a retail store here in New York. I am not worried about the viability of what I am doing, retail is about knowing what people want. I plan on bringing in designs from India, Brazil, and Korea. I also want to bring in Filipino designers. I would be happy to train Filipino fashion students in my showroom. In the future, I want to go back to Manila and help train students. I am thinking of starting in UST, my alma mater.