Lafayette 148's Edward Wilkerson, Flying Below the Stratosphere and Above the Norm
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
NEW YORK - Designer Edward Wilkerson has suppressed his ego in exchange for success.
In a fashion industry that produces $200 T-shirts without embarrassment and describes Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as the ideal customers, Wilkerson is contentedly democratic, blatantly unpretentious and proudly price-sensitive -- although his clothes are by no means cheap.
Wilkerson, a veteran of Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, designs for Lafayette 148. In the fashion hierarchy, Lafayette 148 is a bridge collection, which means that it's situated -- by price and aesthetic -- below all the flashy designer labels that peddle an esoteric sensibility at restrictively high prices. The company doesn't mount splashy runway shows or rely on elaborate advertising campaigns. Wilkerson does not make jackets with padded humps, advocate that a woman wear 10 layers of clothing at once, or encourage a businesswoman's daydreams of being a rock star.
Yet Lafayette 148 is more expensive than the mass-market sportswear produced by merchants who strive to appease the lowest common denominator and little else. Wilkerson does not design bland boxy jackets, matchy-matchy separates and cookie-cutter dresses that camouflage a figure rather than enhance it.
Lafayette 148 is solidly in fashion's middle ground -- a place that has a reputation for businesslike, but boring, frocks. Wilkerson argues that clothes for working women don't have to be dull.
"Bridge has been underrated. It's not supposed to be considered fashionable," Wilkerson says. "But we have a fashion business."
The high-end fashion market typically hurtles forward in pursuit of the next trend and will often recklessly declare a fad stale long before customers have grown tired of it. Lafayette 148 pays attention to trends, but it sets itself apart from fancy houses by its willingness to pause so it does not outpace its customers in a zeal to produce something new and fresh. The company will give customers what they want, even if what they desire is several seasons old.
"What a lot of people in fashion don't understand is people outside New York are about five years behind," Wilkerson says. "Fashion doesn't turn as fast as we pretend."
If, for instance, a woman is obsessed with a pair of trousers that are no longer in the collection but that the company still has the capacity to produce, it will do so for a fee of approximately $30. And if enough customers start asking for those trousers, the company will simply return them to the line. In most companies, particularly high-end ones, old designs are not revisited, no matter how much a customer pleads. Designer Isaac Mizrahi, for instance, once noted that customers adored a particular pair of pants in his line. But he discontinued them because he was bored.
Wilkerson strives to dress as many shapes and sizes of women as possible. So in addition to producing a line of clothing that ranges from size 0 to 16 -- a spread worth noting because so many prestige design houses stop cutting at size 12 -- the company also manufacturers petite and plus sizes. Even most bridge lines, which are aimed at a mainstream customer, typically don't offer such a broad range of sizes. (Lafayette 148 is the best-selling label in Salon Z, the plus-size department at Saks Fifth Avenue.)
For some designers, this wide sweep of sizes would pose an image problem. Many designers like to envision their customers as some version of a professionally slender model, preternaturally stunning actress or moneyed socialite. Wilkerson is not so narrow -- or delusional -- in his focus. Working for a bridge label, he can't be.
"Edward says that he wants to dress all women," says Deirdre Quinn, company president. "The large-size customer really appreciates what Edward can do for them."
In a conversation with Quinn, she will spend a great deal of time quoting Wilkerson, referring to his creativity and, in general, serving up heaping helpings of praise for him. The most successful brands -- or at least the ones with any sort of longevity -- are the ones that are able to find a balance between art and commerce. That happens when a designer finds a business partner who can both nurture his creativity and diplomatically rein it in. "I let Edward be pure design, and the result is successful," Quinn says. "We're good at one thing. He's good at one thing. Both sides trust the other."
But Quinn displays more than respect for Wilkerson -- and vice versa. They gush. It's a love-in. He accompanied her on her honeymoon, transforming a romantic getaway into three-pals-on-an-adventure.
Wilkerson is tall with a medium-brown complexion and long dreadlocks that he wears tucked into a bun. He has large, wide eyes that give him a look of boyish wonder, and he is almost always dressed in black. He refuses to discuss his age, but public records show he will turn 45 in November.
Before finding his niche with Quinn, Wilkerson worked in the center of New York's Garment District. As a student at New York's High School of Art and Design, he found a summer job with Donna Karan, who was working at Anne Klein. After Wilkerson graduated from Parsons the New School for Design, he worked for Calvin Klein for a couple years. But soon he was back working with Karan, who'd struck out on her own. He spent his time crafting her signature collection, helping her to realize a vision of sensual power dressing. He worked with Karan for 15 years before coming to Lafayette 148 in 1998 as design director.
In describing Wilkerson, Karan settles on the word "passionate," emphasizing the enthusiasm and dedication he brings to his work, his hobbies, his relationships. "He will remain my friend for life," Karan says.
Lafayette 148 was founded in 1996 as the quintessential bridge business. It was focused on tailored separates for working women. Bridge collections, which include sober brands such as Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman, have a reputation within fashion circles for being functional rather than fun. In 1998, Lafayette 148 set out to alter its reputation and improve the business. It wanted to be a bridge collection with a designer point of view. But mostly, it wanted more pizazz.
The label, named after its address, is based in downtown Manhattan in the vicinity of Chinatown. Today, its grit is occasionally interrupted by the latest luxury condo conversion or sleek cafe. But when Wilkerson first visited the company to meet with Quinn and her business partner Shun Siu, it was all grit.
Before Lafayette 148, Wilkerson was accustomed to laboring with a large team of designers and under the constraints of someone else's vision. He was also used to working in the same neighborhood as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and a host of other fancy names.
"Edward was very open-minded," Quinn recalls. "You're coming down to Chinatown after Donna and Calvin. I don't think everyone would have been as open-minded. He wanted to be the [creative] lead. And we made it clear that we're not frustrated designers."
Quinn had known Wilkerson from working on the production side of the business at DKNY -- the Donna Karan secondary line. She had also worked in production for Liz Claiborne.
"We looked at his sketchbook. We asked how he would transform us from a suit company into a designer line," Quinn says. "When he left, I turned to Mr. Siu and said, 'What do you think?' He had two words: 'Hire him.' "
The simplicity of the process startled Wilkerson. "At a big company, they interview you several times and ask you to do a project ," Wilkerson says. "At Calvin Klein they asked for a project -- What are you feeling for next season? I knew they were going to ask, so I already had one."
When he interviewed at Ralph Lauren, about the same time he was talking to Quinn, executives again asked for a project.
"And I thought, for what? Button-down shirts and khakis?" Wilkerson says. He laughs as he recalls his exasperation. How much creativity and innovation could be squeezed from such a narrowly defined aesthetic sensibility? He'd worked for established brands all his life. He realized he wanted to try something different.
"I'd been in the corporate world already," he says. "And here were all these blondes looking like Stepford Wives. And no one looked happy."
Wilkerson saw Lafayette 148 as an opportunity. "When you work at the big companies, you don't really know what input in the business you've had creatively. I wanted to see what my strength was. I was working with a design team and you never know, 'What did I bring to the company?' I wanted to see how strong I was," he says. Lafayette 148 "was small and I wanted to watch it grow."
In 10 years, the company has transformed into a $50 million wholesale, privately held business. (By comparison, Ann Taylor -- including its factory stores and its Ann Taylor Loft stores -- had sales last year of more than $2 billion.) Quinn expects the brand to see a 20 percent growth in sales this year. It is a vertical company, controlling virtually all of its own production facilities, which were moved from Lafayette Street to China, where Siu is based, about five years ago. Everything from suit jackets to cocktail dresses are produced in-house. Wilkerson churns out some 800 different styles every year.
Early on, Wilkerson's work resembled classic Anne Klein and Donna Karan designs. It was filled with jackets and trousers with the same kind of gentle drape on which Karan built her reputation. It has since found its own vocabulary: strong, sharp lines, rich colors or restrained neutrals, and a more global sensibility. It reflects Wilkerson's quirks and passions. His resort collection, for instance, was inspired by a recent trip to Portofino and Diana Ross.
The collection can still be heavy-handed at times, lacking the jaunty finesse found in lines with a more youthful customer base. Lafayette 148's customer is in the 35-to-45-year-old age range. A brand such as Theory -- known for a more minimalist aesthetic with slim trousers and jackets that fit close to the body -- speaks to women about a decade younger.
Lafayette 148 isn't cool or hip. But it can be lovely and stylish. And it sells.
"I think the patterns are a little old," says Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a retail and fashion consulting firm. "But that's not to say they're not successful, because they are. They fill a niche out there. Not everyone wants to be in the fashion-of-the-moment. It's fashionable enough."
"If you're making a lot of money, you don't need to be cool," Rolontz says. "They're doing it and doing it right."
The company built its reputation on fit, quality and just enough razzle-dazzle. It has used the same fit model for 10 years -- a rare occurrence in the industry. The result is that there is a consistency to the clothes because they have been built around the same figure since the company was established. Several of their patternmakers have been with the company since its inception, as well.
"The value is fabulous. The fabric is extraordinary. The construction is great. They have no middleman to deal with," Rolontz says. "The product is incredible for the money."
The company struggles constantly to maintain a balance between the esoteric delights that please Wilkerson and fuel his creative drive and the commercial basics that protect the bottom line. This, after all, is a company that relies on selling clothes -- not accessories or fragrances or any licensed products -- to pay the bills.
It experiments with the occasional lavish item, such as a $2,200 crochet rabbit fur jacket -- of which they sold about 228 pieces -- shearling coats, a blazer in a fabric woven with metal fibers and hand-embroidered skirts. But it also has plenty of basics: $200 shirts, $500 blazers, $300 pants. The prices are about 23 percent higher than the bridge market average, Quinn says, but about half that of designer labels.
"There's elements in here that are commercial," Quinn says, "but Edward seems to be able to put a twist on that. He knows how to make a white shirt feminine."
Wilkerson doesn't worry about production or any of the details of running a business. Does he ever worry that a dress he envisions -- perhaps one with a flourish of crystals at the neckline -- might be too expensive? "No, because I know they'll make it cheaper," he says and laughs. "I don't concern myself with how much things will cost because in design you always have to balance things out. Our production department makes sure the quality and integrity are maintained."
The latest production challenge concerns a lace appliqued beaded skirt. The lace is ivory and looks as though it might be antique -- although it is not. The taupe beads provide just the right amount of subtle glitz.
Based on the company's usual formula of materials plus labor plus overhead plus profit-margin equals price, the skirt should sell for $600. Quinn has to figure out how to sell it for $400, a price more palatable to her customers.
"I'm into analyzing," says Quinn, who with her passion for production, sourcing and quality control, could be described as a fashion industry geek. "It's fashion, but it's also a business. It's hard to make money in this business. If you retail something at the wrong price, it doesn't sell. You have to find the right ratio for your business."
Because much of Lafayette 148's success is due to its emphasis on trunk shows, Wilkerson travels to places such as Seattle, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to meet customers. "I learn about fit. I find out what looks good on a blonde or a redhead," he says. "You get to know all these personalities."
But that does not mean he finds it particularly easy to charm and make small talk. He gets stage fright. "I'm an absolute nervous wreck because I can't speak off the cuff."
He recalls a nerve-racking visit to Houston during which the host gave him an elaborate introduction. The audience "turned to me and it got so quiet and that just made it worse," he says. "I'm not a good public speaker. I'm not good at interviews. Sometimes I wish I could just create."
Wilkerson is content in the role of the sensitive, behind-the-scenes artist. He is a passionate traveler and has spent a great deal of time in Africa and Asia, where he has photographed the people and the geography. He has sold some of those photographs through personal connections for as much as $6,000 and has assembled others into a book that he would like to have published.
His office is an eclectic gallery filled with pieces he collected on his travels. He has imported no small number of teak tables, benches, chairs and carvings, thanks to the goodwill and large shipping budget of his employers. He has a home in East Hampton, N.Y., that has been photographed for Hamptons Cottages and Gardens, a design magazine. He recently sold it and purchased another, larger home, also along the expensive south fork of Long Island. All of which is to say that simply because his name is not on the label and he is not a partner does not mean that Wilkerson isn't well compensated. All of that attention would be nice, but it isn't necessary.
"I wouldn't turn it down, but as a company, Deirdre and Mr. Siu have been so good to me, it's honestly not something I think about. I'm so happy doing what I'm doing and being part of a team," he says.
"It would almost be silly to turn it into a show about me."