Death of Escada designer won't stop the pricey line from going on

July 02, 1992|By Roy H. Campbell | Roy H. Campbell,Knight-Ridder News Service

Anita Steen, owner of an East Coast advertising firm, loves high fashion and thinks nothing of dropping $800 for a skirt or $1,500 for a blazer.

So one would think that her closets would be bulging with designs from Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld or Giorgio Armani.

Think again. Ms. Steen has built a wardrobe of smart, snappy clothes that bear the Escada label.

"I started buying Escada about seven years ago and I love it. It is a very chic line made extremely well with fabulous fabrics," Ms. Steen said.

It is a testament to designer Margaretha Ley, who died of cancer last month at age 56, that women like Ms. Steen embraced her pricey collection even though it did not emanate from the ateliers of established design talent in Paris, Milan or New York. Ms. Ley and her husband, Wolfgang, established their business in 1976 in Germany and worked steadfastly to build it into a giant in the fashion arena.

The Escada line will continue, company officials said, and a search will be made for someone new to head the design team.

The Escada collection, named after a racehorse, became known for its bright colors, fancy trims and graphic designs. Ms. Ley was also fanatical about fabric, and used silks, linens, wools and cottons for her softly tailored designs.

But there was nothing soft about the price tag. From the beginning, Ms. Ley priced her clothes on the upper end, even though they rarely featured groundbreaking designs.

In fact, the Escada collection is mostly a hodgepodge of current trends jazzed up and infused with color. And sometimes the clothes are obvious copies of designer merchandise.

Christian Lacroix, whose suit alleging that the company took one of his designs is still pending in French courts, said that Escada's designers were "vampires who make a lot of money stealing the ideas of others."

But well-heeled women have found Escada's prices acceptable when compared with the prices for the ready-to-wear collections of Lacroix and his European counterparts.

Rosemary Bullock, owner of the Au Courant boutiques in Philadelphia, said that when she decided to order the line three seasons ago she was "frightened to death" by the retail price. "But I knew it had a following," she said.

Now Escada is her best-selling line. Her Escada customers are lawyers, executive's wives, socialites and top corporate leaders, such as Rosemarie Greco, president of CoreStates First Pennsylvania Bank.

"The collection is geared toward an executive or high-end-income kind of woman," said Ms. Bullock.

Though some scoff at the idea, Ms. Ley said in a 1989 Chicago Tribune interview that she designed for working women.

"I design more or less for a working woman like myself. I try everything on myself and I find out if everything is working as I would like to wear it," she said. "I know what a woman needs when traveling and working. It has to give you a feeling of perfection and quality."

Ms. Ley, born in Sweden, was a seamstress before she became a showroom model in the 1960s for Paris designer Jacques Fath. She also did a stint as a fashion reporter for a German magazine.

With her husband, an apparel magnate, the couple built Escada into a company with $814 million in revenues last year.

There are 29 Escada boutiques worldwide and about a dozen Escada discount outlets.

It was not unusual, retailers say, for customers to order nothing but Escada's radiant clothes each season and pile on the Escada accessories.

Ms. Bullock said the secret to Escada's success was simple.

"It makes a bold statement and it has quality," she said.

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