Strong Suit

Although colors and textures might have changed, the Ellen Tracy label has survived decades thanks to designer Linda Allard's attention to the needs of working women.

March 27, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

When women decided to go to work en masse in the 1970s and had nothing to wear, Ellen Tracy came to the rescue.

Ellen Tracy is no super-feminist, symbol of women's rights - or even a real person. It's the label of a fashion house that was savvy enough to realize that being a career woman didn't necessarily have to mean dressing like a man.

To many, Tracy became their best friend - albeit a pricey one. And if they looked behind the labels of those well-cut jackets and skirts, they'd find a fellow working woman named Linda Allard.

"Some women come up to me and say, `I don't know what I would do without you' or `You changed my life. I finally feel good in my clothes,' " Allard said during a recent visit to Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase to show her spring collection. Dressed in a snappy black double-breasted pantsuit with gold buttons, Allard sat in the front row of her Saks show next to husband and Ellen Tracy founder Herbert Gallen.

"You tend to think of the fashion business being a little frivolous or maybe not so serious," Allard added. "But when women come up and say that with your clothes, they feel a certain way that gives them confidence, I think that's a good thing."

With Allard at the helm since 1964, Ellen Tracy has accomplished a phenomenal feat. In the fashion world, where success often is fleeting and change is the only constant, the company somehow has managed to remain popular and turn a profit for more than half a century.

Its volume now exceeds $250 million, and the label has become the best-selling bridge line - clothing priced between designers like Chanel and mass-marketers like Liz Claiborne - in such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue.

Ellen Tracy first began in 1949 as a company specializing in blouses. Gallen, who married Allard a year ago, has said that he randomly picked the company's name because a women's line should sound feminine. Ellen Tracy designers gradually expanded their offerings, putting out pants, jackets and dresses. But the label didn't truly become a household name until the 1970s, when Ellen Tracy began providing working women with much-needed suits. Granted, these are working women who have money to spend on clothes. An Ellen Tracy jacket today usually costs between $350 to $450, pants start at $275, blouses are $155 to $300.

Allard, 60, joined Ellen Tracy as a design assistant in 1962, right after she graduated from Kent State University with a degree in Fine Arts and headed to New York. Just two years later, Allard was named head designer. In 1984, Allard's name was added to the company's signature line - Linda Allard for Ellen Tracy.

The success of Ellen Tracy can be attributed to Allard's unwavering emphasis on what her customer wants. Unlike many high-end designers who aim to set new trends on the runway every season, Allard never forgets that her fans want clothes that real women can wear - especially to work.

"With Linda Allard, every season you know you can go in there and find wonderful suits," said Shawny Burns, spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. "And they're also timeless enough that you can wear them for years. She really understands her customer."

But predictability doesn't necessarily mean blandness. Allard is known for churning out collections that pick out elements of current trends. This season, instead of offering togs for the renaissance Material Girl like several designers did, Allard unveiled a collection that had pleasing aspects from the '80s - including mini-skirts and thin gold belts - but wasn't a garish throwback to the decade.

At Saks last week, the Ellen Tracy spring show drew coos and murmurs such as "I could really see myself in that" from a mostly female audience of more than 160.

The trademark Ellen Tracy suits were sprinkled throughout the collection, but in a variety of delicious shades, including aqua, khaki, mauve, lavender and violet. The fabrics were as varied, with chiffon, leather, linen and silk separates intermingling.

There was a lovely soft lime green double-faced linen jacket with French cuffs, a Wedgwood blue shantung pantsuit and a fun lime and violet reptile-print stretch jacket with a matching sateen skirt. For playful chic, Allard paired a conservative navy blue crepe pea coat with a pearl-hued leather mini-skirt. Other sexy ensembles included an ivory crepe dinner jacket worn over gold leather shorts so short that the model appeared to be wearing nothing but a coat from behind.

"She adapts trends in a way that makes sense for her customer," Burns said. "It isn't a look that's so extreme that her customer isn't going to understand it."

Rebecca Cameron, 55, a historian who lives in Washington, has been wearing Ellen Tracy for 10 years.

"They just fit me well, and they're simple but tailored and elegant," said Cameron, who took a front-row seat at the show. "There are a lot of things out there that are tailored but dowdy."

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