Ellen Tracy line is looking much sharper

Designer Sharp is making label more sophisticated

September 14, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- If you're a woman in Baltimore who's been around for any length of time, chances are you own clothes by Ellen Tracy.

The classic designer label has been a staple in Baltimore closets for decades -- worn to luncheons, bar mitzvahs and business interviews by sophisticated women who have a keen sense of style, not an obsession with fashion.

But as other younger, hipper labels climbed their way up in the fashion world, Ellen Tracy took somewhat of a back seat. Retailers and customers alike quietly grumbled about its "department store" feel. What was once classy now teetered on boring. The label's focus on "upscale missy," while others were leaning more contemporary chic, made some of the clothes seem stale, overly coordinated, too safe.

Enter George Sharp.

The former head of the renowned Escada label showed his first collection of spring ready-to-wear during New York's famed Fashion Week yesterday. And by the time the models had made their way once around the company's Seventh Avenue showroom, the insiders were predicting a new life for the longtime label.

"It's a great new direction," says Frank Doroff, general merchandise manager, ready-to-wear, for Bloomingdale's. "It's much more sophisticated, more ladylike, more designs, more details. I'm anxious to get the clothes in the stores."

Sharp, who started this year as vice president, design, for Ellen Tracy, was bombarded after the 9 a.m. show with such compliments and accolades. Fashionistas and industry types gushed that Sharp's spring collection -- full of easy separates done in classic colors such as navy and white, luxurious silks and linens, wide-leg pants, Bermuda shorts and embellished tailored jackets -- had taken Ellen Tracy back to its beautifully stylish beginnings.

"George brings with him from Escada an understanding of beautiful sportswear, of fabrics that are luxurious but also practical," says Chris Phillips, divisional merchandise manager for classic sportswear at Saks Fifth Avenue. "He understands what her closet looks like. He creates for a lifestyle. He really has taken the collection to the next level. It looks so beautiful."

Sharp will be appearing at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase next month and said he is eager to learn more about his Baltimore-area customer.

"I love to go to places like Baltimore and Texas. I love to talk to customers," he says, after the runway show. "That's the only way I can get what they really want. That's the only way I can get the collection really balanced."

What he does know about the Ellen Tracy customer is that she is many things: sophisticated, modern, feminine, successful. She is stylish, but isn't into the theater of fashion. She loves embellishment, but steers clear of bling.

"It's all about stealth wealth, quiet luxury," Sharp says. "It's definitely understated. I think the [fashion] pendulum is swinging back in that direction anyway. But our customer has always been there."

Some in the fashion industry thought for a while that Ellen Tracy had gotten too understated. A look back at fashion spreads in department store mailers shows models in head to toe plain: a rose-colored jacket paired with a rose-colored sweater tank and a rose-colored skirt; a pair of slacks and a sweater.

When longtime Ellen Tracy designer Linda Allard, who had been with the company 42 years, retired two years ago, a team of designers took over the creative side of the business. But their job -- as evidenced by the clothes hanging on racks in department stores -- was to keep things afloat, not propel them forward.

"After Linda left, I don't believe they had someone of George's caliber running things," says Saks' Phillips. "With anything in fashion, you have to keep moving. It's important with this new generation. Fashion just keeps changing, and it's really important to have a designer who understands that."

To that end, Sharp's designs are more modern, easier. Yesterday, models wore tailored jackets -- an Ellen Tracy classic -- with Bermuda shorts instead of slacks. They walked the runway in espadrilles, leather beach sandals and flip-flops, not heels. Sharp took a traditional menswear shirt under a feminine cardigan and, surprisingly, popped the collar.

Still, the Ellen Tracy customer doesn't want to look like a teenager. Fifty may be the new 30, and so on and so on, but Sharp's 35-year-old customers want to dress appropriately for their age and station.

Sharp has been applauded for modernizing the label but without caving in to the pressure to make the clothes low-rise, low-cut, super-sheer, overly sexy. Ellen Tracy customers want to be alluring, he says, not costume-y sexpots. They strive for feminine, not girly.

The spring collection, under Sharp's leadership, is so exciting to fashion insiders that more local retailers -- who had at one time dropped the line -- are looking to include the new designs in their racks.

"It's got such a great name, and it's a dependable, wonderful core type of representation of American classic sportswear," says Jay Dugan of Octavia in Pikesville. "It's fine-quality, wonderful fabrics, and that's why we would buy it now."

George Sharp

Age: In his 40s

Residence: Recently moved from Munich, Germany, to New York

Experience: Has been in the fashion industry since 1983; head of Escada from 2001 to April, when he joined Ellen Tracy

Appearance: At Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 20

Information: 301-657-9000

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