Vera Wang's Simply Vera line aims at middle-class wallets

September 10, 2007|By Tanika White | Tanika White,Sun Reporter

Designer Vera Wang unveiled her spring collection under the Fashion Week tents at Bryant Park on Friday, displaying metallic printed skirts and boldly colored dresses.

But for those who can't afford $1,500 dresses - or higher-priced items from Wang's runway line - the bridal-gown-guru-turned-top-ready-to-wear designer also has launched a more affordable option.

Simply Vera Vera Wang officially debuted last week at Kohl's department stores.

The clothes, from $34 to $200, shuttle Wang into the ever-growing group of designers who have partnered with discount chains to sell luxury-style clothing to everyday people.

Experts are calling the trend "mass-tige" - prestige for the masses - and say those who capitalize on the idea, such as Isaac Mizrahi, Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart, are smart.

"Every designer, I think, dreams of what I would call `brand stretch,'" says Michael Stone, CEO of the Beanstalk Group, a brand licensing company. "The ability to service many different markets and demographics, with a variety of products at a variety of values and pricepoints. And very few actually are able to pull it off."

Wang is one of those few.

After achieving celebrity status in the early 1990s with beautifully simple bridal gowns, Wang moved artfully into ready-to-wear, to great acclaim. Since then, she has put her signature style on fragrances, jewelry, shoes, stationery, dinnerware - and even a Serta mattress.

But aside from her slightly lower-priced Lavender label, which offers apparel from about $300 to $800, most shoppers without celebrity or socialite status could only dream of owning her award-winning clothes.

Simply Vera makes those dreams a reality.

Unlike some other low-end lines, such as Madonna's at H&M or Sarah Jessica Parker's at Steve & Barry's, Wang stays true to a designer feel, despite the discounted prices.

The Kohl's skirts and dresses have many of the feminine details Wang has become known for - such as bows, ribbons, lace and sheer layers - and the pieces boast the same architectural cuts of her ready-to-wear line.

She's kept a familiar Vera Wang color palette, the coats are fabulous, and nearly all of the pieces look as if they cost at least twice as much as they actually do.

"It looks really fashion-forward," says Samantha Bishopp Mollett, senior fashion market editor for Glamour magazine. "It's pretty crazy how similar it is to her runway collections. There are so many signature kind of Vera details. Her rouching and beading and appliques, and the netting that she does in her runway as well as bridal collections, makes it look really high-end."

Some may say a little too high-end. Convincing customers to spend $200 at Kohl's for just about anything might be a tough sell, even if the label does say Vera Wang.

But on a recent trip to the Kohl's in Ellicott City, a saleswoman said the line was selling quickly - especially the dresses - even though the store began displaying the line, without fanfare, before the actual launch last week.

And shoppers seemed impressed - at least by the aesthetics of the line.

"It's cool. It seems very stylish," says Jenny Roman, 36, an Ellicott City stay-at-home mother. "It's something different."

Roman wasn't surprised to see such fashionable clothing at Kohl's. She says she often wears Kohl's apparel when going out in the evenings and usually garners compliments.

But she wasn't sure she would buy any of the Simply Vera line.

"I'm not a waif," Roman says, "So it's hard."

Designer clothes are often cut for a more narrow frame, but Roman might want to give Simply Vera a try in the dressing room.

After all, the collection carries sizes up to 16, and some of the clothes appear a little oversized. One short-sleeved textured coat, for example, was big enough to layer over one of Wang's sweaters, a silk-blend tee and a jacquard skirt.

But that may be purposefully done. Among the style-savvy, Wang is known for her elegantly casual layering. Those fashionistas who follow her work, experts say, will recognize, and most likely love, the lower-end interpretation of such details.

"There are girls here in the office who are so excited about this," says Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com, which is based in Manhattan. "And given that the prices are so affordable, I think it will appeal to younger women, possibly college age and even high schoolers."

Experts believe Wang's foray into the middle-class will be very successful.

One reason is that bargain shoppers have become used to this high-low approach to fashion.

"I remember when Halston went into JC Penney and [critics] said it was the end of Halston," says Stone. "I think people are more accepting now of a brand having an `upstairs' place and a `downstairs' place, much more than they were."

And - unlike some pop music stars or celebrity spouses who have ventured into clothing design recently - Vera Wang has taken time to cultivate her "upstairs place" in fashion, making hers a name people associate with quality.

"I think that this kind of collection works for someone like Vera who really does have strong design identity," Phelps says. "When you look at something of Vera's you really know that it's hers."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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