Eveningwear designer Jenny Packham and US stylist Patricia Field meet up to share their design philosophies and discuss the joys of retail and celebrity glamour
Eveningwear designer Jenny Packham and uber-stylist Patricia Field met seven years ago when American Field came to London to see Packham’s Fashion Week catwalk show and source new costumes for Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha in the TV show Sex and the City. The programme was at the zenith of its popularity and the whiff of the new millennium was in the air. Since then, a lot has changed. The friendship between the designer and the stylist has grown, culminating in Field styling Packham’s Milan catwalk show last February. Long-time wholesaler Packham has also entered into the world of retail with a bridalwear store at Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, London, which opened in February last year, and a giant 4,300 sq ft flagship at Mount Street in Mayfair due to start trading in early autumn. Field received an Oscar nomination for her costume design in The Devil Wears Prada.
What motivates you in the way you want to dress women?
Patricia Field: I use clothes to communicate how I feel about women. Historically, women have been kept as secondary, and that’s annoying. I want all women to understand that they are powerful.
Jenny Packham: It’s interesting to dress women because they never stop evolving. It’s that supposedly superficial thing of how they dress, but it’s not superficial at all. The challenge as a designer is to keep on catering to that difference and the vast range of criteria that women have.
Would you design a diffusion range to offer product at more accessible price points?
JP: Lots of designers go down the diffusion route before they have reached their peak. Anything that we do at Jenny Packham has to be at the same quality level as the mainline collection. Besides, I find it difficult to work with certain fabrics at the diffusion level. But we are very well priced within the market. If you look at Giorgio Armani or Louis Vuitton, we compare very well. We tend to have a better spring, because lots of our markets - such as the Middle East - don’t share our weather. Weare known for our colour - the more we do, the more we sell.
PF: If you look at American fashion, no one uses colour at all. British designers like Matthew Williamson and Julien Macdonald use a lot of colour, especially on eveningwear; it’s not as restricted.
What challenges do you face as retailers?
PF: I opened my first store, Patricia Field, in Greenwich Village, New York, 30 years ago. Then in the 1990s I opened a second in SoHo. Eventually I closed the Greenwich Village store and kept SoHo for three more years, before I transferred it to the Bowery area of New York - two doors away from where I live. I had a wholesale business once, and some aspects of it I loved, but others I wasn’t interested in.
Occasionally we do cash and carry with the House of Field label on a limited basis, but other than that, the store is retail only. I decided on this route because as a small business we didn’t have the resources to be competitive. So now we have one store that we can focus on. It’s the best of both worlds, we promote young designers and we stock interesting items.
JP: We have always been a bit shy of retail and concentrated on wholesale. But we opened our bridal store a year ago and we are opening a store on Mount Street in London. It’s in a converted bank with high ceilings. It’s quite a destination area - Marc Jacobs’ new flagship is nearby. It will house a showroom and a retail space for the mainline collection. The idea is to have a private club feel with lots of light and space.
PF: With costly overheads, it’s great if you can multi-task areas like that. I love the truth of retail. You don’t have that immediacy in any other business. Your customer either puts her money on the counter or she doesn’t. To be successful, you have to find an edge. For us, that edge is in being a vertical operation - we make it, we sell it; we cut out the middleman.
JP: It was important for us to find spaces where we felt we could show everything as we see it and have the whole collection on show. The space is light and airy - I don’t want people to feel trapped, as if they have to buy something. I wanted the space to reflect our company values.
PF: Retail is a different animal to wholesale. There is no distance in retail. You are right there with the customer and they tell you everything. Buyers are one step removed from the process because they don’t receive that direct feedback all the time.
How important is celebrity endorsement?
JP: The whole celebrity thing is just the icing on the cake. It’s a fabulous compliment to the brand, but it has also become something essential to brand growth.
PF: It can only help your business if more people recognise your brand.
JP: But the most important part is to concentrate on your product - you can’t go wrong that way. For me, the dresses have to be the most important thing - it is impossible to do it the other way around and court celebrity attention if the product isn’t strong enough.
PF: It’s something we all have to decide; do you go to them or do you let them come to you? If you have something to offer, they will come to you.
JP: I really admire bravery in dressing. I admire trendsetters and people who put thought into how they dress. Courtney Love, for instance, is fascinating. She is just slightly edgy. Of course, I make very colourful clothes, but I don’t wear a lot of colour. My design is not a projection of myself - we’d have gone out of business long ago if that were the case.
PF: Gwen Stefani has such a great look, and she gets copied a lot. One time I was at a fashion show and I tapped Gwen on the shoulder to say hello and it turned out to be Christina Aguilera working a head-to-toe Gwen look. Paris Hilton is great too. One minute she dresses like a Park Avenue princess, the next minute like a slut. It’s like she dresses up in costume to play different characters.
How has the Jenny Packham collection evolved for autumn 07?
JP: In Milan, I found myself working to a different set of criteria. There’s isn’t that London pressure to be quirky or clever. We have loyal customers who love what we do and want the pieces that we do best. For autumn 07, we have concentrated on that essence to work with our beading, our own prints and have made the pieces even more special. The thing in Milan is to create luxury and glamour above all. There are a lot of Asian influences in the autumn 07 collection, especially from Ang Lee films. It’s all about colourful Japanese and Chinese influences in the beading and prints. There are a lot of brights - fuchsia, lime, purple - and bronzy metallics as well as black and white.
PF: I think movement gives you that freedom to feel a different mood. It changes your mind-set, and for you, it has allowed you to make changes to the collection.
JP: That’s right, but when you have a reputation, you can’t just do something completely different. We have added leather and suiting into the collection for the first time this season. With something new like that, it takes a while to find a good partner, then it takes a few seasons to find the right fabrics and manufacturers. You can’t rush it.
PLANET PACKHAM IN NUMBERS
- £6 million = Turnover in 2006
- £3,000 = Highest ready-to-wear price
- 1988 = The year Jenny Packham started trading
- £600 = The average wholesale price of a dress
- 200 = Number of international stockists
- 90 = Number of pieces in autumn 07 collection
- 50 = Number of UK and RoI stockists.