The days leading up to New York Fashion Week are typically a hotbed of activity in studios across New York, designers refining their clothes and distilling the range down to that perfect runway message.
But on Monday, despite the approach of his first full-scale show this morning, at the restaurant Veronika, there was nothing going on at Adam Lippes’ temporary studio on lower Broadway. Nothing that required his oversight, anyway. No castings, no fittings, no sartorial tweaking.
That’s because Lippes wasn’t around. He was 380 miles away in Fort Erie, Ontario, making good on a long-ago, teenaged vow to act as a pallbearer for the gardener of his family’s vacation house.
Lippes hadn’t seen Walker Dekker since 2003, at Lippes’ mother’s funeral, and was surprised by a November call from the man’s nephew, who’d found him on Google: “My uncle would love to hear from you.” Lippes intended to call, but got busy as one does, and didn’t. The nephew got in touch again in mid-January. About two weeks later, on a Sunday, Lippes picked up the phone and reconnected with the man to whom his younger self had been so close. “Remember our vow,” Dekker said. The following Wednesday, he was dead.
Lippes shares the story when back in New York on Tuesday, by way of explaining why he had to delay our conversation for a day. We talk over lunch in his temporary office, a large, open space on lower Broadway. A hefty elevator ride up to the 42nd floor, the brand’s new permanent offices are under construction.
The collection Lippes will show today was loosely inspired by Umberto Pastis’ Rohuna garden in Tangiers, which the designer visited in December. While a lovely print runs through his lineup, the looks here show no overt references save for the soft green of a goddess gown and a shirt collar’s white-on-white embroidery. “I touch lightly on inspiration,” Lippes says. In addition to gardens, he’s more likely to look to interiors than mine obvious pop culture sources. He dubs his approach “fashion with a small f. It’s on trend but it’s not trendy. It’s clothes that you’re going to live in again and again and again, clothes you’re going to go to without being basic.”
Clothes women relate to. They occupy a space that has confounded many — that world of chic, adult dressing that many consider an endangered species in an era of streetwear, yoga pants and ugly-chic four-figure sneakers. Lippes will tell you that there are customers out there — many of them — who want to look round-the-clock lovely, whether at work, in casual situations or big nights out. “Our customer doesn’t want to be sexy but she doesn’t mind being sensual,” he says, noting that most favor a relatively lean line, although his more forward clients will dabble in oversized proportions. “She wants to be appropriate. That’s a very big thing in America at least, this idea of appropriateness.”
Asked whether “appropriateness” still resonates at a cultural moment so focused on individual choice, he doesn’t flinch. “For us, 1,000 percent. There is an appropriateness. Maybe not here in New York, but out there [she considers] why does something look right for her age, for her body, for who she is, and does she feel that she looks correct. Which is so not PC to say at all.”
Nor does it suggest that the clothes don’t resonate in New York. Bergdorf Goodman does a brisk business, and Linda Fargo, the store’s senior vice president of fashion and store presentation, calls herself a fan and a client. “Adam’s collections embody the best of what American sportswear can be right now. [He] checks all the right and various boxes,” she says, citing a sense of ease while being “well-dressed”; unfussy femininity; luxury’s “new tier” pricing that’s not outrageous. His brand, she offers, “is for a woman who’s at peace with her image and who enjoys flowers, color and lace, but still loves a peacoat. Another calling card is the high quality. If you’re going to make a simply cut silhouette, you better make it out of special fabric and craft it well….His girlfriends are his muses and he understands their style and their lives and creates for them.”
Lippes would say his friends and customers are his muses and, sometimes, the customers become friends. Proud of the brand’s strength in “middle America,” he’s on the road constantly to support that strength. “I’ve done it door-to-door, I’ve done it the hard way,” he says. Next month he will be in his office for five days, and take a five-day vacation to celebrate the birthday of his partner Alexander Farnsworth’s mother. The rest of the time he’ll be on the road, visiting stores, some of which might arrange a client dinner, and perhaps attending a trunk show at the home of a big client.
“By the way, I have made some great friends doing this, incredible women. If I’ve gone into markets where I don’t have a good account, I’ll meet somebody or know someone and start showing at their house and then that account comes.”
Once, he gained more than an account. In a phone chat, Courtney Sarofim proclaims herself “president of the Adam fan club.” More officially, she works for her family’s Houston-based fund-management empire. When her New York-based sister-in-law, the actress and producer Allison Sarofim, asked her to host an Adam Lippes trunk show in her Houston home a few years back, she offered an immediate yes, trusting Allison’s taste and instincts (they’re “super-close”). When all was said and done, Courtney did considerably more than host.
“I was first attracted to the man,” Courtney Sarofim says. “He is a force, he has this wonderful laser-sharp intellect and wit and he just had a great spirit, which made me really want to dig into the clothes and start buying them and wearing them.” When she did, she fell in love there, too. “I love the fabrics that he uses, and the designs are not fussy. They are very easy to wear, but you feel draped in luxury.”
In their first meeting, the designer and host got talking about some tabletop finds she’d brought home from Europe; he told her he wanted to get into home one day. (That’s happening in May, with the launch of a collection for OKA.) Right off the bat, she was intrigued enough to start the investment conversation. “It was me,” Sarofim says. “He wasn’t hustling me. I could tell he was kind of in money-raising mode, but I was soliciting the information from him, you know, ‘Adam tell me more, blah, blah.’”
“Blah, blah” led to a couple of months of discussions, and ultimately, to investment by various Sarofim family members. “Adam is an appealing person and an appealing operator and an appealing creative and because of this, everybody kind of believed in the clothes,” Sarofim says.
She certainly does, and takes issue with the premise of the diminishing relevance of polished clothes in a Lululemon world. “Allison can put on streetwear and it really works for her,” Sarofim says. “She has a different lifestyle; she lives in a different place. I know that for women like myself who work, who are also doing some philanthropic stuff, we’re super involved with our kids, you sort of run the gamut. A lot of us still — we want to get dressed. We don’t want to be dressed and uncomfortable with lots of bells and whistles and things to tie and snap, but we want to be wearing luxurious fabrics. It’s not for the whole world to know how luxurious our fabrics are but so that we feel good, we feel comfortable. I sit in my office in a pair of Adam pants and one of his cashmere sweaters and I know that I can go just about anywhere. I don’t want to wear my exercise clothes around town. Not everyone does.”
The business should hit $20 million this year. Last year, it increased 24 percent in what Lippes calls “a really hard market.” The U.S. accounts for 90 percent, with the U.K., South Korea, Japan and the Middle East making up the remainder. That’s down from 2013, when Lippes launched with 30 percent internationally, a level that proved complicated to manage. Discerning which small stores were good — and in some cases, collecting payments — “became an uphill battle.” Now he revels in the Americanness of his business, and recalls the moment of enlightenment. Once while having tea with a press-darling British designer, she noted that she couldn’t make headway with American retailers. “She said, ‘You are so lucky to have America.’ And it was the first time I thought, ‘Why am I not loving what I have here and realizing that I can go door-to-door here, and not be chasing this overseas with discounts?’”
Hence, his frequent travels to locales such as Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, to various Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom outposts and top specialty shops including Neapolitan in Winnetka, Ill., outside of Chicago. “We have been working with Adam for several years,” says owner Kelly Golden. “He is definitely one of our clients’ favorite designers. Not only are his clothes beautiful and well-made but Adam is a wonderful guy.”
Golden notes that her customers respond to Lippes’ strength with color, his prints and his ability to deliver forward-looking fashion that’s wearable. “We actually merchandise his collection next to Valentino and other designers that have much higher price points. You get a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ with his pieces, whether it is his beautifully tailored cashmere coats or his elegant lace dresses. Adam’s clothes are a reflection of his personality: genuine, gracious and modern.”
While he loves his retail partners, Lippes is extremely focused on his own e-commerce, now 18 percent of the business. He calls it “the golden spot of our business, up 120 percent from last year.” He credits chief executive officer Michelle Wasserman, who joined the company three years ago from Coach’s e-commerce side and made it a big push. About the site, he says, “Yes, we sell T-shirts all day, every day, but we’re also selling expensive garments day in and day out.”
In fact, were he launching today rather than in 2013, Lippes would take a different approach than his current wholesale model and launch with one or two key retail partners “for their gravitas,” at almost no margin, and sell the rest direct for a wholesale margin. “To me, it’s how can I get luxury product out there at a more accessible price?”
“Our double-faced cashmere coats are just under $4,000, which is pretty good. But it’s still $4,000. What if they were $2,000? Could we build a more attainable luxury? A lot of people say I want an attainable luxury brand but what gives it the luxury [quality]. It’s not really there, but it could be there. Because this double margin is what makes things so crazy expensive.”
While it’s not realistic to think he can get to an almost all-vertical model, Lippes is tinkering with his margins. “Season over season, we lower our retails a bit. It’s a slow conversion rate, so our margins are lower at wholesale than they have been, but we are selling so much more online that it makes up for it.”
Lippes came at fashion somewhat laterally. While growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., he was obsessed with fashion, he never considered it as a career; it just wasn’t a track for the sons of upstate lawyers. So he went to Cornell, the educational prelude to a finance career. But a funny thing happened en route to Wall Street: junior year abroad in Paris. It changed his life. Lippes fell in with a fashion crowd, and there was no going back — at least figuratively. He wanted to stay in Paris, to which his parents said okeydokes, but you’re on your own.
His youthful resolve tempered by the cool hand of practicality, Lippes returned home, graduated from Cornell and set out to forge his fashion future in New York. First stop: Ralph Lauren and Rhinelander. He started as a sales associate at Lauren’s flagship and was quickly discovered by Electra Preston, who managed Lauren’s Madison Avenue and East Hampton stores. She brought him on as her assistant. (He had two other reporting channels, to Charles Fagan and Robert Burke.) When Preston decamped to Oscar de la Renta, Lippes went with her.
Unlike most neophyte employees everywhere, Lippes met the guy with his name on the door immediately. De la Renta had a kitchen in his headquarters, then at 550 Seventh Avenue, where the cook Celenia prepared lunch daily for the staff. Lippes’ desk was near the kitchen. On his first day, de la Renta prepared his plate — the same meal served every day, chicken salad and pasta — and Lippes followed, second to the buffet line. Unsure of where to sit but not shy, he then “plopped down” at the table right next to de la Renta. “I was wearing a get-up of all get-ups, blonde hair down to here, but like Joan Rivers on top. I was in an Emporio Armani, loose-knit linen blazer, very, very tight with like five buttons, no shirt underneath, and big, wide, linen Ralph Lauren pants and Ralph Lauren crocodile gladiator sandals. At Oscar, they were very staid for a very long time. And he turned and he was like, ‘Do you work here?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m Adam.’ It was an amazing fashion moment. And that began my friendship and mentorship with Oscar.”
Lippes considers de la Renta “like a father,” one who was kind and tough, and whose humor could cross over to cutting. “You had to have a thick skin. You had to be able to give it back. I was comfortable, probably because I became a lot like family, He would make fun of my hair and I’d be like, ‘At least I have hair.’ We had a banter going back and forth.” De la Renta was also a generous mentor. “The more I wanted to take on, the more he allowed,” Lippes says. He became creative director at 26, even though he arrived at the house with zero design experience. “I learned from Oscar. The more you opened your eyes, the more you could learn. And don’t forget, we had that huge atelier in the back. So if you wanted to understand construction, you just could listen and watch him talk to any of the sewers or the patternmakers at the atelier.”
Lippes stayed at de la Renta for eight years. Almost from the start, he felt that entrepreneurial fervor, and knew that at some point, he’d want his own thing. He also knew that it wouldn’t feel right to go into direct competition with de la Renta in luxury women’s ready-to-wear. His solution: Adam + Eve, a smart-chic T-shirt and underwear line. De la Renta approved, allowed him to stay on while working on the line and became his first investor. It took fashion by storm, particularly after getting a huge boost when Oprah gave it her on-air endorsement — one that came with a little hiccup. Many interested viewers confused Adam + Eve with AdamandEve.com, a porn site, necessitating a change of brand name. No matter. Investors came calling. Compagnie Financière Richemont bought in under the newly created Atelier Fund headed by Marty Wikstrom and Dawn Mello. They decided to launch a full contemporary collection under the label Adam Adam Lippes. “It was the Juicy Couture years. I didn’t know contemporary from a hole in the wall,” Lippes says.
The business grew fast, experiencing a heady boom until “it all just came crashing down after the recession.” Richemont wanted out. It shut down several small brands it had acquired but sold the Lippes brand to Kellwood. Although the business got back on track, it wasn’t a happy experience as Lippes was dissatisfied with the quality. The last straw came via a deal with HSN. “You’re going to be great, you’re going to kill it on HSN,” he was told. After one round of TV selling, he returned to New York and quit, supported by his entire design team, who walked out with him. But all wasn’t lost. Lippes got money together, some from the sale of his town house, and bought his name back. “I believe they could have gotten more money from someone,” he says. “People knew our T-shirts and underwear. But they had a new ceo, Jill Granoff, and she was like, ‘We want to make this right.’”
Lippes decided he would relaunch “where I always should have been,” in the designer space. Everyone told him he was crazy to try such a move with his own money in a volatile market, but he forged on and after a year of development, he relaunched under the Adam Lippes label.
“I wanted to make clothes for a woman who mixed what I took from Ralph, the ultimate of American sportswear, with what I learned from Oscar —, quality, fun, exuberance. At Ralph you could always go in and come out looking good. At Oscar you could go in and you could come out looking amazing or you could make a fashion mistake. I thought if I could mix those two things together, I could give a woman the confidence of those day-in, day-out clothes that weren’t boring and that were beautifully made.”
De la Renta also instilled the belief that fashion at this level is for “a woman, not a girl, that it’s not about models, it’s about a woman.” Lippes’ debut collection went up to size 22, and he has since added size 24. “For me, if you can afford the clothes, you should be able to buy them,” he says, noting that his inclusive inclination goes both ways. “I have customers who are 00s who want my clothes. Why wouldn’t I make that?”
While Lippes has catered to all measure of women who can afford his clothes since well before the inclusivity craze took hold, he hasn’t gotten that high-profile “credit” for it, along the likes of, say, Christian Siriano. To that end, he acknowledges a shortcoming. “Others have done better in communication than we have. We have been very, very quiet.”
Ditto on the sustainability front. From Day One, Lippes has used only recyclable hangers, recycled stationery and bags made out of corn starch. And he tries to make everything locally, which shrinks the carbon footprint. As for working with deadstock, he doesn’t have any. “We have always cut our last piece. But the most important thing we do at this level is make things you will not throw away.
“We’re doing good things, but we have not led with those conversations. And maybe that was a mistake, I read an interesting thing that it’s no longer enough to make pretty clothes. The customer needs to feel part of your why.”
Lippes is very clear on his primary “why.” While he and Wasserman frequently discuss licensing and collaboration opportunities they’d like to pursue, their focus first and foremost is on providing women with clothes in which they can feel beautiful and comfortable, and it’s working. Says Lippes, “We make money off luxury clothes, which is the hardest thing.”