EYE OF THE NEEDLE

Kellwood's taking fashion forward by making virtually all our clothes in the Third World. But the St. Louis giant carefully cloaks its operations, its plant locations and its monitoring of labor conditions.

PACKAGED DESIGN Kellwood used to be plain-Jane, but its new milieu is the fashion industry -- a realm that is itself increasingly anonymous. Once demurely monogrammed with the wearer's initials, clothes today wear a rainbow of logos and labels -- yet they all look pretty much the same. Kellwood stands smack in the middle of this Gap-ification, thanks to its flexible, high-speed manufacture and its emphasis on marketing rather than aesthetic innovation. The result is democratic, casual, easy to wear and affordable -- but in critics' eyes, it's bland chaos. Company designers might still gaze at the runways in Paris and Milan for inspiration, but they come home and blunt the high design into mass-market appeal, interpret it in cheap fabric and send the pattern to Third World countries for rapid, secretive assembly.

In the old days, it was the design side that lived like Garbo, shrouded in secrecy. American manufacturers used to visit Paris twice a year, paying a fee called a "caution" to enter the showrooms. Guests could take discreet notes, but reporters gladly embargoed the season's news until the first Paris creations landed at JFK airport, sending frissons up women's spines all across the land.

Today, all you have to do is flip on cable, and a Vogue editor takes you inside. The secrets don't really matter so much anymore, because, as longtime Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Teri Agins writes, "It's not only the end of the millennium, but the end of fashion as we once knew it."

About 160 of Kellwood's 19,200 employees work at the West County headquarters; the real growth is happening overseas, thanks to more than 700 contractors.
Jennifer Silverberg
About 160 of Kellwood's 19,200 employees work at the West County headquarters; the real growth is happening overseas, thanks to more than 700 contractors.
Kellwood CEO Hal Upbin: "We manufacture less and less."
Kellwood CEO Hal Upbin: "We manufacture less and less."

Agins' new book, The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business, chronicles the fall. Designers failed to sell women on short skirts; fads misfired; couture made a fool of itself, turning runway shows into performance art and presenting clothes as unwearable as Balinese theatrical costumes. Women started shopping downmarket, deciding it was not only sensible but chic to buy knockoffs at discount stores. By 1996, discounters accounted for about 41 percent of general retail sales, up from 27 percent in 1987, and Wal-Mart was selling more apparel than all department stores combined. "The forces of fashion," Agins concludes, "had lost their ability to dictate trends."

The power reverted to us: clueless consumers who grew up in extra-large sweatshirts and wouldn't know tulle from burlap. Jeigh Singleton, fashion-design coordinator at the Washington University School of Art, deplores the result. "Before, at least you had a designer making a declaration and being responsible for it, saying, "This is the way it is supposed to be now, and here's why,'" he sighs. "Listening to the customer might seem more democratic -- but it ends up with people not looking so great."

Fashion's artful ensembles have been replaced with the mix-and-match of personal style. "T-shirts with ballgown skirts -- that's tacky," snaps Singleton. "Casual Fridays -- what is that? Some companies stopped it because people were showing up in their pajamas. There is no gauge; there is no standard. The see-through, shrink-wrapped look of celebutantes, that MTV slut-thug look -- I think this is because the masses are making the decisions."

The irony is that, with technology scaling new heights and the richness of the entire globe to tap for inspiration, we're ending up someplace where "all the choices are the same." Fashion, once about uniqueness and exclusivity, now strives only for inclusion -- the kind Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger promise to preps and homeboys alike. The result is sameness, what Singleton calls a "nobody was present" kind of garment, shaped less by design principles than by economics, technology and a marketer's notion of the masses' dreams. "Things are done all over the world -- they're designed here, manufactured in Sri Lanka, sold in New York City and they end up in Boise," continues Singleton. "Everything's electronic, and things are not designed for people as much as for the presentation. They're designed for the hanger, for the fold, for the package. So unless you have this body that looks like a hanger ... things end up looking quite generic."

Kellwood's a mirror for these changes: Instead of an old-fashioned design house with a single authoritative aesthetic, it's a loose amalgamation of brand names and private labels. The old design rules are indeed gone, yet there's little risk-taking, little manipulation of a garment's shape and line. Instead, the "design" comes in embellishment, trim, anything that will be perceived as "novelty" without terrifying copycat consumers.

Kellwood's highest design comes from its David Dart label, one of the "bridge" collections created in the mid-'80s, when high fashion stopped selling and retailers wanted designer names priced about 30 percent lower. Sold at Neiman Marcus (but on the ground floor, not at the altitude of couture), Dart's Millennium collection "takes texture to the limit with pleated mesh, metallic mohair and crinkle knit pieces" and trims a sheath in rooster feathers. (No change in shape, just add-on rooster feathers.) Another Kellwood label, Ivy, mimics the softly draped, easygoing clothes sold by Kiko or C.P. Shades but pares down the prices.

How? Economies of scale and technology. Tax breaks, freebies and eased regulations in the "free-trade zones" created by poor countries to seduce U.S. manufacturers. Thrifty fabric buys. Last May, Kellwood CEO Hal J. Upbin called his designers "unsung heroes" because they had to work with $3-a-yard fabric, not $30- or $300-a-yard material. (Korea was once the company's main source for fabric, but lately they've been casting a wider net, fishing for the stretch, novelty and "surface interest" that command higher prices.)

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