The Rescue of Narciso Rodriguez

Posted on May 7, 2007

Designer Narciso Rodriguez has clients who love him and an inspired talent for fashion. So why was he facing bankruptcy? It's a common story: his genius is focused on design, not business.
Few dresses have glamorized bare flesh more than the silk slip that Carolyn Bessette wore to marry John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996. It blotted from the mind the schoolgirl roundness of Diana, it stoked the copy kings and it gave an unknown designer, Narciso Rodriguez, a very nice push.

But in recent months, behind the media blaze of his shows and his image as a successful designer, Mr. Rodriguez has been struggling. He trusted the wrong people, he said, listing lawyers and other advisers, and this trust put his business in a yoke. He could continue to plod along and hope for the best, or he could declare bankruptcy and call it a day. Instead, against the view of the fashion world as a cold-hearted place, he picked up the phone and asked for help. He called Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, and his close friends in the parallel world of celebrity, Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld. And he told them all the same thing. "He said, 'You're not going to believe this, but I have no money,'" Ms. Karan recalled. Today, Mr. Rodriguez’s candor is being unexpectedly rewarded. Liz Claiborne, the giant American clothing manufacturer, is acquiring his upscale label.

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The son of Cuban immigrants, Mr. Rodriguez got his start on Seventh Avenue in the 1980s as Ms. Karan’s assistant at Anne Klein. He then went to Calvin Klein, where he met Ms. Bessette, whose job was to look after V.I.P. clients. They grew close. It was at Cerutti, in Paris, where he went to work in the mid-'90s, that he made her wedding dress in secret. Along the way, Mr. Rodriguez honed his style of clean, seductive sportswear, its lines announcing his Cuban roots. Like his clothes, he presents an implacable air of calm. "He's so low-key sometimes," Ms. Wintour said. "And he's not a diva."

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To help finance his business, Mr. Rodriguez turned to Massimo Ferretti, an Italian manufacturer whose company owns Moschino and Alberta Ferretti. Mr. Rodriguez had any number of offers, he said, but he liked Mr. Ferretti and he thought they could work well together. They formed a partnership in which Mr. Ferretti would produce and distribute Mr. Rodriguez's clothes, paying him royalties.

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On several occasions, Mr. Rodriguez tried to end their contract but was told by his advisers, he said, that "it was the best that I could do." He also met with a host of potential investors in the hopes of freeing himself. They ranged from representatives of European fashion houses to a man who said he was a confidant of Queen Rania of Jordan and who proposed that Mr. Rodriguez do a separate label for Sarah Jessica Parker. "People always talk about how you need investors," Mr. Rodriguez said, "but they have no idea how hard it really is.” He laughed. "There are sharks out there."
Thanks to Anna Wintour's intervention, Narciso now has complete creative control over his line, while Liz Claiborne is his benevolent corporate overlord. Hey, you don't see the Juicy Couture founders complaining about being owned by Liz, now do you? The line is doing better than ever.

And they all live happily ever after in Fashion Heaven.