Fashion & Jewelry Panelists Dish at WJA Metro Chapter’s Style Panel

Jewelry’s salability amidst competition from shoes and bags, and what to call costume baubles were among the topics at this week’s panel discussion co-hosted by the Metropolitan Chapter of the Women’s Jewelry Association and VERANDA magazine.

Held on May 16 from 6–8 p.m. in the Hearst Tower at 57th Street, “Objects of Desire, Lessons from Leaders in Jewelry, Fashion & Style” featured Fashion Week creator Fern Mallis as moderator and three speakers: New York City-based jewelry designer Alexis Bittar; Dara Caponigro, Veranda editor-in-chief; and Lori Goldstein, fashion stylist.

The highlights of the conversation:

Fern Mallis, one-time senior vice president of IMG Fashion, creator of present-day Fashion Week, and current president of Fern Mallis LLC.

On jewelry in the accessories category:

“Jewelry is the most personal of the accessories, it defines you more than bags or shoes. Buying a bag or shoe doesn’t say a damn thing about you, and for the price of shoes today, you can buy really great jewelry.”

“Who is the one buying jewelry and paying for it? It’s the older customer; women who buy jewelry are age 40–80, and you don’t have to be a size 0 or 2 to wear it. Accessories are what you buy when you can’t fit into your clothes, and that’s the messaging that should get out more and more. Earlobes don’t get fat.”

On how Fashion Week started

“It was the early 1990s when the designers’ shows were spread out all over the city. We were down in the 20’s at a Michael Kors show, in an old mill where the designers loved to do the shows because they were these barren, concrete spaces. He had all the models of the day—Naomi, Cindy, etc.—they were known as ‘Michael’s girls, and the music pumping so loud that the building shook, and chunks of plaster started falling onto the runway and into the laps of editors in the front row, including Suzy Menkes of the New York Times. The headlines in the papers the next morning read ‘We live for Fashion Week, we don’t want to die for it.’ I was executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the time, and decided that industry needed to organize and have the shows in one location. Sometimes somebody in the room just has to take charge.”

Alexis Bittar, jewelry designer in New York City

On growing your jewelry brand:

“Getting your product out and being seen is a huge part of building a brand. The stylists and editors play a big part in that.”

On the terms ‘fashion’ versus ‘costume jewelry,’ and their materials:

“I feel like I’m pigeon-holed in either the costume or fashion jewelry categories, and I hate the term ‘art wear’! And I think of those cards at Kmart for ‘fashion jewelry’ when I hear that term. I don’t think there is a great name right now for designer fashion jewelry. But sterling is the material that moves across all categories and has become the bridge in American between fine jewelry and fashion. We can credit Yurman for that; he successfully brainwashed the American consumer who couldn’t afford gold to buy sterling!

“We’re also embracing other materials, too, as long as they’re used in smart functional ways. For example, five years ago, I used powder coat—which is used to paint cars—and I recall explaining it to jewelry buyers, who were a bit skeptical about it, but now everything is being used, and it’s great to see as a designer.”

On jewelry ads:

“Jewelry advertising is so product driven, and feels so dead to me. Advertising is like adult graffiti; it’s all a blur for me. And it’s always a young model and from a singular point of view. I’m amazed at the budgets that are being spent on it, and what do you do if you don’t have a ton of money to be provocative? No one is using anyone who is mature, and that’s a huge disconnect for what we’re advertising and how women perceive and judge themselves. When we shot Lauren Hutton [for Alexis Bittar Jewelry], we didn’t retouch her in our ads, and she was okay with that. It’s about being smart.”

On runways and celebrities:

“I design three separate collections a year, and I design on ready-to-wear collection schedules. We show with the Paris runway shows, and they are more of a PR—not a sales—thing.

“Sales and celebrity placement don’t always coincide in real time for me. For the brand, it’s definitely important. For instance, I was doing an interview where the journalist asked me if things sell out instantly when Michelle Obama wears my pieces. Maybe that happens for the Gap, but that’s not my reality. We’ll sell four pins, but it’s the snowball effect of the celebrity that is important. At least 10–15 percent of women mention they saw something on a celebrity.”

On knock offs:

“Knock offs are a huge issue. To a point I understand the saying that ‘there is no independent thought in design,’ but right now there is such an insatiable need for newness that I think some people get lazy. I have a friend who was knocked off by another jeweler to a T, and spent $1 million in court. She lost. Where I am now in life is that I could spend my life in court! So it puts fire under your ass to design really fast. But if you are a new designer who’s not connected, it’s a little scary.”

On tips for fledgling designers:

“Get a mission statement. Get a look book to send to stylists and editors. There’s not one thing that causes a ‘snowball effect’ for your business; it’s being persistent. You have to believe in yourself and have a clear vision and image. You need to really love at least 30 percent (the creative aspect) of what you do, because there’s going to be 70 percent—the business part—that you won’t love.”

Dara Caponigro, Veranda editor-in-chief

On jewelry in the accessories category:

“It’s on its way up to being covetable and talked about like shoes.”

On knockoffs:

“It happens in publishing, as well. In fact, I was just talking to someone about a book that was a direct knockoff of the Domino: The Book of Decorating [Caponigro was once style director at Domino]. But you have to keep doing what you love to do.”

Lori Goldstein, fashion stylist for Italian Vogue and other magazines

On jewelry:

“It’s very personal, and a little old fashioned—you don’t talk about it, unlike shoes and bags. But jewelry makes a photograph! As a stylist, I am a kid in a candy store in how I layer it and how I love jewelry; it’s a thing of beauty. I’ve never been a minimalist. I usually layer, and, I come from the school of ‘more is more,’ and there’s no right or wrong.”

On how designers can catch her eye:

“I’m finding things in magazines, and in stores. I’m a shopper, so I keep my ear to the ground, and from that radar, I’ve found Alexis at Bergdorf Goodman, and learned of David Yurman from my school teacher sister in Ohio. Eventually, I started working on their campaigns with supermodels.”

On jewelry on the runway:

“If it’s little, it gets lost on the runway, so it doesn’t always make sense on the runway.”

On inspiration:

“There can be such a complacency where everyone follows the leader, and one magazine looks like the next. When Donatella took over Versace, we were allowed to do things that were innovative! I love to celebrate individuality, and do things that are not the norm. And it’s great not to have advertiser restrictions.

“Vera Wang and I had so much fun together with embroideries that just got bigger and bigger and were so delicious! Likewise, jewelry is for adornment; it’s to celebrate beauty.”