2008-08-09 / Top News

Designer Combines Form and Function in Fall Collection

By Diane Ivey

Most designers make clothes for women with great bodies, but Nina McLemore says she makes clothes for women with great brains.

The New York-based fashion designer, who grew up making all of her own clothes in Mississippi, creates fashions for high-powered business and community leaders.

Her Fall 2008 collection, designed for "smart, confident women on the go," will be shown in Marlee's Gallery at Grand Hotel Friday, August 8, through Sunday, August 10. The trunk show will be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sunday, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Marlee Brown Community Arts Fund endowed with the Mackinac Island Community Foundation.

Ms. McLemore started her company in 2003, after retiring from Liz Claiborne, where she founded the accessories division. She noticed a disparity in fashion for older women, she said, and in an industry where youth is everything, women older than 40 had little to choose from, and there was almost nothing tailor-made for the life of a successful businesswoman.

"Most apparel focuses on the 20-something woman, and historically it's been very trend-oriented," Ms. McLemore said. "The women I knew and was affiliated with did not like some of the trends, or did not find them appropriate for their professional lives."

Timeless, high-quality garments were the goal, she said.

"Factors in the industry, whether in trends or in business, were resulting in a much lower standard," Ms. McLemore said. "I thought women wanted fine fabrics that felt good and wore well; clothes they can wear for years."

Advertising, Ms. McLemore noticed, also did not present women older than 40 in a positive light.

"Many women I knew were reacting negatively to advertising, which is a lot about sexual provocation," she said. "I was not liking that, and neither were they. The women being presented in ads were not the women I knew."

The women Ms. McLemore knows, and the women she designs for, are young at heart, and express their zest for life through bold colors and interesting patterns.

"We think she's interesting and busy," she said of her ideal client. "Half the women I design for are executive and professional, and half are what I call community professionals. They are very active on nonprofit boards, and working to make society a better place. They travel a lot, whether for business or pleasure, and they're going to cultural events."

Color is the key inspiration for the Fall 2008 collection, Ms. McLemore said. Red, blue, and green will play key roles, especially with the transition into fall, with accents in white and yellow.

Ms. McLemore seeks fabrics that are functional and beautiful and survive travel with minimal upkeep. A fabric referred to as "equestrian cotton," used to make jodhpurs (trousers) for horseback riding, will be featured prominently in the collection as an unusual but practical material for skirts and pants.

"It's very comfortable and it doesn't wrinkle," Ms. McLemore said. "People are just loving that fabric."

Textured fabrics, such as woven jacquard silk with subtle paisley designs and Indianinspired cottons are also popular, as a little texture decreases wrinkling, she said.

The signature item in all Nina McLemore collections is the jacket. Jackets, she said, are an important investment for any woman.

"If you walk in a room, I'm not going to notice your pants, I am going to notice the quality and fit of your jacket," Ms. McLemore said. "It's what frames your face."

But the real inspiration for any collection, she said, is the customer.

Ms. McLemore's business is centered around trunk shows, presented by company representatives across the country. Although some items are available in select stores, Ms. McLemore said the trunk shows provide a more one-on-one experience for the customer.

"We do the trunk shows specifically because we want to be close to the customer," she said. "We like to see what she responds to. Everything is designed with a customer in mind, as opposed to just making clothes I want to see people in."

The representatives also benefit from the trunk show environment, she said.

"I wanted to give women an opportunity to be in their own business and have their own income," Ms. McLemore said.

A great relationship with the customer or client is the most important thing in any business venture, she said.

"For me, it's the fact that today's women are so busy, and our personal service is everything," she said. "But whether it's designing a product that fits the body or serving the needs of your consumer or constituency, finding what your customer needs and bringing it to them is the key to success."

Another key to success for Ms. McLemore, she said, was getting her MBA in finance from Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

"Being successful in any business requires that you really understand cash flow, profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and how you really make money," she said. "Being able to make a great product is important, but if you look at every major designer, either they or their partner is great at finance."

Ms. McLemore is a frequent speaker at business schools and conferences, and has been featured in Business Week, Craine's New York, and Town and Country magazines. She has received numerous awards for creating opportunities for women in business.

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