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FRAGRANCE HELPING NINA RICCI FRESHEN IMAGE

Is it the fashion that fuels the fragrance or the fragrance that fuels the fashion? Once the cycle is set in motion, it can be difficult to tell.

But finding Nina Ricci ready-to-wear in the United States, for example, is like panning for gold in the Hudson River. Meanwhile, the company's fragrances generated between 60 percent and 70 percent of the $250 million in its 1994 worldwide sales.Demand for the fragrance, however, is strongest in Asian countries, where there is still a strong Ricci fashion profile. So to keep the cycle from slowing down, the venerable French company is in the midst of an effort to refresh its fashion business.

"It is essential to have an image of ready-to-wear before we go forward," Gilles Fuchs, president of Nina Ricci, said. "We are first of all a couture and ready-to-wear house. We can't be monuments of the past."

Myriam Schaefer, a designer at Jean Paul Gaultier for seven years, has been entrusted with the task of adding sheen to the Nina Ricci fashion image. Recalling her interviews for the position, Schaefer said, "When they asked me to come and see the Nina Ricci pret-a-porter show, I thought, `but is Nina Ricci doing pret-a-porter?' "

The outspoken designer has created two collections for Nina Ricci in which she has begun to move the house out of its dusty past. Her next line should be a turning point for the company as Schaefer finds her depth, promising a Nina Ricci collection previously unimaginable created around "jeans, denim and transparent plastic." L'Air du Temps for the '90s?

- Amy M. Spindler