The quietest success formula
Before Khaite, even before The Row, there was a man named Zoran.
Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
85 miles north of Bergrade there is a little town called Kikinda. According to travel guides, its most famous characters are a half a million years old mammoth and the big eared owl, a species that attracts hundreds of ornithology experts and enthusiasts every year. The thing their pages don’t tell is that right there, in Kikinda, was born the creator of a fashion formula that still works for labels such as The Row and Khaite. A man you probably haven’t heard about for a reason simple and definitive: he doesn’t want you to.
Zoran Ladicorbic studied architecture in Serbia before emigrating to New York with a plane ticket bought by his sister in 1971. By the moment he set his foot on US ground, the only sign of his roots was a marked Slavic accent. Those with an educated gaze can see the presence of soviet realism architecture in his designs, the schools that reigned across Eastern Europe during the 50s, the 60s and the 70s.
The designer landed in fashion by chance and by night, as his first job was at the coat check of Candy Store, one of New York’s crowded discos. He sold clothes at Pierre Balmain’s boutique located in Madison Avenue after that and collaborated with Scott Barrie during that period of time. Barrie, as Halston, was a master of jersey fabric. The mood of 1976, the year Zoran launched his own line, is well known and has been exhaustively documented: short days, long nights, abundance of excess and paparazzi flashes. Zoran’s designs took the opposite way: a shirt in three different lengths, a skirt and a pair of trousers; all of them made from an 8 dollar a yard crepe de Chine, composed the whole collection. He invested 100$ in fabric and pay 3$ for every finished garment to a handkerchief maker. His first order of forty pieces was signed by Marion Grenberg for Henri Bendel. That first year Zoran sold around 40.000$ -he never gave official business figures- worth of garments.
Considering the future, Zoran made only one significant change in that first fashion recipe for the next 40 years: fabrics. The finest cashmere, Tasmanian wool, silk and linen “only 100%” were used for his slightly changing silhouettes. The color palette, always formed by black, ivory grey and beige, could be sometimes accentuated by red, purple or blue. He even disliked sewing his name to his pieces so much that he paid the Federal Trade Comission a 14.000$ fine in 1998 as the absence of care labels was against the law. Those pieces had its own sizing system. In fact, there weren’t sizes on sight: sarongs fit everybody, “skinny pants” fitted sizes 4 and 6, “regular pants” were the equivalent to size 10 and “pajama pants” were perfect for sizes 10 to 16. He didn’t used the fashion show formula to present collections, didn’t advertise on magazines neither celebrated parties. There wasn’t an opening in Madison Avenue and never traveled first class. He basically continued operating with a small sized firm budget.
While most firms grew diversifying lines and opening stores with a little help of external investors, Zoran clothes were sold in 60 boutiques around the world at the precise moment the designer wanted, as he didn’t follow the traditional fall/winter, spring/summer calendar. Discounts on his pieces were absolutely forbidden, although they never hanged from the racks by sales season: Saks and Bergdorf Goodman could easily make 40.000$ a day on Zorans. When they have the stock, of course. “I knew I could make big money if I did cheap clothes, but I wanted to last long time”. And there’s where the key of success lays: exclusivity. Exclusivity marked by the prices, of course, but prices attached to quality and clothes that women desire as well. Besides, by cutting expenses (particularly those related to pr), the business benefit margin was closer to a 20% than the regular 10% in fashion.
The designs were known as “GAP for the very rich” and the designer as “fashion’s Rasputin”
Now that the fashion industry is searching for sustainable ways to improve its production system, Zoran’s seems a good alternative. The designer’s character, on the other hand, doesn’t fit current times. He wasn’t afraid to use his sharped tongue, the tone was unbearable more often than not and he behaved the way some people still think the industry operates: he refused to dress some woman, told them to lose weight or call out those celebrities who dared to request a wholesale price, as it happened with Elizabeth Taylor. The star was exposed in the New York Times: “How can somebody who makes a lot of money ask that?”. Even Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a lifelong client, never got to meet the man. Zoran enjoyed the Zoranians company instead: working women who could invest 30.000$ in a year’s closet that could take them from a meeting room to a plane and from a plane to a cocktail party. Women who liked to dress as he pleased, wore short hair and flat shoes. “I don’t talk them into dressing simple and plain. You either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, I don’t sell to you”. Roberta Arena, former executive vice president of Citicorp and writer Nancy Friday, whom mentioned Zoran’s clothes in her books and even wore them in The Power of Beauty (1996) cover jacket, understood. A uniform of whit t-shirt, black or khaki pants, Cole-Haan loafers with no socks and a glass of Solichnaya vodka completed Zoran’s personality.
Back in 1998, 200 attendees awaited Oscar de la Renta at New York University. De la Renta couldn’t make it as he was stucked in Paris, and an unknown man walked into the stage with a model by his side. He dressed her in five different outfits. After the last one, the model put everything into a Zero Halliburton silver briefcase, the accessory executives and lawyers carried around the country as it was perfect to be tossed in the overhead compartment on a plane. The man was Zoran, a designer with a 20 year old fashion brand that have been proving that a niche house could play the higher leagues (his revenues were estimated in 25 million dollars by the end of the 90s). A designer almost nobody knew. Almost nobody knows that he is still working for a handful of clients. But that’s because he doesn’t want us to.