If he ever wanted to switch careers, Frank Smith could probably run his own executive search firm. As head designer of Evan-Picone Sportswear, Smith says he has his fingers on the pulse of women in executive offices.
Season after season for the last 24 years, he has turned out tailored separates--first for American housewives, and then, as they began to enter the work force, career women. As Smith put it: "In the early '70s, working women realized that they could put a suit look together from us at a fairly affordable price, and we realized they were a wonderful customer to go after."
However, courting women in the executive suite hasn't been easy. It's a continuing process for Smith, who says women executives' needs continually change, and he studiously attempts to keep up with them.
"I try to talk to as many customers as I can," explained Smith, a soft-spoken man, nattily dressed in navy blazer, linen trousers and bow tie during a recent visit to Los Angeles from his New York base. "I'm not a so-called fashion leader. The customer tells me what to do."
The simple, conservative suit may still be the mainstay of many wardrobes, but after owning several suits in basic colors like gray, camel and wine flannel, Smith said, women now want more choice and variety in their clothes. They want to add pieces in glen plaids, tweeds and subtle patterns, and not necessarily matching tops and bottoms.
"Fashion has gone through a revolution in the past three to four years," he said. "We changed our look from a severe tailored look to a relaxed, casual sportswear look. The constructed suit became the unconstructed suit. But the unmade-bed look is really over, and now we're going back to a more constructed look.
"But nothing ever returns the same way," Smith said. "The classics have come around again, but in a different way. They're peppier, more casual. We've taken our strict tailored jackets and opened them up a little bit. Armholes are a little deeper, busts are not as tight."
Furthermore, Smith added, knitwear has acquired new importance in career dressing. "I definitely think a woman vice president can wear a two-piece knit dress or a two-piece challis dress."
This season, Smith personally favors the pale ivory to taupe tones and tailored jackets worn over long, pleated skirts.
"But I guess my favorite look in the whole wide world is a short slim skirt with a well-tailored jacket," he said. "It's sexy, authoritative and glamorous."
Smith is also a believer in the Chanel-inspired look for office wear.
"I always wished the Chanel-style jacket could become a separate to throw over things. A navy jacket with a pair of gray flannel pants and a white silk shirt is foolproof," he said.
But his biggest inspiration for fashion is Hollywood, particularly the movies of the '40s.
"I love old movies," Smith sighed. "Rosalind Russell always played presidents of organizations, and she wore the most beautifully tailored clothes and hats. I think that is just it today. Everything comes around again."