Linda Allard is not one to mince words.
"I'm not an artist," says the designer of Ellen Tracy sportswear and dresses. "I don't want to make a statement. I think that's ridiculous. I have an artistic background, of course, but for me, to make a wearable, salable collection every season--that's the challenge."
If anyone's up to it, Allard is. This year, the New York-based Ellen Tracy line--featuring soft shapes and sophisticated styling--will reach about $200 million in retail sales. In a profession where longevity is more the exception than the rule, the 44-year-old designer has stayed in her job--her first and only job--for 22 years. And in the ebb and flow of what's hot and what's not, she has managed to stay abreast of her customers.
Allard, an unassuming, friendly woman, has none of the sass associated with many fashion designers--but all of the steel. A woman of medium height with short, dark hair, she projects the brisk, professional, yet temperate style of someone who has definite ideas about everything.
At Bullocks Wilshire recently to show her fall collection and address students from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Allard was accompanied by Herb Gallen, the owner and president of Ellen Tracy. He started the firm 36 years ago as a junior-blouse company. It was Gallen who hired Allard when, fresh out of Kent State University's art program, she arrived in his New York office with a suitcase, a dream and a satchel full of designs.
Twenty-two years later, Allard's fans are still faithful. "I adore your clothes," says one customer, who had driven from La Jolla for the show. "My closet is full of them. I have this dress in crimson, bone and black."
"I love your designs," an enraptured student says. "Where do you get your inspiration?"
"Is designing as glamorous as it seems?" another asks.
Allard welcomes the recognition--a result of the company's decision two years ago to put her name on the collection's label. Now, at least, she gets good seats in restaurants, she admits. But for the most part, "designing is seldom glamorous. It's demanding and stressful work," she says.
Her body-conscious fall styles--in camel, butter, cream, loden, aubergine, bronze, charcoal, navy and crimson--include wool gabardine and jersey skirts that are gored or pleated or long and slim. Softly tailored dresses are long, in jersey, gabardine, velvet and silk crepe de Chine. Sweaters are oversize in mohair tapestry and wool or hand-knit cottons that shimmer with opalescent yarns. Pants are wide and easy.
Three-piece knitwear looks in Angora and merino wool have slender skirts pleated below the yoke, fitted tops and cocoon cardigans or tunics.
Ellen Tracy has remained a sound business, Allard believes, because the company has grown up with its customer. "From a junior-blouse company we evolved into a junior-sportswear firm. Ten years ago we realized our customer was the same person, except that she was now older and a working woman. We decided Ellen Tracy had to grow with her."
As a result, fabrics and styles were upgraded, and the clothes attracted a whole new crop of devotees.
Allard is considering designing a shoe collection and starting a men's line.