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Fashion 88 : A Question Mark in the Industry: Georges Marciano

April 29, 1988|ROSE-MARIE TURK | Times Staff Writer

Georges Marciano, the designer and founder of Guess?, the firm that revived denim and put sexy, stone-washed jeans on derrieres throughout the Western world, has the fashion industry watching and wondering.

He left Guess? earlier this year, but has now returned to the firm in a new capacity. During three months away, he went in new directions and came up with two new labels. Now it's anybody's guess what will come next.

Late last year while he was still the very visible head of Guess?, the seemingly shy Los Angeles designer agreed to a few personal store appearances, an experience he isn't eager to repeat.

The public encounters were "embarrassing," he said. His audiences "were mainly 12-year-olds" who clamored for his autograph. While he was flattered, he feels that sort of tribute belongs to actors and rock stars.

But he is a rock star. He put stone-washed denim on the map in 1982. That's the year Bloomingdale's gambled wisely and introduced his tight, pricey, three-zip jeans distinguished by a triangle logo.

Since then, he and brothers Paul, Armand and Maurice have expanded the concept into status clothing with Sun Belt sizzle for women, men, kids, babies and mothers-to-be, spicing it with accessories such as sunglasses and funky watches.

Ninette Ricca, the Bloomingdale's vice president who "bought the first 96 pairs of Guess? jeans," did it because "they had a very European look to them. They were what the French girls were wearing: tight and sexy."

From downtown Los Angeles, Marciano continues the phenomenon. Wholesale figures were $440 million for divisions and licencees last year for the 7-year-old firm.

While others in denim have come and gone, he has remained, giving what Ricca calls "trend-oriented and fashion-savvy" customers garments that set the pace for the rest of the industry. Among his latest junior styles (worn by "teen-age girls and their mothers," Marciano says) are double chemical-washed denim shorts trimmed with French-inspired flowers ($76) and bright, ingenue-inspired cotton sun dresses ($94).

Along the way, he and his brothers have acquired fame and fortune, friends and some foes.

Contrasted to the soft colors and fresh prints of their breezy styles are ads so provocative that detractors say they promote violence and promiscuity.

The 1987 "Dolce Vita" ad series (page after page of a middle-age man in dark glasses cavorting with young women) is considered Guess?'s most eyebrow raising to date. But results of an Adweek poll published last month ranked the series fifth among America's 10 favorite ad campaigns.

In the publication's words: "The ads work because they convey the message that these clothes are worn by people who take chances, whose lives are anything but conventional. They were a natural to score with women looking for adventure and glamour."

Contrasted with Marciano the industry hero (he was 1987 California Designer of the Year and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley named a day in his honor) is a more pugnacious image. An ongoing legal battle with jeans-maker Jordache, which owns 50% of Guess?, has resulted in name-calling, mudslinging and--in the words of Forbes magazine (Nov. 1987)--an attitude of "tension with an undercurrent of fear and even paranoia."

Marshall Grossman of Alschuler, Grossman & Pines, Los Angeles, attorney for the Marcianos since 1985, explained that the litigation seeks to return 100% ownership of Guess? to the Marcianos by requiring the Nakashes, the owners of Jordache, to return 50% of the stock ownership, which they acquired in 1983.

"The litigation also seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages," Grossman said "as a result of alleged pirating by Jordache of Guess? styles and designs."

A visit last week to corporate headquarters revealed no signs of tension or turmoil. Instead, there were four smiling Marciano brothers, a number of attractive employees (there are about 800 in all) and Norman Rockwell-style paintings, by Vladimir Kordic, of quaint folks dressed in Guess?.

Despite problems in court, Marciano continues to look like a winner commercially. Apparel-industry marketing and management consultant Harry Bernard, executive vice president of Colton Bernard Inc., says Marciano is "a talented, driven man who understood long before anyone else that image, not product, was what would sell. He is a clever, conceptual merchant, one of the best in our industry, because he knows how to reach the customer with merchandise and advertising."

Marciano resigned as president and chief executive officer of Guess? in January. But two weeks ago, he returned to the firm at the request of his brothers. Marciano emphasizes: "I'm an independent designer for Guess?. That's important."

In the meantime, he created Misfits, a collection of jeans and cotton-Lycra knits ($50 to $150) available in the brothers' 22 MGA stores in Arizona and California. (The initials MGA stand for Maurice, Georges, Armand.)

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