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We're People, Not Demographics

Retail: Sears could have perpetuated a cultural cliche with its line for women of color. Fortunately, it hired designer Alvin Bell, who was determined to avoid that.

May 01, 1997|ROBIN GIVHAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — Sears recently introduced a line of clothes directed at women of color, describing it as "print-driven."

Oh, gawd.

When retailers conduct demographic research to determine precisely what African American women want from fashion, the answer they come up with always seems to include bold patterns, bright colors and generous proportions. That usually boils down to big ol' muumuus with outlandish kente-cloth designs.

So one looks hesitantly, with a modicum of fear, at the collection Alvin Bell has created for Sears. And one sighs with relief when the first of the fall ensembles that he presents under its Mosaic label is a low-key khaki suit with a soft suede finish. At least there is some neutral ground in the kaleidoscope of colors to come.

Nothing against colorful, jubilant clothing, but the notion that African American women want zigzags, stripes, monstrous florals and dizzying geometrics in styles that have nothing to do with contemporary fashion is terribly cliched.

Even Bell, before signing on for the job, feared that Sears wanted to serve up garish prints for their African American female shoppers. (In 140 of its 800 stores, at least 20% of the customer base is African American, the retailer says.)

"When they first came to me, I had reservations," Bell concedes. "I said to them, 'I'm not terribly interested in this customer you're talking about. I'm interested in dressing ethnic women, but I'm not interested if you're talking about black women in their church hats.'

"I'd like to break those cliches. I'd like to uplift the taste level of what everyone thinks the ethnic consumer is about."

To this task Bell brings 20 years of industry experience. He worked for Halston and Anne Klein and later created suits for the P.S.I. label, helping the company move from bankruptcy to profitability. "They made me, and I made them. After eight years, I just got very Diana Ross and left the Supremes. I wanted to be on the stage by myself."

The Mosaic fabrics are mostly rayon crepes, but the line also includes a stretch boucle. The fit generally is loose and flowing. Trousers have super-wide legs; blouses have generous armholes.

And there are those prints, such as an abstract that sort of looks like branches lined up on sand. Another print, called Jazz, includes musical notes on an earth-toned background. For spring, the best pieces in the collection are simple shifts in solid lime or a print of white flowers on a black background.

When selecting the palette, "I don't let it get too ashy. I like to keep it very rich, not too washed-out or pale," Bell says. "And above all, it should look expensive."

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