NEW YORK, United States — “For me it’s all about longevity,” says designer Yigal Azrouël. “You see a lot of brands out there becoming stars over night. And then they disappear. I am building it slowly, slowly. It’s much deeper. It’s much stronger.”
Growing up in Israel, where he would later work occasionally as a stylist, the young Azrouël believed his prospects of becoming a fashion designer nigh on impossible. But when he came to New York to visit his sister he was immediately seduced by the romance of fashion. “I was dreaming about it,” he says. “I wanted to be part of it all, this glamorous world. I had a fantasy of it.”
And it is with the determination of a fantasist who doesn’t care to awake from his dream that Azrouël has built his company on firm footing, reinforcing it every step of the way.
Twelve years ago, a 26 year old immigrant with no formal training who was deconstructing vintage pieces for himself and for his friends, Azrouël put together his first line of ten pieces, only jerseys. “My first client was Barneys New York,” he says with the élan of one who hit his stride early in life. “I showed it to them and they really liked it.” But the creative wunderkind didn’t exactly have a business model in place. “I kind of started doing it without thinking too much,” he says, and then reflects. “My father was doing a bit of business in Israel so I guess I picked up something from him and then figured out how to do it myself. I think I was very lucky because I met people who really helped me and could direct me.”
The main person of whom he speaks is Donata Minelli, the CEO of his company, formerly of Ittierre where she worked on both the Dolce & Gabbana and D&G brands. After meeting Azrouël through a colleague, Minelli became intrigued by his work and the opportunity she saw for his business. They began working together almost immediately and this week celebrate 12 years of partnership.
Says Minelli, “It was a very different landscape then. There wasn’t really a platform for emerging designers. There wasn’t a space for it in the market.” Minelli says she instructed Azrouël to open a showroom and corporate offices, “where people can see the world of Yigal.” For Minelli the key was expanding on the unique voice she’d discovered in Azrouël, and finding a greater stage for him. “He started with jerseys,” she says. “So the first thing is, how do we start to grow this collection into more than that? And we had really great campaigns—strategic partnerships with Neiman Marcus and Saks from the inception.”
Azrouël’s first runway collection debuted at the Fall/Winter 2000 fashion week in New York. In 2003, he opened his first retail store in the city’s Meatpacking district. A menswear line followed in Fall 2009, and Cut25, an entry level women’s wear line, launched this Fall along with new e-commerce functionality on his website.
Why launch the entry level line now? “We looked at the market,” he says, “and I don’t think it exists in the market, what I do—a more feminine, a bit more sexy top or sportswear.” Minelli adds, “We’re looking to build a stronger vertical retail environment. We believe in the support of major retail stores and boutiques we do business with, but creating our own retail space in a much bigger landscape than exists now is our main goal. With Cut25 we are thinking everything from major urban areas to high end shopping malls. To give an example, for a company like Tory Burch, the wholesale and own company retail are both really important. Cut25 is a different aesthetic than that but we believe there is a customer out there craving Yigal’s aesthetic and that’s not really being satisfied at the [signature line] price point.” The main line too will likely find another retail opening in Midtown in the next year, she says.
Azrouël, who has collaborated with several other brands including Manolo Blahnik and, most recently, K-Swiss, is strategic in his partnerships. “We talk about who to collaborate with," he says. "What’s the right thing to do for the longevity of the brand?” He is very proud of the showrooms and press representatives he works with around the world, acknowledging that the quality of the people in his network is as vital as the materials in his much-coveted architecturally draped dresses.
“All of these things have an impact in the big picture,” he says. “How we do things, meeting the right people. My dream is to be the next big fashion house in the world. When I think about Ralph Lauren, I can’t see anybody else out there in the world making it. For me, this is my goal.”
Chris Wallace is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.