Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I may be a little late, but I want to add a few more words to the chorus of Lyell obituaries. As beautiful as Emma's line has been, I'm actually surprised she managed to last this long, given the economy and her limited production (both in terms of the numbers of items produced and the number of pieces in each collection). From what I could tell, she was a true independent, working without a backer, and as such she was likely hurt more when she wasn't paid for a collection by Chicago's Jake than some of the other similarly defrauded designers. After this event, she cut back to focus on her store and effectively became the sole retailer of her clothes. But the timing couldn't have been worse--with people looking to buy cheaper and get items on markdowns (despite retailers' reluctance to cater to this trend), reducing output inevitably means higher prices, fewer markdowns and the loss of some customers. I think Lyell's higher prices didn't help--as beautiful and well crafted as her collections are, there wasn't always enough of a wow factor to convince me that her blouses were worth $400 plus, especally when the earlier price points were less than half that just five years earlier. The quick and sudden shift to more costly tags just meant that fans--like me--had to buy on sale or skip items entirely, losing custom to other lines.

Even though I wasn't surprised to read the email yesterday, I thought Emma had managed to weather the storm. Her UO line, while varying immensely in quality, gave her a reliable source of funding without comprising Lyell's integrity. She had reduced production and managed to sell much of her fall collection without offering major reductions (which is why I was only able to buy one skirt and one jacket). There was very little stock left for her sample sale, which was quickly mobbed. This season she was expanding out to bags and returning to shoes for the first time since her initial collection, something I saw as a sign of health. Emma had even started offering a bespoke gown service, which seemed wise--her beautiful understated gowns would never fit into my lifestyle, and seemed an odd fit in a small collection, but I'm sure there was a great market in NYC and elsewhere for a wedding or special event. Nobody else would have the same dress and for $1,500, you could call this a bargain. But, as with Mayle (Lyell's closing email closely resembled Jane's own), the renewal of a commercial lease played a major role. Obviously with a line this small, losing the store would be a fatal blow and I can only imagine the increase--the tiny size of the shop and its very slightly out of the way location likely made it affordable when she first signed the lease (which had to be five or six years ago, not seven), but probably didn't offset a massive increase.

While this was a business whose mistakes were obvious even at the time, I applaud Emma for sticking to her vision and quality. At times I wished she had spread out more--offered more prints and color (her forays into these areas were good), employed a fit model so her clothes didn't run so small, hadn't struck out into areas that were doomed to fail (like jeans) and maybe taken on a partner so she could increase runs and get her collections out in time. But balancing quality and style had to be an effort and Emma's items remained as beautifully made at the end as they were in the beginning. Few designers working on this scale or price point could match that achievement.

As her line ends, I'm reminded of its beginnings--or at least my discovery of Lyell near the end of its first season. I was shopping in Steven Alan in Tribeca when I found a beautifully made pair of dark green pumps, fashioned from the softest leather. Even though I couldn't wear that style of shoe, I paid closer attention to the then unfamiliar label. I noticed two soft silk dresses from the same designer and the friend I was with mentioned that she thought there was a Lyell store, not far from Mayle in Nolita. Lyell was our next stop and I fell in love with the collection--from Fall 05, I believe--purchasing the navy silk 20s inspired Bonnie and Clyde dress. Within weeks, after repeated visits, I owned a 1940s navy cashmere inspired coat, a navy small polka dotted silk blouse (still the perfect blouse), a thick ivory cashmere cardigan, a pair of navy t-strap shoes, a black and ivory dotted ruffle dress, a perfect black wool peacoat and a ruffled navy and ivory dotted tie neck blouse. The prices were good--$250 or so for a dress, $150 for a blouse, $500 for a coat--and even better on sale. There were several good sales early on where I saw friends pick up tops for $50 and dresses for $75. I was eager for the second collection, especially after hearing descriptions of some of the items from Alice, Emma's wonderful sales assistant, but as months drew on, only a few pieces came in. It was soon clear that most of these items wouldn't come in, would never make it past the sample stage, and it seemed possible that Lyell would fold. That spring's collection was really fragments of a collection that never was, but after that disaster, prices rose, reductions were less extreme and ambitions were likely curbed. The fact that Emma kept this venture afloat for another five years, even expanding to offer (briefly) holiday lines and staging a fashion show after winning a fashion award speaks to her courage, tenacity and talent. I wish her luck with her future. While this may mean one or two final splurges, it leaves me with just a few designers who excite me and thus may be very good for my bank account.


joyce said...

Such a thoughtful analysis, Moya. I especially agree with you about the sudden higher prices eroding the label's customer base. Even before that happened, Lyell was on the higher end of my range, but still within reach with the first round of sales. After last year, it became virtually impossible to afford without waiting until the season was over.

It must be so difficult for independent designers to envision a comprehensive business model, particularly in such a fleeting, high-turnover industry.

Rose said...

Thanks for this, Moya. I fell in love with Lyell (and Mayle) when I first moved to New York, in 2004. I had just started my first office job and my best pieces were bought at Jane and Emma's sample sales. I didn't make enough to afford anything at retail prices, but I used to spend hours in those two stores touching the beautiful garments, inhaling the rarefied perfumes, and imagining that the gorgeous outfits would transform me into the sophisticated New Yorker I was trying to become.

Although I haven't been able to buy much from Lyell in past years, I'm going to miss it, and the fantasy that it represented, very much.

erica said...

the fall 2006 collection was my favorite. i wanted to own every single piece. i will miss the store, it was always a pleasure to look at the delicate blouses and perfectly cut coats.

i would love to visit one last time, especially since i missed mayle's closing.

Marti said...

Moya your analysis was so right on. I remember my first (and only) Lyell piece I bought which was a lace jacket (I no longer have) I remember it was $250 - and I felt like I was cheating on Mayle... I loved her wool pea coats with the antique buttons.

Emma and that divine shop will be missed.

Cindy said...

Beautiful post, Moya. I especially loved your comments about the first pieces that made you swoon. I surely hope the Lyell fan base sends Ms. Fletcher out in style!