High End On-Line, the Brave New World of Luxury Retailing
“A couple of years ago, big-time luxury retailing changed drastically. The stores became impossible for a small vendor like me to deal with,” says Kerry MacBride (left), a Hudson-based jewelry designer whose creations had done well for years at such lofty outlets as Berdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. “They would demand that I agree to take back anything that hadn’t sold by the end of a season, as if my stuff were on consignment. Even if a customer came back two years later, to take advantage of the retailer’s ‘generous’ return policy, they’d send the piece back to me and demand that I return what they’d paid me.”
MacBride dates this alarming sea-change to 2008, when “Saks marked down everything by 80% at Thanksgiving,” a move that sent shock waves throughout the high-end retail industry. Retailers’ responded by making draconion demands on their vendors—and the stores’ taste suddenly got very safe. “One buyer told me, ‘Our customers don’t want things they have never seen before; they want what their friends have.’” In other words, unless a jewelry designer were a David Yurman, whose chunky cable-inspired baubles are a symbol of tribal affiliation for well-to-do woman nationwide, forget it.
Today, battered but unbroken by the collapse of a (perhaps antiquated) business model that had once sustained him, MacBride has positioned himself to take advantage of another that is just emerging—luxury shopping on-line. “Word on the street is that the Hudson antiques dealers who are doing best are those who have a big internet presence,” he says. For his part, MacBride has created a user-friendly website that offers his creations directly to the consumer, at much-reduced prices. “The message sent by Saks was not lost on consumers,” he contends. “It made everyone reassess what things cost. Now I can offer jewelry at a much better price. A necklace that would have sold for $1000 in a store? If I sell it for $500 over the internet, my profit margin is unchanged.”
MacBride makes jewelry that is highly refined, yet manages to retain a handmade quality. The faint lines in a leaf, for example, may appear to be the leaf’s veins, but they are actually MacBride’s fingerprints, impressions left in the soft wax from which he fashions his prototypes. This is a surprising level of nuance for a $400, 22-karat gold-over-bronze collar (above) or for a pair of gold and mother-of-pearl earrings that cost less than $50. His heavy silver and braided leather bracelets for men (which some woman also enjoy wearing), lack no finesse for all their muscularity, and sell on-line for $125 - $700, exactly half of what they once fetched in stores.
Surviving one major change has opened MacBride to the possibility of others. A jeweler since his days as an art student in Michigan, he recently became interested in designing objects on a larger scale. “In New York, I lived and worked in a 700 square foot loft,” he says. “When I moved to a house in Hudson, I needed more furniture. I was looking for lamps and wondered, if I were designing lamps, how would I want them to look?” Inspired by the bases for Brancusi’s sculptures, by Frank Lloyd Wright’s geometic motifs and those of Charles Rennie MacIntosh, MacBride could envision what his ideal lamp would look like. Only problem: he had no idea how to translate that vision into a lamp, until he recalled something he’d done in art school. He filled a half-gallon milk carton with wet plaster of paris, let it dry, then tore off the carton. and began to sculpt. “I didn’t know how else to do this,” he says. “I spent three months carving blocks of plaster.” He then sent those models to an artisan in Mexico who replicates them in matte travertine, low-luster black onyx, and matte white quartz, “so they don’t look too new and shiny.” The lamps are available in Hudson and in New York through Foley-Cox or via MacBride’s website.
“The lamps are completely timeless; they could have been done this week or in the 30s or 40s,” he says. Other tastemakers seem to agree. “My very first sale through Foley & Cox in New York was to the President of Diane von Furstenburg.” Photographs of silver bracelet and lamp by Michael Fredericks.