Trunk show displays newest fashions
The wind contains just an edge of nippiness as it whips up South Elm Street, but the Mack and Mack fashion design company is willing the arrival of spring with new lines of dresses and jackets for its seasonal trunk show.
Co-owner Robin Davis thumbs through the racks of women’s novelty jackets, which appear almost as sculpted upper-body pieces for upper-class women. Davis is one of four women who design clothes for Mack and Mack.
‘“This one is like something ripped up and put back together again,’” Davis enthuses, pointing to a jacket whose fabric has papier-mÃ¢chÃ© appearance. Other refashioned fabrics suggest feathers or rose petals. There is also silk organza jacket with more form, and an ultra-smooth suede jacket that is washable. On another jacket, velvet dots dance over chiffon fabric.
Mack and Mack specializes in women’s clothing that is draped and silky, whose constructions and cuts are simple enough to produce on the factory floor in the back with a staff of two cutters and five seamstresses.
‘“People say: ‘I feel like I have nothing on,’” Davis says. The 54-year-old co-owner’s close-cropped hair flecked with gray belies her red lipstick and hot pink plastic-rimmed glasses.
The Greensboro label produces clothes for boutique stores in New York, New Orleans and various locations in Florida. The clothes are marketed to women with enough money to afford new designs, but who look for low-maintenance apparel that accommodates busy work schedules or carefree vacation time.
‘“We’re trying to make clothes for women that don’t need to be dry-cleaned,’” Davis says. ‘“People have told me stories that they were on the New Jersey Turnpike, and they spilled coffee on their blouse. They said they washed it out in a sink and held it under the hand-dryer, and were back on the road in a couple minutes.’”
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mack and Mack’s retail store on South Elm Street. Prior to that, Davis and her husband John rented a sewing room in the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship on Yanceyville Street for about five years. This is the first year Mack and Mack has held a trunk show in their hometown of Greensboro, Robin Davis says.
The term harkens back to a time when samples of the newest designs were stuffed in trunks and hauled around the country so stores could order the newest fashions from designers. Aside from more updated packing techniques, little has changed in the process.
Mack and Mack has held a trunk show in Palm Beach, Fla., and has others planned for Wilmington, Del. and Vero Beach, Fla.
Line drawings of dresses hanging gracefully on the limbs of models line the walls of Mack and Mack. Drawn by Davis’ aunt, Madeline Mack, as homework assignments when she was a student at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York, they attest to the seriousness with which this family approaches fashion. Madeline Mack now lives in the Wellspring retirement home on Battleground Avenue.
Just beyond the cash register, where racks of scarves by Zazou and Looks From London sway in the breeze and a $775 sari decorated with intricate threading and beadwork dazzles the eyes, past the office where John Davis takes orders over the phone, a set of double doors lead to the factory floor.
In an era when textile companies struggle to maintain a foothold in the North Carolina Piedmont and American garment companies have become little more than brand names that subcontract their labor to Chinese sweatshops, Mack and Mack is unique in that almost every piece is cut and sewn in this room.
To be sure, a line of exotic Asian jackets are sewn in Hong Kong and designed through a collaboration between the Greensboro company and a Hong Kong designer. The store buys jewelry and scarves to sell as accessories with their garments. But the simple blouses, skirts and many of the jackets are sewn here.
Giant spools of fabric lie on wide workbenches on the left side of the sewing room. In the middle, a dozen or so sewing tables are pushed up against each other, holding ancient-looking commercial heavy-duty Singer sewing machines. The technology looks as if it hasn’t been updated in at least 50 years.
‘“It’s the quality of the sewing,’” says Hisako Schneider, the 53-year-old creative director and a member of the design team. ‘“You don’t have to buy fancy machines.’”
Schneider, who is originally from Japan, wears black rimmed glasses, black corduroy pants and a black blouse with a gauzy pullover that express a kind of conservative elegance. She has worked in the creative end of textile fashions for small family operations much of her life. In the 1980s she worked downtown for Anne Marie. She’s now the bridge between the front-of-the-house conceptual, marketing and sales operations and the back-of-the-house production end. Production Manager Tram Le, who is from Vietnam, helps make the concepts into reality.
Schneider makes the samples from scratch to completion.
‘“When Robin likes something, I can make it the next day,’” she says. ‘“The result is quicker than a big company. We do real quick. Tram can turn around an order in one week, maybe two. Large companies need their order a year in advance sometimes.’”
Small is beautiful at Mack and Mack, and the company has no inclination to outsource its production to cut labor costs.
‘“It’s a combination of quality control and timing,’” Robin Davis says. ‘“The only way you can do it is to do it onsite. We’ve had other people sew it, and it’s not the same. The simpler something is, the better craftsmanship is required, because you can see everything.’”
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