Twice a year, spring and fall, New York claws itself into a fashion frenzy as video crews, haute-fashion mag editors, social lionesses, rich buyers and international press descend on midtown Manhattan for the new designer collections. There, high-rollers like Donna, Ralph and Calvin spend megabucks to show off their creations.
Down the road in Greenwich Village, it's a different story. The little guys, with half as many models, fewer designs and bare necessities, are showing in lofts, warehouses and borrowed studios. They have their own own brand of buzz. The settings may be humble, but the downtown climate is rich with ideas that only the young and climbing are willing to launch. John Scher, a transplanted Baltimorean, is one of those designers who shows small but thinks big-time.
"I like to show early in the week, when the buyers and press are fresh and not jaded by whatever idea is current that season -- not yet sick of retro or mod or whatever," he said just before his show in April. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in Greenwich Village, a world and a day before Donna Karan's DKNY extravaganza, which traditionally kicks off fall fashion week.
At chez Scher it was joy and nerves and last-minute crisis. "I can't talk," said hair stylist Ward, his mouth spitting clips and his hand brandishing an air gun.
The backstage dressing area at the Industria studio was too cramped and not cleared of the previous show's trappings. Clothes, models, stylists and helpers were carted to a loft across the street.
Hair pieces were flying. The models were lapsing into that trancelike wait state. The show was running very late. The audience was starting to fidget.
"John's shows are worth the the trip downtown," says Glamour fashion editor Elaine Farley. "Whatever he does he does with a lot of spirit. It's a young and edgy scene, and the Industria studio is one of the hot spots guaranteed to draw an eclectic crowd of hot fashion folk and avant-garde." That's why magazine mavens and buyers with deep pockets will brave delay and discomfort to see what's happening.
As the lights kicked on and Tyra Banks hit the runway in a fuzzy bolero and a ripple of jersey the audience knew John Scher was happening. He had glamour, and wit, and a hand with difficult fabrics such as chiffon and jersey. These were not clothes for the faint-hearted, but "mature couture" as he calls it.
"I wanted a '90s spin on retro -- a futuristic version of Trigere and Norell clothes, and from the '60s, some Halston. I adore Trigere and Norell but Halston is the designer whose work we should place in a time capsule and just send it off," he says.
"Fashion is about change and risk. You have to make people feel that you have something new they must have. Whether they can afford the designer line or a lower-priced version, they have to be excited about the newness."
The industry has been trumpeting the return of conservative chic, a more classic and feminine way of dressing. Scher shrugs it off. "The past is past and the present isn't so great, so why not think about the future?"
His twist on the past hit today's trends without straining credibility. He did faux translated as reptile -- crocodile prints in lacquered fabrics, lizard patterns. He played with shiny satins, lame lurex and bronzed fake leathers. He gave a nod to mod in zip suits and hipster skirts.
The models worked the look. In addition to Tyra, there were Irina, Roshumba, Navia, Helena -- top-face girls who usually work the big-money shows and premier magazines. Model's fees are based on what the traffic will bear -- as much as $10,000 for a 30-minute appearance by a supermodel at a megashow.
Being able to persuade the top models to work at cut rates says a lot for John Scher. "I have to be conscious of the budget all the time," he says. "I call around the agencies and request who I would like. They're very open, and models come and see the clothes. We talk and they know it will be fun and they will enjoy the show. Models like my clothes."
They're not the only ones. Women's Wear Daily, the fashion world's most influential crier, ran sketches of John Scher's designs in 1971. He was 10. The kid had sent some of his thousands of drawings to the editors as a show-and-tell. The editors liked them and saw talent. There were trips to New York to meet stars such as Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta, lunches with fashion magazine editors and TV appearances.
"The fuss was fun," says Scher, "but then I had to get back to fourth grade."
Since then the fashion press has praised and sometimes ignored his forward fashion philosophy, but he keeps plugging.
"It's my art and my work. A week after a show new ideas start popping. However, the basic idea is for the clothes to end up on a rack for someone to sell," he says.
He does sell, not in numbers but in quality. Ruth Shaw in the Village of Cross Keys was a supporter early on, and Scher's clothing has been sold to prestigious Bergdorf Goodman and in cutting-edge Charivari in New York.
Most of his orders come from specialty stores that edit carefully for their clientele. "He's just very talented," says Trish Thompson, partner and buyer for the tony Toby Lerner shops in Philadelphia. "John sort of reflects what has happened in fashion. The time of his greatest popularity, when he did the most volume, was the heyday of the dressy '80s. We're back to that and he still has lovely dresses -- beautiful and easy to sell. He's a survivor."
At her stores he hangs in with Klein, Armani and Versace. "John's designs have a niche market with us -- $300 to $600, a bit more for some evening things. A lot of people can afford that."
The designer, however, can't afford to expand on his ideas. "It's a tough business and I don't have an investor. A lot of people want to see me succeed, but I don't have those financial connections," he says.
"I'm not able to grow, I push back demand now to keep it on a small, manageable level because I can't afford to hire people."
What does he do when money gets tight?
"I beg a lot," he says. "Maybe not so much begging as quietly persistent pleading. To get to a level where you can hire a staff it takes a good quarter to half a million dollars," he says. A modest figure when one considers the millions the Ralphs and Calvins wheel through their empires.
"I certainly know how to do safe clothes -- I free-lance for big companies -- but I don't want to do that," he says.
He wants to create, and since that first brush with fashion at age 10 he has always moved in that direction. He studied art at Towson State University for two years but then transferred to the Pratt Institute in New York for more intense training in design.
"I apprenticed at Anne Klein while I was at Pratt and on graduation got a job as assistant designer for Chetta B, a dress house," he says. "Dresses were a dead market and Chetta B came forward with a sportswear mentality for dresses. They're still one of the most successful dress businesses and I learned a lot there."
It's the business that makes or breaks, not the talent he says. "Anybody starting out should work for a business to see how it all gets done. If you pay attention, you learn sourcing, getting into stores, accounts, fabrics, and most importantly, you form your relationships with other people in the business, which is invaluable."
He built his first collection in 1989 with $10,000 put up by his parents and friends. He continues to survive on a shoestring and faith.
"I refuse to fail. Failure is not a word I like. I'm very realistic and can adapt to change at the drop of a hat. If I'm low on money I'll
scale down my ideas. In better times I push things a little," he says, bemoaning the sameness creeping into the clothing market. "Stores have forgotten that when everybody copies everybody else, clothes don't sell."
That's why his forward designs attract notice and respect from other innovators. He considers himself lucky to have attracted some of the best makeup and hair stylists for his show.
"Money jobs are money jobs, so I attract people by allowing them to take an idea and run with it. For fall I had Tracie Martin on makeup and Ward for hair design -- my fantasy choices. I approach people with my ideas, show them my clothes. They have to understand what the budget allows. When they agree and we start working, the complete vision starts taking form.
"Ward has worked for every major publication and had done the Thierry Mugler show," says Scher. Tracie Martin has gone on to do makeup for French rebel Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The professional successes of his colleagues encourage Scher to test new waters.
"I have designer friends and friends in the business -- Gemma Khang, Eric Gaskins, Steve DiGeronimo. We all work hard at it, and the production calendar doesn't allow for a whole of socializing, but when we're uptown in the garment district we pop in on each other or meet for dinner."
The fashion treadmill and killing hours can be death on a personal life. There is no significant other in Scher's life now. "An 8-year relationship just ended. It has been a shattering change," he says.
There is always family. Mother, Evelyn, still makes her home in Stevenson as does his brother Robert, and his family. Brother Adam is a curator for a museum in Lynchburg, Va. His father, Ernest Scher, a prominent gynecologist, died in 1989.
In his show's program notes, John Scher thanked his family for "better support than a Wonderbra." Always the family kidder.
The Scher personal style tends to anti-trendy, although that in itself makes a statement. "My favorite shopping places are stores like Bradlee's, kind of like Manhattan Murphy Marts. I can go in there and buy bright tank tops to wear with white jeans. Clothes for me have to be very simple, and the best place to find work wear is in super discount chains," he says. For punch he may pull out pink Gucci loafers or a Dolce & Gabanna shirt.
That may change as he expands into menswear. "I had a capsule collection for spring which I sold to a few stores like Charivari and in South Beach [Fla.] and L.A. It's advanced-looking with advanced fabrics."
Translate advanced as clothes for people who are willing to be noticed. "I haven't seen the menswear selections," says Peter Taub, merchandising director for Charivari, "but there's no doubt in my mind that John will produce some interesting surprises."
Now that he's tackling menswear, is he dreaming of building an empire like Ralph's or Tommy's?
"You bet. I could ease into that kind of dream very well. But then I'm a control freak and don't know if I could let go and watch it all from a chauffeured limousine."
In the meantime, interesting things are popping up for him. Mary Alice Stephenson, associate fashion editor at Allure, tapped John for ideas for the August issue. "He designed two special outfits for us. The reason I chose John is that I'm inspired by his eye and talent."
Even Playboy's flimsy women's fashion bits get the benefit of Scher design. He did some small separates for a superstar who will appear in an upcoming issue, but he wouldn't reveal who. "I did a clear plastic bikini and silver tank top with horse bits on the side."
At 34 John Scher is still a young designer having some fun. The empire can wait.