Founder of A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz
B orn Allen Bruce Schwartz, c. 1945, in NY; son ofDaniel (a garment salesperson) and Sue (a boutique owner) Schwartz; married Pam (a homemaker); children: Danielle, John.
W orked in the mailroom of a lingerie company,early 1960s; sales associate, Russ Togs, c. 1964-68; sales executive, Esprit de Corp, 1968-77; East Side Clothing Company, New York City, co-founder, 1977, and executive, 1977-81; founded A.B.S by Allen Schwartz, 1982; launched “Oscar Watch” line, 1996; company acquired by Warnaco, Inc., 2000, and Schwartz became design director.
A llen Schwartz is design director of A.B.S byAllen Schwartz, a clothing company that surgedto fame in the 1990s with its clever copies of designer originals. Based in Los Angeles, Schwartz’s company has been scorned by the fashion establishment, but it consistently racks up impressive sales figures year after year. The founder is impervious to his critics, once telling Forbes journalist Nina Munk that “when something costs $1,400 they call it an original; at $400 it’s a knockoff. I’m doing nothing different than Calvin [Klein], except he’s probably at La Grenouille for lunch for three hours, shaking hands with the [fashion magazine] editors. I don’t have time for that crap.”
Schwartz was born in the mid1940s and grew up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. His parents were involved in the fashion business—his father, Daniel, was a dress sales executive, while his mother, Sue, had a clothing boutique in Long Beach, New York. Early on, Schwartz began looking for a job in the field on his own, and he started off in the mailroom of a lingerie company before moving on to Russ Togs, an apparel manufacturer, where he spent four years in sales. In 1968, he joined the company that became juniors-apparel manufacturer Esprit de Corp as a sales executive, and he left nine years later after selling his 20 percent stake in order to strike out on his own.
Schwartz had moved to San Francisco to work at Esprit. After leaving the company he returned to New York City, and with two business partners in 1977 he launched the East Side Clothing Company, a junior-apparel maker. Four years later, he sold his share of the company to his partners, and by 1982, he was living back in California, this time in the Los Angeles area. That same year he founded “A. B.S. by Allen Schwartz” and began designing and making women’s apparel to fill what he saw as an underserved niche in the market. “Our target was to be a designer line in the contemporary department,” he explained in an interview with Mary Lynn Richmond in WWD. “It was risky because I didn’t know if that customer was there but I felt that somebody would appreciate its value. It was kind of the beer pocketbook, champagne taste theory.”
Schwartz’s first few years in business were uneven financially, but around 1985 he began using some new, cheaper but more sophisticated fabrics in his line, and sales soared. The company’s first store opened in Santa Monica, California, in 1988, followed four years later by one in Wheatley Heights on New York’s Long Island. A.B.S. became known for its knock-offs of top designer clothing—a practice that had gone on in the apparel industry for generations, but Schwartz’s ability to get the look to the stores with such a quick turnaround time ushered in a new era of copycatting. Most designers banned him from their runway shows, especially after imitations of the new, athletic gear-inspired line from DKNY—shown in New York City the fall of 1993 for the coming spring—actually turned up in stores before the DKNY goods arrived. In his opinion, he was simply meeting the demands of the market. “I’m not here to have someone hand-cut a garment for 12 hours,” he told Munk in the Forbes interview. “I live in the real world. I’m not in the business of selling 60 dresses. I’m in the business of selling 10,000 dresses.”
By 1995 Schwartz had opened several more A.B.S. stores, and his clothing was also sold at major U.S. department stores, including Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale’s—but the company teetered perilously close to failure when Schwartz discovered an embezzler at his headquarters who absconded with $2 million. He began thinking about new business strategies that could rescue A.B.S.’s fortunes and had an epiphany while watching the Academy Awards telecast and realizing that many viewers tuned in just to see what the stars were wearing. Under a new division he dubbed Oscar Watch, A.B.S. began turning out affordable copies of the most popular red-carpet gowns, with its first hit a facsimile of the wedding dress worn by Carolyn Bessette at her 1996 marriage to John F. Kennedy Jr., which sold 28,000 copies.
That dress had been made for the bride by Narciso Rodriguez for Cerruti, and soon Schwartz set his sights on other designers. He created versions of the chartreuse Asian-style number from Dior worn by Nicole Kidman at the 1997 Academy Awards, and then the greenish-brown ball gown worn by Hilary Swank in 2000 when she won the Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry. By using cheaper synthetic fabrics, Schwartz and his team could churn out the most-photographed dresses at a fraction of the cost of an original and have it available at department stores in just a few short weeks. Schwartz was dismissive of his critics in the designer-realm of the fashion industry. “My dresses are better than the originals,” he told New York Times writer Elizabeth Hayt. “They’re more forgiving, less risky. They’re a good fit at a good price. Movie stars and suburban housewives buy our clothes. Nobody in the real world wears the real dresses.”
In 2000, A.B.S. was bought by Warnaco, a company that owns several well-known labels, including Calvin Klein Jeans and Speedo. The price tag was rumored to be in the ballpark of $20 to $30 million, and apart from the financial windfall, little changed for Schwartz at the office, where he continued to oversee design. Married and the father of two children, he forecasted enduring success for A.B.S., theorizing that fashion designers and other companies often fail because they are too focused on defining themselves by a certain image. “They can run a look for one year, two, maybe five,” he reflected in the interview with Richmond for WWD. “But when that look slows—and it always does—or when it stops, they’ve made their mark in the industry and they live and die and struggle with that.”
Forbes, June 19, 1995, p. 48.
Los Angeles Magazine, February 2001, p. 44.
New York Times, April 23, 2000; March 9, 2006.
People, August 11, 1997, p. 142.
WWD, March 30, 1988, p. 12.
“About A.B.S.,” A.B.S., http://www.absstyle.com/asstd_pages.php?temp=company (October 9, 2007).