Mad for Silk, In Love With Lace: The Quest for the Best Makes Christine Morton #1

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Great things happen in basements. You’ve heard about many businesses that began in the founders’ basement and grew to be mighty successes. The difference with Christine Morton is the commodity—her big thing was, of all things, antique lace.

Although she’d had one year of design training, Morton had no intention of becoming a fashion designer—she just loved lace. She had a huge collection of it because, when she was growing up, people didn’t realize the value of it and sold it at rummage sales. She decided to put her collection to work. She’d been working in fabric stores and knew her way around the business. So she quit her job and started making garments.

First, it was camisoles and blouses. Then dresses, then wedding gowns. She soon had a large and loyal following of people who know, and can pay, the value of custom work.

That was 25 years ago. Today, Morton is the top lingerie designer in North America; her pieces are among the most sought-after in the world.

If you’re thinking: ‘What about Victoria’s Secret?’, you’re thinking of the wrong league. Whether they’re made of cotton, linen or the fabulous silks she’s known for, Morton’s pieces are luxurious works of art. Women (and men) who appreciate the finer things in life walk into Holt Renfrew, Nieman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue or the 130-odd boutiques that carry her line, and by-pass the racks of polyester dainties. Morton’s collection is found hanging alone, with the stores’ private collections or with those competitors she does have—like English designer Daniel Hanson, who produces a cashmere and linen line.

“People come to us for very high-end lingerie,” says Morton. “There are a lot of people already in the synthetic market and in the last few years, every major designer has launched a lingerie line—Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan. They all see that it’s an area of growth. But we’re still above them.

silk1“I’ve actually tried to go the other way, but every time I’ve gone from trying to create something of beauty to creating something synthetic, or something that’s cheaper, I’ve lost it. I put the best into each piece, so every piece is something of beauty and comfort and luxury and makes the woman who wears it feel wonderful. There’s a quality about our product that’s unique, and maintaining that is what’s important to me. People recognize what is Christine, so everything has to have the same look and feeling.

“This is an extremely competitive business and it says something that I’m still here, and that what started as a home business is now an international company. Through the 80s especially, a lot of companies came and went. In the last five years, I’ve seen this company really emerge to a place where we’re seeing major growth.”

Morton no longer does custom work, nor does she do bridal. She’s strictly wholesale, and she develops private label lines for Nieman Marcus, Saks and Holt Renfrew. From her West Vancouver studio, Morton also produces four collections a year. Each collection is 100 pieces: panties, thongs, tap pants, pyjamas, penoir sets, loungewear, robes and sarongs. Her camisoles start at $75, pyjamas $250. Robes run from $350—Saks Christmas catalogue this year featured one for $800 (US); others sell for up to $1500 (US). And people have no problem spending that—her sales are sitting at around $2 million.

One of the keys to Morton’s success is her unique fabrics. For inspiration, she travels to Paris, where she scours the flea markets looking for old fabrics, old laces. She develops her own prints and fabrics from there (today, about 1/3 of her items carry lace). She used to have a ‘lace man’ whose job was to scour North America for quality lace; now she designs her own and has it made in France and Switzerland. Her ribbons come from Japan, her prints are made and dyed in Korea and China, and everything is made in Vancouver.

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“If the fabrics weren’t unique, I wouldn’t be here,” she explains. “That’s what people want—silk sewn over with pieces of chiffon, or heavy brocade, or layers of iridescent silk. It doesn’t matter what it costs; each piece has to be fresh and new but remain true to itself. That’s why development is so important, and I think one of the big keys to my success is being fashion-forward—the development of new colours, new silk textures, new styles.”

There are practical reasons for this development. There are many women out there with closets full of Morton’s pieces—they own everything she’s made, her stuff doesn’t wear out and she has to give them something new. She also has to stay ahead of the competition, which constantly copies her.

“I can’t keep people from imitating me. The important thing is that I did it first and the competition can’t get it out until next season. You make the most of it when it’s new and it has your name on it. Because you know that someone like Victoria’s Secret will have it out next season, only in polyester, made in Hong Kong and retailing for $45. It’s unavoidable. I’ve learned to see it as flattery.”

Another key to success in the fashion business is knowing one’s customer. Morton’s demographic is broad—women age 25-75. The difference is not who they are but what they want. These people want the best of everything. They’re often wealthy, but there are secretaries out there wearing Morton’s lingerie under their suits. They don’t earn a lot of money, but they’d rather pay $250 for a Christine camisole and some tap pants than get a new winter coat. The lingerie always wins.

“Our customer is the woman who loves beautiful things,” explains Morton. “Many women wear our camisoles as outer garments, under suit jackets. Our loungewear is worn on cruise ships, around pools, on beaches—we do sarongs and drawstring linen pants. Women also wear our things at home, while entertaining—we do a lot of silk velvet lounge pieces.

silk2“I think the explosion in lingerie sales has got to do with people spending more time at home, having fewer large parties and more casual dinner parties, and with the desire to not flaunt their wealth. Also, as the baby boomers age, they want to look good, feel good and be comfortable, but they still want the best. Also, there’s a certain obsession about lingerie. And we have a large male following—men want to see their women in fabulous things.”

In the last five years, Morton’s company has experienced 20% growth annually. This is because, in the mid-’90s, she made a strong commitment to advertising, public relations and promotions.

“Because I’d always been making unusual things, I’ve always had a strong press following—members of the fashion media just go crazy when they see my things, so I’ve never had trouble getting editorial. I decided to take that a step further. I like working with my stores so I didn’t want an agent per se, but I needed a full-time presence in New York.”

Morton retained New York press agent Randall Rutledge. The arrangement has made a huge difference to her business.

“I have my collection there, I can send buyers to him, stylists from magazines, films and TV shows go in there, members of the media go there. He has the right connections, he stays on top of things and takes care of my press releases and media kits. He gives me guidance with marketing and when I’m in New York, I use his show room and do some of my business there. And he organizes events for me, such as a recent fashion show at the Canadian Consulate. I’ve been very pleased with the arrangement. I’m being seen a lot more in the media, and people call from everywhere to find out where they can buy.”

Morton’s relationship with her press agent has brought vastly increased media attention: in the last year, her pieces have appeared on Winona Ryder in the film Autumn in New York, in the hit movie Traffic, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, for photo shoots, on the bodies of Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Courtney Cox and Lauren Bacall. She’s also had spreads in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Flare, Style and Victoria. (The magazine—not the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, although Morton notes: “I had several pages in there—I just didn’t make any of the pieces.”)

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“That kind of publicity grows a company. The film and TV work is great and we have stylists coming in all the time but, from the marketing perspective, the big thing is media attention. We do four shows a year in New York, but the media attention draws the buyers. And it helps our agents—we have one in Canada and one in California. The appeal for the media is that it’s lingerie, it’s beautiful, it’s unique and it’s fashion.”

Morton travels to New York four times a year, to launch each line, so she organizes shows around those launches and advertises the shows in trade magazines. The rest of her exposure comes from co-op ads—she does about 20 a year, including participation in the Holt Renfrew, Saks and Nieman Marcus catalogues. Co-op advertising works well for her—it’s always booked against an order, and her 3% contribution is simply deducted from her sales at that store.

In addition, since 1997, she has been given grants from the Matinee Fashion Foundation. The foundation offers funds for specific projects—Morton recently up-graded her logo, for example, and changed the label name from ‘Christine & Company’, to ‘Christine Vancouver’. The foundation focuses on its chosen designers, hosts an annual fashion show, and features its designers’ photographs on billboards and in advertising spreads in major magazines.

There was a website, and there will be one again this year. In the mid-’90s, she posted an award-winning site which got thousands of hits from all over the world, but it was ahead of its time and the e-commerce thing didn’t work. The new site is under construction; it will carry items not sold by her stores—they will be priced for younger people and will be meant to make men of all ages comfortable with shopping on-line.

silk9Morton has no plans to go directly into retail. In the past, she has successfully competed in Europe, against the high-end European lines, but says that it became financially unfeasible. Her market is strictly Canada, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia (it’s her clothing that Saudi princesses wear under their black abayah, and they buy a lot of it).

So there appears to be no reason for Morton to expect that her 20% annual growth with drop off. People will always insist on the best, the wealthy are increasingly discreet about how they spend their money, women will always want to feel beautiful, and men will always want to buy lingerie for the women in their lives.  Because, as Morton puts it: “Lingerie is much more than underwear.”

Blitz Magazine, March 2001

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