History in the Making

I have to admit I was struck ever so slightly by a touch of anxiety when Iconix’s Carolyn D’Angelo asked me to address her Introduction to Home Products class at the Fashion Institute of Technology last month.

What could I tell a classroom full of young, fashion-savvy New Yorkers? I don’t even know if its stripes or solids for ties this season. And I sure don’t know anything about hemlines.

But as I sat down to come up with some subjects and trends to discuss, I thought I should try to explain a little about how we got to the status quo.

The home furnishings/retail world that I first wrote about in 1992 is barely recognizable today. Most of the FIT students I spoke to were sophomores—around 20 years old—so I could’ve spent most of the class rattling off names of manufacturers and retailers that I used to write about, but now they no longer exist.

If I’d been standing in front of a blackboard I would’ve written C-O-N-S-O-L-I-D-A-T-I-O-N
on it.

I doubt that most of them had ever heard of Rich’s, Ames or Hills Department Store. And don’t get me started on old-time manufacturers such as Dazey, Rival and Dan River. All of them were full of dedicated individuals with their own stories. I’m glad to have shared some of those stories, but the 20-somethings at FIT would never hear them.

The home furnishings business, fortunately, is not all gloom and doom. The constantly evolving American consumer demands—and is willing to pay for—something new under the sun.

A syllabus on the Introduction to Home Products should include a section on how difficult, if not impossible, it is to predict the success of a home furnishings item.

Trying to anticipate a product’s success or failure is a favorite part of going to multiple trade shows every year. My track record for identifying the next big thing is fairly dismal.

I remember scratching my head when Salton introduced the George Foreman Grill. Who was going to buy a burger fryer from the former champ? And I distinctly remember some HFN editors chuckling over the announcement that Sports Illustrated model Kathy Ireland was coming out with a home textiles line.

As I explained to the students, sometimes history is being made right in front of us. We just have to be open minded enough to recognize it.

Most of the students already knew about the problematic, unholy union between J.C. Penney, Martha Stewart and Macy’s. And I told them about Bodum’s lawsuit that J.C. Penney did a poor job of rolling out its branded shops-within-the-store.

I told the students they should visit the J.C. Penney home department. It’s similar to visiting the scene of an alleged crime, or more appropriately, history in the making.