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Woman Around Town: Teri Agins Knows Fashion

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Fashion Week is in full swing as designers unveil their spring 2010 collections to a public that is suddenly more interested in saving than spending. Crain’s New York Business reports that some designers have even received special requests from retailers for “more wearable, less pricey apparel,” causing some big name design houses to focus on sellable, commercial styles, rather than more creative, but commercially riskier designs.

14558868-1jpgThat fashion houses are redesigning their clothes to be more appealing to the mass market is no surprise to Teri Agins (above, right) who spent the last 20 years reporting on the fashion business for the Wall Street Journal. In fact, Agins identified fashion’s direction toward commercialization 10 years ago. In her book, The End of Fashion—How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, Agins posits that we have come to the end of “fashion”— that time when a few designers dictated trends for everyone to follow.Today the roles have been reversed; now it is the consumer who decides what she wants to wear and how much she wants to pay for it.” As Target just staged a pop-up shop to introduce its Anna Sui Gossip Girl Collection, Agins seems almost prescient in her observations.

Agin’s career path to the Wall Street Journal began when she was a ninth grader in Kansas City, Kansas. Her journalism teacher, noting her love of clothes, suggested that she write a fashion column for her high school newspaper. “I called my column ‘Teri’s Tips for Fashion Flair.’ Even as a fourteen year-old, I knew I needed a brand, so I had my name printed in lower case letters on the byline.” Agins, continued on her path when, later, as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, she wrote obituaries for her hometown paper, The Kansas City Star. An internship at the Boston Globe during Watergate was followed by various freelance positions at the New York Times and Time Magazine during the five years she lived in Brazil with her former banker husband. In 1984, Agins was hired by the Wall Street Journal to write a small business column.

Coming into the job at the Wall Street Journal with practically no business background, Agins admits to being terrified and intimidated at first. “It was an exciting place to work; everyone was so smart,” she remembers. Because the Wall Street Journal does not assign stories to its writers, reporters have to find their own. Agins quickly learned how to uncover a story. “The key to most stories is to follow the money,” she says.Look at who has the most to lose.” This strategy served Agins well. When the Wall Street Journal decided to open a fashion bureau in 1989, it tapped Agins for the job.

Agins was one of the first reporters to cover to the fashion industry from a business perspective. “When I was first assigned to cover Seventh Avenue, the Wall Street Journal was not on anyone’s radar,” Agins explains. “Everyone was covering hemlines, but nobody was covering the financial aspects of the industry. The Wall Street Journal forced everyone to cover fashion stories differently.” Some of the early stories Agins covered were the change in dress codes, the consolidation and homogenization of department stores, the “arms race” among the fashion houses and the Italian invasion.

Agins used her talent to “follow the money” to identify emerging trends in the industry. When casual Fridays began in the eighties and men started wearing khakis to work, some astute clothing manufacturers capitalized on this trend. As Agins points out in her book, it took Levi Strauss’ Dockers brand less than five years to explode into a $1 billion a year business. “Casual workdays led to another trend,” Agins explains. “Expensive khakis could not be distinguished from cheaper versions and people needed a way to show off their wealth. This led to the trend in premium jeans, expensive accessories, watches, and, finally, the `It’ bag that was coveted by many but owned by few.”

One of Agins favorite stories was one of the last she wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “Fashion’s Closet Raiders.” Agins wanted to profile a mature woman who was a “non-fashionista” but an intrepid shopper. Through her sources, she found Anne Marie Harrison, a brand manager from New Jersey. Harrison gave Agins a tour of her closet where she had separated everything by color and placed all of her shoes in containers labeled with a photo of the contents. Agins was so taken with Ms. Harrison’s fashion savvy that she added a companion video to the article that is posted online. http://online.wsj.com/video/staying-chic-on-the-cheap/FBBD5E9F-A7AD-469E-AE7B-49EC5929F2C7.html

a2068ac51f916786_56123898largerPerhaps the crowning moment of Agins’ career came in 2004 when the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded her with the Eugenia Sheppard Award for Excellence in Fashion Journalism. Despite keeping company with fellow Sheppard Award winners such as Bruce Weber and Andre Leon Talley, Agins is characteristically modest. “ I’m respected in the industry because I am fair,” she says. Agins attributes some of her success to the public’s interest in fashion reporting. “Timing is everything. We are in a time when fashion has collided with pop culture and celebrity.”

Although Agins retired from her post at the Wall Street Journal in March, she continues to write about the industry. Her popular “Ask Teri” column is a Thursday staple for the Wall Street Journal. In that column she answers her readers’ fashion questions such as what type of scarf to wear in a convertible (think Audrey Hepburn), are there any high heels that won’t inflame bunions (yes, but you’ll have to skip the pointy toes), and what type of dress best hides a tummy (a wrap dress, of course). Agins is also doing some free-lancing; she contributed an article to the all-important September issue of Vogue and in August wrote a feature about designer Elie Tahari’s soho penthouse for Town and Country Magazine. As a fashion expert, Agins has become a bit of a celebrity herself. She has been a judge on Project Runway and can be seen in an episode of Bravo’s NYC Prep at a Carmen Marc Valvo party. Despite all of her success and accolades, though, Agins was still thrilled when Vogue’s Anna Wintour gave her a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award by throwing a cocktail party in her honor in April.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Milos on West 55th Street
Favorite Place to Shop: Sample sales
Favorite New York Sight: Central Park
Favorite New York Moment: The night I won the Eugenia Sheppard Award for Fashion Journalism. The presenter was James B. Stewart and I was alongside fellow winners Tom Ford, Sarah Jessica Parker, Miuccia Prada, Puffy Combs and Carolina Herrera – a very swanky NY evening in June 2004!
What You Love About New York: The diversity, restaurants, Broadway and overall sophistication
What You Hate About New York: Parking and traffic jams

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