L’Agence CEO Jeff Rudes Talks Bert Stern Collab, Reveals Expansion Into Bags and Shoes
Fashion and art tend to get along famously, as proven by L’Agence’s chic new capsule collection debuting at Art Basel, which features legendary photographer Bert Stern’s iconic shots of Marilyn Monroe. L’Agence CEO Jeff Rudes fills us in on the wearable works of art and much more.
Tell us about L’Agence’s Bert Stern capsule collection! What drew you to these images?
I’m familiar with different artists that have done work in fashion, Bert being one of them. He has a history of doing [many] Vogue covers. “The Last Sitting” was one of the most famous and controversial shoots, which Marilyn [Monroe] did a few weeks before she died. I have an interest in where art and fashion tie together, and we thought doing an iconic “Marilyn Last Sitting by Bert Stern” collaboration would really be relevant with what’s going on today.
The Marilyn images are stridently beautiful, even though in the Last Sitting, she was sad. But it portrays a couple of things — her sadness, and also the beauty of Marilyn — and the way Burt did the shoot with flowers in front of her breasts, it was a very unique shoot. There’s a moment going on right now with American icons, like Warhol, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen. But we didn’t just say, “Let’s do something on Marilyn Monroe.” We thought it was a very good story.
How did you pair the images with the collection?
We did something very casual. We put four images from the shoot on T-shirts, and added some jeans. A very famous part of the shoot is the X’s. Marilyn got the negatives from Bert after the shoot and she didn’t like how she looked, so she took a bobby pin and she made an X on the actual negatives. Bert used the negatives — they turned out to be the most famous images of the shoot. They’ve got an orange X through her face, and the X became part of the collaboration.
I’m not going to say it’s all about the X, but the X is an important piece that we focus around. There’s an orange X on the back pocket of the jeans, and we use the X image printed on the back of an oversize denim shirt. The idea of the product and putting it together was easy; it had a strong fashion point of view. But we weren’t creating high fashion with it. Everybody wears a T-shirt; everybody can wear a jean. There’s a white leather biker jacket, because white is also a big part of the theme. Being that all the T-shirts are white, one of the denim jackets is white, one of the jeans is white.
What’s your favorite Marilyn Monroe film?
Probably Some Like It Hot. It was funny.
Where does your interest in the intersection of art and fashion stem from?
Many collaborations have been done in the past 10 years. I think I was leading the pack a little bit at J Brand, with Christopher Kane and Proenza Schouler; I did some great collaborations in the past. So it wasn’t like we were going to have another clothing designer team up and do something really cool and sexy. We said, “Let’s lean toward somewhere artistic.” We looked a few places — having an artist paint on a T-shirt just didn’t resonate with us as something really special. When we said, “Who do we look at? Who was one of the big icons in fashion and why?” Bert Stern came up. He did terrific work.
What other photographers’ oeuvres are you drawn to?
[Richard] Avedon and [Irving] Penn. Some of the modern photographers I’ve shot with — Craig McDean and Patrick Demarchelier — do a great job. But in this case, we had to go with someone iconic. Bert’s iconic, and he’s known for the Last Sitting. Milk Studios had a whole exhibition on him four years ago. There’s some modern acknowledgment of Bert’s work with Marilyn, so it’s not so old that people don’t know what it is. We wanted to do something relevant but that also had a strong fashion point of view.
You’ve worked extensively in denim throughout your career. How has the market evolved?
Denim has its peaks and valleys over the years — the business is cyclical. We’d come off a huge decade from 2004 to 2014. American premium denim was at price points [it hadn’t been before], and the way it was presented was new. Then, in 2014, we had a little dip. Usually a dip is because there’s a lack of new product. The customer owns a lot of what she’s already seeing in stores, so she’s looking for something fresh.
Denim is strong in certain places and weak in others, and where it’s weak, it’s about product. I speak to stores all the time. It’s a bit of a rougher market right now. Ten years ago, all you had to do was put out a nice-fitting, premium jean, and it sold. It’s not as easy today. But it’s a strong category for us. I love working with denim; I love women wearing denim. Of course, it’s got to be right. It’s one of the most sexy, sophisticated pieces in a woman’s closet, and the most emotional.
What makes L’Agence’s denim stand out?
We don’t try too hard to be revolutionary. It’s about giving women great product. Our jean [offering] is so strong because we pay attention to fabric, fit, and finish as the most important things. We’re not trying to come up with a new boyfriend jean that’s going to revolutionize our customer, because we’re coordinating our jeans with our collection. There’s not another company out there that marries the collection and the jeans like we do; we have our silks, knits, and beautiful blazers.
One of the reasons why our denim is so strong is the way we’re merchandising it as an outfit. We’re looking at her top, bottom, where the blazer goes, where the T-shirt goes, the sweaters, and so on. We do coated jeans that look like leather and are butter soft — we can’t make them fast enough. I shipped coated jeans at J Brand by the thousands an hour, but the technology didn’t allow us to do it the way we can now. You always improve product. You can always make it better, softer, more comfortable. Denim has changed over the years to have more stretch, recovery, and comfort, so that a woman doesn’t feel like a sausage in a jean because it’s so tight. Who wants to wear a jean for 10 hours and not be comfortable?
Beyond denim, what distinguishes L’Agence?
Last year, we really took a position in our blazer business, which is one of the strongest categories for us right now. We’re using some of the finest fabrics. In February, we’re launching bags and shoes. The tests are going to be made in Italy; all the product is in production right now.
What can we expect?
It’s going to be very simple. We’re doing two sizes of a tote bag in a beautiful glove deerskin and a suede lambskin. Everything goes back to the jean. The philosophy is, if you see a girl strutting down Madison Avenue and she’s looking great in her jeans and her leather jacket, biker jacket, or blazer, this is the bag she should have hanging on her shoulder. Of course, we have trousers and beautiful silk skirts too, but we’re looking at the jean first.
The shoes are classics — a slide, a Mary Jane, a suede pump, and formal slipper, with both open and closed back. The white and red floral print we did at our Spring 2020 presentation was so strong, we put it on a suede pump and suede slide; the formal slipper is in black suede. It’s only five styles; I believe in the edit. Once we work out the kinks in our stores and online, we’ll see how to go wholesale and what do we do next. But we’re on the move, building the lifestyle brand as we speak.
What’s the scoop on your new Soho location?
We open in mid-December. It’s the largest store we’ve built out so far. There’s a beautiful sitting area in the back of the store, in front of the dressing rooms, with couches on both sides and a coffee table. The store is long and spacious; there’s no clutter. We also built it out for the expansion of products, so we have a great way to present the shoes and the bags. I think it’s perfect for us.
We felt Greene Street was the best for L’Agence. We have good adjacencies, and we always like being in good company — we know the street is doing very well. Although our business is stellar right now, off the charts, we welcome other people’s business to be that way. We want the block to be busy. We don’t always want to be the only one on the block drawing traffic.
Can’t wait to check it out! What are you most looking forward to at Art Basel?
It’s my first year. My wife and I are in the market for some art. We’re going to have fun seeing whether there’s something we can purchase.
What sort of art do you and your wife gravitate toward?
We like a bit of modern contemporary, but we’re not locked in. We have a traditional Hollywood regency house from the 1920s, so we try to mix old-world inspiration or older furniture with a modern piece of art — using the art to balance the mix of old and new together.