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Ghost Designer

Behind Many Famed Brands: Hired Guns Who Create the Clothes

The label says Vince Camuto. But the actual designer of this men's apparel line is far from a household name.


(Counterclockwise from bottom left) W.R.K. (2); Vince Camuto (3); Joseph Abboud (2); Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal (top 3)

"I see myself as like a ghost writer," he says.
Matteo Gottardi is a prolific fashion designer who creates clothes for half a dozen different labels, from rugged jackets for Joseph Abboud to traditional woven shirts for Nordstrom's private label. As a hired gun, Mr. Gottardi encouraged trendy designer Rogan Gregory to use a palette of neutral colors in a recent collection and gave Vince Camuto's menswear its slim-cut, cool-dude look. He has also designed menswear for Levi's, a men's capsule collection for Nicole Miller and Macy's private-label clothing line.

While one famous designer may put his name on shirts, pants, coats, shoes, belts, ties, sunglasses and cosmetics, in truth, no human being could possibly design so much. Does Karl Lagerfeld design every pert Chanel skirt, jacket and shoe, in addition to designing the separate Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld brands he shepherds? Not even remotely.
Mr. Gottardi prides himself on being pragmatic about creating designs that will sell. W.R.K.
"There aren't enough hours in the day," says Vince Camuto, the man whose eponymous brand produces 30 categories of men's and women's products, from sportswear to high heels.
Instead, many of the people whose names appear on our clothing labels are titled "creative director," and their job is to sprinkle the pixie dust of a fashion concept onto teams of designers. This involves conveying the emotions a brand aims to evoke (romantic, sexy, businesslike or sporty) and key colors and silhouettes to the actual designers, who knuckle down to the task of turning those ideas into pockets, seams, legs and sleeves.
It's all part of an increasingly complex apparel chain, which takes clothing from an idea conceived in one part of the world to factories in other countries, and eventually into stores all over. Brands these days are putting out so many more products, from sunglasses and scents, that they are hiring more designers to handle the workload.
Mr. Gottardi's next project: developing his own brand.W.R.K.
Mr. Gottardi—who employs his own design team at his company, WRKSHOP, in New York City—usually designs for several labels simultaneously. "You're everywhere!" exclaimed Tina Aniversario, Nordstrom men's sportswear national merchandising manager, after bumping into him in a series of meetings with several labels. His clients say he is exceptionally good at sussing out their brand identity and designing around it.
Mr. Gottardi, 31 years old, isn't a design-school graduate, though he says he always wanted to be a fashion designer. Instead, his father insisted that he attend business school, so he went to the NYU Stern School of Business. "It was the biggest gift he ever gave me," Mr. Gottardi says of his father's push. Business school, he says, taught him to explain design in a pragmatic way.
Mr. Gottardi has broader aims in fashion. He is developing his own brand, W.R.K., and would like to design sustainable-material apparel like the uniforms he created for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurants with Rogan Gregory. A Rogan representative didn't respond to calls and emails.
Nordstrom now sells W.R.K. designs such as a slim woolen topcoat with leather-trim pockets called the Towne. "The wool-blend 'Towne' topcoat that sells for $495 is an example of Matteo's ability to update a classic sportswear piece at a great price point," Nordstrom's Ms. Aniversario says.
Mr. Gottardi was hired to create a sporty menswear line last year for the Vince Camuto brand. The fast-growing fashion business was founded by Mr. Camuto, who co-founded Nine West shoes before selling it in 1999. After producing a fast-expanding line of women's wear, Mr. Camuto says he spied a new niche in menswear a little more than a year ago, when his now-24-year-old son John Camuto went shopping for a business suit and returned complaining that everything he tried was "too boxy and loose."
It was apparent that many men's suits were being made in the traditional looser sizing, while many men seek the slimmer, more 1960s "Mad Men" look.
"We thought, 'What an opportunity,' " says Mr. Camuto, who set an opening price for suits of about $495. A full collection of menswear would accompany the suits that inspired the line. But Mr. Camuto needed a partner to locate materials, manufacture the clothing at a relatively low cost and handle sales. He licensed the Vince Camuto menswear brand to the U.S. arm of Japanese trading giant Itochu Corp., which in turn hired Mr. Gottardi to design the apparel in New York.
Itochu's reasons for hiring Mr. Gottardi may come as a wake-up call to students of fashion design who expect to spend their days sketching and draping fabric. Itochu sought communication skills—someone who could listen to what Mr. Camuto and the in-house team wanted, reflect it with the sort of styling details that mesh with the Vince Camuto brand, and work with the factories to produce it correctly.
"Matteo is very good at dealing with the visionary leadership of the brand," says Dan Orwig, director of Itochu's U.S. men's division.
Mr. Orwig notes that Mr. Gottardi doesn't get overly enamored of high-fashion trends that might alienate less fashion-forward men—a trait particularly valuable in menswear, where even leather detailing on a topcoat pocket is daring. "He has a great way of adding value and detail to product that's not overly trendy, but is trend-right," Mr. Orwig says.
When he was hired, Mr. Gottardi met with the brand's in-house creative team, which had assembled "inspiration" boards with photos, fabric samples and other items to convey the broader look of the brand for the season. Once he had translated that into specific garments last fall, he presented drawings and samples to the in-house team for approval—taking care to suggest that each design was simply an outgrowth of their artistic direction.
"You know that I have designed this garment 100%, but I never say 'me'. I always say 'we,' Mr. Gottardi says. "The easiest way for people to approve something is to have a part in it."
Write to Christina Binkley at christina.binkley@wsj.com
Disclosure: Randa Accessories designs, manufactures and distributes Vince Camuto accessories including neckwear, belts and leather goods.  Randa does not work with Mr. Gottardi. DJK

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