The Girl with the Chanel Tattoo

Is East Bridgewater mom Jackie Fraser-Swan the fashion world’s next big thing?

By Courtney Hollands | Boston Magazine |
Fashion Designer Jackie Fraser-Swan

Photo by Scott M. Lacey

It’s February in New York and, 15 minutes to showtime, Jackie Fraser-Swan is calm amid the chaos backstage at her fall 2012 Fashion Week event in Lincoln Center. As one sinewy model purses her lips for a slash of purple lipstick, another gazes into a mirror while a hairdresser curls and teases her locks. Next to the stylists who are steaming silk blouses, neoprene pencil skirts, and faux fur capelets is a board covered with Polaroids of the 33 outfits Fraser-Swan is about to send down the catwalk.

On the other side of the curtain, hundreds of smartly dressed industry insiders shift in their folding chairs and finger the long-stemmed roses that have been left, along with boxes of gumballs, on the front-row seats. Photographers are swarming Leigh Lezark—the model, DJ, Karl Lagerfeld muse, and all-around “it” girl of the moment—who stars in the preview photos of the clothes Fraser-Swan will show tonight. B-list actresses Shenae Grimes and India de Beaufort are getting their share of attention from the paparazzi , as well. On the proscenium, meanwhile, is the room’s only décor: the name of Fraser-Swan’s clothing line, “Emerson,” which honors her great-great-great-grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Lincoln Center is the official epicenter of New York’s Fashion Week, the semiannual citywide spectacle during which top industry players like Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, and Charlotte Ronson unveil their latest collections before 5,000-plus editors, bloggers, and superstar photographers. But there’s room at Fashion Week for even an unheralded, small-town Massachusetts designer like Fraser-Swan. A successful show tonight could land her creations in Barneys or in the glossy pages of W. “Obviously, in the ideal world, Anna Wintour becomes infatuated with your brand,” says Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a New York–based fashion forecasting company.

Backstage, Fraser-Swan, dressed head to toe in black, her blunt bangs streaked with shocking purple (a self-dye job done in the hotel sink), looks much like the edgy, successful designer she aspires to be. A few months ago, she got her first major break—the opportunity to present a collection at the spring 2012 Fashion Week shows. Though she was inexperienced then, she had enough money (her family runs a successful company) to finance a 10-minute catwalk. Big-deal press mentions followed, and her nubby wool arm warmers were featured in a Vogue Italia cover spread. That success led to her being invited back for tonight’s show. She’s been given a prime-time slot, and the expectations are much higher this time.

Fraser-Swan believes that with a few good New York shows, her line will take off. “I want editors and buyers to take Emerson seriously,” she says. “I am not just another new designer that is going to fizz out. I am a designer and a businesswoman who also has a heart. I am in this for the long haul.” She imagines launching a kids’ line (“I mean, I’d be all set with models,” she says, referring to her four daughters under the age of six), branching out into jewelry and accessories, and ultimately, becoming a household name. Fortunately, she’s got the financial backing to produce high-profile shows again and again. But does the 31-year-old art-school dropout and suburban mother have the talent, drive, and aggression required to conquer an industry notorious for its capriciousness and exclusivity?

At home in East Bridgewater, Fraser-Swan lives three doors down from her parents, Richard and Sharon Swan. Her older sister Kelly, who owns a preschool in town, lives in between. Their houses abut the 80 acres of woods the family has amassed over the years, a refuge where Dad tinkers with antique cars—a red ’56 Pontiac, a ’58 British taxi, a WWII half-track from the set of Saving Private Ryan—as Mom plays with the grandkids. Horses, and sometimes ducks and chickens, share the grounds, which Fraser-Swan helped mow and clear as a child.

While her parents worked long hours building the family business—Atlantic Research Marketing Systems (ARMS), a designer and manufacturer of small weapons in West Bridgewater (her father holds nearly 100 patents and trademarks)—five-year-old Jackie would sell sketches for a nickel apiece to workers in the machine shop. Her mother remembers something unusual about those drawings: The people were always wearing clothing. “The arms were still coming out of the head,” she says, “but they had clothes on. If it wasn’t an A-line dress, it was pants and shoes with a shirt.”

After graduating from East Bridgewater High School in 1999, Fraser-Swan worked at her parents’ company while bouncing from Massasoit Community College in Brockton and Canton to the New England Institute of Art in Brookline, studying liberal arts, painting, and color theory. A drawing course at the Institute of Art, she recalls, “didn’t last very long because I didn’t like to be told what to draw.” When her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and then breast cancer in 2002, Fraser-Swan took time off from her studies to help. In 2005 she married her childhood friend Brian Fraser, who now works at ARMS and is also a part-time police officer.

A year after their wedding, Brian bought Fraser-Swan her first Chanel purse—a classic black flap bag with a lion’s-head clasp that cost $2,000. From there, Fraser-Swan would eventually transform her 19th-century farmhouse into a veritable museum devoted to both the Chanel brand and its current designer, Karl Lagerfeld. Today, Fraser-Swan’s house is filled with Chanel heels and clutches, and even a pair of skis and a bike bearing the iconic intertwined Cs logo. Near a stack of art books in her bedroom stands a Steiff Karl Lagerfeld teddy bear in leather boots and a crystal studded tie — only 2,500 of the toys were made. She keeps her most beloved pieces in a dining room hutch, including a numbered Coco rag doll that Lagerfeld designed for the reopening of the SoHo boutique in 2010. “I love Coco Chanel’s story,” Fraser-Swan says. “She was a true entrepreneur and stayed true to her ideas—fashion changed because of her. Women felt more independent because of her.” She’s so devoted to Chanel, in fact, that she named her dog Coco for the designer, and has two Chanel tattoos: a cross inspired by a 2009 runway show, and a likeness of Coco herself.

The jewel of Fraser-Swan’s Chanel collection is a Yazbukey acrylic glass necklace shaped like Karl Lagerfeld’s face—ponytail and all—that she bought at the Paris boutique Colette three years ago on the eve of the first Chanel show she attended. She waited for Lagerfeld after the runway cleared, and he signed it with a Sharpie.

Fraser-Swan continues to adore Chanel, but the truth is the fashion world that made that designer a star is long gone. In photographs from Parisian shows of a bygone era, you can see elegant attendees busily taking notes on every garment, presumably to place orders on the spot. But these days, business rarely happens under the tents. “That’s just not how it works anymore,” says the Tobe Report’s Moellering. Instead, fashion shows have increasingly become marketing and branding tools to generate buzz among the press and the armchair critics and bloggers following the runway live streams and photos from afar.

Of course, that exposure comes at a cost—Lincoln Center’s $18,000 to $60,000 venue fee. That price is prohibitive for many aspiring designers. Though 90 shows were on the official Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week roster last February, roughly 250 more ran off-site at rented bars and lofts and at the contemporaneous Made show in the Meatpacking District, which didn’t charge a fee to those invited. “If you have skill, passion, and ideas, you don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a particular venue with a particular type of invite,” says Kyle Anderson, accessories director at Marie Claire.

Regardless of where designers show, their job is to convince stores to carry their lines. “When the lights go down and the runway is dismantled…it’s about really getting to customers, getting to the client, and selling,” says Sondra Grace, head of MassArt’s fashion design department. “No matter how much publicity you get, you need to then turn around and move the goods.”

Of course, once the orders do come, production woes can easily sideline a fledgling designer who doesn’t have the experience or staff to manage logistics. “I would say that many, many young designers that we all hear about are operating in the red,” Moellering says, citing a recent Women’s Wear Daily article suggesting that $25 million in sales is the “magic number” a designer needs to go corporate.

Even more-established brands have to watch the bottom line, which is why many seek out lucrative licensing deals with low-end retailers. In recent years, top-notch designers like Jason Wu, Missoni, and Zac Posen have created collections for Target; Stella McCartney and Versace have collaborated with H?&?M; and Karl Lagerfeld has lent his talents to Macy’s. “Now I think many designers are just hoping they’ll get a phone call from someone like JCPenney or Kohl’s or Target,” ­Moellering says, “because it can really provide them with great recognition and distribution in a way that they can’t achieve on their own.”

After building her collection of Chanel bags and baubles, Fraser-Swan began dreaming of catwalks and cashmere. But she was also business-savvy enough to recognize that turning those dreams into reality would take a substantial investment of time and money. She studied the fashion magazines and websites as though they were textbooks, following every move of the designers she admired. “I wouldn’t shut up about fashion and about who was doing what,” she recalls. So in the summer of 2009, with two daughters under the age of three, Fraser-Swan enrolled in the School of Fashion Design on Newbury Street. After a semester, she decided she was ready to launch a line of her own.

She left the school and developed a four-step plan: create a collection; hire a PR firm; open a showroom and find seamstresses; trot out a new line during Fashion Week. In the spring of 2010, she traveled every week to New York to work with a sample maker on a 30-piece collection crafted with fabrics sourced from Paris. In July of that year, Fraser-Swan opened a studio on the tony first block of Newbury Street, and two months later she self-produced a catwalk on the rooftop of New York’s swanky Empire Hotel during fall Fashion Week. Then People’s Revolution, an influential PR firm that’s repped everyone from Valentino to Mara Hoffman and Lulu Guinness, took her on.

The first store to pick up Fraser-Swan’s Emerson brand was the legendary Boston clothing retailer Louis. Owner and buyer Debi Greenberg discovered Fraser-Swan via e-mail (one of countless solicitations she receives daily) and decided to carry her fall 2011 line. “The confidence shines through,” Greenberg says of Fraser-Swan’s designs. “It’s not like she’s being influenced by hanging around a young, superhip crowd out there.”

Exactly one year after her rooftop show in New York, the still relatively unknown designer got her break: a coveted invitation to show her spring/summer collection at the official Fashion Week venue. She’d have to show in the 9 a.m. time slot and in the second- smallest of the event’s four Lincoln Center tents—but there was no doubting that Jackie Fraser-Swan was on her way.

Some press surrounded the show, including mentions in Women’s Wear Daily and Harper’s Bazaar. Then IMG Fashion executive producer Christina Neault invited Fraser-Swan back to Lincoln Center for the February 2012 Fashion Week, this time with a sought-after 9 p.m. time slot. Neault’s reasoning was simple: Fraser-Swan had the resources and talent to stick around long enough to give her line the chance for success. “I don’t want to have designers show with us who are one-hit wonders,” she says, “who are going to do one show, spend a lot of money, and not be able to afford it next month or next season.”

“And all of a sudden,” says Fraser-Swan’s good friend and pilates instructor Pam Araujo, “she just had this fashion career, like overnight.”

Fraser-Swan has budgeted some $60,000 for tonight’s show, which includes the $30,000 venue fee and thousands more for public relations, production, lighting, photography and videography, invitations, and a stylist. Now it’s nearly time to begin her show, and she scans the 15 assistants dressing her 21 models.

The lights go down and models emerge from backstage, sashaying and strutting down the runway to the thumping beats of “L.O.V.E.” by British songstress VV Brown. The show is minimal and slick. Rather than theatrics and props, the focus is on the designs worn by the wire-thin human hangers in dark lipstick.

Nine minutes later, everything winds down. The models peacock back onto the runway for one last turn. The attendees who aren’t capturing the final parade on iPhones clap as Fraser-Swan, grinning widely, takes 10 measured steps down the catwalk, gives a half wave, and mouths “thank you.” Then she darts to the sidelines to kiss her daughters before retreating backstage. Dozens of photographers shuffle out, as does the Lucky editor who’s been sitting a few seats down from Mary Nobile-King, who is Fraser-Swan’s friend and the boutique director at Chanel on Newbury Street.

Soon, Fraser-Swan and her entourage decamp to an after-party at the Empire Hotel across the street. Since Fashion Week moved uptown from Bryant Park in 2010, the hotel has become the see-and-be-seen spot for postshow drinks, the place where models, media, and wannabes mingle. Tonight, there are reporters uploading photos and filing dispatches from cushy couches with animal-print pillows while the beau monde and Valentine’s Day revelers sip Gossip Girl–themed cocktails in the lobby, but Fraser-Swan’s clan bypasses the scene for an intimate fete at the exclusive rooftop bar.

Back in her home studio, Fraser-Swan gushes about the satchels and cross-bodies the models will carry down the runway during this month’s New York Fashion Week—fruits from a line she’s working on with the British bag company Bracher Emden, which is also creating belts to complement her peplum skirts. Fraser-Swan is also designing several pairs of shoes with Kork-Ease for the spring. These collaborations are steps toward her goal of making a return on her sizable investment in Emerson.

Experts like MassArt’s Sondra Grace have described the line as “marketable” and “not so experimental,” which can be interpreted as either a genuine compliment or being damned with faint praise. Marie Claire’s Kyle Anderson says Emerson has “shapes and cuts that would look great on everyone.” Boston Fashion Week founder Jay Calderin, who taught Fraser-Swan sketching during her short stint at the School of Fashion Design, adds that it’s easy to imagine women wearing the pieces down Newbury Street or Madison Avenue. The line’s little edgy details—the houndstooth knee patches on black pants, lace panels in a structured dress, and asymmetrical cuts—keep Emerson interesting. But it’s not necessarily avant-garde.

Then again, Fraser-Swan says she wants to design for everyone. But young brands like Emerson are often too pricey—$750 for a skirt—for younger buyers. (That’s because most such lines are made domestically and in low volumes, both of which can drive up manufacturing costs.) When it comes to hitting that $25 million sweet spot, the key for Fraser-Swan is to survive this difficult upstart period.

Meanwhile, Fraser-Swan and her team are trying to get their line into stores, meeting with retailers in Boston and beyond. (The Newton boutique Stash will begin carrying Emerson this month.)

To generate sales, they’ve launched an online store (emerson-collection.com) and will stage a pop-up shop after New York Fashion Week this month. Jay Calderin says that Fraser-Swan is playing it smart. “If you have the funds to do something, if you have the resources in terms of people who can execute what you see in your mind, then you can really push forward,” he says. “I think it’s a big story because she’s done it in such a big way. She’s basically created her dream job, and she’s learning on that job.”

In her studio as she preps for her upcoming show, surrounded by the muslin patterns and silks and jerseys, Fraser-Swan speaks as if Emerson’s success is all but assured. “I honestly just think that’s the way it was supposed to happen,” she says. “I was determined and that was the only way I wanted to do it. I think if you put something out in the universe that you’re really determined to do, you can make it happen.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/08/fashion-designer-jackie-fraser-swan/