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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Sept. 24, 2009, 10 a.m.

Gray Lady couture: New York Times has a fashion hit

The top-selling item in The New York Times Store this summer was a set of rakish rain gear with a literal spin on journalistic transparency. Isaac Mizrahi, the clothing designer and reality-TV host known for democratizing couture, fashioned a see-through rain coat and umbrella for the Times, which offered the set for $99. (See photo at left.)

In his monthly memo to staff yesterday, Times president Scott Heekin-Canedy, channeling the Style section, called the ensemble “a summer sensation for The Times Store.” The umbrellas have sold out, and the rain coats (sold separately for $65) are in short supply, though I’m told more of both are on their way. The items were produced exclusively for the Times, but neither has the newspaper’s branding on it.

Though hot-selling merchandise will hardly cure the Times Co.’s cashflow woes, the collaboration with Mizrahi points to potential revenue streams for news organizations selling tangible, private goods. The Globe and Mail, in Toronto, sold out 500 spots on a luxury cruise with its journalists last year. And The Telegraph, in London, has found success selling items from tulips to panama hats. Obviously, newspaper stores aren’t just for framed reprints anymore, although Heekin-Canedy noted that a 40th-anniversary edition of the Times’ famous “Men Walk on Moon” front page, signed by Buzz Aldrin, was “one of the store’s most popular items” this summer, despite a $795 price tag.

The Times first collaborated with Mizrahi earlier this year, when he produced a silk scarf and leather hand bag in a warm palette that Adolph Ochs might have found garish. (A recent Times review of Mizrahi’s work described it as “awash in gorgeous color.”) The hand bag included a gothic “T” medallion on its handle, a subtle form of branding that’s absent from the rain gear.

In addition to its Times Store wares, the newspaper recently launched a wine club at $90 or $180 for six bottles. (The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are also hawking vino.) In his memo, Heekin-Canedy said that Times employees, many of whom absorbed a 5-percent pay cut earlier this year, can get a 30-percent discount on their first shipment from the club.

I kid about all this, but merchandise sales, whether t-shirts or transparent vinyl rain coats, are likely to play a significant role as news organizations scramble to replace print advertising revenue. Mizrahi, who gained fame as a designer for Target before moving to Liz Claiborne last year, once said of his work: ”My goal is that you won’t always be able to tell the difference between what is Target and what is couture.” For the Times, the idea is you won’t be able to tell the difference between a newspaper company and a fashion label. Stacy Green, a Times spokeswoman, told me in an email, “We are looking to work with other designers in the future as well.”

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2009, 10 a.m.
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