When Nordstrom's Jodi Martin (her title is simply "Specialist") called to let me know that Nordy's was launching a new department dedicated to "up-and-coming designers," I have to admit it, I got a little excited.


U.K. department stores such as Harvey Nichols and Liberty have made bank discovering (and sponsoring) new talent, helping to make the funky, fly-by-night innovations of folks like Fake London and the Designers Guild available to England's broad, if bland, public. Here in the United States, Barney's New York has become a style sharpshooter of sorts by nourishing exquisite risks like the Alabama Project and cheeky-chic brands Urchin, Ghost and Tocca. Who knows? Maybe that could happen here. Our beloved home front has its share of under-exploited design talent, and few apparel retailers have the clout or the capital to breathe big-time life into boutique ideas that Nordstrom does. Is it true? Could the home of perfume purse samples, shoe shines and stalwart customer service be taking the plunge into the world of indie fashion design?

Well, maybe we could call it a baby step into the shallow end of the wading pool. Unless you consider haute couture on a budget like Dolce & Gabbana's "D&G" and Michael Kors' "Kors" cutting edge, Nordstrom's new Via C might disappoint.

As Jennifer Wheeler, director of designer sportswear, explains, "Via C is not really avant-garde. These clothes are more modern, less serious and a little more whimsical than what you'll find in the rest of the store."

Imagine a halfway house between the almost-affordable Juicy Couture stretch tees of T.B.D. and the gobsmacking couture of Collections (that name has a sinister credit-report ring to it, doesn't it?). Granted, Catherine Malandrino's lace cutout pants and Blumarine's slinky tops are a cut above standard prêt-à-porter, but the success or failure of Via C boils down to ducats. If Nordstrom wants to lure a hip, professional customer--under the age of 50--it's got to sock her right in her well-toned six-pack. But all Nordy's has done is select newish brands with a little buzz but no bombast, clothing well-made and edgy enough to communicate style and sophistication, while solid and conservative enough to log eight hours in an insurance office.

Says Wheeler, "The Via C customer is confident enough in her own fashion sense to wear a designer she may not have heard of yet, but who might be the next big thing." And if Nordstrom is stocking these "unknowns," that "next big thing" thing can't be too far off.

It can't help but feel like a missed opportunity. With the recent departure of Meier & Frank headquarters, Seattle-based Nordstrom is now the closest thing Portland has to a hometown department store. I'm sure some of you might even recall taking home a peanut-shaped, smiling balloon after a back-to-school trip to the shoe department. With its home-team advantage, Nordstrom is better positioned than ever to set the tone for a unique Northwest approach to retailing. Instead of barnstorming Orlando, Fla., with yet another new store, why not focus on dictating the design direction for a whole new breed of clothing consumer (informed, quick-moving, particular but ready to spend), just as the aforementioned Harvey Nicks or Barney's has done? The store would also be giving air cover to fashion's front lines in the process. In other words, take a chance. Nordstrom can afford to--and can't afford not to.

Hell, if it doesn't sell, you can always ship it to Orlando.

Allsteel #19 Debut
Meet Marcus Koepke, designer of Allsteel's sleek #19 chair, at a cocktail reception and film premiere.
Wieden + Kennedy Atrium, 224 NW 13th Ave., 238-2552. 6 pm Wednesday, Aug. 21.


Sapphire Hotel Fashion Show
Talented local designers, including Alice Dobson (Sofada) and Genna Golding (Gold), will present new ideas for fall at this event in conjunction with the Hawthorne Street Fair.
5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 232-6333. 6 pm Saturday, Aug. 24.