Time out with Ports 1961

For those who followed New York Fashion Week’s Spring 2011 shows in September, it was predicted by the masses that this season's collections would yield to soft palettes, flowy pieces, and breezy collections. Envision loose white dresses, intricate necklines, and minimalism with a bohemian flair.

One brand in particular that captures Spring 2011’s eau de parfum is Ports 1961, and at the helm of its very successful NYFW showing is Fiona Cibani, Creative Director and Head Designer of Ports—not to be confused with her sister Tia Cibani, who just stepped down from the position in August. “She’s relaxing now,” says Fiona with a giggle. The insanity however, has just begun for Fiona.

I had the opportunity to meet the front woman of Ports 1961 at Nordstrom King of Prussia for the very first stop of her intense clientele meet-and-greet campaign in November:

Surrounded by specialty cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, a DJ, and a dizzying display of Ports 1961’s Fall 2010 collection items, Fiona looks demure in a sheen dress. For over a decade, the Cibani sisters have been recognized as a dynamic duo tour-de-force in the fashion industry and have gathered a loyal following and garnered the respect of their fashion industry peers. One anonymous Main Liner actually called Nordstrom to apologize to Fiona for missing the event, as she showered the designer with praise.

Similar sentiments resonated from critics who saw distinct changes in Ports 1961’s Spring 2011 collection. What exactly inspired Cibani to select these vivid hues and designs? She explains, “We actually had a vacation last summer in the Sahara. It was a very short time, but the trip was based on a book I read by Isabelle Eberhardt.”

Eberhardt, a Swiss-Algerian writer and explorer, traveled extensively through North Africa until her death at age 27. The journalist is remembered for her pursuit of the unconventional—She wrote, “A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places.” That very spirit is reflected through the desires and designs of Fiona Cibani’s Ports 1961.

The designer explains in her slightly accented dialect, “It was so inspiring as she wrote about her travels throughout the Sahara in the 19th C, so I decided to just go and explore what it’s like. It was just as she said. It was beautiful. Magical. It was really amazing!” Fiona explains that the palette of her spring 2011 collection was inspired by the way sunlight that would hit the desert sand dunes, or the shade of the airy dry sky enveloping the Sahara. Cibani recalls, ‘It’s something you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.’

What was it? ‘There’s this iridescent color that I tried to capture, which I hope I did!" laughs Fiona. “Sometimes, it’s not so tangible. It’s really difficult. But yeah- that iridescent feel, you know. It’s a moment that you have to capture” explains Fiona. Her right-hand man Tony Alcindor jumps into the conversation and recalls Cibani’s explanation at the New York Fashion Week press event. He says, “There’s a moment between the end of the day and the beginning of night, when those colors, they last just for a minute. Just for a minute!” He chuckles and looks over to Fiona. “I thought that was genius!” he exclaims.

The sunset hues and flowy designs, like Cibani’s favorite piece- the peach-colored finale gown, encompass Ports 1961’s ‘Global Soul, Urban Spirit’ tag line. Alcindor explains, “I love the evening wear, I’m all about the red carpet gowns. The intricacies and you know, the fantasy of fashion, and now we have that because of Fiona. I’m absolutely thrilled.” Now that Ports has Fiona.

Before the 1961 label was established, both sisters were co-Creative Directors of the international brand. Ports 1961 entered the American market with its first location in Melrose Place of Los Angeles, followed by the opening of its flagship store in the Meatpacking District of New York City “smack in the middle of what was becoming a real crisis in the market,” explains Ports President Jacqui Wenzel.

Despite the tough economic climate, Ports saw a steady growth with Tia’s lead as Creative Director, and older sister Fiona’s ability to manage projects from the back end, despite having to then take care of her two young children. “The growth of the company has really been quite spectacular, considering the time,” Wenzel explains.

If there’s anyone to thank, it’s Wenzel and Ports 1961 executives, who shied away from the 1990s self-destructive, spend-as-you-please mentality as they took into consideration the economic situation and needs of clients who still wanted to invest in luxury, but at a more agreeable price.

This means Ports knows exactly what type of woman and market to target, and has established itself as a “reasonably expensive” line that is “not throwaway fashion, but something definitely worth investing in,” says Wenzel. “It’s not a purchase you feel the need to justify in your head,” she continues, and the payoff has been tremendous. In 2009 Savigny Partners LLP luxury brand index added Ports onto its prestigious list of brands, which includes Hermes, Burberry and LVMH.

So who exactly is the Ports 1961 woman?

“She’s every woman!” exclaims Cibani. “For me I was always basically planning for a New York City woman. She has a certain lifestyle demand which means she is up and running- on the go- so what she’s wearing has to sort of function in more than one place.” Fans of the line include The City’s Olivia Palermo, Kerry Washington, and Reese Witherspoon, all of whom meet the strenuous demands of their iCal-packed schedules with a sense of grace and elegance.

Although Ports 1961 is relatively young, it is gaining momentum among the jet-setterettes and working women of our time. Think twenties to forties, career-oriented, caffeinated, and constantly on-the-go. You may occasionally see her running up and down Market Street in stilettos (how does she manage?) or at the Public House for happy hour. She’s ambitious, focused, and knows her priorities. However, there’s something refreshing about her. After a grueling day of meetings, she can loosen up, enjoy a martini or three with associates, network, laugh and dance the night away, and still haul herself to the gym at 5 a.m. the next morning.

“Someone who can very much find herself getting up in the morning, getting on a plane, getting off, going to a meeting, having dinner, and sometimes she doesn’t have time to go back to her room and change” is Wenzel’s description for the Ports woman. “I know our designers have always thought in terms of that, both Tia and Fiona have always worked within that concept.”

And it makes sense since the Cibani sisters are essentially the quintessential Ports women. I ask Fiona what is most daunting about her role as the new head designer of Ports. “The pace,” she responds with a chuckle. “I’m on the run 24/7! Actually I just landed from Milan last night. Here today, and tomorrow, off to San Francisco. I’m always on the run,” she sighs. On the flip side, Cibani shares what she most looks forward to in her new role. “Traveling is always something I’ve wanted to do and I admire,” says Fiona. “And I already do it, but not at such a pace. It’s exhilarating- every day is a different place. The experience is in a different location.”

So what’s next for Fiona? “I want to go to Sri Lanka. That’s the place I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve never really had the opportunity. So maybe… you never know!” I’m not surprised by her choice of a distant, colorful, and culturally-rich island like Sri Lanka. Perhaps Cibani’s inspirations for Ports 1961’s Fall 2011 collections will culminate and reflect the Indian Ocean’s diversity, beauty, and history. Public-- meet the new crown jewel of fashion, Ports 1961. “Exactly,” laughs Fiona. “Maybe some emerald.”