PARIS — Meet the “Seam Girls.”
In an unusual move to jump-start what has been a sluggish brand rejuvenation, Emanuel Ungaro has tapped an almost unknown chief designer — Estrella Archs — and an “artistic adviser” who is arguably too well-known — Lindsay Lohan.
This story first appeared in the September 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Spanish designer and the actress/singer/tabloid sensation are slated to present their first collection in Paris on Oct. 4, likely coming out together at the end of the runway for a bow.
Mounir Moufarrige, Ungaro’s chief executive officer, is already relishing the prospect of that image running in newspapers and on Web sites around the world, bringing a lightning bolt of attention — good, bad or otherwise — to a French brand that has severely lacked it as it endured a revolving door of designers and lackluster collections.
“Odds are it could work,” Moufarrige said, disclosing the appointments exclusively to WWD. “Everything we’re going to get is going to be a plus. I think the noise level around Lindsay will be very, very big.”
Indeed, a Google search for the star of “Mean Girls” and “Freaky Friday” yields more than 26 million results, versus only 1.3 million for Ungaro, a couture house founded in 1965 that has been wracked by instability in the design department since its founding couturier retired in 2004.
Last July, Ungaro said it would part ways with Bogotá, Colombia-born Esteban Cortazar, whose three collections for the house failed to ignite much commercial or press interest in the brand. As reported, the designer had reached an impasse with Ungaro management over its future marketing strategy, which would involve a celebrity face.
Peter Dundas, who is now the designer at Emilio Pucci; Vincent Darré, now devoted to a signature furniture line, and Giambattista Valli, pursuing a signature label with Italy’s Mariella Burani Fashion Group, came before Cortazar as Ungaro designers.
For her part, Lohan, 23, told WWD she hopes to take Ungaro to a “younger place” with a harder fashion edge.
“When I’m involved in a project, I give my all to it,” the controversial celebrity said. “I feel like there’s a correlation between everything I do, whether it’s pop music or film. I’ve always played a big part in what I wear, the costumes. Clothing is something that’s so expressive in so many ways. It really interests me.
“To be in a position where I’m working with a fashion house in Paris sets it apart from every other celebrity brand.”
Lohan said her first fur coat was an Ungaro, which she purchased about 10 years ago. She prized its leopard spots and a pale pink lining that gave it its je ne sais quoi.
Asked to describe her role in the creative process, Lohan said she “kind of oversees everything [Archs] does, while working with her. Different generations have different ideas.”
Archs, too, was up-front about potential discord, asking: “Have you ever met two women who agree completely about fashion?”
Lohan said Ungaro has stood for provocation and chic “since Day One,” descriptors to which she can certainly relate. “Every woman wants to be sexy — without being too much,” she said. “I want it to be simple and easy. I really think less is more — and you can add on more with accessories.”
Meanwhile, she took fashion to task for being too retro and me-too. “Everyone copies everyone. I don’t want it to be about that. The reason I love fashion is it’s ever-changing; there’s something new all the time.”
In addition to her new role at Ungaro, Lohan said she has two more days of shooting for “Machete,” an ensemble thriller also starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Alba. “It’s really exciting to be back into film with so many wonderful people where I can learn so much,” she said.
Moufarrige contended he had a choice of two strategies for Ungaro: Attempting to catapult the brand’s fortunes via a proven, superstar designer à la Tom Ford at enormous expense, or pursue a more radical route — teaming a chief designer and a fashion-obsessed, if volatile, celebrity. He contends the days of “designers in their ivory towers” are over, and the input of Lohan — the ultimate fashion girl — will lend a “consumer” voice to the mix that is vital today.
“Designer-led fashion is likely not to be enough. It’s a slow process going the traditional route,” he said, describing the need to give a designer several years to get under the skin of a house and, hopefully, get the business moving. “Not enough just doesn’t get you anywhere.”
What’s more, “Consumers today know what they want, and they have an eye as well,” the executive continued. “The consumer really is key today. They know what’s going on; they’re following the trends.”
The advent of celebrity fashion lines, some of which generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, proves celebrities capture the imagination of consumers and “designer-led brands have competition they didn’t have before,” Moufarrige said.
“My target consumer for Ungaro is the woman of perpetual 30, and I think the combination of these two girls will greatly contribute to burnishing a great name, which is Ungaro,” he added.
Seated in his sun-drenched office on the Avenue Montaigne, a breeze tinkling a chandelier overhead, Moufarrige acknowledged Lohan has a controversial image, given her stints in rehab, drunk-driving citations and a widely publicized love affair with Samantha Ronson. But he plunks down the September British Elle and Spanish Vogue’s August issue, which both feature Lohan on the cover and in fashion spreads inside, as testimony to her international stature and enduring fashion allure.
He also noted Lohan’s line of leggings, labeled 6126, are performing well at retail.
“The fashion industry thrives on controversy anyway,” he said, waving a hand as if to dispel doubts. “Emanuel Ungaro himself was very controversial. He always felt women had to dress to seduce. His first perfume he called Diva. It’s not an act of desperation to get a real diva involved. I like controversy.
“She does have an eye,” continued Moufarrige, a veteran executive at Compagnie Financière Richemont, who famously replaced Karl Lagerfeld with Stella McCartney, then age 25, as head designer of Chloé in 1997. “I like the way [Lohan] dresses. Her house [in Los Angeles] is a mini-department store. She changes outfits five times a day.”
Lohan signed a multiyear contract with Ungaro. Although financial terms were not disclosed, it calls for her to do trunk shows, make appearances and “be where the activities of the brand are,” according to Moufarrige.
One thing Lohan won’t do is appear in Ungaro advertising. “I’ve got a moving advertising campaign through Lindsay,” Moufarrige enthused. “She’s a super consumer, and it’s a new idea. She’s photographed thousands of times a week.”
Ungaro plans to eventually launch an attention-getting print campaign without Lohan, but the company plans to await reaction to the first show and to expand distribution before making significant investments.
As for Archs, 35, Moufarrige said he was attracted by her two-year-old signature collection, which she shows on the runway during Paris Fashion Week and sells to a handful of specialty stores in Europe and the Middle East. “She has a lot of fluidity and a lot of color, and it’s easy to wear,” he said. “She was spot-on in terms of the DNA of Ungaro.”
Born in Barcelona, Archs studied fashion at Central Saint Martins in London before going on to design for such brands as Nina Ricci, Cacharel, Hussein Chalayan, Emilio Pucci and Prada.
“I like to think of my style as pure and light, but very sexy,” Archs said in an interview between fittings. “The reality of women is they all naturally want to be sexy.”
Archs first met Lohan at the end of June and said, “We get along really well. I think she’s fun. She has an eye for fashion. She’s very enthusiastic. She’s very much for the youth, for the sexiness.” The two women have subsequently met several times in Los Angeles, London and Paris to ready the spring-summer 2010 line.
Archs declined to give too many clues about the first collection, to be shown at the Carrousel du Louvre, saying only, “It’s not too much couture.”
Lohan and Archs will be charged with waking up a brand whose women’s ready-to-wear business is described by Moufarrige as “stagnant,” sold to only about 75 stores worldwide. “We should be at 300,” he asserted.
Indeed, the brand is a far cry from its peak in the late Nineties, when the bridge line Emanuel by Emanuel Ungaro, licensed to Italy’s GFT, generated some $170 million at wholesale. Launched in 1991, Emanuel was conceived for the U.S. market and was hailed as GFT’s most profitable division.
Ungaro has changed hands in the interim. Salvatore Ferragamo, which purchased the house from the founding couturier in 1996, sold it to high-tech entrepreneur Asim Abdullah in 2005. Moufarrige took the management helm in 2006, after investing in Worth Group and shepherding brands including leather goods powerhouse Goyard and watch firm U-Boat.
Ungaro remains loss making, but Moufarrige described the men’s business, while small, as “doing well.” Since 2007, that department has been headed by Franck Boclet, a former designer of Francesco Smalto.
Another bright spot for the brand is U by Ungaro, a women’s diffusion line licensed to Itochu in Japan. It rang up $9 million at wholesale with rtw last year, while handbags and small leather goods generated another $19 million via 23 shop-in-shops. Handbags under that label retail at around $370. Distribution will soon be expanded into China, Moufarrige noted.
The U by Ungaro fragrance launched by Avon is also going strong, with market sources pegging sales last year at about $50 million. The Emanuel Ungaro brand has an existing fragrance license with Ferragamo Parfums, a partnership that began in 1997.
Ungaro declined to give projections for the rtw line by Archs and Lohan, but Moufarrige noted that the first Chloé collection by McCartney pushed sales up fourfold. “If we go fourfold, I would not be surprised,” he asserted. “This is an electric shock.”