PARIS — Given his triumphant one-off collection for H&M, is Karl Lagerfeld an impossible act to follow, or just a tough one?
It depends on which designer you ask. But the general consensus seems to be that, if the Swedish fashion retailer goes knocking, it will find plenty of designers eager to take up the challenge in “mass-clusivity.”
“I would do it,” Marc Jacobs said Friday. “To be completely blunt about it, I understand Karl was paid a great deal of money to do it and that would be a great incentive.”
But Jacobs said he also was impressed with Lagerfeld’s seamless execution and a powerful promotional effort that resulted in a feeding frenzy at H&M stores in the U.S. and Europe on Nov. 12 as customers lined up to snap up the clothes. The result was that some stores sold out within minutes of the doors opening at 9 a.m.
The lusty reaction suggests a large public is extremely interested in fashion “if the price is right,” said Jacobs.
“I think it would be a very exciting project to be involved in,” said Jacobs, who also is creative director of Louis Vuitton. “Of course, you think to yourself, ‘Oh dear, what if mine didn’t do as well as his?’ But then you have to remember, it’s Karl Lagerfeld. All I would hope for, really, is that it would be successful. It’s a bad idea to compare yourself to others.”
Jean Paul Gaultier, who just finished designing about 20 styles priced from 30 to 100 euros, or $39 to $130, for the forthcoming spring-summer La Redoute catalogue, said he’s also receptive to collaborations with purveyors of affordable fashion.
“I don’t know if I would accept [to do H&M]. The proposal has never been made to me and I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I guess it depends on my availability.”
To be sure, Gaultier has done inexpensive designs for catalogues before, “which proves I have nothing against it.”
Ditto for English designer Vivienne Westwood.
“If she felt it was appropriate and a good thing to do, it’s not something she would rule out,” said a spokesman for Westwood. “In fact, we are in talks at the moment with a sportswear brand, so it’s definitely not something she would turn her nose up at.”
Bradley Bayou said of Lagerfeld, “I think it’s genius and have said since Day One it’s where we should all be headed. But to be appreciated at the low end, you have to succeed at the high end.”
Having sold on QVC, Bayou said he has spoken with mass market stores about a potential collaboration and is “definitely considering it.”
“For me, style doesn’t cost a lot of money. I really believe if you spend a little time and understand style, anyone should be able to have it,” Bayou said.
Marc Bouwer, who will make his QVC debut in February, also gave Lagerfeld the thumbs-up. “The more you can broaden your horizons, the more people you can reach. In the end, you want your brand name to be as strong as you can.”
Norma Kamali said she is “deep in conversation” about a deal, but declined to say with whom. Regarding the Lagerfeld at H&M phenomenon, she said: “I think it’s absolutely the smartest thing going. There’s been such a change in fashion. What we used to consider designer is now celebrity. Designer is either high, high-end luxe or reaching the people. Celebrities can certainly have a collection and do quite well without a designer.”
There is no longer a design hierarchy where an elite group picks up on trends every two years, since everyone has access to what’s happening around the world through their computers, Kamali said.
“A company like H&M is instantaneous, on it and at a price. Clearly, addressing it this way is a very sensible answer,” she said.
Outfitting staffers in the three restaurants at the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art is one way Yeohlee Teng has tried to share fine design with the masses. But she’s eager to broaden her reach even further. “I would really like to work on a project like that for someone like Levi’s or the Gap, because there is still a lot more to be done with denim.
“I really believe good design is for everybody,” she added. “When you think about it, someone came up with the first white shirt and the first pencil. Good design should be ubiquitous and available to everyone. The great classics stand the test of time.”
But if French, British and American designers seemed open to following Lagerfeld, Italian ones appeared a little less willing.
“What Karl did with H&M is amazing and no one could have done it better,” said Donatella Versace. “While I love the idea of this kind of project, I prefer to reach that customer base through Versace Jeans Couture.”
Valentino Garavani said he might do it — under certain conditions.
“It’s a very interesting project, especially since Karl acted a bit like a guinea pig,” he said. “If I were to take up a similar project, I would request two conditions: good quality even at mass levels and a project completely different from Karl’s.
“Karl is such a ‘magician’ that he supplied a product-marketing-advertising package so unique that it is impossible to repeat that same experience with the same ingredients. I would request a completely different yet equally interesting project.”
Plenty of designers seemed downright uncomfortable even talking about the topic, with the likes of Nicolas Ghesquière, Rei Kawakubo, Miuccia Prada and Angela Missoni all declining to comment on the prospect of an H&M stint. Via a spokesman, Giorgio Armani said he harbors “no point of view” on the subject.
An H&M spokeswoman said Friday it would consider future collaborations with other designers, but stressed “nothing has been decided yet.”
The Lagerfeld line debuted in roughly half of H&M’s 1,000 stores worldwide on Nov. 12, evoking a feeding frenzy in stores from Paris and Berlin to New York. Although the initial pandemonium suggested a complete sellout, the H&M spokeswoman said Friday roughly half of the 1 million items produced are still up for grabs. Merchandise is currently being shifted to countries and metropolitan stores where demand is strongest, she said.
For his part, Lagerfeld reiterated that he was vexed that the small quantities H&M produced meant racks went bare within minutes in many locations, leaving some consumers upset and empty-handed. He said he would not extend his deal with H&M, as it was conceived as a one-time event — and he prefers to move on to the next thing.
“Fashion is a constant dialogue,” he said.
But H&M, which has seen its sales decelerating this fall amid unfavorable weather conditions and a sluggish retail environment in Europe, is banking on the Karl factor to boost its November figures. Those are expected on Dec. 15.
H&M investor relations head Carl-Henric Enhörning described the Lagerfeld line as a “tremendous success” and noted that it created a halo effect. “Customers were buying other things, too, from our ordinary assortments,” he noted.
Meanwhile, observers such as Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based industry consultant, are not surprised at the apparent trepidation of some.
“It will be very frightening for designers to be number two after Karl,” he said. “He did it in such an effective way.”
Not only do huge egos come into play, but it’s also a question of design approach, Picart said, explaining that Lagerfeld wisely chose to do mostly wearable basics, which resonated with the H&M customer. “It can’t be too extreme a designer,” he said, suggesting the likes of Armani, Ralph Lauren, Sonia Rykiel and Christian Lacroix as good potential candidates.
Floriane de Saint Pierre, who operates an executive search and consulting firm here, suggested the Swedish fashion giant might consider a celebrity. If Sarah Jessica Parker or Madonna can model for Gap, why not put one of their names on a special line of clothes, De Saint Pierre asked.
“In fashion, who could beat Karl? Probably no one,” she said. “It’s probably good to go another route.”
— With contributions from Alessandra Ilari, Milan; Ellen Burney, London, and Rosemary Feitelberg, New York