NEW YORK — Coco Chanel started Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga started Balenciaga, so the natural assumption would be that Rena Lange started Rena Lange.
While that would make the company’s history easier to tell, the truth is there has never been a Rena Lange at the Munich-based house, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with several fresh additions to its business, including new stores in Frankfurt and Moscow, a capsule collection based on vintage designs and made-to-order dresses out of its Munich flagship.
The name Lange actually stems from Martha Lange, a rather intriguing character who, in 1916, was sent by her wealthy lover to the southern German city of Munich to open a lingerie shop. Meanwhile, he remained hundreds of miles away to the north in Bremen. As if opening a lingerie shop in the middle of World War I wasn’t hard enough, Lange had no head for business and closed up shop after six months.
Though it was the fall of Martha Lange — no one heard from her afterward — a woman named Henriette Günthert took over the shop, which marks the official start of the Günthert family’s rule over the brand, which today spans three generations over a period of 87 years.
The boutique, known at the time as M. Lange & Co., continued to sell lingerie and prospered under Henriette Günthert’s care for nearly a quarter of a century until it was demolished in 1939 by a bombing in the first few months of World War II. It remained closed for more than a decade, but in 1951, Henriette Günthert and her niece, Herta Günthert — who died last year in Munich at age 101 — reopened the shop at a new location in the Palais Moy on Briennerstrasse, Munich’s high-end shopping street, which the company still uses today as its flagship.
In 1953, just two years after reopening, Herta Günthert and her husband Johann were involved in a car accident. Johann was killed in the crash and Herta was seriously injured. Since Henriette was growing old, the family handed over control of the shop to Peter Günthert, Herta’s and Johann’s 17-year-old son. He added made-to-order evening gowns as well as daywear that year — the 50-year milestone the company is celebrating this year — which became immensely popular with Munich’s upper crust. For the next five years, he grew the store’s reputation by staging high-profile fashion events for Munich’s elite.
“People were so enthusiastic that I had to surpass myself with each new season,” Peter Günthert said in a statement. “At one show we dyed poodles in the same colors as the bikinis worn by the models. I was told the dye would come out with the first shower of rain, but as it turned out, the owners had to go around for weeks with pink and turquoise colored dogs.”
Using the highest quality materials including Lesage embroidery, Italian fabrics and Scottish tweeds, the made-to-order apparel began outshining lingerie. Deciding apparel was where he wanted to take the business, Peter Günthert stopped producing lingerie, renamed the store Salon Lange & Co. and, on April 8, 1958, showed his first full collection of made-to-order clothing.
Four years later, Günthert met a young designer named Renate Frick, who had studied fashion design and technical design in Paris and moved to Munich to work for another German fashion house. The pair were married in 1963 and Renate joined the family business.
As the Seventies approached and labor costs required to keep a couture house in business increased — Salon Lange employed hundreds of seamstresses in its heyday — the business transitioned into high-end ready-to-wear, which the Güntherts sold at their company-owned stores and began wholesaling. In 1982, the couple staged their first rtw show at the Scala di Milano in Milan and the line became known simply as Lange.
In the Eighties, the brand began exporting to Japan and the United States, where it sold to stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In 1990, the American ski boot company Lange asserted its exclusive rights to the name and took legal action against the Güntherts, so Peter Günthert, in a tribute to his wife Renate, renamed the brand Rena Lange. Five years later, Rena Lange USA Inc. was established with a showroom on Fifth Avenue here with the goal of increasing U.S. distribution.
The brand now sells to more than 30 specialty stores in the U.S. in addition to Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus nationally, representing about 20 percent of global sales. Bergdorf Goodman, however, dropped the line this year. Today the wholesale business generates about $60 million worldwide with an additional $15 million with its retail division, which is run as a separate company.
There are seven Rena Lange stores in Germany, five in Japan, two in the U.S. and several others, making for a total of about 18 worldwide.
Last year, Peter and Renate Günthert handed over control of the company to their 34-year-old son, Daniel, who had worked for his parents since 1996 and represents the family’s third-generation leader of the firm. The previous year, Irish-born designer James Waldron joined the company with the effort of injecting some much-needed youth into the brand’s identity.
The limited-edition pieces in the fall collection retail between $1,500 and $3,000 and were designed to showcase the company’s roots in the lingerie business, according to Waldron, who researched the company’s archives to create the 12-piece group. It references corsetry, features the brand’s original M. Lange & Co. logo and will offer corset tops for evening and other lingerie-inspired details on suits and dresses, covering the cocktail end of the collection.
To further celebrate its 50 years in the apparel business this year, the company founded the Rena Lange Charitable Foundation in the U.S., which benefits six charities for women and children in need. A portion of proceeds of the capsule collection will benefit the charity, as well as sales of a 50th-anniversary T-shirt.
“We will open our first freestanding store in Moscow starting with the fall collection,” said Daniel Günthert in a recent interview. “We started offering made-to-order dresses out of our Munich boutique three months ago. Those dresses range in price from $7,000 to $20,000 and will be one-of-a-kind. It’s been very popular and could extend to the U.S.”
Rena Lange also enlisted Arthur Elgort to shoot its fall campaign at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in its new Chelsea location, a modern twist for the brand with the space’s concrete floors and stark white walls.
“In the past, we have shot the campaign in places with aristocratic atmospheres like castles,” said Günthert. “But we wanted to showcase the freshness and modernity of the brand going forward. We just didn’t want it so heavy. The clothes are still classic, but they’re also very modern. Women want different items in their wardrobes, more highlights. Our newer customers are younger and they tend to go for highlight pieces. We have a core customer all over the world but we’re also trying to evolve.”