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Sparring Over Strategy: Tensions Said Building Between Lang and Prada

Speculation is rife in Europe that tensions between Helmut Lang and the Prada Group are mounting and may be nearing the breaking point.

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PARIS— If Jil left Jil Sander — twice — could Helmut exit Helmut Lang?

Speculation is rife in Europe that tensions between Lang and the Prada Group are mounting and may be nearing the breaking point.

Through a spokesman, Lang declined to comment. On Tuesday, a Prada Group spokesman also declined to comment.

According to sources, the two sides are at odds over the direction and development of the Lang fashion house, upon which Prada Group tightened its grip last fall, buying the 49 percent it needed to gain full control.

In a sign of how tense relations have become between Prada and the Austrian-born, New York-based Lang, the designer is said to have recently removed some personal belongings from his Greene Street flagship, including large artworks on the selling floor, that reinforced his edgy brand of cool.

“This could be heading in the direction of Jil Sander,” said one source, referring to the insurmountable clashes that caused Sander to leave her namesake fashion house for the second time in November. Sander was succeeded by the design team she left behind.

When Prada announced its increased stake in Lang during Paris Fashion Week in October, the company characterized it as a “clear demonstration of how strongly we believe in the potential of the brand. We have enjoyed a solid relationship with Helmut over the past several years and look forward to continuing our fruitful collaboration in the years to come.”

The new business arrangement seems to have put an additional strain on the relationship between formidable Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli and the uncompromising Lang. “When you become an employee, it’s difficult,” said one source.

That tension between the designer and his Italian owner predates the recent transaction is well understood. Thorny subjects include the merchandising of the collection and creative control of the accessories categories, where Prada has particular expertise and a category that it has been eager to expand at such labels as Sander and Lang.

When Lang struck a deal to sell his remaining shares, he agreed to continue as creative director. The terms and duration of his contract are undisclosed.

Prada bought a 51 percent stake in Lang in 1999 during an acquisitions spree by Europe’s luxury groups. At the time, the Lang brand was flying high, and wholesale volume was said to be approaching $100 million. But sales declined in subsequent years, and in 2003, they dropped 33.1 percent, to 27.85 million euros, or $37.1 million at current exchange rates. Prada said at the time that it was still attempting to reposition the brand and therefore had closed some unsatisfactory wholesale accounts. At that time, a Prada spokesman also said that closing those accounts, along with macroeconomic factors such as a strong euro, SARS and the Iraq war, had hurt Lang’s sales figures.

It is believed the brand loses money, as the Prada brand contributes an estimated 136 percent of group operating profits.

Prada said financial and economic factors did not figure in the recent decision to take Lang’s post-modern men’s wear off the runway during men’s fashion week in Paris later this month. A women’s show is said to be going ahead in March.

Prada has repeatedly denied speculation it wants to sell the Helmut Lang company.

A key fashion figure of the minimalist Nineties, Lang has recently enjoyed a critical renaissance, with his editorial coverage multiplying and his collections garnering some of the strongest reviews of his career.

But his comeback coincides with a toughened, more pragmatic business climate in which multibrand groups such as Prada, Gucci Group and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton are funneling resources only to cash cows and brands with surefire potential, leaving others to wither on the vine. Conglomerates also are struggling to keep their design stars content, which has led to a revolving-door situation with the departures not only of Sander but also of Tom Ford at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Michael Kors at Celine and Julien Macdonald at Givenchy.

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