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The Luxury Hangover: Designers Struggling With Harsher Reality

PARIS — “There is no justice in this business — and no mercy.”That declaration by Karl Lagerfeld sums up the newly difficult market conditions for fashion designers today. After a luxury boom that ushered in a wave of young,...

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PARIS — “There is no justice in this business — and no mercy.”That declaration by Karl Lagerfeld sums up the newly difficult market conditions for fashion designers today. After a luxury boom that ushered in a wave of young, independent names and scores of headline-grabbing attempts to revive dusty fashion houses, a harsher reality is dawning.In May, for example, Eric Bergere shuttered his Paris-based fashion house with the chilling declaration: “I don’t know how an independent designer can make it today. Either you sell to a big group or you work for one.”

And Bergere is unlikely to be the last to go. Recruitment experts, consultants and other industry observers predict more fallout in the bloated “young designer” category — and perhaps even the disappearance of historic brands that have failed to spark a rejuvenation miracle. They say there are simply too many ready-to-wear collections with too little identity chasing too few customers. Furthermore, they argue that the now-routine practice of making stars out of inexperienced designers has ultimately done a disservice to the industry, as evidenced by business closures and the “revolving-door” phenomenon at many houses.

But in the wake of all this turmoil, they held out hope the fashion industry is perhaps entering an era of greater professionalism, where hype and fame will be replaced by modesty and technique and where designers’ creativity will be directed where it is needed in the market.

Concetta Lanciaux, executive vice president of synergies at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and a longtime talent scout for the luxury giant, ties the recent explosion in young designers to the Internet phenomenon, a “utopian” period when it seemed a single idea could be transformed into an entire business. She said many young talents leapt into the business without even stopping to think if there were customers for their creations.

“They are all the victim of the Nineties, when everyone was opening a shop and launching a collection,” she said. “That epoch is over.”

Besides Bergere, other prominent designers who have either closed or suspended their operations in the last year include Miguel Adrover, Daryl Kerrigan, Olivier Theyskens and Josephus Thimister. Also, most of the designers who once held high-profile jobs at fashion houses, but were ejected after poor receptions, have yet to resurface. These include names such as Christina Ortiz, formerly Lanvin’s designer; Nathalie Gervais, ex-Nina Ricci designer, and Julio Espada, who recently exited Pucci.

Experts aren’t surprised by the closures. “Young designers are facing terrible economic problems,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who operates an eponymous executive search firm here. “It’s a very attractive career, but a dangerous one. People have to be very prepared and very strong.”

The mounting business failures suggest the industry has perhaps emphasized hype over commercial potential for too long, experts said. In fact, Lanciaux linked today’s designer crisis to the industry’s inordinate fixation on rtw as the penultimate statement of brand identity, along with its primary showcase, the runway show. Analysts estimate designer rtw is about a $10 billion worldwide, but it offers the lowest margins in the sector.

“We are partly to blame for this,” Lanciaux said. “The whole industry of fashion has become so catwalk-focused. That very much influences the way designers think about the business. We have an excess of Prêt-à-Porter.”

By contrast, there is a crying need for designers for accessories, the cash cow for most luxury brands and a category primed for continued growth. “Most of the people who come out of design schools want to do Prêt-à-Porter and it’s really regrettable,” Lanciaux said. “For the last few years, accessories have been very strong and I think it’s going to continue. We are only beginning the age of accessories, but yet there are no schools.” Lanciaux noted many luxury brands are seeking accessories designers, but are finding the pool of talent quite shallow.

Lagerfeld said fashion design holds the same promise of glamour and fame that entices legions of young girls to aspire to become models. In reality, though, only a handful have what it takes to build a lasting career.

“Wanting to do it is not enough,” he said. “Image making is something else today.”

Lagerfeld said the industry’s recent fixation on young designers has boosted egos and fueled pretension — but created few commercial successes. “People expect star treatment. Youth today think being young is a kind of privilege. But you cannot base your future on something you will lose one day.”

Lagerfeld said many young designers are capable of coming out with a strong statement initially, but often they begin quickly to repeat themselves. He also fears that too many designers are overly dependent on vintage, a fact underlined with the recent allegations in the media that Balenciaga’s hot designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, copied a vest by little-known San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong and put it on his spring 2002 runway.

“I’m lucky,” Lagerfeld said with his typical barb. “I’m from a generation who still learned their trade at couture houses. I don’t have to go to the flea market.”

De Saint Pierre noted that many young designers, as well as historic brands with new designers or creative directors, are guilty of pricing themselves out of the market. Often, their rtw collections are priced at the same level as established designer powerhouses like Gucci, Chanel or Prada.

Reinforcing her point: The young French designers who are faring the best today sell at contemporary or bridge price points. Their brands, including the likes of Vanessa Bruno, Isabel Marant and Paul & Joe, have a designer cachet and a reputation for being close to their customers’ needs.

“There is room for new brands, but maybe it’s more about a creativity that goes with real clothes [you wear regularly] rather than just amazing creativity and clothes that you only wear once,” De Saint Pierre said. “You have to be humble and really give content, quality and style, but for the right price, too.”

In general, De Saint Pierre said she would not recommend a designer start a career with his or her own line, unless the person is “extremely talented and with enough to say season after season. Otherwise, it’s a struggle.”

Given the difficulties in financing and maintaining an independent label today, most observers agreed that young fashion designers might be better off working anonymously for a major brand.

That’s the opinion of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault. Speaking at the firm’s annual shareholders’ meeting here recently, he said the group has deliberately not invested in new brands because it is extremely costly and difficult to build a new name into a global force. “They must become the designer of an existing brand,” he said, in a veiled dig at arch-rival Gucci Group, which is attempting to develop Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney as global brands.

In the past, joining a house was considered a “comfortable” career path, according to Jean-Jacques Picart, a consultant here whose clients include LVMH. But today, it’s potentially a much more dynamic option, given the enormous press attention, investment and management focus on historic brands. In some rare cases, he said, the experience of joining a major house is tantamount to strapping oneself to a rocket. Some designers are “very happy” to be in a house, Picart claimed, citing Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme as a penultimate recent example.

In his estimation, designers can follow one of three paths today: join a house that matches their aesthetic; launch their own collection, or function as a free agent consulting for several brands.

But the experts agreed that putting a hot young name at a dusty house is becoming a tired formula. It had its heyday in the mid-Nineties, when Arnault placed John Galliano at Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. But other houses, including Balmain and Nina Ricci, have had a revolving door. Even Arnault’s Givenchy has tried many designers, first, Galliano, then Alexander McQueen and, most recently, Julien Macdonald.

Ford’s transformation of Gucci and Vuitton’s success under Jacobs prompted many duplicators. But recently, many houses have struggled to replicate such successes.

“[Houses] think that in hiring a designer, people will suddenly line up in the store. The process is much longer,” De Saint Pierre said. “The designer has to adapt to the brand and disadapt to the brand that he or she was designing before. It takes at least three seasons. It’s not like a perfume launch, where you expect immediate returns. It’s not only reinventing the brand and the product, but you have to reinvent your customer.”

De Saint Pierre said a revolving-door phenomenon persists at many houses because it is extremely difficult to match designers and managers. What’s more, designers are rarely given enough time and creative freedom to find their footing at a house. “Are designers mature enough to understand what a brand is and not just please themselves?” she asked.

Lagerfeld agreed. “The door revolves because some people think they’re more important than the brand they’re designing,” he said. “Fashion is what people wear. It’s not something you put on a runway to show how creative you are. There’s nothing bad about selling dresses.”

Lagerfeld said the industry has been guilty of pushing designers more because they are young than because they are good. His advice? Designers should work in anonymity for other houses to learn the trade as he did. Lagerfeld started his career at Balmain at age 17, then designed for Jean Patou, Krizia and Charles Jourdan before signing up at Fendi and Chloé. “Don’t think you’re Michaelangelo,” he offered. “If you are good at what you do, you will be noticed.” Ford, for example, worked behind the scenes at Perry Ellis for years before Gucci catapulted him into superstardom, Lagerfeld reminded.

“There is no such thing as a genius of 23 who knows everything,” Lanciaux agreed. “Young designers expect to do today what John Galliano is accomplishing today at the age of 41. The old tradition was designers worked for somebody else and they learned. Technique requires time to acquire. I hope we go back to that idea, that you have to perfect yourself.”

Lanciaux said she expects more job opportunities will arise in the expanding design studios of major brands, which would provide young talents with solid footing.

She noted that some of the most acclaimed designers today, including Galliano and Jacobs, have reached their current zenith only after years of backbreaking work and struggles. Indeed, both designers have survived bankruptcy and other hardships.

That market conditions today are still punishing for designers is simply a reality to be dealt with, according to Lagerfeld. “We live in an era of brands,” he said. Therefore, independent designers who don’t make it cannot “portray themselves as victims,” he said.

Even major luxury firms have had a difficult time creating new brands. LVMH, which launched the couturier Christian Lacroix 15 years ago, still waits for the firm to turn the corner into profitability — although it should very soon. And Chanel, which invested heavily in New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, ultimately pulled the plug on his business in 1998. “It didn’t work out because he promoted too much himself and not the clothes,” Lagerfeld said. “There is a moment where people have to wear the clothes. It’s an unforgiving job, but you have to adapt. Your style has to follow fashion. Rigid concepts can kill you.”

But if the best hope for designers today is to work for existing brands, it begs the question: Are there enough of them out there?

According to De Saint Pierre, there are not enough old brands worth reviving to meet market needs. Given the struggles many historic houses are having, investors will either have to let some brands die or “understand that you have to be patient,” she said.

So, where will new brands come from? De Saint Pierre suggested prominent and successful manufacturers in Italy, of which there are many, have the potential to create new brands. After all, this was the genesis of Prada, Furla and Malo, to name but a few.

Alternatively, fashion brands can spring from single-category companies, like Kate Spade or Isabel Marant, who started out with accessories and gradually expanded into more expensive and complicated products like ready-to-wear or beauty. De Saint Pierre said designers with a sharp focus on one category or niche tend to succeed best, citing as an example Tomas Meier, who launched his signature line focused on swimwear. He is now also creative director at Bottega Veneta, part of Gucci Group. Lucien Pellat-Finet has also had a long, successful career as a specialist in cashmere sweaters.

Picart said Jean Paul Gaultier is perhaps the best example in France of an independent designer who is successful across various product categories. Before him, Sonia Rykiel and Agnes B. also achieved financial and media success here. Today, hopes are being pinned on the likes of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Ghesquière at Balenciaga, all part of Gucci Group.

Lagerfeld said McQueen is perhaps the “young” designer who is most likely to succeed, given his staying power so far. But he stressed that the new generation faces an uphill climb.

“It’s so difficult to impose a new name. Why take the risk? People can take over an existing brand and make a new image,” he said. “The wave of young designers may be at its crest.”

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