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With the right combination of marketing and fashion savvy, a brand that lost its namesake designer can maintain its staying power.
Designer brands might soon eclipse cats in terms of longevity.
Just as a whole new generation of designers is setting its sights on Seventh Avenue stardom, there is an equally pervasive interest in the old, with a roster of vintage brands that have outlasted the earthly existences of their founding namesakes assuming their position on the American fashion calendar. Houses like Anne Klein and Perry Ellis are under reconstruction, while Lars Nilsson will present his first collection for Bill Blass since Blass died in June. Then there’s Halston, which has managed to experience more incarnations in the past five years than Shirley MacLaine.
The demand for vintage labels, led by Hollywood stars in recent years, has helped revive the careers — or at least the awareness — of names like Koos van den Akker, Holly Harp and Dessés, as well as spawning a phenomenon of fashion “sampling.” Today’s designers are mining the depths of bygone collections for modern content, as evidenced by Nicolas Ghesquière’s copy of Kaisik Wong, the innovative San Francisco apparel artist who died in 1990, for the fall Balenciaga collection.
The designers-for-hire syndrome now represents an established career path in Paris. More and more obscure couture houses are attempting to relaunch under the helm of another hot name, hoping to re-create the ongoing success of Chanel and Christian Dior while simultaneously giving designer customers a crash course in fashion history. This has inspired American houses to consider reviving their aging brands, with new designers toiling in relative obscurity for companies which, ironically, were founded by old designers who made a point of getting out of the back rooms of Seventh Avenue manufacturing to put their own names on the label.
There’s certainly a good case for building on the success and instant brand recognition of these names, but with Halston looking like a revolving door lately, Anne Klein on its sixth reincarnation since she died in 1974 and recent flops at Blass and Perry Ellis preceding their latest successes, just how long these labels can survive becomes a critical issue.
“That success is very individual, depending on the brand,” said Lars Nilsson, who joined Blass in 2000 to work for Steven Slowik after Blass retired, then took over after Slowik’s disappointing debut and dismissal. “There are certain names like Chanel and Dior that will always exist and continue because of their history. I see it in a very positive way because it took a long time to build something like that. So why not continue it?”
The recipe for the continued success of a brand following the departure of its founder is complicated and many chefs have tried it with disastrous results. But with the right combination of marketing and creativity it can succeed, with the crucial ingredient being the ability to recognize what customers once valued in the name and to then re-create it for a contemporary audience.
Karl Lagerfeld, who has been designing Chanel for 20 years, continues to win accolades for his modern interpretations of the house’s signature style, while sales at Christian Dior, overhauled by John Galliano over the past five years, were up 44 percent in the first half of the year. Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, since its remake by Tom Ford, is seeing retail sales mushrooming at triple-digit rates. Now scores of houses are struggling to reclaim their former glory, including Lanvin, Féraud, Jacques Fath, Guy Laroche, Kenzo, Claude Montana, Scherrer, Grès, Balmain, Paco Rabanne and Givenchy, the latter of which is staking out Versace-esque style territory under designer Julien Macdonald after Alexander McQueen failed to ignite a revival. Italian labels have carried on after the death or retirement of their founders as well, like Moschino, Ferragamo, Trussardi, Versace, Gucci and Cerruti.
“Anything can come back,” said Michael Kors, who also designs Céline in Paris. “If you weren’t 25 in 1965, you never wore Courrèges, so for a whole generation of people, a label is brand new. And this isn’t going to slow up, because the world is just getting faster.”
In the case of Bill Blass, Nilsson has won critical praise from customers and retailers for working well within the spirit of the late designer, while also showing some elements of his own design interests, a difficult combination that did not come so easily to his predecessor.
“The idea when we started was to continue in the spirit of what Mr. Blass created,” Nilsson said. “We have a very strong customer base that we want to keep, so our strategy has been very different than Dior, for instance, where they wanted to change the house by 360 degrees. Here I am trying to adapt myself to Mr. Blass’ vision. Even though I’m somebody else, I can take elements, colors and spirits — what I find interesting from his past.”
Maintaining that roster of clients, however, is a particular challenge for Nilsson. Blass cultivated women with his special mix of personal charm and jazzy designs, which, as the younger designer readily acknowledged, can’t be replicated. In that sense, the collection is starting from scratch, despite its long history. But the brand awareness of the Blass name comes with other benefits, such as a strong potential for licenses like eyewear and accessories. That awareness only continues to build with the coverage of Blass’ death, plus two subsequent books and a museum exhibit about the designer.
Because of the strength of the Blass image and the company behind it, most retailers feel its odds for success are strong, but there are other continuations of brands like Givenchy and Jil Sander — cases where the original designer is still alive but not working with the firm — that are more frequently derided within the industry. Then again, there’s the school of thought that argues no matter how wrecked a label becomes, it could carry on into perpetuity, as customers are more likely to remember the original name than its subsequent incarnations.
Nonetheless, certain conditions have to be met for a brand revival to flourish.
“A brand could go on indefinitely,” said Michael Groveman, chief executive officer of Blass. “But the thing is, it has to be done correctly.”
Robert Burke Jr., senior vice president and fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, identified a number of factors that play into the ultimate retail success of such relaunches, such as how much a name has been damaged by licensing, the strength of its backers and the length of time the label has been absent from the market.
“Certain labels can have great second and third lives,” Burke said. “It’s a case-by-case basis. Five years ago, no one would have touched Burberry and we hadn’t carried Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche for eight or nine years, and look at them now. It’s more about the content of the merchandise, and if the house has an overall strategy on how to relaunch the brand. Anything can become known to the public if it’s marketed correctly.”
Such strategies are clearly on the minds of other designers who are forging ahead with an established brand. Donatella Versace places the company’s priorities of brand control, vertical integration, the repurchasing of franchises, infrastructure investment and controlling its own distribution on an equal level with her creativity.
“My brother Gianni was a genius and everything I know I have learned from him,” she said. “In the five years since his death, fashion has changed so much: big companies have merged, the supermodel thing is over. I had to find a new way to keep up with the times. In the beginning, my style was confused and I experimented a lot. But I don’t regret any of it, because everything I did helped the current collection to be what it is now.”
James Ammeen, chairman and chief executive officer of Halston LLC, said that despite the economic upheaval in the U.S. and the number of designers who have come and gone at the brand since it was relaunched in 1997 — Randolph Duke, Kevan Hall and Craig Natiello — the company has grown progressively stronger and learned from its mistakes. Halston is forgoing a runway show this season and will present its collection by Piyawat Pattanapuckdee in showroom appointments. And while the designer tribulations at Halston have concerned some retailers and been cause for lots of editorial carping, Ammeen feels that the name remains untarnished.
“People are sometimes too focused on industry talk, but at the consumer level, Halston’s name makes such an impact that it has endured the test of time, more so than any other American designer,” he said. “There was only one Babe Ruth — every time there’s a baseball analogy, it’s to the Sultan of Swat or the Great Bambino. When people look at basketball, Michael Jordan will stand 12 feet tall. And in fashion, there was only one Halston.”
There are other great American names, of course, like Rudi Gernreich, Claire McCardell and even Pauline Trigère, that haven’t been tapped for a fashion resurrection. Though as absurd as it might sound today, it’s not out of the question for any of them to come back in the coming decades.
“What about Norell or Mainbocher or Galanos?” asked Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, which began carrying vintage French couture last week in its Manhattan flagship from Didier Ludot. “If you really start to think about it, there are so many great brands, but it all depends on the formula. There has to be that magic. Balenciaga was dormant for so long, and its success today tells us you can come back at anytime if you have the right ingredients.”
Of all the brands that require a score card to keep track of, Anne Klein probably has the longest roster of past designers, including Donna Karan, Louis Dell’Olio, Richard Tyler, Patrick Robinson, Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco and now Charles Nolan at the helm of its latest relaunch. Nolan seems to have the right formula for bringing the brand back, but it’s a delicate task to recapture her once-novel sportswear concept and interpret that feeling for today.
“The only way to be successful in continuing a label is to truly understand why the label resonated with the customer and why it was valuable,” Nolan said. “If it’s done right, it can go on forever. Chanel is just as relevant now as it’s ever been, and Karl Lagerfeld has designed things that would make Coco roll over in her grave. But that’s the magic of it. He’s put his stamp on it and made it relevant again.”
Perry Ellis is also returning to the women’s sportswear market with a license with Public Clothing Co., following the termination of a deal with the Goodman group, a division of Kellwood Co., last year. Because of the recognition factor of the label and its continued presence in men’s wear, its executives feel the brand stands a good chance of cultivating a strong women’s business.
“If you treat a brand respectfully, the customer will as well,” said Elissa Bromer, president of Perry Ellis women’s wear. “You have to do the work and not look for that shortcut. You can’t just say, ‘I have a brand now, so it will sell better.’ Today’s consumer is faster and smarter and she’s not waiting for us. We have to make sure we are product driven at every level of our strategy.”
Elements like Ellis’ knits and shoulder pleats are being reinterpreted in new yarns and lighter fabrics in the collection to promote that image of consistency, added Liz Tippens, executive vice president of Public Clothing. But to a large degree, while consumers remember the brand name, not as many people remember exactly what defined Perry Ellis’ original style, much less the later collections of Marc Jacobs that ended in 1993, following his less-than-well-received grunge collection.
“I don’t even remember 1993,” Tippens said. “In reality, some customers would remember, but hopefully they would associate Perry Ellis with having helped launch Marc Jacobs’ career. I would hope that Perry Ellis becomes a hub for young designers. The key is not to inhibit design, but to cultivate it.”