The Top 10 Designers: When The Going Gets Tough

Stalwarts lead the pack.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 07/23/2008
1. Tommy Hilfiger
2. Calvin Klein
3. Ralph Lauren
4. Gucci
6. Giorgio Armani
7. Christian Dior
8. Chanel
9. Vera Wang
10. Louis Vuitton


In recent memory, few times have seemed as challenging — or uncertain — as the current climate.

It’s against this background that established designer brands fare best in the WWD100 survey of most recognized brands. It comes as little surprise that the top three names in the designer top 10 are Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren — three iconic American fashion brands as recognizable to American consumers as, say, Coca-Cola or Disney. And just like the soft drink and the entertainment conglomerate, Tommy, Calvin and Ralph are the names that continue to be on consumer radars, even when all things economy-related appear to be heading south.

Hilfiger moved up one notch into the top position among designers in the WWD100 survey, swapping places with Calvin Klein. While some may raise an eyebrow at the result, especially since Hilfiger’s U.S. business has been in transition in recent years, it can be said that the time for this classic American brand has come again.

In late June, Hilfiger released its financial results for the year ended March 31, and things couldn’t look rosier for a brand that appeared to have lost its luster. The company slimmed down operations and repositioned the collection, upping the design and quality of the merchandise. And according to Fred Gehring, the company’s chief executive offi cer, the strategy has been working, with U.S. growth a particular highlight. “Where we were facing a challenge to really do some things differently was in the States,” Gehring said. “We’ve focused on fewer product divisions…and product of a higher quality at a higher price point. We of course realized there was a risk that the American consumer may not buy Tommy Hilfiger at substantially higher prices than they’ve been used to, but we found that they did.”

Hilfiger’s profile is likely to soar in months to come. This fall, its women’s, men’s and children’s wear will be rolled out to 550 Macy’s units in an exclusive deal. In November, the company will open its doors to a 20,000-square-foot Hilfiger flagship on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. And Tommy Hilfiger himself is venturing into television production. He is producing a one-hour TV version of his book, “Iconic America: A Roller-Coaster Ride Through the Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture,” starring Israeli-born model Bar Rafaeli and one-named poet Rives, on a cross-country tour.


Whether Calvin Klein will make an appearance remains to be seen, but even as the brand Calvin Klein fell from the top spot, it hardly has reason to worry: The Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.-owned brand is healthier than ever. Whether it’s an ad for great-fitting jeans, a pair of sexy underwear or a fresh new scent, Calvin Klein continues to be a marketing machine, and celebrities like Eva Mendes or Kate Bosworth featured in ads or on the red carpet in Calvin Klein Collection underscore the notion.

By the end of this year, Calvin Klein will have more than 500 full-price stores throughout Europe, Asia and South America. That will include 10 megastores devoted to the world of Calvin Klein’s better-priced white label. CKI is also rebuilding its top-tier Collection, which it recently brought back in-house after years of licensing out the production and distribution. It is designed by industry darling Francisco Costa, who was honored with his second Womenswear Designer of the Year award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and whose designs often adorn actresses for their red-carpet moments.

Rising one notch to third place, Ralph Lauren continues to reach more customers than ever. Over the past year, Lauren, through his Global Brand Concepts division, launched the American Living brand at J.C. Penney, in the biggest brand launch in the mainstream retail chain’s history. While there is no outward indication at retail that the brand originates at Polo, the distinct American aesthetic brings Lauren’s vision to a whole new customer.

Lauren’s visibility is set to rise this summer, too: The company is outfitting the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams at the Beijing Olympics. Gucci, which moved down one spot to fourth, may have lost some of the sex appeal of the Tom Ford era, but the brand machine continues to roar. And last February it gave New York, and America at large, the ultimate brand statement bound to preserve the consumer’s recognition for years to come — a splashy 46,000-squarefoot flagship at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

DKNY is the highest new entry at five. While the brand is technically considered bridge, Donna Karan and her design team have transformed the collection with so much fashion that it could almost count as a designer line — and judging by this survey, the consumer clearly views it that way. DKNY has had a strong year at retail, and with the launch of the better-priced DKNYC label this month, its star can only rise.

To many Americans, Giorgio Armani is the incarnation of Italian chic. Steady at six, Armani’s profile has risen in the past few months, particularly among New Yorkers. The company has been a sponsor to the much-feted “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and Armani was the honorary chair at the benefi t with co-chairs George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Anna Wintour.


Soon, Gotham will get a real temple to Armani: He plans to open a 47,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue, boosting brand recognition even further. “This store is an act of faith toward the Americans and Fifth Avenue shoppers because I still very much believe in this market in which I invested a lot,” Armani told WWD this year.

Christian Dior dropped two spots to seven. The company has been stepping on the accelerator in the U.S., presenting its cruise collections in New York. But even though John Galliano is considered a huge talent, and his wild show antics are feted by the fashion industry, it could be the absence of a runaway ‘It’ bag in a few seasons that is dampening recognition. Or it could just be the fickle consumer.

Chanel’s iconic quilted bags continue to be a consumer favorite, as do its tweed jackets, perfumes and cosmetics — no wonder, then, that the French fashion house maintained its eighth-place ranking. Of course, it helps that Karl Lagerfeld himself maintains such a high profile, from his cruise spectacle at the Raleigh Hotel in Miami to his guest gig as a radio DJ on “Grand Theft Auto IV.”


The designer survey rounds out with two new entries — Vera Wang at nine and Louis Vuitton at 10. With a sequence of top runway collections, Wang has successfully managed to make the transition from just a bridal and eveningwear designer to a sportswear queen. And even though it’s not the same market, the Simply Vera Vera Wang collection at Kohl’s has helped spread the name.

From art installations in its stores to special collaborations with the likes of Takashi Murakami, Louis Vuitton continues to generate excitement with consumers. While the bags are the bread and butter of this company, they’re not the only things set to titillate. With Marc Jacobs at the creative helm, the fabled house’s clothing, too, goes from strength to strength. And even if Jacobs chooses to put nurses on his runway as a nod to artist Richard Prince, with whom he staged a collaboration, the survey proves that this brand needs no Rx.