Jaws dropped when Raf Simons was tapped to become chief creative officer of Calvin Klein’s men’s and women’s brands in 2016. They dropped even further when he and the brand parted ways a little over two years later.
Simons’ departure followed a blunt assessment by Emanuel Chirico, chairman and chief executive officer of Calvin Klein’s parent company, PVH Corp., that the designer’s high-end collections for the brand’s 205W39NYC line were not working and needed to be more commercial.
Simons has not been replaced, the halo collection with the numeric name has been shuttered after receiving a $60 million-to-$70 million investment, and the brand is focusing on its lower-priced — and commercially viable — jeans, underwear and main-floor collections, many of which are produced under license by G-III Apparel Corp.
More recently, Perry Ellis designer Michael Maccari also left his position after overseeing the creative direction of that brand since 2013. He, too, has yet to be replaced and the line is being designed by an internal team.
Both of these high-profile departures from well-known brands beg a question: When does a designer label no longer need a designer?
In the case of Perry and Calvin, the creatives who founded the labels have not been associated with the brand for many years. Whether as a result of the designer’s death — in the case of Perry Ellis, who passed away in 1986 — or the sale of the business — in the case of Calvin Klein in 2002 — the fashion industry is rife with examples of brands whose names live on without the involvement of the founding designer.
Some brands have flourished after the founding designer has exited, notably Chanel under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld (although it, too, suffered after its founder’s death and was almost moribund when the German designer arrived at the house). But others have lost their way and are now just a shell of what they once were, with little to no resemblance to what put them at the forefront of fashion in the first place — think Geoffrey Beene or Halston.
Is it the price point alone that determines whether a brand needs a high-profile designer at the helm? Can only luxury labels justify the expense of hiring a high-priced marquee name? Are the rules different when a label becomes commoditized?
Morris Goldfarb, chairman and ceo of G-III, has said Simons “had no impact on our business. We don’t need a replacement.”
Goldfarb’s comments speak volumes. And although he declined to comment further for this story, it’s clear that with the bulk of Calvin Klein’s business coming from retailers such as Macy’s, the bar is set at a different height.
Douglas Hand, of Hand Baldachin Associates, a well-known fashion attorney, said it boils down to answering one basic question: “Do you need this precious creative director and expensive runway show? If you are a company that does the bulk of its revenue with basics, and the price point doesn’t require a halo effort, you don’t need a seven-figure salary or a multithousand-dollar runway show.”
On the other hand, having an upper-tier offering can help the brand — although whether to do it or not often comes down to an issue of dollars and cents. “On a pure revenue basis, it may be a loss leader, but there’s no denying the pixie dust it offers that sprinkles down to the consumer,” Hand said. “But it depends on where it sits on the luxury scale.”
With a “highly designed” line such as Rick Owens, he said, if the designer were to leave, maintaining the aesthetic of the brand would present “some real issues.” But when brands that sport a designer name on the label are sold at department stores and mass merchants, it’s often not worth the investment. “Perry Ellis isn’t viewed as a designer brand, it’s a value proposition,” he said. “It sells affordable suits and ready-to-wear. Few people remember Perry Ellis; the name has become a trademark.”
Many consumers just don’t know or care if the designer is a real person or about his or her history. Hand said that Steve Madden was incarcerated, “but did it hurt his brand? No. Hugo Boss was an active member of the Nazi party in the Thirties. It’s just a name and no one thinks of the individuals, they just think of the ad campaigns — tall, sexy men in remote locations closing deals.”
Jeffrey Banks agrees that it depends on the brand’s positioning on whether or not they need a designer. “But they need someone at the helm who knows the history of the brand. How can you go forward if a brand has any history without knowing that?”
Banks said the “textbook” example is Chanel. After the death of Coco Chanel in 1971, the brand was a “sleepy house without ready-to-wear or couture” for many years, Banks said. But when Lagerfeld was hired to take the helm in 1983, everything changed.
“He understood the code of the brand and built it into a multibillion-dollar powerhouse,” Banks said. And although Lagerfeld, too, has passed away, “what he established as a framework will stand the test of time.” The brand named Virginie Viard, who had worked with Lagerfeld at Chanel for over three decades, to succeed him as artistic director.
“I’m not worried about Chanel,” Banks said. “It will survive.”
With Perry Ellis, Banks said Maccari had “led the brand in a good direction” and was “very eager to know what Perry was like.” But in the case of Calvin Klein, Banks said it’s “very sad there’s no one at the helm to respect what Calvin built and to bring the brand back to the forefront of the designer market. When you look at it now, what does it mean? The best thing they have now is the underwear, and Calvin stood for so much more.”
Ditto for Anne Klein. “That was one of the first great American sportswear companies,” he said. Not only did the designer make her clothes larger to appeal to American women seeking to wear a smaller size, he said, but she also zeroed in on two or three fabrics that she would use consistently, allowing customers to add new pieces each season that would complement what they already had in their closets.
“Women loved that and collected her clothes,” Banks said, adding that a designer who understood “the tenets of the brand could bring it forward.” For a time after Anne Klein’s death in 1974, someone did: Donna Karan, who, with Louis Dell’Olio, designed the collection until Karan left to launch her own brand in 1985.
But it’s probably too late now to bring Anne Klein back as a designer label. Banks said that once a brand is sold primarily or exclusively at mass market retailers or discounters, “they lose their patina. They can still stand for something but it has to be at the same quality level. Anything else will denigrate it.”
Nor does it always come down to price. “It’s not just luxury companies that understand the legacy of a brand,” he said. “It can be inexpensive if it’s got the right design director who understands the brand.” Although not a designer label, he pointed to Levi’s as an example of a brand that has remained true to its hardworking, classic American denim roots.
Banks said it’s also “very sad” what has happened to the Donna Karan label, which is now owned by G-III. “She had an incredibly strong DNA,” he said. “Donna is from New York and it was all about the fast pace of New York. But you don’t see that now. It’s just a logo they slap on a hoodie.”
But not every designer brand is destined for the commodity table. Banks pointed to Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren in particular as two labels that have developed “such a strong aesthetic of design that they will continue long after their designers are gone.
“Ralph is the essential American designer, whether it’s Western or dressage or Native American, and he’s never strayed from that,” Banks continued. “He’s like McDonald’s. You know what you’re going to get whether you’re in Beijing or Boston.”
Tommy Hilfiger agreed that in order for a designer brand to flourish it’s about “keeping a consistent DNA. And designers who are aware and connected to a brand help keep that DNA alive.”
Although he’s no longer sitting in front of a sketchpad, Hilfiger said he’s still intimately involved in his label, sending the design team photos and ideas “every single day” and visiting stores around the world to keep abreast of trends. “In order to stay relevant,” you have to be up on culture, competition and what’s new,” he said. “My contribution to the brand is that I keep the design team abreast of the directions I’m seeing.”
Hilfiger said he admires Ralph Lauren as well since he has done an “incredible job keeping his brand very…Ralph Lauren. He has had such a profound imprint on the brand and it has nobody else’s signature than Ralph’s. But evolving a brand is also important.”
That was one of the talents of Lagerfeld, he said. “When I first met Karl, I asked him what made Chanel special. He said, ‘It’s easy. Go into Coco’s archives and make her great ideas relevant for today.’ I remind my design team of that all the time.”
Hilfiger said when a brand and a designer mesh, “it works,” and pointed to Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli as an example. “He’s spot on,” Hilfiger said. “But when a designer fights the brand, it doesn’t work.”
For Joseph Abboud, who has been on both sides of the table — he sold his brand in 2000 and was not involved for many years before being brought back into the fold by Tailored Brands in 2013 after it purchased the trademarks — there is “never” a time when a designer brand no longer needs a designer.
Abboud may soon be faced with the same conundrum again: Tailored Brands is reportedly shopping his label to a brand marketer and is hoping to license it back for use in its stores. Where Abboud the designer fits into that picture remains to seen.
“Brands need creative leads and creative vision,” Abboud believes. “There was probably no more talented American designer than Perry Ellis. He had a real point of view and stood for less traditional Americana than Ralph. Did the designer of that brand know his DNA? I’ve never seen it captured.”
When Simons was hired to helm Calvin Klein, he injected too much of his own aesthetic into the brand rather than modernizing and evolving it, Abboud said. “A lot of times when a designer comes into a brand, it becomes more about them,” he added. “It’s a real balancing act.”
But with Chanel, it’s a different story. “I actually worked for Chanel doing men’s wear in 1986-88,” he said. “And it was as if Coco was there every day. Karl was a maestro and a magician and he honored her vision. He proved that a brand can live on beyond a designer as long as the designer lives on in spirit.”
But that didn’t happen with Halston, Abboud said. “It just became a label to churn with speed to the bottom.”
He continued: “Brands can’t be all things to all people. If they don’t have great creative leaders, they’ll simply follow the market, not lead it.”
But sometimes, a brand just doesn’t need a high-profile face.
Julie Gilhart, chief development officer of Tomorrow London and a longtime fashion executive with Barneys New York, said: “Nowadays, it’s so much about storytelling and marketing, so to have a face is not 100 percent necessary. What’s more important is how good the product story is and what the brand stands for.”
If a designer fronting a label is vibrant and creative, “it can create energy behind the brand,” and Simons accomplished that with Calvin Klein, she believes, even though it didn’t end well. “He helped make Calvin relevant again, and it’s really all about the attention the brand gets.”
Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman, also believes whether a brand needs a designer is predicated on its market position. “You have to differentiate between merchandise brands and designer collections,” he said. “Tommy Hilfiger is alive and well and very important to driving that brand.” And with Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, in particular, whether they’re still putting together seasonal trend boards is irrelevant because their presence and vision is pervasive throughout the company.
“Tommy has stood the test of time and is passionate about the business. He’s utterly driven and interested in what’s next. He’s behind maintaining the relevance of that brand,” Pask said. “Ralph Lauren is the same — he has a clear brand vision that is absolutely clear and distinct.”
Not every label is fortunate enough to still have the founding designer’s involvement, however.
Pask pointed to Jil Sander as an example of a label that has “had a series of designers” over the years who have managed to keep the founder’s vision alive. “The torch was passed.” And he’s hopeful that the new pair of creatives — Luke and Lucie Meier — “seem to be on track and mindful of the original vision and how to walk that line.”
For Pask, it all comes down to “balance between the brand vision and the artistic intention.”
Even brands that weren’t founded by name designers can benefit from the presence of a gifted creative, Pask believes. Case in point is Vince, which hired Patrik Ervell to head its design efforts. “He is a known designer with a great reputation,” he said. “I don’t think the consumer has any sense he’s there, but you can see his vision. A brand like that benefits from having someone like him.”
Pask said that with all brands, having a vision matters and that doesn’t necessarily mean a household name. “As long as the DNA is clear to the consumer, that’s what’s most important,” he said.
Ermenegildo Zegna, too, hired a name designer, Alessandro Sartori, to inject a sense of fashion into its offering. “He unified the collections — sport, couture, etc. — has one color palette and a distinct brand vision. Alessandro is vital to the brand and that’s important to the industry and the end consumer,” said Pask.
That’s what happened with DKNY as well, he believes, despite the fact that neither Karan nor any high-profile designer is at the creative helm right now. “There was a very clear brand vision when Donna started and you’re still getting that big city, polished vision” under G-III’s ownership.
But not every brand is that lucky. Gary Wassner, ceo of Hilldun Corp. and chairman of Interluxe Holdings, said that with labels such as Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Halston and Rudi Gernreich, after the designer departs “they fall apart. You need someone who understands what it’s about and has a clarity of brand identity.”
Blass and Beene were “brilliant” and commercially successfully, but the companies now overseeing the labels haven’t managed to maintain their integrity and original vision, he said. “Why didn’t they survive like Dior or Givenchy, who have gone through multiple designers but still maintain a thread to the history and have managed to perpetuate and evolve,” he asked. “Geoffrey Beene designed and produced incredible women’s wear, but who remembers that?” Instead, the brand is best known for its main-floor men’s dress shirts at Macy’s. “The label was turned into a commodity,” Wassner said.
Perry Ellis, too, has very little resemblance to what it was under its founding designer. “He was a fantastic designer, but nobody picked up the reins, so it became something it never was when he was alive.”
But at least it still exists, which is more than can be said for once-hot labels such as Stephen Sprouse and Willi Smith who were not able to survive at all after their designers were gone. ‘”After Willi died, it was the end of the brand,” he said.
Wassner believes it’s an issue specific to the American market and its undying quest for profits. “It’s unique to our business structure. You either run out of money or go downmarket to drive sales,” he said. “So you’re forced to dilute the brand without giving them enough of a window to scale. That wouldn’t happen in France — you’ll never see Louis Vuitton at Payless or Balenciaga at Kohl’s.” The big European luxury houses such as LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton and Kering have the support structure in place — and lucrative revenue streams such as fragrance and accessories — to maintain the integrity of their brands.
But the situation is different in America, which is much more concerned with short-term sales, he said. Even so, there are some designer brands that have been successful burning the candle at both ends, including Isaac Mizrahi, Jason Wu and Christian Siriano who manage to juggle couture businesses as well as mass-market offerings. “Christian can sell a $50,000 ballgown and shoes at Payless,” he said. “Isaac can play in the top tier and also sell $180 million on QVC, and Jason can sell magnificent evening wear and also dresses at Kohl’s and Target.”
The vast majority of designers can’t survive just selling luxury merchandise and so they’re forced to seek out more-commercial sources of revenue in order to stay afloat. “Most of the top designers are barely profitable,” Wassner said. “So you’re left with the Macy’s version of designer rather than a stratified strategy. The structure of our economy and our public companies make for a very narrow window. It can be done, but it’s a long process and we don’t have long-term patience in fashion.”