Dressing Catherine Middleton for the royal wedding has catapulted the house of Alexander McQueen from niche designer business into household name, giving management the delicate task of balancing its exclusive reputation with the wider commercial potential now within its grasp.
That’s how industry observers and retailers reacted to Friday’s fashion coup, which also marked a dramatic trajectory for a label once synonymous with ragtag rebellion — and one whose future seemed tenuous a year ago in the wake of the suicide of its incendiary founder.
This story first appeared in the May 2, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It will have a phenomenal impact in terms of brand awareness. The brand is still a niche brand, and this exposure will definitely bring a wider clientele,” said Ralph Toledano, the former Chloé executive who now operates a Paris-based consulting business, RT Management.
Still, Toledano said the feat of dressing Middleton, now known as the Duchess of Cambridge, should not be trumpeted too loudly. “This assignment is an honor for the designer, a fantastic tribute to the legacy of Lee Alexander McQueen. I think it should be considered as that, and not become a marketing tool,” he said.
Lucian James, creative director and founder of Paris-based strategic consultancy Agenda Inc., said the royal milestone transforms McQueen “into a true fashion house with guaranteed legacy, rather than a brand in transition centered around the original designer.”
It also “tames the edginess of the brand, raising it to a new endorsement by A-list consumers,” James said, highlighting that infamous McQueen story that, while working at Anderson & Sheppard in London, he incorporated an expletive into the lining of a jacket for the Prince of Wales.
“This moment tips the brand back to the focus on technique and on the Savile Row origins of Lee Alexander,” he said. “Meanwhile, you have to wonder whether Sarah Burton has received any calls from Bernard Arnault.”
John Guy, a retail and luxury goods analyst for The Royal Bank of Scotland, said, “Obviously, for the PPR Group this is very positive,” noting how “Other Brand” sales of which Alexander McQueen is a key sales contributor, increased first-quarter sales year-over-year by more than 20 percent to 165 million euros, or $244 million at current exchange. (Also in PPR’s “Other Brand” category are Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, Boucheron and Sergio Rossi.)
Given how well-received Middleton’s wedding dress has been and how the Burberry Prorsum trench she wore for her first post-engagement appearance sold out, Guy said, “This bodes extremely well for the McQueen business.”
While the Alexander McQueen business is significantly smaller than PPR’s Gucci, it has been a strong performer sales-wise. Further growth for this more niche label would most likely stem from opening boutiques and concept shops rather than rolling out wholesale, Guy said.
But whether it was a casual enquiry about the dress or a friendly probe about what it might mean for sales, staff at the Alexander McQueen boutique on Bond Street in London were studiously tight-lipped on the subject of the wedding on Friday afternoon following the ceremony. Temporary staff with no history at the company were working at the store for the day to help maintain the silence. In addition, one enormous security guard was positioned at the entrance to the store to fend off giant groups of tourists posing for photos.
Betsy Pearce, a Paris-based legal adviser who represented McQueen in 2000 when he sold a majority stake in his London-based house to Gucci Group, today PPR’s luxury division, marveled at the transformation of McQueen, which went from something “feral” and “deeply antiauthority” through a slow “domestication” under the umbrella of a corporate behemoth to the brand’s “coronation” last week before the eyes of the world.
“It’s the quintessential rags-to-riches story,” Pearce said. “My concern is that it’s easy to take advantage of and cash in on it. With any brand, there’s only so much time at the pinnacle.”
Pearce noted the dressing coup is a tribute to Sarah Burton, and, “I have to imagine there’s a mutual understanding of two young women thrown into a situation they didn’t expect, with enormous media scrutiny.”
In this instance, the media attention on the big day will pay off, many observers said.
“The amount of media impressions through TV, Twitter and blogs will catapult the Alexander McQueen name to familiarity it never had,” said Kim Vernon, president and ceo of Vernon Co. “Whether it translates to more perfume sales or made-to-order dresses, it is nothing but positive.”
This could include more opportunities for licensing, said Robert Burke, president and chief executive officer of Robert Burke Associates in New York. “This is a new chapter for his fragrance,” Burke said. “The objective will be to maintain the high fashion image and also be commercial.”
Burke was alluding to the late designer’s dismal foray into fragrance in 2003 and 2005 with the scents Kingdom and My Queen. When L’Oréal acquired YSL Beauté for 1.15 billion euros in 2008 from PPR, the fragrance brand was not part of the transaction and the McQueen license is now thought to be dormant.
Still, the fact that McQueen remains part of a large corporate group puts the company in a strong position to capitalize on the publicity windfall, according to Burke.
He also highlighted the already international reach of the McQueen franchise, unlike the “small, British designers” the royal family has favored in the past.
“One couldn’t have scripted it better,” Burke remarked, noting the hubbub around the wedding dress will surely dovetail with an exhibition dedicated to Alexander McQueen opening this week at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The events will also surely catapult the profile of Burton, the current creative director at McQueen, who is already on the radar of luxury titan Arnault as he hunts for a successor to John Galliano at Christian Dior and wields one of the biggest checkbooks in the industry.
Sources said Burton seems open to discussions about working for another big brand, but PPR would likely shore up more resources to keep her ensconced at McQueen. Burton has spent her entire career at the elbow of the acclaimed British designer, the son of a taxicab driver whose seminal and controversial Highland Rape collection of 1995 ignited his career, ultimately landing him, at age 27, as couturier at Givenchy, a role he kept for five years.
Armando Branchini, deputy chairman of Milan consultancy InterCorporate, characterized the bridal credit as an “assist” to the brand that would have a “very positive” influence on the business: “It won’t increase its sales tenfold — and it would be a mistake to change its niche quality — but it will increase its allure and appeal.”
The McQueen business has weathered some rocky years, and in 2004, then Gucci Group ceo Robert Polet set a 2007 break-even deadline, which the company met ahead of time. The founder’s suicide also raised questions, given his renowned cutting skill, imagination and flare for showmanship.
“If there was any doubt about the future of the brand following Alexander McQueen’s death, then that has been completely banished,” said George Wallace, ceo of consultancy MHE Retail. Asked whether this was the moment to expand with brand extensions, he said: “The brand can now reach a wider audience, with fragrance and accessories lines. But they would need to be managed carefully.”
Retailers said they expect an immediate bump to the business. And Saks Fifth Avenue could be first in line. Fortuitously, the company had already lined up Burton for a trunk show appearance Tuesday at its Fifth Avenue flagship. The private meet-and-greet will be her first official in-store appearance since McQueen’s death. Per agreement with the house, Saks executives declined to comment Friday about the event and the retailer’s plans for the business.
“This is a dream come true for a brand,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president of Nordstrom. “I do think the business will go through the roof.”
Prior to the wedding, Nordstrom had already been exploring ways to build on the McQueen business, which has been “really strong” for ready-to-wear, as well as shoes and accessories, he said. “If you take a brand that is already successful and it gets that level of worldwide exposure, it will have a tremendous impact on the business,” Kalinsky said.
“The wedding will have a big impact on the McQueen business,” said Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s.
On Friday, Barbara Atkin, vice president, fashion direction at Canada’s Holt Renfrew, said the store was already receiving calls enquiring about Sarah Burton’s collection for McQueen. “I do not believe that customers outside the fashion world were even aware of Sarah Burton prior to this wedding,” Atkin said. She said McQueen has been performing “extremely well since Sarah has taken over the brand. We are repeating styles and seeing double-digit results exceeding our plans with this collection. We are opening more doors in our chain. We actually wrote the gown that [Middleton’s sister] Pippa was wearing and we expect to get lots of enquiries on that stunning ‘Pippa’ gown.”
Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford, said her McQueen business was on an upswing before the wedding. “However, for our market, I don’t believe [the wedding] will have significant impact just because of the dress. The significant impact and success has always been its strong design regardless.”
Averyl Oates, chief buying director at Harvey Nichols, said the wedding pumped up British pride. “This will have a spectacularly immediate impact on both the industry, and sales for the brand,” Oates said. “Alexander McQueen has long proved itself a popular brand with our customers, but hopefully this will now extend its visibility across the world, and what better platform than to be adorning the future Queen of England.”
“The brand is in much demand today and its desirability continues to grow,” said Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods. “There is always a demand for exquisite couture and I’m sure the house has a great future. There is a new McQueen flagship going in store for spring 2012, which we are all tremendously excited about.”
Caroline Burstein, creative director of Browns and director of Browns Bride in London, said Burton is now fully out of the shadows.
“I have always known that Sarah was the backbone of the McQueen brand. He brought what he brought to the brand, but it was Sarah who underpinned it. She has an amazing attention to detail, and always kept a balance at the brand — she wouldn’t let it go too far,” she said.
Burstein said when she launched Browns Bride in 2004, she brought in rtw pieces from McQueen. “There was always a sense of occasion about them. They were just beautiful,” she said.
Burstein added that the royal wedding dress would give a bump to an already healthy brand. “The McQueen label stayed strong. His death did not affect sales at the label because the clothes are good. They are what women with style like to wear — and not just skinny women. They work on real women.”