HELMUT LANG MAY BE THE NEXT DESIGNER IN LAUDER’S STABLE
Byline: Sarah Raper
PARIS — The Estee Lauder Cos. is reportedly negotiating a deal with designer Helmut Lang that would involve fragrance and a possible investment in his fashion company.
According to industry sources, the negotiations are being conducted by Herbert Frommen, president of Palladio Fragrances International of Wiesbaden, Germany. Palladio was set up as a joint venture last year between the Lauder group and Frommen, the highly regarded former president of Lancaster who masterminded the 1988 blockbuster Davidoff Cool Water and who also built fragrance businesses for Wolfgang Joop and Jil Sander.
Palladio’s mission is to develop fragrance licenses in Europe. Its first project — a scent for the upscale Italian men’s label Kiton — got under way in September.
Frommen did not return several phone calls seeking comment, but an associate denied there were any talks with Lang.
Lang, reached at his atelier in Vienna, where he is preparing the ready-to-wear collection he will show in Paris on March 14, said, “Right now, this collection is my priority.”
In New York, a Lauder spokeswoman said the company “does not comment on rumors.”
Lang, 40, is part — and perhaps the leader — of a generation of European designers on the verge of turning critical acclaim into commercial success. Last summer, he signed a license with Italian partner GTR Group SpA to develop jeans lines for men and women. GTR is projecting sales at $194 million (300 billion lire) in the first five years and seeking 600 to 700 retailers worldwide.
This season, multiple-page ads for the jeans in leading fashion publications mark Lang’s first large-scale ad campaign.
A fragrance would seem a logical next step.
Named International Designer of the Year at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards dinner on Feb. 3, Lang enjoys an almost cult-like following for his modern take on minimalism. Fans of his men’s and women’s lines laud his impeccable peacoats and three-quarter-length coats as well as his pieces in high tech fabrics.
Few garments by new designers were as widely photographed as the rubber-and-lace dress he designed for winter 1994. And signature details — such as ribbed wool sweaters with elbow slashes and the layering of brightly colored sheer fabrics — have turned up on runways around the world.
Among Paris pundits, there is no shortage of arguments for why a Lauder-Lang pairing makes sense.
In recent years, Lauder has aggressively sought outside relationships, including a licensing deal with Tommy Hilfiger, a joint venture for international distribution with MAC Cosmetics and a buyout of the Bobbi Brown makeup and skin care brand.
There have also been persistent reports of a fragrance deal with Prada, and while executives at Lang confirm they have signed with a publicly traded company and plan to launch a scent by the end of the year, they won’t say with whom. At Lauder, which went public in 1995, there’s been a standing “no comment” on the matter since August.
Grand strategies aside, Lang has an enthusiastic supporter in 26-year-old Aerin Lauder, the granddaughter of Estee Lauder and the director of creative product development for the U.S. and Canada. Catch her during the ready-to-wear shows here and ask her what she thinks is interesting. Her short list invariably includes “Helmut.”
Meanwhile, among younger designers looking to break into the fragrance business, there’s a real trend toward new formulas that replace the traditional licensing agreements with cosmetics giants. These deals give designers more of a voice in product development and sometimes involve an equity swap with the designer’s fashion business.
Some European observers suggested that Clarins’s arrangement with Thierry Mugler, in which Clarins took a stake in Mugler’s fashion house and together set up a third company to develop fragrances, might be a model for Lang.
The cosmetics companies that have innovated in terms of fragrance licensing also tend to have a long-term view where they focus on steady market-share growth over several years rather than a six-month bang that fizzles.
That approach is in line with the way Lang has slowly but surely built his fashion business in the decade since he presented his first collection in a Viennese exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1986. Finally, the fact that Frommen is German speaking and has a strong track record in building German brands makes him an attractive partner and conseiller for the Austrian designer.
Since leaving Lancaster in 1993, Frommen has been general manager of the Joop fashion business, in which he and the designer each own a 50 percent stake. However, their relationship has recently soured because of Joop’s complaints that the venture with Lauder represents a conflict of interest for Frommen.