MCQUEEN’S NEW DEAL
Byline: James Fallon
LONDON — Alexander McQueen is off to bigger pastures thanks to his new relationship with Gucci NV.
The designer Thursday finally completed the sale of 51 percent of his company to Gucci. In an exclusive interview with WWD, McQueen revealed plans to show his collection elsewhere than London next season and to launch a couture collection in January 2002. McQueen’s plan is to use Gucci’s financial, marketing and manufacturing muscle to build his company into a major brand worldwide.
“We closed all the contracts today and the money is in the bank — literally,” a jubilant McQueen said in an interview the day after his runway show.
“Now I guess I have to start working even harder,” laughed the designer, who continues to own the remaining 49 percent of his company and now has the title of creative director.
McQueen declined to reveal how much Gucci paid for the stake in his company. Industry executives have in recent weeks estimated that Gucci was paying McQueen $5.5 million for the shareholding and another $2.5 million a year for the next three years. Told of the estimates, McQueen simply said, “It’s a bit more than that actually.”
But McQueen has no plans to loll on a beach. Instead, he’s busy plotting how to turn his label into the equivalent of a Gucci or Prada. The designer’s controversial shows and pronouncements have obscured the fact that he’s always been as interested in the business side of fashion as he is in design. Ever since his first show in 1992 he’s been eager to sell clothes and build a major business.
The backing of Gucci will make the process much easier. It’s also one of the reasons he plans to show in Paris or Milan starting with next season. McQueen — who won the title of British Designer of the Year for the third time on Tuesday — indicated that to be a global player you have to go to the biggest playgrounds. It’s difficult in London to attract the media and buyer attention needed to build a worldwide brand.
“I held myself back a bit in the show this season because probably with me in the past I’ve given too many ideas,” McQueen said. “I don’t want to show too much too soon because things will change with Gucci and my attitude toward design will change. But you can’t change in London now because no one is here.
“It’s hard to build a major business here,” added McQueen, who last week criticized the British government for its failure to financially support the fashion industry. “Prada and Gucci have a major manufacturing and marketing infrastructure in Italy that they can use. But in London it’s hard because there isn’t that backup.
“My company will stay here and I will stay here because I’m from London and I need London for my designing. But I’ll show in either Paris or Milan from next season — probably Milan.”
That’s for his women’s ready-to-wear. McQueen also has plans to launch his own couture line and will begin designing his first collection in November to show in January. Despite all his problems at Givenchy, McQueen greatly enjoyed his time doing the couture and learning its techniques. He wants to continue that education and clearly believes the buzz from designing a couture line will help build his label.
“I love the couture and have quite a lot of clients in Givenchy,” he said. “There’s even an ambassador in America who might move ranks.”
He declined to name the executive who might move to oversee the new McQueen Couture house. The designer hasn’t decided where he’ll show his couture collection but said it probably will be in Paris. He doesn’t expect other French designers or the Chambre Syndicale to welcome him with open arms, though.
“But that’s okay,” he laughed, “I always like a fight. I won’t be doing 50 outfits and won’t follow the Chambre Syndicale rules. It will be McQueen’s version of couture. I might even hold my show at the same time as Dior and see who pulls more weight!”
Much of his experience under LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton clearly rankles and McQueen takes his fair share of potshots at the empire of Bernard Arnault.
Even his show on Tuesday, which was titled “What a Merry-Go-Round,” was in part inspired by his time at LVMH.
“Even the invite was in the colors of the French flag,” McQueen said, laughing. “But doing this collection was confusing because of all the turmoil that was going on. When I design, whatever is happening in my personal life comes out in my work.”
McQueen said the collection was a look back to being a child, “when adults boss you around and say you can’t do this and you can’t do that — and you immediately want to do something different. It also was this idea of childhood innocence but not really being innocent. It’s like a clown. Clowns are supposed to be funny but they’re really not. They’re ugly, scary-looking things. It’s a man behind a mask.”
The childhood and clown concepts came first to McQueen, who then expanded them to cover war and destruction. He compared the show to noir films like “Nosferatu” or fairy-tale stories like “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang.” “Although films like that are for children there are always sinister undertones.”
Despite the Freudian overtones of his latest collection, McQueen declines to be specific about the reasons for his dislike of LVMH. He had a love-hate relationship with the group even before he signed on to design for Givenchy in 1996. He initially was reluctant to take on the role, publicly questioning whether he would simply end up as a cog in a huge fashion wheel. Unlike John Galliano, Marc Jacobs or Michael Kors, the designer insisted on keeping his own company independent from LVMH despite its eagerness early on to acquire it.
Last September, McQueen complained in an interview that he’d never been given the overall creative responsibility at Givenchy that Galliano has at Dior, which he believed was one of the reasons for Givenchy’s continuing struggles. At the time, he expected to assume more control over Givenchy’s advertising and the image of its shops and expressed eagerness to continue at the house, at least until his contract expired in October 2001. Clearly over the following months something occurred to radically change his attitude and, in early December, Gucci announced plans to buy 51 percent of McQueen.
“This is the most amazing opportunity anyone could have,” McQueen said Thursday in his first public comments on the deal. “The foundation is there because my name is known but now to have the mass organization behind you to build it up is incredible.”
Is he nervous about working for another group? “Nervous? No way. I’ve been through hell and back in the last few months and nothing can be worse than that. This is fantastic.
“One group is firmly fixed on fashion with a grounding in design and a real manufacturing base behind it. The other one isn’t and is more interested in investing in the Internet or makeup companies. That’s the difference.”
McQueen, always a fast learner, is clearly wasting no time in picking up tips on brand management from Gucci chief executive Domenico De Sole and creative director Tom Ford. His fall collection uses more luxurious fabrics than ever. He also discusses plans to slow down the McQueen ideas factory in order to consolidate the image of his brand. He believes the fall collection is the first step in that direction.
“This is a consolidating collection, the calm before the storm,” McQueen said. “As collections go it will be a good seller, but there are a few avant-garde cuts like the dress that wraps the whole way round the body.
“What I’ve realized is that I need to fine-tune a lot of the ideas I’ve had in the past and capitalize more on them. This is a good time to hold back a bit, especially if you’re building a company throughout the world.”
The designer plans in the collections ahead to better balance the classic elements of his label with the new ones. McQueen has stirred up women’s wear with such innovations as the “bumster” pant and sharp-edged tailoring, but in many cases it’s been others who’ve made these ideas commercial.
“I want to look back through my collections now and pick out those elements that can really be pushed as uniquely McQueen. God knows how many years I’ve come up with new ideas and now I want to get those pieces exactly right — the shape of a suit or a shoulder line. I want to make them mine.”
McQueen also plans to expand more into accessories, which currently represent only a small proportion of his estimated sales of $10 million a year. His largest accessories category is currently eyewear; he launched a global eyewear line in July 2000 under a license with Murai of Japan. He also has licensed collections in Japan with Onward Kashiyama for leathergoods, watches, men’s ties, scarves, handkerchiefs and umbrellas.
“There is still so much potential in accessories for McQueen,” he said. “But we also can do a lot more in women’s wear and our men’s wear is just developing. We plan to rethink and redevelop everything.”
McQueen suddenly paused in mid-flow, then laughed again. “God, I’ve gone all businessman now, haven’t I?”