GIVENCHY’S CLEAN SLATE: RESTORING THE ELEGANCE TO A VENERABLE HOUSE
Byline: Miles Socha
PARIS — Julien Macdonald did not invite Hubert de Givenchy to his debut Givenchy couture show, slated to take place here Sunday.
But make no mistake: Although Macdonald has never met Givenchy, who retired in 1995, he hopes his first collection of dark dresses and suits pleases the 74-year-old and does justice to his famous name.
“I’m not inviting him to the first one because I don’t want to offend him in any way,” Macdonald said. “I’m going to send him a look book, a video and a letter. I would love to [establish] a relationship with him, but it’s something that has to be done in the right way.
“I genuinely loved what he did. I think Hubert is a great man and he was a great designer.”
That Macdonald spent time rummaging through the Givenchy archives signals a back-to-its-roots direction for the house, which experienced some turbulent times with the previous designer, Alexander McQueen, whose eclectic collections and enfant terrible ways often seemed at odds with the house’s sophisticated heritage.
In an exclusive interview with WWD, Macdonald and Marianne Tesler, Givenchy chairman and chief executive officer, outlined their new strategy for the fashion house, part of the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton fashion empire. It centers on reclaiming Givenchy’s reputation for women’s wear and a style that epitomizes French elegance and sophistication. The pair intends to bring new vitality to the business with modernized ready-to-wear, accessories and revamped boutiques.
Macdonald, 28, stressed that he plans to bring his own vision and imprint to Givenchy, but he arrives at the 49-year-old house relating to its heritage and signature style. “I loved Audrey Hepburn, as a young boy, because my mother was addicted to old Hollywood movies,” he said in an interview at his office on Avenue Georges V.
Macdonald, clearly feeling the pressure of expectation, declined to give a preview of his first couture collection. But he agreed to pose for a photo with one dress in progress: a figure-hugging black number, composed of intricate bias-cut panels, with a draped neckline and one sheer sleeve sprouting sequins and feathers. He also provided an illustration of a tailored outfit (shown here). Macdonald described the collection as “Victorian dressing interpreted through the eyes of Helmut Newton.”
“The collection is dark,” he said. “It plays with the night more than the day. It’s about light and shadow. It’s a winter collection for a sophisticated woman. It’s dark and natural and not synthetic in any way.
“This is a timeless collection. It doesn’t follow fashion. It just is and that’s what I think the Givenchy woman is. She’s just fashionable. She’s not wearing the latest thing in the world.”
For his signature collection, which he shows in London, Macdonald is known as a consummate showman with his ultrasexy, often skimpy designs. Frequently described as London’s Versace in the fashion press, he is the British starlet’s designer of choice and his barely there dresses are often featured on the front pages of tabloids. But don’t expect any “rhinestone jeans and cowboy hats” at Givenchy.
“I think people will be surprised by what they see. It will be sexy and glamorous, but in a Givenchy style,” Macdonald said. “Everyone will be on pins and needles waiting for that first outfit. And I hope people will say, ‘I didn’t know Julien Macdonald could do that.”‘
“If people think it’s going to be all glitzy and skintight and supersexy, they might be disappointed. I’m not about to reinterpret what I do for my own label. I would never want it to be controversial.”
Macdonald said he hopes to duplicate at Givenchy what Karl Lagerfeld has so deftly accomplished at Chanel. “[Lagerfeld] uses Chanel’s influences and signatures and reinvents them for a modern woman,” he said. “We have the Bettina blouse, the black dresses, the bias cutting. I’m using what we’ve got. Other houses don’t have an archive or heritage.
“I don’t have to go to a tropical island for inspiration,” he said. “I can just go to the archive. I’m not copying; I’m just using what belongs to us.”
Indeed, moving swiftly to reintroduce a historic staple of the house, Givenchy plans to ship a capsule collection of eight evening dresses by Macdonald to stores in October.
Since he was named McQueen’s successor in March, Macdonald has been critical of his predecessor’s approach, insofar as McQueen did not care to utilize the Givenchy archive and was not known to lavish attention on the French house.
In the interview last week, Macdonald changed his tune. “I’ve got to take my hat off and say what a great job he did,” he said. “The physical side of it, producing the goods and working with the people, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.”
But Macdonald stressed that he has no intention of picking up themes introduced by McQueen, who showed collections inspired by basketball, cowgirls and rockabilly. Rather, Macdonald’s goal is to reclaim hallmarks of the house, like tailoring and cocktail dressing — and create new signatures so the house is top-of-mind for items like special-occasion dresses. He has ambitions to dress actresses for the Oscars — mentioning Cameron Diaz as a possible target — and luminaries for important social occasions. Also, “we need the bag of the season, the Givenchy bracelet and perhaps even limited-edition things,” he added. “[Givenchy customers] want an elegance, they want a sophistication. They want an outfit that won’t be hostile to them in any way.”
Macdonald already designed the prespring rtw collection, which buyers will start seeing next week, and he gets started on the spring-summer 2002 runway collection, which he’ll present in October, after taking one day off following couture. He promises a rtw line that will be “energetic and full of life. The couture is the more-refined Givenchy. Ready-to-wear can be more fun, more sexy and sassy.”
At present, Givenchy caters largely to women 35 and up, and that will remain the core customer target. But Macdonald and Tesler said they want to entice younger generations as well, by adding more separates and knitwear to the rtw mix, and by attracting their attention with accessible product categories like footwear and eyewear, which were recently licensed to Rossi Moda and De Rigo, respectively.
“Julien has a real feel for what a woman is and he likes women to look good,” said Tesler. “It’s part of what Givenchy is.”
Tesler, who joined Givenchy from Nike about two years ago, is faced with integrating the aesthetic of yet another designer into her business plan. McQueen had joined Givenchy in 1996 after John Galliano, who initially replaced Givenchy for two seasons, was moved over to Christian Dior. After four years at Givenchy, McQueen resigned and sold 51 percent of his fashion house to LVMH rival Gucci Group.
Since her arrival, Tesler said she has concentrated on clarifying and positioning the brand, which boasts a consumer awareness level in excess of 80 percent in major markets. She eliminated the women’s secondary line, Variations, to focus on the top collection, and eliminated about 50 licenses. Most recently, she brought the licensed Men Givenchy secondary line, back in-house.
McQueen’s vocal discontent at Givenchy — he often lashed out against his employer, the business of fashion and even the city of Paris — and his inconsistent rtw collections disguised the company’s progress. But Tesler said sales and profitability have improved under her watch, with sales growing by double-digits, except in the U.S.
“It’s good, but it’s not enough,” she said of the company’s progress. Improving the brand’s profile in the American market is a key ambition, as is expanding the high-margin accessories category.
When Givenchy tapped Macdonald for the design job, he was granted the title of artistic director for all women’s products, including accessories. His predecessor only had responsibility for couture and rtw.
Tesler said she is fortifying the accessories team and the progress will be evident with the spring 2002 collection. At present, accessories account for about a quarter of Givenchy revenues. Women’s wear, men’s wear and licensing also account for roughly a quarter of revenues each.
Expect accessories to be front and center at the new-look Givenchy boutique in Paris, slated to bow this fall. As reported, the 2,000-square-foot Givenchy boutique at 28 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore is undergoing renovation, with an interior design by India Mahdavi.
Showing off a computer rendering of the completed store, Tesler highlighted features such as a palette of oatmeal colors, box-shaped fixtures in burnished gold, sumptuous fitting rooms and a “couture salon” atmosphere. She described the overall atmosphere as one of “supreme elegance.”
“It’s about going into an environment that’s comfortable and where you feel at ease,” added Macdonald. “We’ll ask the customers if they like it and we’ll go from there. The store is for them as much as it is for us.”
At present, there are about 60 Givenchy boutiques and leased corners in the world, of which 18 are company-owned. Tesler said the goal is to ultimately convert the entire network to the new concept. Additionally, she said Givenchy wishes to establish major flagships in important markets, including, ideally, an Avenue Montaigne location in Paris and new flagships in Tokyo, Milan and London. Givenchy’s Madison Avenue flagship is slated for a renovation and expansion next year.
“For a flagship, I would like to have the men’s, women’s, accessories and some representation of the perfumes,” Tesler said. Another key ambition of Givenchy is to improve its representation in the U.S., which presently accounts for 16 percent of sales. Japan and Europe account for roughly two-thirds of revenues, with Asia, the Mideast and other countries accounting for the rest. Worldwide retail sales of Givenchy are estimated at $1.3 billion.
Macdonald urged patience, but said he has every confidence in the future of the brand.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “I’m going to have to learn. Six weeks ago, I had a different life. I haven’t really even had time to think about it. I just had to do it. You just get on with it.”
And he’s getting on with it with a positive, cooperative attitude. “I’m not coming here with any airs,” he said. “I’m listening to everybody. I mean, people have been here for 20 years. I can listen to them and I can learn.
“Givenchy has huge potential. If it’s handled right, it could be one of the biggest fashion brands. It has this amazing name. Now, we just need the products to match.”