Byline: Katherine Weisman / Contributions from Luisa Zargani

More than any other, the luxury segment hangs on the ability of brands to symbolize affluence, elegance and unimpeachable quality. Hermes, Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Gucci, Armani — these names are music to a marketer’s ears because of their iconic power to draw devotion from consumers with the highest of expectations.
But that power is perishable and vulnerable to sudden erosion. Luxury indeed has its compelling icons, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
That fact makes reinvention a necessary part of the life cycle of a luxury brand — at least a brand that hopes to stand the test of time and change.
The industry has some impressive current examples of brand rejuvenation, prime among them Gucci, the comeback of the decade, having risen from the ashes of long years of decay and bungling management; Chanel, having regained vitality after a long mourning period at the loss of its founding creative force, and Christian Dior, jolted out of mediocrity by the influence of a new design head.
It also has a few once-towering icons ripe for revivification, including Yves Saint Laurent.
The luxe brand revivals reveal a pattern — strong creative and entrepreneurial personalities that step into the breach and take the icon in a new direction. Gucci was rescued by Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, and the pair is now poised to take on YSL. Vuitton tapped Marc Jacobs to develop ready-to-wear and other goods, a bid to add excitement to a venerable, if a bit stuffy, house. And under the creative direction of John Galliano, Dior is striking out after a younger, edgier customer, this season wielding a steamy, girl-sex ad campaign to turn heads.
The trick to it, however, is to set a course for renewal without losing the essence of what made the brand an icon in the first place — to find a crucial balance between a brand’s historic identity and the fresh excitement and credibility needed for today’s luxury consumer.
Just as labels reach the status of icon for different reasons, shoring them up again requires customized solutions.
Armando Branchini, vice president of Milan’s InterCorporate luxury goods consultancy, feels that “when a company loses its luster, in order to be an icon again, it must go back and rediscover its identity values and its image.”
“In the Sixties, we had an image of Yves Saint Laurent that younger people don’t have today. Saint Laurent projects a more confused and dusty image today because of the company’s and designer’s histories, Saint Laurent’s personal health, needs and desires,” Branchini says. “The challenge for Gucci is to go back to the roots of Yves Saint Laurent’s aesthetic values in the Sixties and Seventies and make them modern and contemporary.”
“An icon knows how to keep clients without boring them,” notes Paris-based industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart. “In fact, it’s like a marriage — meant to last forever, but constantly evolving.”
The Dior brand has gone through a series of marriages with partners that included Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre and now Galliano. Under it all, however, has been a unifying thread to Christian Dior’s own vision, observers say.
“Dior had all the ingredients back in 1947,” says Dior Couture president Sidney Toledano. “He was a creator who surprised. He had a sense of marketing, so the brand had strength. He thought about merchandising, packaging and color — the gray. And with licensing, Dior had a global approach from the outset.”
Toledano, who notes that Yves Saint Laurent had the same qualities, says that it was the overexpansion into licenses that contributed to the dilution of power for both these labels. To restore Dior, Toledano and his team slashed licenses and set about to control distribution. The next stage is for designer Galliano to set the creative tone.
Ford and De Sole are pursuing a similar cleansing at YSL, such as moves already taken to buy rtw license maker and distributor Mendes.
“Domenico De Sole and his team have focused on reviewing licenses and distribution,” says Milan-based industry consultant Carlo Pambianco. “It’s fundamental that labels remain recognizable, with their own culture and image. Gucci will freshen up Yves Saint Laurent; Ford will transfer his know-how on Saint Laurent, but Saint Laurent will remain Saint Laurent.”
Not everyone subscribes to this approach, however. Dior’s Toledano emphasizes that a brand in the process of revamping can’t always cling to its history. “What we are holding onto is daring femininity,” he notes. “But John has to go somewhere else, albeit respecting the house’s values.”
Karl Lagerfeld, whom most credit for bringing glory back to Chanel after taking the design reins in 1983, considers this the right prescription for Dior. “There was no other solution than to take the Dior icon in another direction,” he says. “Poor Mr. Dior was only there for 10 years. Galliano’s moves are a good idea.”
Not surprisingly, Lagerfeld is a believer in the efficacy of bringing in new blood to revive an anemic, formerly robust label.
“Coco Chanel was hot, hot, hot,” he recalls. “But Chanel got a little unfashionable, and when she died in 1971, there were 10 years of boredom when the label became one of tradition. Tradition kills. We had to re-create the myth and the excitement.
“What I want is to make people believe that Chanel is about something that perhaps it was never about. To create what people don’t know or could have imagined about the brand.”
Some would say that Chanel is ready for another dose of imagination.
“All brands need maintenance — and often. I think Chanel needs some fine- tuning. Of course, it’s a successful label, but I believe Chanel is doing less well than its competitors in the U.S.,” says InterCorporate’s Branchini. “It needs new art direction [as in] control of brand identity in reference to product and shop concept.”
Louis Vuitton, which has been crafting luggage since 1854, does not suffer from a lack of brand identity. But the company received new energy under the creative direction of American Marc Jacobs, who joined the house in 1997.
“I was brought in not to revive something, but to bring something more, something new,” Jacobs says. “In the beginning, I was so flattered, and I am still honored, but nervous about what to do.”
In Jacobs’s eyes, the Vuitton monogram canvas is an icon in its own right, and one of his first tasks at Vuitton was to dust it off and fast-forward it, with a colorful, glossy version in embossed patent leather. The Monogram Vernis line now accounts for 30 percent of leather goods sales.
Jacobs’s challenge now is to develop goods that look like they belong in the Vuitton portfolio. Ready-to-wear is trickier, since the designer and his team have to come up with something new every six months.
“We are constantly trying to figure out what a Louis Vuitton dress is,” Jacobs says. “We try and make the rtw quite popular, but it has to have iconic appeal.”
Hermes also turned to top fashion talent in 1997, hiring Martin Margiela for its women’s rtw. Observers’ reactions are mixed.
“Martin could certainly be more ‘fashiony.’ Maybe he is just too respectful of Hermes’s heritage,” says one industry player. But others say the strategy is in perfect harmony with what Hermes is all about.
Dior’s Toledano differs. “Hermes doesn’t need to go for change. In this market, there is a place for a brand like this. Among all the companies that are changing, it’s reassuring.” Indeed, some fear that with so many luxury icons in the throes of renaissance, it’s proving harder for new ones to emerge.
“It’s an issue of time. Everyone is in a hurry,” says Picart. “If there was time, we could invent new icons.”
Observes Branchini: “Young designers are called in to relaunch older labels, such as Burberry, and inject new life to existing labels. I don’t see anyone as the new icon of the future.”