Equality. Even at its apex, it was a myth. The equality of American fashion with its European counterparts, that is. The recent sale of Donna Karan International by LVMH to G-III Apparel Group symbolizes the inability of American fashion as an entity to attain parity with its older, more storied European brethren, particularly at the luxury level. Whether Raf Simons’ long-awaited arrival at Calvin Klein, confirmed on Tuesday, can stifle that perception remains to be seen.
Both events, along with Peter Copping’s abrupt departure from Oscar de la Renta two weeks ago, come at a time of, if not disarray, then major reevaluation among purveyors of American luxury. That DKI no longer has a designer-level presence after LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s suspension of the founder’s signature label speaks to the tumult. The triptych will make for an unusual spring collections season, as three of the great names of American fashion will show under strange circumstances.
PVH’s decision to show Calvin Klein in a presentation is particularly odd. The future of the brand started anew on Tuesday: why muddy the editorial message with a one-season team effort?
DKNY’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne may feel in a precarious position as they work on the collection. G-III has not yet defined their future with the brand beyond the transition, (nor, for that matter, that of chief executive officer Caroline Brown).
Oscar de la Renta will stage a runway show at the Morgan Library, like Calvin, a designer-less entrée on the schedule.
What’s going on? Luxury in general is challenged as brands deal with declining consumer interest, too much competition for consumer attention from within and outside the industry and the issue of relevancy in the face of our increasingly casual lifestyle. In addition, there has been a gradual but clear shift in global perception, back to the days when American designers were looked upon as also-rans by Europeans. After the G-III sale, Marc Jacobs and Edun are now the last of LVMH’s U.S.-based fashion holdings. While Kering owns a minority share of the still-nascent Altuzarra brand, last year, it couldn’t part ways fast enough with Alexander Wang at Balenciaga. And it’s not just the European money guys. While he’s social media magic in the U.S. and Asia, Wang’s American cool factor didn’t translate to meaningful buzz in Paris, even in a vacuum, let alone compared with that of his successor, Demna Gvasalia.
Many U.S. houses are engaged in essential self-study, a sea change starting at the top. In November, Stefan Larsson took over as ceo of Ralph Lauren, by any quantifiable measure, the most successful company in the history of American fashion and one of the most successful in the world. His “Way Forward” plan, revealed in June, includes reassessing current retail, speeding the supply chain and about 1,000 layoffs — all moves driven by a stagnant stock price and Larsson’s vaguely articulated assessment that the company has strayed from its core. While his promotion of Valerie Hermann — with the company since 2014 — to global brand president for luxury, women’s collections and accessories, suggests a shoring up of the vast empire’s luxury end, his new hires have swung decidedly populist: Fredrik Hjalmers, corporate senior vice president of global expansion and business development, hails from H&M, where Larsson also worked; Jeffrey Kuster, group president for the Americas, was most recently at HSN, and Bill Campbell, corporate senior vice president of global supply chain, joined from Amazon. Furthermore, the decision to switch the spring fashion show from 10 a.m. on the final day of the New York season to 8:30 the night before seems like a deliberate play for “cool crowd” attention, and antithetical to Lauren’s long-held adherence to refinement over frenzy.
Despite Francisco Costa’s impressive runway work, Calvin Klein long ago diverted focus from the luxury business years ago in favor of a commodity-driven ethos. It’s one with which the new owner of the Donna Karan and DKNY brands is well familiar; G-III produces Calvin Klein’s dresses, sportswear and performance. One assumes from Simons’ hire his expansive range of responsibilities and his reported contract of up to $20 million, that PVH has recommitted to developing the brand’s long-dormant designer business. Marshaling Simons’ creative clout is but one step in what could prove a challenging process for a brand that does a gangbusters business in good-looking cheap clothes. Just because an editorial credit reads “Calvin Klein Collection” rather than “Calvin Klein” doesn’t mean the difference registers with consumers. And unlike the contemporary arena that has some consumer crossover with luxury, the consumers for $150 dresses and those for luxury fashion are completely separate — which could prove an advantage. Either way, if Simons opens big with an Alessandro Michele-like splash, it may not matter. But Michele’s exquisite clothes are the Gucci bait, and accessories — both standard fare and fashion — the bulk of the business.
As for Oscar, that company is now a brand with no designer and no core accessories business to speak of, one built on the highly personal connection its devoted clientele felt with its beloved founder. Copping seemed like a near-perfect choice to succeed de la Renta. Obviously, it didn’t work. Where does ceo Alex Bolen take the company now?
A limited roster makes up the rest of New York’s luxury component. Sans fanfare, Carolina Herrera has emerged as the standard bearer of American tony chic, her businesses thriving on the strength of the fragrances and CH line. Michael Kors is a phenomenon, and his blockbuster IPO an inspiration to every aspiring designer. Jacobs remains steadfast in his belief in the power of pure creativity. The restructuring of his business under ceo Sebastian Suhl is ongoing, with Bernard Arnault’s declared desire for an IPO a work in progress. After the DKI sale, Arnault put speculation to rest when he said the Jacobs business is not on the block. Another dedicated creative showman: Thom Browne.
Narciso Rodriguez has done some of his best work in recent years; ditto Derek Lam. Vera Wang is bravely experimental. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez create beautiful work in the face of rumored challenges to their Proenza Schouler business, while Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy adhere to their offbeat artfulness as they struggle with commercial viability. Joseph Altuzarra and Jason Wu play to different sophisticated customer bases.
Individually, some of these designers are capable of those rare moments of fashion awe. In aggregate, they can deliver impressive high-end fashion. But it’s not resonating with the power it once had, and the proverbial fashion conversation more often than not bypasses New York. After years of endless marketing and promotion, American fashion is flailing in terms of prestige. At least, that’s one way to look at it. Another is that American fashion may be returning to its roots as the wellspring of commodity chic. Whom did everyone talk about last season? Jacobs’ stunning show was an outlier. Otherwise, it was all about Kanye West and Rihanna, two glossy, nondesigner marketers who get the value of tricked-out staging and how to work (work, work, work, work, work) a sweatshirt to maximum effect.