PARIS — Chandelier Creative, for the 12th installment of its “Truth-Tellers and Trouble Makers” Chandelier Salon Series on Friday, took over the Salon Pompadour at Le Meurice for a conversation on the theme of “Sleeping Beauties and Iconic Houses.” Topics included how to identify a sleeping beauty as opposed to a dormant dud, and the challenges of reawakening a fashion house in today’s digital world.
Gill Linton, founder of Byronesque, moderated the event, with a panel including designer and historian Olivier Châtenet and JW Anderson’s head of merchandising Olivier Legrand. But expert sleeping-beauties reviver Arnaud de Lummen stole the show. The French entrepreneur successfully revived and relaunched companies including Vionnet, sold to Matteo Marzotto and Gianni Castiglioni in 2006, who then sold the brand to Goga Ashkenazi in 2012; Moynat, sold to Groupe Arnault in 2010; and Paul Poiret, whose trademarks were sold to Shinsegae International in 2015.
But there’s more to come. The next marquee brand revival under de Lummen is likely to be one of two American couture brands: Mainbocher or Charles James, while his Luxembourg-based company Luvanis SA holds a cache of other historic names including storied American footwear brand Herbert Levine and 19th-century Parisian trunk maker Au Départ.
A viable sleeping-beauty fashion house, said de Lummen, is one that has accumulated some “cultural capital” along its existence. “A sleeping beauty that is dormant should still be [admired] by fashion curators, mentioned in all the history books, collected by museums and the subject of museum exhibitions — and it should also be inspiring to contemporary designers,” he said, adding that sleeping-beauty brands mainly belong to an era — in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties — “when the fashion world was not yet an industry.”
“In the past, when a famous designer retired, one time out of two there would be nobody to succeed them whereas today the great houses have backers and conglomerates behind them. A brand like Alexander McQueen in the past would have disappeared,” he said, describing the process of reawakening one, and the acquisition of trademarks, as a “long incubation period that involves many layers.”
“A successful revival of a sleeping beauty is based on a collaboration between a designer and a brand. And since people often aren’t familiar with the history of sleeping beauties, the name of the designer reviving it is very important. Even if the cycles are getting shorter, I think you need to keep one brand associated with one designer for some time.”
Here, de Lummen talks to WWD about his latest projects.
WWD: Tell us about your plans for Mainbocher.
Arnaud de Lummen: That’s probably a brand that I will revive myself, likely [involving] an American designer. One of the interesting things about sleeping-beauty brands is that they inspire designers; you don’t have to sell it. The brand has always been an anomaly to me. It was one of the greatest houses in France in the Thirties, and was in the top five or 10 brands in the U.S. in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. It was the only American couturier apart from Charles James, which had its ups and downs. Mainbocher dressed all the socialites in New York for 30 years. Vogue every three months or so would have a double spread on Mainbocher looks. I find it incredible that it hasn’t had a stronger representation in history. I started discussions with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the City of New York two or three years ago and now the Chicago History Museum is dedicating an exhibition to Mainbocher. It’s always easier when the industry, or a museum, recognizes a great brand from the past.
WWD: Do you work with headhunters to match designers to sleeping-beauty brands?
A.d.L: No, I have my own eye and discuss it with friends and buyers, etc. When we reintroduced Vionnet 10 years ago, it was in collaboration with Barneys New York. They were the exclusive distributor for four seasons.
WWD: Tell us about Au Départ.
A.d.L: Au Départ is the last remaining trunk maker that is of the same standard of Moynat and Goyard in terms of heritage and storytelling. It was founded in 1834 and I’ve collected around 50 trunks so far. The latest piece is a tiny vanity case that belonged to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It has compartments for toiletries and writing materials, and his initials are printed inside. I paid 22,000 euros [about $23,400 at current exchange rates] for it at auction. Au Départ merged with Moynat for the last 10 years of its life and then went to sleep in 1976.
WWD: Do you gather archives for all of the brands that you acquire the rights to?
A.d.L: No, only with the luggage brands because museums don’t collect trunks and they are such a strong part of the story for the future boutiques. It’s part of the experience and a key asset for that kind of brand. For fashion brands, let’s say Vionnet, Charles James or Mainbocher, I’m not entering that race because the museums have it covered. I prefer that the Metropolitan, the Palais Galliera or the Chicago History Museum take care of the pieces, restoring them and keeping them at the right temperature, etc. That’s not my field of expertise.
WWD: How do you choose whether to personally revive a brand or sell it?
A.d.L: There are two scenarios: one is to revive it myself with investors; the other is the one I’ve been favoring for the past five years, to find the right investor/brand reviver. I could have revived Moynat myself, but if I manage to find somebody like Bernard Arnault who falls in love with the brand like I did, of course it will go faster in terms of brand redevelopment. I might have only opened one or two stores, whereas Arnault has opened 12 already in the space of five years. I see my job as being more a conveyer of identifying the best dormant brands available, acquiring the rights, collecting the archives. It’s a question of what is best for the brand. Shinsegae International is expected to make an announcement early next year about what they have put in place for Paul Poiret. When you have billionaires behind and when they have knowledge of your industry, it’s my dream.
WWD: Are you emotionally attached to the brands you revive?
A.d.L: Of course, they’re my babies. I see my work more as being like a movie producer; I’ll be focused 100 or 200 percent on one project at a time but for Moynat or Vionnet I still watch closely what is happening.
WWD: Are you chasing any more sleeping-beauty trademarks?
A.d.L: No, because even if I’m focusing on three for now, I have many more lined up. One is Herbert Levine, which is one of the most iconic American luxury shoe brands. It is the second-most-collected shoe brand by museums around the world. When a museum collects and believes that vintage pieces have an artistic value, it’s a good sign that the brand itself and all that it represents can be equal to a brand like Roger Vivier. If you have a sleeping beauty that is not collected by museums, usually it’s a bad sign.
WWD: And Charles James? Are you looking to place a designer?
A.d.L: It’s something we are discussing; we’re looking at potential associations to revive it, but my goal is not to say, “OK there’s been a major exhibition, we need to rush.” It’s easy to make mistakes….Sleeping beauties never die.