Creative director Sacha Walckhoff has dedicated 25 years to Christian Lacroix. “I realized last year, that’s more than Christian,” chuckled the pragmatic designer, seated on a zebra-patterned sofa in the sitting room of his Paris apartment. Surrounded by contemporary artworks, flea market finds and Lacroix homewares he designed, it was obvious how intrinsically linked to the house’s history Walckhoff has been.
In 1992, he was working for Michel Klein as a knitwear designer, a role Lacroix was seeking to fill. “I really didn’t think I would be chosen. I didn’t correspond with the house,” he explained. But chosen he was. “I had a lot of technical baggage and a way of seeing things, and alongside [Lacroix] I learned to see things differently. I’m very rational, I was brought up in Switzerland, so I have a Calvinist education that pays little attention to flourishes, and I arrived somewhere that was the opposite, where the flourishes came first.”
Thus began a close professional relationship that lasted 17 years. Walckhoff briefly parted ways with Lacroix in 2000 after cofounder Jean-Jacques Picard left, going freelance, although he continued to design for the house. “There were lots of management changes, at the time we were under LVMH [Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton] and it was really complicated. LVMH never really understood what the house was about,” he said.
Three years later, Lacroix, recently named artistic director at LVMH stablemate Emilio Pucci and required to spend much of his time in Italy, asked Walckhoff to return to coordinate between himself and his Paris studios. He continued in this role until 2009, four years after the ailing brand was acquired by Florida-based Falic Fashion Group, when Lacroix left after the decision was made to close the house’s fashion activities. Walckhoff was named creative director the following year. “At the time we didn’t know what we were going to do, because there was no more couture, no more ready-to-wear,” he explained.
Rather than close the house down — at the time it was 44 million euros, or $61.4 million at 2009 exchange, in debt — the Falic brothers decided to shutter the fashion business, which was hemorrhaging between 10 million euros and 15 million euros, or $13.9 million and $20.9 million, each year. “The Falics decided we were spending far too much, and Christian wasn’t used to being told ‘no,’” said Walckhoff. “We had luxury tastes at Lacroix, but we didn’t have the means. They were wonderful years, but in retrospect, it was a shame because a lot of money was wasted in a house whose head was undoubtedly a genius. We could have made it profitable if people had talked to Christian sooner.”
Walckhoff and Lacroix no longer speak. “He’s someone for whom I have a lot of affection, but I think he feels slighted. I think he was upset that I stayed on. He thought the house should have closed when he left.”
Today, he describes the house as a “survivor.”
“It should have shut down three or four times, but it’s still here, and the public is really attached to the house,” he said. “I’m really happy today to see how it has evolved; it bears no resemblance to how it was before, but despite everything, it’s profitable today. We are managing to finance our needs and continue paying our debts.” Within the next two years, the house should have finished paying off its creditors, he said.
As to the future, “even if Christian is no longer here, it’s about continuing the story of the house and that’s a real motivation for the younger team members,” said Walckhoff. “These past few seasons, we have seen that Lacroix is an inspiration for a lot of other houses, too.”
It was an encounter with Tricia Guild of homewares firm Designers Guild that was the turning point after the departure of the brand’s namesake designer. “It was thanks to her that the spotlight was put on me, because Tricia didn’t want people to think because Christian had left, she was designing the collection. She thought there should be someone in the studio. In the end, that was why I stayed.”
Guild also helped Walckhoff understand how to transfer the brand’s identity to new categories, a skill that has been essential in growing its lifestyle business. “She came with a very light hand and cleaned up the ideas we had,” he said. “That meant right from the first collection, it was a success; we had fashion ideas but with the knowhow of people from the interior design world.…If I hadn’t had that guidance, I would have made the same mistakes as everyone else.”
The house’s lifestyle offering includes homewares with Designers Guild, porcelain with Vista Alegre, stationery with Galison, and furniture with Roche Bobois — a striking stacked cube bookcase from the collection, which launched last year, has pride of place in Walckhoff’s office, and several branded notebooks are in evidence.
Walckhoff also spearheads the men’s fashion and core accessories lines. The brand’s scarves, manufactured by Mantero Silk, have gone from being the worst performers in the licensee’s portfolio to the best over the past seven years, he said.
Ensuring cohesion between categories is key to Walckhoff’s role. “I want to make sure there is coherence between lifestyle, accessories and men’s, even if I respect the character of each line,” he explained. “The men’s line performs well because it’s really masculine. If we did a men’s line like we imagine Lacroix, slightly hysterical with lots of color, it wouldn’t work.…I try to make it interesting yet wearable, so it corresponds with the customer base we’ve built. That’s my rational Swiss side, which I mix with a bit of craziness. That’s how this house can go forward, step by step, stay at the forefront of people’s minds and become commercially viable. In the end, that’s what’s important. We’re not a museum.”
When he designs, Walckhoff thinks more about the house’s values than its archives; in no particular order, “flamboyance, eclecticism, color and surprise,” he listed.
Inclusiveness is also key — he puts just as much effort into a notebook sold for 15 euros as in a men’s clothing item at several thousand. “I try to give just as much to someone who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money as to someone who is extremely wealthy,” he explained. “We’re open to everyone, young or old, whatever their race or sexual orientation. That’s why I think it’s terribly modern, and that’s also due to the man himself, because Christian is like that.”
For the future, Walckhoff would love the brand to move back into women’s wear. “I’m really pleased with the lifestyle direction we have taken, it has truly turned a new page for the house,” he said. “But I would love to come back to women’s fashion one day, because it’s the heart of the house. This house is living without its heart.”
For the moment, however, Lacroix’s model is what has allowed it to survive and begin to prosper. “It’s a question of shareholder strategy, and for the moment they are not ready to invest, they have already invested a lot. But they are looking at the house with kinder eyes than they did a few years ago, so we are allowed to hope,” said Walckhoff.
If the brand were to reenter fashion, the designer sees himself coordinating a group of young creatives. “I would like to have different studios, a bit like Hermès does, with an artistic director for each department and someone to coordinate that. I can see myself in that role because I really know the history of the house,” he said.
“Fashion should be something young.…It’s complicated to be as excited about fashion at my age, 55, than it is at 25,” he believes. “It’s much more interesting to work with young people who are still excited by something because it’s the first time they’ve come across it.”
Targeting younger consumers is also key. The brand will launch an e-commerce site in November, a move Walckhoff sees as crucial to better understanding its client base. Its recent collaboration with multimedia artist Brian Kenny on a 30th anniversary capsule collection is another move in this direction.
“I didn’t want something too historical. The clothes are fantastic…they’re part of the history of fashion, but they are of their time. I wanted something current, to speak to a younger consumer who didn’t live through the house’s glory years,” he explained.
As an avid art collector, Walckhoff was familiar with Kenny’s work. “He’s interested in diversity, in human rights, there were lots of things that tied in with the house; lots of fun, lots of color, common points with Lacroix but expressed in a very different way.”
The artist’s position as an online influencer should also open up brand awareness. “He speaks to a population who knows very little about Lacroix,” explained Walckhoff.