That was the question the industry was asking Thursday following Peter Copping’s abrupt departure from Oscar de la Renta the day before. The guessing game involved not only who might take over the creative director’s reins at one of America’s most iconic fashion brands, but also who might be the next designer to suddenly leave a fashion house following a string of departures in the last year.
Many of those who have exited fashion firms were among those who industry observers speculated could step into Copping’s shoes, including Francisco Costa and Alber Elbaz, who worked for Geoffrey Beene early in his career.
“Here we go again — musical chairs,” one longtime industry executive said of the de la Renta shake-up.
“What we’re seeing is the mature houses fighting for their relevancy,” another executive said. “This degree of turmoil is now standard for top designers as well as middle-tier designers where it has always been.”
As Oscar de la Renta’s chief executive officer Alex Bolen regroups and considers the company’s next move, he has plenty of first-rate talent to consider. Speculation immediately centered around Costa, who started his career in New York in the mid-Eighties working for Herbert Rounick’s Seventh Avenue company, which then made Oscar de la Renta dresses. Costa later worked full-time in de la Renta’s studio, when C.Z. Guest, Brooke Astor and Hillary Clinton were among the designer’s clients.
Costa described those days as “purely magic” after the designer’s death in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. “I learned so much. I was kind of a sponge. He had a lifestyle that was very unique. From the way he lived and how he conducted himself. Coming from Brazil, my color sensibility sense was, honestly, black and white and gray from the beginning. I learned from Oscar. I learned how to make a beautiful dress. I learned how to drape. I learned how to cut. Everything l learned, I learned from him,” Costa said at that time.
Costa is on a monthlong break in Brazil following his abrupt exit from Calvin Klein, where he was creative director of women’s Collection, and could not be reached for comment Thursday. But it is understood he has a champion on Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour, who is said to be eager to find Costa another job and who was also a close friend of the late de la Renta’s.
Two designers who also could be considered for Copping’s role are former Oscar de la Renta designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia. The pair launched their Monse label last fall and have since consulted with Carolina Herrera, a career move that reportedly irked Bolen. Garcia declined comment Thursday through a spokesman.
A few years back, de la Renta welcomed John Galliano into his studio in a consulting role, though the designer is now entrenched at Maison Margiela. De la Renta seriously considered tapping Galliano as his successor, but the controversy surrounding the European designer – and his exorbitant demands – nixed that idea.
Adam Lippes is another designer with ties to Oscar de la Renta, having once worked there. Other names that could be in the mix include Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Joseph Altuzarra (although Kering owns a minority stake in his firm), Jonathan Simkhai, Lela Rose and Doo-Ri Chung. One designer, who asked not to be identified, emphasized that commercial viability may trump personality after the lackluster sales of Copping’s design.
“This was another case of the fashion press pushing something that did not have commercial success,” she said.
Sources said the failure of Copping’s designs to perform at retail was the reason for his abrupt exit. A 20-year veteran of Europe’s fashion scene, Copping relocated to New York in fall 2014 after five years at Nina Ricci. Initially hired to work with de la Renta, Copping never saw that plan pan out due to the designer’s death. Rather than fold into the atelier gradually under de la Renta’s guardianship, Copping found himself suddenly plunged into the house’s numerous categories.
While having access to de la Renta’s former drivers may have simplified navigating the streets of New York, the Oxford-born Copping received plenty of guidance in the atelier, too, sources said. Aside from having a studio director, Copping received input from Bolen, who sources said did not hesitate to offer his opinions on Copping’s work. Copping also worked closely with de la Renta’s stepdaughter Eliza Bolen, the ceo’s wife.
At one point, Bolen asked retailers to tell Copping why his designs weren’t selling, a request that was politely declined, according to one store.
Bolen declined to comment for this story Thursday through a company spokeswoman. But in revealing Copping’s departure late Wednesday, he said, “We have always been in the business of creating beautiful clothes, and two of our greatest assets are our design studio and atelier. Our team will continue to work on next season’s collection with a keen focus on the level of sophistication and craftsmanship that are the hallmarks of the house. We wish Peter well in his future endeavors.”
Copping could not be reached for comment. Perhaps as an indication of the need to jump-start business, six ready-to-wear trunk shows are scheduled at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue in the next six weeks. One designer whose collection competes with the de la Renta label said when Copping was named, one retailer said, “OK, well, here’s your chance.” Another source said stores were seeing declines of 30 to 35 percent and another offered, “It was not performing at retail from Day One.”
Despite having an array of products — handbags, sunglasses, children’s wear, bridal and fragrance among them — some said the licensing business was not being optimized. “The business was poised to be a bigger brand but that hasn’t happened,” one executive said.
Still, Copping faced the daunting task of being a European designer stepping into a legendary American house that was lead by the charismatic de la Renta, who not only dressed the Ladies Who Lunch but socialized with them, too. Thus Copping not only had the task of figuring out what the house’s customers want today, but also of learning American society and its myriad ways. He relocated to New York with his partner Rambert Rigaud. In an interview last year, Copping said he brought 120-plus boxes of books and his extensive porcelain collection when the pair (and their two Siamese cats) moved into a West Village apartment.
Rigaud, a former studio director in the ateliers of Yves Saint Laurent and Dior Haute Couture under John Galliano and Stefano Pilati respectively, spent 17 years in the fashion industry before redefining himself as a floral designer. While industry observers described Copping as “lovely,” “disciplined,” “talented” and “very focused on the construction of clothes,” some wondered to what effect his quieter presence played out in this age of self promotion.
The fact that the well-heeled lifestyle is waning only makes the stakes higher for Copping’s successor. How an established designer label evolves without alienating the base of shoppers, who essentially built the brand, is an endless debate. Copping’s attention to inner construction and shape may have hindered him from creating the more lightweight, easygoing styles that would appeal to a new generation of Oscar de la Renta shoppers, according to a few sources. And in an indication of how he was perhaps a designer slightly out of step with today’s Instagrammable world, to avoid any distractions during pre-fashion week fittings, he left his phone on his desk and asked others to do the same.
Copping’s 21-month tenure to prove himself seemed too short to some and dead-right to others. One designer, who requested anonymity, criticized the demand for such quick turnarounds.”These companies expect designers and creative directors to save them. That’s where the problem arises — forget about the pace of the industry,” the designer said. “It needs to be an alignment of the creative and management. They have to ask, ‘Are our visions coming together?’ It doesn’t happen overnight.”
But one retailer said, “In these challenging times of very difficult retail, it wasn’t tracking with the customer. If it were selling, it wouldn’t be a question. I think you know, when you know.”