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PARIS — Blame the management, not the designers.

At least that’s the opinion of a growing chorus of recruitment experts, consultants, retailers and other industry observers regarding the continuing revolving door at several fashion houses where rejuvenation attempts are struggling.

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Most observers contend overhauling a storied fashion house with fresh design talent remains a valid business formula. But surveying a slew of recent designer changes — at Leonard, Cerruti, Nina Ricci, Louis Féraud, Guy Laroche, Balmain, Claude Montana and Bill Blass, to name but a few — they say the industry must take a harder look at brand potential before embarking on a renewal campaign — and more carefully engineer matches between designers, management and brands.

What’s more, some went so far as to say that the industry must bite the bullet and shutter some houses that have so far failed to spark a renaissance.

“Reviving an old brand? I think it’s done,” said Karl Lagerfeld, who is a master at it. “What can be revived has been revived.

“I am not really interested in the future — or ‘no future’ —of Nina Ricci, Louis Féraud, Leonard, Cerruti, Bill Blass or Guy Laroche,” he continued. “They lost their ‘image’ a long time ago, and are just surviving businesses with more or less chances to survive [due to] too many changes of owners, designers, etc.”

But industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart believes the blame for any failure lies firmly with the owners and management. “Please don’t blame systematically designers when rebranding fails,” he urged. “It’s not only a matter of capacity and talent on behalf of the designer. It’s much more the talent of the manager who has done the wrong casting. [Managers] are not really checking their own capability to rebrand the house.”

Picart said managers often chose designers based more on their ability to attract immediate attention from retailers and editors, rather than their suitability for the house’s history and aesthetic. Media attention is definitely a “booster” for a job well done, he allowed, but it should not be used as the main engine for a brand’s rejuvenation.

Floriane de Saint Pierre, a leading recruitment specialist here, agreed, saying brand managers and shareholders are too often swayed by “media pressure” when faced with choosing a designer for a rebranding initiative.

“They chose the designer rather than the strategy,” she said in an interview. “They don’t realize that every season there is hype. It’s a very dangerous choice to just take the person who is supported by the hype of the moment. Management should really resist the urge to be immediately in the media and really give time for the creative director to work seriously. My opinion is that you should have a clear view of your strategy and positioning and then choose the designer who fits the strategy.”

De Saint Pierre cited Alber Elbaz’s appointment at Lanvin as one recent example of a match that works “perfectly well,” whereas Alexander McQueen’s short-lived and rocky reign at Givenchy remains a telling case of where “the roots of the house and the designer didn’t match.”

According to Picart, a successful rejuvenation requires three ingredients: a house with real potential, a designer and a manager with a shared vision for the brand, and ample resources to invest in research, distribution and promotion. He noted that brands in the throes of reinvention need to “run faster” than stronger competitors and quickly make up for lost time.

For those reasons, it’s no coincidence that “rich” companies have had the most success: Chanel, Christian Dior and Burberry, among them, he noted.

De Saint Pierre said the need to persevere cannot be overstated, but it’s often difficult for small companies to sustain heavy investment.

“The smaller companies, they expect immediate success or — poof — they change,” she said. “I think it’s impossible to find someone who will the first season make a miracle. A designer needs three or four seasons to understand the house.”

Complicating the matter, “often for the designer, they are not so inspired by the house,” Picart said. “They just need the money to build their own label.”

Such mercenary relationships have long existed in fashion, but they rarely add up to success. “It’s the same difference between being in love and a one-night stand,” Picart said.

Still, there have been enough successful marriages in fashion — Lagerfeld at Chanel, Tom Ford at Gucci, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and John Galliano at Christian Dior, for example — to inspire countless imitators.

Concetta Lanciaux, executive vice president of synergies at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and one of chairman Bernard Arnault’s key advisers, said she views the revolving door as a positive phenomenon.

“To me, it indicates there is a very strong search for the right person,” she said. “The match between the designer and the brand is becoming an ever-more crucial choice.”

Indeed, in a recent interview with WWD, Arnault said: “Remarkable success stems from the perfect match of the brand and its…designers. Had I hired Marc Jacobs for Dior and John Galliano for Louis Vuitton, it would not have been working as well for both brands, even though both designers are geniuses of their own kind.”

Lanciaux acknowledged that engineering perfect matches is becoming “increasingly difficult” and dependent on managers who understand as completely as designers “the DNA of the brand.”

Lagerfeld, who arrived at Chanel 20 years ago, agreed the chances of a successful comeback are becoming increasingly slim — while those such as Celine and Givenchy are “in stronger hands” because they are part of LVMH. “Many brands lost their image a long time ago and are just surviving businesses. A match can be successful when the right people get together and when there is a strong past in fashion,” he said, citing Chanel and Dior as good examples. “The talent can be as fresh as it wants — if the story is not handled well, it may not work. It’s very difficult for most houses and designers. Average houses and average ‘young’ designers should forget about it.”

Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, suggested many brands fail during relaunch because they make too drastic a change, more often than not taking the house in a young, edgy direction.

“I do feel you have to have a balance. You don’t throw out the old customer with the bath water,” she said. “And if you are going after a young customer, the prices have to be commensurate. If you do it well, you can dress the mother, the daughter and the grandmother, like Chanel does.”

Siding with the consultants, Kaner argued that the troubles many houses face in rebranding is “more of a question of direction rather than talent. The hardest part is deciding what the label and the house should stand for.”

Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, communication, at Saks Fifth Avenue, said the dearth of success stories reflects the difficulty of the task at hand.

“You’re grappling with getting into the head of a designer who is more than likely long since deceased and it’s not easy,” she said. “You have to figure out what to keep, the important elements, and how to evolve it. It’s hard to remake a house, whether it’s been asleep for 50 years or whether it’s still vital.”

But are there enough talented designers on the market to rebuild all the houses in need of repair?

Absolutely, according to LVMH’s Lanciaux, who said she has “never seen as much [talent] as right now.” Included in the groundswell of promising names are Italy’s Antonio Marras, London’s Sophia Kokosalaki and Catherine Malandrino, a French woman based in New York, she said. Others disagreed.

“I think the talent pool is really small,” said retailer Linda Dresner, who operates eponymous boutiques in New York and Birmingham, Mich. “Right now, there’s not so many out there doing important things. I do think we will have a surge of creative talent, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

But Lagerfeld noted that the pool of houses with real potential is shallow, too. “It takes a designer, but a lot of other things, too, to make an old brand work. It needs time and money. Management is often to blame [for failures].” And Lagerfeld noted that managers of the caliber of Chanel president Françoise Montenay, Chanel general manager for fashion Bruno Pavlovsky and Dior president Sidney Toledano are hard to come by.

Andrew Gn, a Paris-based designer who was among a long list enlisted in recent years to reheat Balmain’s ready-to-wear business, argued the formula is becoming exhausted — for good reason.

“Let’s admit it — fashion is all about snobbism and some of those old names just don’t cut it,” he said, questioning, for example, how a name like Roberto Capucci can be made modern. “It has to be houses with strong potential and names that younger generations can identify with.”

It’s no surprise that most of the brands attempting rejuvenation miracles are French. Paris was the birthplace of couture and ready-to-wear and — with its rich stable of famous brands — was the first fashion capital to face succession and reinvention issues.

But with the number of failed or stalled renewals piling up, some are wondering if a sea change may be afoot.

De Saint Pierre coined the term “ready-to-die brands” to suggest that some houses may in fact be revival-proof.

“Some brands do not have the potential to be revitalized because they are too far away from life today,” she said. “Not all the old brands should be kept alive. Yes, brand awareness is there, but maybe it hurts the brand as much as it serves it. The ready-to-die brands should die to allow the healthy ones to grow even more…and to let new, young ones grow, like Marni or Costume National.”

De Saint Pierre said it’s telling that major luxury groups like LVMH and Gucci Group, who have the most financial and management resources, have stopped investing in old names. “It shows that there is no hope to easily relaunch them,” she said. Instead, investments are being funneled into more promising areas like footwear, jewelry and furniture design.

Pamela Golbin, a curator at the Museum of Textiles & Fashion here, agreed that some brands should be relegated to fashion history.

“Brands seem to last about 20 to 30 years, and then they have to wait for the next cycle,” she said. “Some can wait around a few years and come back, but some are perfect only for a moment. Cyclical changes impose a sort of spring cleaning.”

Golbin noted that every industry is faced with shedding old brands and creating new ones, just as the car industry has lost such one-time greats as Bugatti, Studebaker, Duesenberg or American Motors. “Would it be wrong to say there’s a Darwin theory of fashion?” she asked. “Some brands have no valid reason to continue and it’s no secret that some are hurting. Maybe it’s the right time to invest in the future and new brands.”

Lessening the chances for a comeback miracle, many of the brands being revamped today were never at the “top” of the fashion system, even when the designers were alive, Golbin noted.

In the first sign of what may be more to come, Alain Dumenil, the new owner of France Luxury Group, in March said he would put the Jacques Fath brand into “hibernation.” The previous owner, Mounir Moufarrige, had attempted an overhaul with a hip designer, Lizzy Disney, which failed to jolt a dusty name.

Still, most observers predict that the industry will continue to take its chances, especially since the cost of starting new brands remains prohibitive.

“I would give my left hand if someone would give me a chance at an old brand,” said retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky, who operates Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta. “There’s a cachet to them that’s different from a new designer’s name. In fashion, we love to hearken back to things anyways.”

Dresner agreed the “urge to renew” old names should not be underestimated.

“But I think the semi-forgotten brand is better off forgotten,” she said. “Would I be interested in a Nina Ricci? Yes, because it has a past that was feminine. But I would not buy something just because it’s an old name, only if it pertains to my customer. It has to be something that’s good.”

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