Making it to the 10-year mark is hard to do — and for most designers, the journey’s just begun. This year, a handful of houses have marked the milestone, including Alexander Wang, Nicholas Kirkwood, Roksana, Erdem and Gareth Pugh. They’ve done one-time events and collections, opened stores, staged special shows and presentations — and sometimes closed the door on old relationships.
Kirkwood, whose company is now majority-owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, waved goodbye — amicably — to his cofounder and longtime chief executive officer Christopher Suarez, while Wang broke with Kering-owned Balenciaga after three years as creative director.
Wang, who sits atop a $100 million indie brand and has more than 25 stores worldwide, is said to be looking for investment. Until recently he was reported to be in negotiations with General Atlantic, the New York-based growth equity firm headed by William Ford.
While it might undoubtedly be a moment to celebrate, the decade anniversary is just one marker of success — and by no means a guarantee that a business will last another 10 years.
Indeed, many would argue the 10-year mark is where the real work begins: No longer considered “emerging talents” ripe for industry prizes and investment, designers are forced to strategize about how to sustain their businesses in the long-term, where to find future investment and figure out how — and whether they want to — compete with names like Prada, Giorgio Armani and Chanel.
“The first 10 years is just the start,” says Kirkwood, adding that the first and second decades are two very different stages for a brand. “The beginning is about defining your voice, and the next 10 years, as you become more established, is about expanding and perhaps even exploring other categories.”
The first 10 years is also about building sales momentum.
“It takes 10 years for brands to start passing the 10 million pounds [$15 million in sales] mark — and that is a very long time compared with other industries. Fashion is one of the most grueling, aggressive and fickle industries. There are far too many brands born every day, and the market is highly saturated,” says Eiesha Bharti Pasricha, the London-based strategic investor who has stakes in Roksanda and Jonathan Saunders. “It’s a long enough period to establish a fan base, traction and recall value with customers, but it’s too short a period for a brand to compare with the successful established names. When that [comparison] happens, it’s just not fair.”
Gesina Gudehus-Wittern, a consultant at Vivaldi Partners Group who has a background in luxury goods, said the 10-year threshold is mostly reflective of the stamina and strategic wiles of the designer.
“Some brands can make their mark quicker — they can be relevant in a heartbeat — and certainly no investor would look down upon a designer with a healthy business that was 15 years old, as long as that designer was capable of communicating his or her vision to potential investors,” she says.
Gudehus-Wittern adds that what many of this year’s fashion alumni have in common is that they’re brand builders and creative leaders, even if they have moved at different speeds.
Erdem Moralioglu, she says, was all about patience. Indeed, he was the last of his 10th anniversary peers to open a store, which is located just off Mount Street in London’s Mayfair, and his label remains independent.
Wang, on the other hand, expanded rapidly. His 25th store, his largest worldwide, opened in London over the summer. “All of those designers had the vision and the clarity to build a brand — rather than chase fads — and they were strategic about how to grow,” Gudehus-Wittern says. “They were clear about who their customer is, and how best to serve them. They didn’t have a lofty idea about clothing, but instead built something that an investor could put money behind. With an older generation of designers, being a brand builder and a creative leader might not have gone hand-in-hand. So many had great creativity, but not clarity of vision.”
In a climate that demands ever-bigger investment, speed to market and business savvy, some names found they were better suited to showroom presentations, one-on-one appointments or even a sabbatical while they reorganized their businesses.
Matthew Williamson, one of London’s stalwarts who’s been in the business for 18 years, has dropped off the calendar as he reorganizes his brand into an e-commerce play, with no more brick-and-mortar stores or wholesale clients.
Starting next season, the label will present its collections on a buy-now-wear-now basis that customers will be able to shop immediately.
Both Bharti Pasricha and Gudehus-Wittern say that 10 years is a turning point for another important reason: After a decade, designers absolutely have to push their businesses to the next level, adding new categories and stores and build out the brand.
With LVMH’s firepower, Kirkwood plans to add categories such as jewelry, minaudières, bags, sunglasses and leather goods. Even those labels that have yet to hit the 10-year mark are moving fast into new areas: Peter Pilotto is launching a full footwear collection; Christopher Kane is breaking into eyewear and Osman is doing men’s wear.
“Fashion is fast-moving and people lose interest quickly,” Gudehus-Wittern says. “Ten-year anniversaries tend to give brands the added confidence to extend and move into new categories. It’s a great opportunity — if you know how to leverage it.”
That is just what Roksanda Ilincic plans to do. The designer, who also offers a line of children’s wear, has more categories in the pipeline as well as more stores. She said her anniversary was really a time to reflect on how far she’d come.
“The pace of fashion is so fast, you hardly ever take the time to look back and really see the change. You’re always on to the next collection, the next show,” she says. “Now I’m already looking ahead at new opportunities I can explore, new categories I can add.”