The Americans are back on top, and Calvin Klein is king of the hill.
Klein captured bragging rights as the best-known designer brand to consumers who participated in this year’s WWD100, while Tommy Hilfiger came in a close second and Polo Ralph Lauren finished at number three.
The big news for the ever-competitive Americans is that they edged out Gucci, at number four. The likely explanation: Americans have responded to this down market with a forefront of initiatives to broaden the appeal of their brands, including lower-priced offerings, whereas Gucci, which also owns Yves Saint Laurent, has remained exclusive and focused on the high end of the luxury sector. Giorgio Armani also finished behind the American crew in ninth place, tying with the original megabrand, Pierre Cardin. The tie made room for Oscar de la Renta at number 10.
Behind Gucci, the highest-ranking foreign designer was Parisian icon Christian Dior at number five, a position that perhaps stemmed from the strength of John Galliano’s relentlessly outrageous women’s and couture collections and Hedi Slimane’s highly editorial men’s wear.
Chanel came in at a respectable number seven, which indicates that both the global recognition of the brand and the efforts by Karl Lagerfeld to make its collections more relevant have only continued to grow. But then again, a good tweed is about as likely to go out of style as a bottle of vintage Châteauneuf du Pape, no matter whom the French manage to offend.
As for the overall strength of the American collections, their dominant positions can also be attributed to the ongoing strength of their marketing initiatives. Calvin Klein, under new owner Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., has opted for a number of interesting grass-roots campaigns, such as a multitiered approach to blanketing its name around the spring-break resort destination Panama City Beach, Fla. Tommy Hilfiger changed the look of his advertising dramatically, with a more luxurious, upper-crust campaign featured in outserts in publications including Vogue and W, WWD’s sister publication. Still, it was one of the worst years in the company’s financial history, leaving the market to speculate about some big changes in store for Hilfiger. The company could be the target of an acquisition in the near future, although its executives have said that Tommy wants to buy rather than be bought and it has a significant cash position to fund any deals.
Ralph Lauren also gained lots of exposure over the past year with numerous editorial credits and profiles celebrating his company’s 35th anniversary. Now in its 36th year, Lauren is looking to top last year’s performance — when global sales bearing its name surpassed $10 billion at retail — with innovative products like custom Polo shirts available at Polo.com, and he talks of the imminent launch of his own magazine. Meanwhile, the company is expected to take over production of Lauren’s better-priced line, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, following a dispute with licensee Jones Apparel Group in June that led the two companies to sue each other.
Yet the biggest news in the designer category this year was Anne Klein, at sixth place. It’s certainly been a brand in the public eye, and not incidentally one of the best-known and longest-running labels in American sportswear history. On top of its restructuring under the Kasper ASL umbrella, headed by turnaround king John Idol, Anne Klein was gaining fashion momentum, thanks to the designs of Ellen Tracy expat Charles Nolan, who quit the company in favor of joining the presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Nolan was replaced by AK Anne Klein designer Michael Smaldone, now vice president and chief design officer, who will debut the eighth incarnation of Anne Klein this fall. Idol, too, may be leaving Kasper in the future under a proposed acquisition of the bankrupt company by Kellwood Co., announced in June, which set off an auction by interested suitors that should lead to a new owner for Kasper by the fall.
Bill Blass weighed in at a relatively low-key eighth place. The company dropped its designer, Lars Nilsson, after its runway show in a February coup d’état — pardon the French — and replaced him quickly with Michael Vollbracht, a designer from the Eighties who returned to the fashion industry only recently to help organize a retrospective exhibit in Indiana of Blass’ career. Vollbracht will have his work cut out for him when he debuts his first collection for the house in September, but he does has an advantage in that Blass is a label that’s quintessentially American.
1. Calvin Klein
2. Tommy Hilfiger
3. Polo Ralph Lauren
5. Christian Dior
6. Anne Klein
8. Bill Blass
9. Giorgio Armani
9. Pierre Cardin
10. Oscar de la Renta