The fashion industry has had a mixed track record when its comes to companies surviving the departure of founders-designers.
This story first appeared in the February 3, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD polled industry experts to see whether they believed Juicy Couture could survive without the creative leadership of its co-founders, Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gena Nash-Taylor, after their wildly successful run.
“It’s certainly possible to have designers go on to the next thing, as long as there are designers there to keep the DNA alive and keep it current,” said Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin Consulting. He pointed to brands such as Gucci, Lacoste and Hugo Boss, which have had successful futures without their original designers. “Some have suffered, such as Ungaro, but Dior has been fantastic and Chloé has had its ups and downs. Under Stella McCartney, it was great,” he said.
He also cited Claiborne’s Kate Spade brand. “The Kate Spade brand got stale with Kate, and it’s been reinvented with someone else. You need to have reinvention. Calvin Klein’s business without Calvin has been terrific and has grown geometrically year to year in categories that would have been difficult to do with Calvin,” Jassin said.
Hal Reiter, president and chief executive officer of Herbert Mines Associates, agreed companies do survive changes in creative leadership. “Founders-designers can be replaced and transitioned from the original. Look at Anne Klein, Calvin Klein; J.Crew is a perfect example of a whole new J. Crew. Many of these faces of the brand are no longer designing, but they edit and veto. These eponymous companies can go on with a new designer provided they stay loyal to the brand,” he said.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, explained that if a company is able to keep the personality of the brand, but find the balance with someone who’s got professional experience, it will allow the company to grow to the next level. He said when a designer partners with a company like Claiborne, the expectation is to grow, not stay stable. He believes Juicy will survive if certain things are done right. “Sometimes it’s even better,” he said, pointing to firms like Perry Ellis, which survived a long time after the death of its designer, whereas Williwear went downhill after Willi Smith died.
Cohen believes Claiborne is doing the right things to succeed. He said it’s not about how many stores a brand opens or how many skirts it sells. “It’s, ‘How profitable can you become?’” he said, adding he believes leaner, more focused, more differentiated brands are the future.
Robert Burke, president and ceo of Robert Burke Consultants, said, “I think that Juicy Couture has certainly been an enormous success since its creation. They have created a very distinctive image, and diversified with men’s, women’s and children’s and freestanding shops. It’s well on its way as an established brand. I can foresee it moving forward.
“It’s not in that crucial phase of still defining the brand. Any time there’s a loss of a designer, there’s concern, especially at the collection level because they’re doing such a good job. It will probably live on. They’ve been very much the face of Juicy. It worked for the brand’s benefit, but the brand is so well established,” said Burke.
“I would never say it’s a recipe for disaster. The creative director-founders’ leaving can very often have an impact on the brand, especially when they’re strong product people,” added Kim Vernon, ceo of Vernon Co. She pointed to Calypso founder Christiane Celle, who sold Calypso and later had irreconcilable differences with the new owners, which had a dramatic impact on the brand and the business “because she was an extremely strong product person.”
As far as the Juicy designers, she said, “They were involved many years post-acquisition, and [their departure] might be very dramatic for the brand. They don’t have teams there anymore. There’s been so much turnover. Juicy Couture is hitting a bit of maturation in the market. Their involvement was petering out. Frankly I’m surprised they stayed in this so long.”
Marc Gobé, president of Emotional Branding, believes Juicy Couture has developed an enviable cult following.
“Juicy Couture is interesting. The brand is really cool, fresh and imaginative,” he said. “People who start the business and are the inspiration of the business, when they walk away, it signals trouble even if it’s for a good cause. Do they want to leave? Then it’s their prerogative, or are they leaving because they realize that being part of a bigger corporation does not give them the freedom they were accustomed to?”
But, he warned, “The hardest thing in fashion, or in any creative field, is to find a good creative director. Some companies do well. Look at Gucci, they were able to continue with a new designer, but generally it’s very challenging because it’s the business of fashion and inspiration and feelings, and understanding what the market wants by emotionally connecting. That won’t show up in any report.”
“It [Juicy Couture] still has a tremendous amount of potential, and what it has is the ability to grow globally,” said Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo Inc. “Bill [McComb] understands the business. He inherited, to a great extent, a perfect storm. He’ll survive it. I have confidence in him, and the board has confidence in him.”