A designer is like a doctor for a woman. He has a specific job, and if he is doing it well, he will have the gratitude of the woman for the rest of his life.—Oleg Cassini
While styles may change a bit from season to season, many of the great Maisons of fashion are quite old. Pringle of Scotland began selling knitwear in 1815. Jeanne Lanvin opened her shop in 1889. Thomas Burberry opened a store in Hampshire, England in 1856. Thierry Hermès first opened his leather shop in 1837. Guccio Gucci came along in 1906, Mario Prada in 1913, and, quite famously, Coco Chanel in 1910. After World War II, there was a flurry of activity in the fashion world that brought us names like Armani, Dior, and Givenchy, among many, many others. Fashion is full of rich and interesting histories and more than a few houses have catalogs that made fashion for decades. Houses may go through one designer after another, but labels stay forever.
So, here we sit in the cusp of another women’s ready-to-wear season and two of the best living designers, Raf Simons, formerly of Dior, and Alber Elbaz, most recently at Lanvin, are free agents. They both left major, storied, and old houses without any other label immediately picking them up. Despite their popularity and brilliant creativity, neither have demonstrated any urgency in signing on with anyone, and that vacuum is more than a little disconcerting.
Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times makes the claim, and a reasonable argument that fashion wants Alber Elbaz to start his own line. As delightful as that idea sounds, though, there are some serious obstacles to a designer, even one with the experience and reputation of Elbaz, starting their own label. The world is a much different place than it was even ten years ago and the entire fashion industry has seen a significant dip in revenue.
One of the reasons older fashion houses don’t go away is because they have the capital, both financially and creatively, to weather the periodic storms within the industry. As global economies change, large labels have the ability to hunker down and scale back production if necessary until the retail landscape is more friendly. Smaller, designer-owned labels rarely have that luxury and if the downturn continues we may see more labels close their doors. Already this week, Giles Deacon has announced he is closing his ready-to-wear business and focusing on couture wear, which allows him to downscale and limit his expenditures. Fashion is definitely not a business for the risk averse.
As Friedman’s article mentions, there are some investors willing to take a chance on new designer-driven fashion labels. Renzo Rosso is probably most prominent among those, with his OTB Group parenting Maison Martin Margiela, Marni, Viktor & Rolf, Diesel, Staff International, and Brave Kid in addition to him personally chairing Diesel. Rosso is said to be encouraging Elbaz to strike out on his own and one has to wonder if OTB Group might back such a venture. Fashion’s largest conglomerate, LVMH, also has a history of picking up struggling designer-owned labels. The problem with a strictly financial-based in
The problem with a strictly financial-based investment is the desire to keep a label going, even after the originating designer departs. While that approach has worked historically, we are now at a point where that attitude results in only one thing: very boring fashion. It has been well over ten years since I saw a fashion season that I felt was as full of originality and creativity as one has a right to expect from fashion. Finance-driven businesses aren’t interested in creative experimentation because one off season can send profits plummeting; they much prefer the safety of the tried and true, resulting in far too many seasons where all we see are recapitulations of the house catalog.
I’m going to make some people hate me, I’m sure, but would it really be all that horrible to start a practice of just letting houses die with their designer? I reeled in horror last season when an aging Roberto Cavalli turned the reigns of his legacy over to Peter Dundas, who absolutely massacred the collection. As much as I love Roberto Cavalli, I would much rather see the doors to the house close rather than become trashed with Dundas’ seasonal disappointment trying to fit his creativity into someone else’s vision. Dundas, too, deserves a chance at his own label, not trying to fit into Cavalli.
We were all shocked when Alexander McQueen committed suicide in 2010, and that act demonstrates just how impossible stressful it is to be a designer. I can understand, given the suddenness of his death, why it was necessary to allow Sarah Burton to continue his work. But should she decide to leave the house, and perhaps go to Dior as was rumored this morning, what would be wrong in allowing McQueen to close? Why not honor him as the creative genius he was, rather than risking having that reputation besmirched by a designer who just doesn’t fit with McQueen’s vision?
At the same time, we need to propel younger designers such as Public School’s Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow. Why should they have to pull double-duty trying to shore up a dying DKNY brand? Why not just put that investment directly into Public School and let DKNY rest in peace? No one is going to bring back khaki jumpers any time soon (I hope).
Fashion is gasping and desperately needs some fresh air. That creative spark is not likely to come from within the creative shackles of a century-old fashion house. We need new designer labels to bring the freshness back into fashion. Elbaz, Simmons, or whomever else is fine with me. Just please, for the love of style, stop re-hashing old catalogs!