The recent rather daring, (and rather brilliant), appointments of designers like Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton and Raf Simons at Christian Dior are perfect examples of how the right designer can completely turn around a brand’s image. Without someone with genius and wit directing proceedings, a luxury label easily gets lost in its own hype and ultimately becomes stale. To paraphrase Karl Lagerfeld, fashion houses need to be treated like a whore and only then will you get something out of it. All the major brands out there have had some serious highs but also some serious lows; whether they’ve been shut down, declared bankrupt or had simply gotten uncool; and it wasn’t until the right designer came along with the right vision that their fortunes changed. Here we look at 5 luxury brands who turned their image around and the wildcard designers who masterminded that particular change of lanes.
Those of you old enough should please cast your minds back to the start of the 90s when nobody was wearing Gucci; it was considered an aging out-of-touch fashion house, which had a very tarnished reputation thanks to the scandalous Gucci family whose members had committed murder and tax evasion.
In 1990, Dawn Mello, the new editor and ready-to-wear designer, (and a star of the retail business who had turned around New York’s Bergdorf Goodman in the 70s), appointed the young and virtually unknown American designer Tom Ford to help her overhaul the brands image and to co-design women’s ready-to-wear. He flourished in the company and was rapidly promoted to also do menswear, then shoes and so on until by 1993 he was in charge of designing eleven product lines, and was working eighteen-hour days.
The tipping point however came in 1994, when Ford was finally given complete control of the brand and was made creative director. His first collection in 1994 made fashionistas jaws hit the floor the world over. It was a critically-acclaimed campaign of shock and awe – all Halston-style velvet hipster pant suits and skinny satin shirts in petrol blue. Bad-girl celebrities like Kate Moss and Madonna snapped up the collections and Mario Testino was employed to take care of the new super slick and very sexy ad campaigns (remember the girl with her pubic hair shaved into a Gucci logo shape?) The message was clear, Gucci was back and it was about one thing (sex) and there was one man masterminding it all (Tom Ford). Every subsequent colletion from Ford saw the brand go from strength to strength and its fanbase spread all around the globe. Before Ford joined in 1990, the house had been almost bankrupt; when he finally left in 2004 to set up his own label, Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion.
Until the appointment of Alber Elbaz in 2001 as artistic director, not a great many people had ever heard of Lanvin, one of France’s oldest fashion houses. Elbaz was hired by the new investor group Harmonie S.A, led by Shaw-Lan Wang, a Taiwanese media magnate. Previous owners since the 60’s have included Midland Bank, Orcofi and L’Oreal which saw the brand lose its direction even further as it was passed from holding company to holding company.
Elbaz, with his simple, elegant style, seemed to really connect and understand with the aesthetic of Jeanne Lanvin, the founder of the brand, who had her heyday in the roaring 20’s and who died in 1946. In 2006, Elbaz successfully introduced new packaging for the fashion house, featuring a light forget-me-not blue color, which was a favorite shade of Lanvin’s. The label hit the headlines in the US when Michelle Obama stepped out at an event in 2009 in $540 Lanvin sneakers while Vogue Editor Anna Wintour seems to live in Lanvin dresses alone (forget Prada, that’s a myth). Kanye West is also a big fan of the label and the sneakers (although Yeezy prefers the hightop variation to Michelle’s lowtops), and generally Lanvin is now the go-to label for countless cool Hollywood starlets from Natalie Portman to Sofia Coppola to Julianne Moore who are often seen wearing his creations on the red carpet and a ‘I look great and I know it’ expression on their faces.
In 2010, Lanvin created a capsule collection for H+M; thereby officially joining the rank of luxury brands (such as Roberto Cavalli, Stella McCartney and Sonia Rykel) that everybody wants to buy a (diluted) piece of.
Balenciaga was a label that was so in demand during World War II, that customers risked their safety to travel to Europe to see the runway collections. Founded by Cristobal Balenciaga in 1914, it was after the second world war that it became clear how inventive and revolutionary a designer he was, as he broke with traditional hourglass shapes and created brand new silhouettes such as the sack dress and the balloon jacket. However in the 60’s the label faltered, he had ongoing arguments with the press and he decided to close it 1968. The house remained closed for the next 18 years, and was almost completely forgotten, until it was reopened in 1986 by Jacques Bogart S.A. What followed was a slew of sadly unremarkable designers who attempted to revive the label without much success.
It was not until 1997, when a 25 year-old Nicolas Ghesquiére was the surprise choice to be appointed head designer (and then creative director), that the label’s fortunes started to turn around. Ghesquiére, a self-taught designer like Balenciaga was, reinterpreted old classics such as the sack coat and caught the eye of the discerning fashion press. His ability to play with the silhouette, again like his predecessor, is now his signature – so high-waisted skinny pants paired with a billowing blouson would be typical.
In 2001 the Gucci Group bought Balenciaga and the company is once again highly profitable – items such as the motorcycle-inspired Lariat handbag are international bestsellers. Stars needless to say love him – Nicole Kidman married Keith Urban in a House of Balenciaga dress and new-bad-girl-on-the-block Kristen Stewart is currently modeling for the label and declaring Ghesquiére a genius she ‘simply had to work with’.
The Louis Vuitton story is not one of riches-to-rags-to-riches, (as most of the stories are here), it’s basically one of riches-to-unbelievable-OH-MY-GOD riches. LV started out in 1854 in Paris as a luggage label, focused primarily on stacking trunks, and from the get-go they had to deal with copycats and other luggage makers copying their logo and style. They tried various things to combat this, such as creating the Damier Canvas pattern, which bore a logo that read “marque L. Vuitton déposée“, which translates into “L. Vuitton registered trademark”. In 1896 they launched the signature Monogram Canvas bag and patented it worldwide. It is crazy to think that over 100 years later, everyone is still so obsessed with that bag; that print; that logo. In 1987 Moet & Chandon and Hennessy merged with Louis Vuitton to form the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. The 80s and early 90s saw LV make a lot of money, but they were not especially cool, their image was fusty, dusty and old-world.
The main reason for Louis Vuittion transforming into one of the world’s most valuable and influential luxury brands (and major player in contemporary popular culture) is thanks to the brilliant appointment of Marc Jacobs as creative director in 1997. Jacobs immediately took off the kid-gloves and treated the Louis Vuittion like his bitch from early on, and to glorious effect. He fused the brand with street culture (unheard of for them) and produced bags (with artist Stephen Sprouse) that had graffiti scrawled over the Monogram pattern. Jacobs also collaborated with artists like Takashi Murakami (who created the much-copied Cherry Blossom print), Richard Prince and Kanye West, ensuring the brand always stays ahead of the game and in the headlines of the worlds press.
In early 2011, Louis Vuitton hired Kim Jones as their lead designer of menswear (Marc Jacobs is still at the helm as creative director) – considered by all at the time to be a daring appointment. Jones is all about subverting tailoring, taking traditional cuts and reinventing them as streetwear. His own name label once had a collection called Subtle Rave inspired by his life in Hoxton East London. Menswear is undergoing quite the reinvention at the moment and Jones and his appointment at LV is an important part of that. It shows just how far LV have come that they know now how to spot and equip a wild-card who can continue to take their brand to unknown heights of prosperity but also cool. Today LVMH is one of the worlds leading luxury goods company, worth well over $25 billion.
Christian Dior was officially launched in 1947, after the end of World War II, and their first collection was the ground-breaking ‘New Look’ which was considered very refreshing after the austerity of wartime (Dior used yards of fabric, and it was all about a cinched in waist, a full skirt that fell below mid-calf and a large bust.) Hollywood stars and politicians wives fell in love with his designs and the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Eva Peròn and Ava Gardner lined up to wear Dior. By the end of the 50s, Dior was a fashion empire with a perfume line and a number of boutiques on the best streets in Paris and London. Christian Dior died not long after he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1957. A very young 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent stepped into his big shoes and initially was hailed a national hero, but after his 5th collection he wanted to be more daring, he introduced the ‘beat’ look in 1960 and his 6th bohemian collection was not received well. When he was conscripted to the French Army, the Dior management did not complain, and he was replaced by Marc Bohan who brought a conservatism back to the label.
In 1970 Bohan introduced the Christian Dior Homme line; good thing he did as Dior menswear was later to prove an image-changing asset for the company. In 2000 a young designer called Hedi Slimane took over Menswear and introduced a new contemporary, masculine look full of narrow-silhouetted suits that was instantly copied the world over. Prior to this Dior Homme menswear was considered stuffy and dull. Businessman wore it yes, but they were all over 40. Hedi made young men want to save up for months in order to buy one of his suits. So influential was this look that Karl Lagerfeld (then still a rather large man) was inspired to diet so he could fit into them. Slimane’s rock’n’roll cool kid aesthetic fitted right in with the coolest men in music and he designed the stagewear for artists such as David Bowie, The Libertines, Mick Jagger, Jack White and more. Even though he never did womenswear, he dressed female celebrities in Dior during this time at the label, and the Couture business side of the company increased by 41 percent in 2002, partly thanks to Slimane’s influence and the company’s new ultra-cool image. Slimane stayed until 2007 when he bowed out from the label, stating a wish to take a break and focus on his photography, which he did so for a number of years. (Slimane is now the new creative director at Yves Saint Laurent and is apparently behind the controversial new name change).
Kris Van Assche was Slimane’s replacement, and Dior got lucky again, as Van Assche has been on a roll ever since he joined, with military touches and minimalist versions of bomber and flight jackets being instant hits.
Meanwhile over in womenswear, the flamboyant and at times controversial British designer John Galliano had been in charge of womenswear since 1997 (taking over from a rather dull Gianfranco Ferrè) and he had also boosted the companies image, although not always in ways they liked, with headline grabbing shows such as ‘The Homeless Show’ and he masterminded ad campaigns that focused heavily on sex, using a style called ‘porn chic’. You either thought Galliano was a total genius or you thought he was rather distasteful; there is no middle ground with him. Galliano was fired from the company in disgrace last year after being filmed drunk making anti-Semitic remarks. (He now needs an image-turnaround of his own, which will no doubt happen; the fickle fashion industry loves nothing more than a comeback kid.)
In April this year Raf Simons, the minimalist Belgian designer, was the surprise appointment as new creative director, (you could not get further removed from John Galliano as a designer, and that is precisely what they want), and his first haute couture collection was heralded as ‘the new couture’ with Simons saying he wanted to wipe the couture slate clean and start from scratch. With Simons and Van Assche’s crystal clear vision steering Dior, there seems to be no doubt that it will continue to grow from strength to strength as we move to the end of this decade.