Why Fashion's Recent Acquisitions Are a Positive
Why Fashion's Recent Acquisitions Are a Positive
- Words Eamon Levesque
- Date September 05, 2018
It’s getting harder and harder to walk down the runway without being propped up from behind.
2018 saw three of fashion’s great independent stalwarts all accept buyout offers from fashion conglomerates. The most recent of these, announced last week, was that Italian tailoring monolith Zegna had bought 85 percent of American suiting icon Thom Browne for half a billion dollars. Belgian master of tasteful maximalism Dries Van Noten sold the majority of his label to Spanish fragrance giant Puig, an ironic move for a label that Vogue once praised for not franchising itself out to perfume. Finally, Italian knitwear legends Missoni sold a 42 percent stake to an Italian investment firm in June, retaining majority control but certainly marking a change in the 65 years of family ownership by the company.
In the past, corporate takeovers such as these would cause fans and fashion critics to cry “sellout,” fearing that the consideration of shareholder interests would overexpose and therefore ruin their favorite brands. Historically, these people were often correct. Diffusion brands and over-marketing have caused great labels to lose sight of what made them great, or to stop innovating entirely. This is broken down well in Elizabeth Segran’s piece “What Happened, Ralph And Tommy?" Brands like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Coach delivered products that allowed America to have truly competitive brands in the global fashion landscape for the first time in the 20th century. Yet, in the years after their initial success, all of them saw dollar signs in taking their respective images and licensing them out wherever possible, causing their allure to evaporate. As Segran describes: “There was a time when buying a Coach bag meant walking into an elegant shop, where you’d speak with a knowledgeable sales associate and feel like you were treating yourself to an exclusive experience. But there’s nothing remotely glamorous about picking up that same Coach bag in a messy, overcrowded department store… bargain prices robbed luxury brands of their mystique.”
More recently, indie fashion purists will point to Maison Martin Margiela as an example of what can happen when an iconoclastic house succumbs to corporate pressure. After being acquired by Only the Brave Group (owners of Diesel, among others) in 2002, Martin Margiela subsequently departed his house in 2009. Though (obviously) he himself did not comment on the matter, he left behind a brand that, while still relevant, leaned much more heavily on sneakers and fragrance. His departure was only announced after being kept under the radar for several seasons, for fear that this would be taken as the ultimate death of the legendary brandless brand. Critics rushed to say that they could tell Margiela had been asleep at the wheel for the last several years, and that the house would never be the same. But when Thom Browne’s announcement game around, the reception was much the opposite. Vogue declared it, “a big win for independent designers.” Business of Fashion referred to it as a “bold expansion.” Why shouldn’t we be afraid that Dries, Missoni and Thom are heading for the same fate as—let’s say—Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger?
While admiring artists who can self-sustain makes sense, it’s worth noting that the idea of an independent designer and the realities of them are often miles apart. Consider that Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Chanel are, to some degree, all “independent,” in the sense that they’re privately owned or still majority-owned by someone with the same last name as the label. Those labels all do billions of dollars in sales a year. All of them run the gamut from Prada’s highly-praised, thought-provoking work on the runway to Dolce & Gabbana, who nowadays only ever make headlines when they’re saying something ignorant or beefing with Selena Gomez. Simply using private ownership as an immediate indicator of artistic integrity doesn’t make much sense in this context. It’s certainly not an indicator of quality, either.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of the most avant-garde designers out there are conglomerate-owned. Marni—a brand with a ton of insider cachet and far more focus on runway than accessories or licensing—is an Only the Brave-owned property as well, just like Margiela. Hedi Slimane, Kris Van Assche and now Kim Jones have made major splashes at Dior Homme, all while being part of the biggest luxury conglomerate of all: LVMH. We can’t forget that even the avant-garde demigod Margiela himself designed some absolutely incredible collections while working under the banner at Hermès. Plenty of noteworthy collections have been made and produced while under the name of a brand he didn’t found (or, more importantly own a controlling stake in) himself. This is to say nothing of the monolithic collection of brands that sit under the watchful eye of Rei Kawakubo and the Comme des Garçons umbrella.
Also helping ease the transition process for these brands is the benefit of hindsight. Van Noten has been around for more than a hundred collections, Missoni for 65 years, Browne for a more modest but still-respectable 14. None of these labels are flash-in-the-pan fads that a greedy conglomerate will drive into the ground. It’s profoundly unlikely that any of them will end up at TJ Maxx or Century 21 in our lifetimes. Every interview made around the timing of these acquisitions has been colored by one assurance or another that the new owners will “let Dries be Dries,” “let Thom Browne be independent” or that the Missoni family “will remain in control.” Reducing the exclusivity of these brands and compromising what makes them great is simply bad for business.
That said, why now? What trend pushed these three labels to make roughly the same business decisions within such a short span?
Despite the drastic differences between the three brands, they do have one thing in common: They know how to sell clothes. That sounds redundant, but it’s actually the one thing many major fashion labels have forgotten how to do as of late. Kering-sponsored Gucci, for example, is a great example of a conglomerate-owned massive designer brand that has only just revitalized its clothing under Alessandro Michele in the last few years. While the choice to keep Frida Giannini in the creative director’s seat led the brand into stagnation, Kering’s ability to recognize the potential of young talent like Michele has allowed the brand to become one of the strongest fashion houses in the world. Michele gifts the fashion world with his excitingly fresh, instantly recognizable aesthetic, Kering reaps a return on investment—everyone wins. You could make a similar claim with Balenciaga’s (also Kering-owned) move to work with then-up-and-coming designer Demna Gvasalia. No matter what you think about Michele’s or Gvasalia’s design tropes, there’s no denying they’ve made their mark on the modern fashion landscape.
As Michele proves, it may be that designers who know how to create and maintain the absolutely cult-like followings that Dries, Missoni and Browne do are now in high demand. All of those names are ones that inspire lifelong relationships with the product. Missoni sweaters are heirloom pieces, Dries inspires fanatical collectors, and there will always be someone walking around Manhattan in head-to-toe Thom Browne.
Unlike the history of rapid expansion into brand diffusion— especially post-financial injection—that plagued labels in the ’90s and early-’00s, it’s unlikely that labels like Dries Van Noten or Thom Browne are going to start spawning spinoff after spinoff. Rather, the injection of cash is perhaps best viewed as a column to support these respective brands’ creative intricacies; Browne is known for his ostentatious performance art-by way of-runway show while Van Noten is known for his meticulous devotion to material, detail and pure craft.
Sure, these brands may have banked upon their privately-owned status in the past, but simply bringing in some financial refreshment doesn’t automatically mean their respective visions will be corrupted. Dissecting the Browne deal, Business of Fashion notes that Zegna’s knowledge of fabrics and suiting is only an asset to Browne’s business, which boasts, “a winning formula that unites strong fashion currency, born from the strange and subversive fruit of Browne’s wildly creative imagination, with both impeccable tailoring and a more commercial core-product range composed of perennial pieces like oxford shirts and sweatpants.” Given that Browne’s cult following in the US—but particularly the emerging Asian markets—has made his brand popular with an Instagram generation, the traditional Italian tailoring house receives a bump by association. In other words, Zegna’s not buying into Browne to change his recipe for success—they’re just helping him get that product out to more people while boosting their own profile to new clientele. The artist can create, while the patron reaps the profit (and, for what it’s worth, some pretty incredible clothing).
In a way, this recent rush of acquisitions has to make you wonder: When it comes to fashion (conglomerates), who says you can’t buy cool?
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