In fashion, the brand plays on

Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton has a sensibility different from her predecessor.
(Justin Lane / EPA)
Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

Any doubt that there would be life for the Alexander McQueen brand after the death of its founder should have vanished over the last two weeks. The hoopla surrounding the opening of the “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the revelation that his successor — Sarah Burton — designed Catherine Middleton’s wedding gown, were a one-two punch for a brand that could easily have stumbled after McQueen’s suicide at age 40 in February 2010.

The speed and ease with which the transition has taken place raises a question that has haunted several top-tier design houses in the past: What happens to a brand when it loses its big-name designer? Whether it’s Christian Dior, whose creative director John Galliano was fired in March following an alleged racist outburst, or Calvin Klein, whose founder left the building years ago, how do luxury brands handle a transfer of power?

The McQueen brand was just 18 years old when he died.

“I don’t know if the transition would have been so successful if not for the media glare of the wedding,” said Adam Hanft, a consumer marketing expert and chief executive of marketing firm Hanft Projects in New York.


Enter Burton, who was toiling away quietly behind the scenes until the royal wedding day but is now a global fashion star with a label that could be more profitable under her direction than under McQueen’s.

“Sarah Burton is a different person, and she is reflecting what has gone before, while bringing her own sensibility to the brand,” says Mark Tungate, the Paris-based author of “Luxury World: The Past, Present and Future of Luxury Brands.” “She’s doing a bit of Alexander McQueen light. She doesn’t have his dark vision. She’s inspired more by the general idea of Britishness, paganism and the warrior element.”

Had McQueen been alive, it’s possible that he would not even have been asked to design the gown. Or if he had been asked, he might have declined. (This is a designer after all, who had a reputation for being a rebel, and who, while apprenticing on Savile Row, famously scrawled a profanity on the lining of a jacket destined for Prince Charles.)

Regardless of whether the legacy of McQueen the man was betrayed by having his name associated with the royal family, McQueen the brand benefited enormously from the wedding, and from the exhibition, which it is underwriting.

Robert Burke, president of consulting firm Robert Burke Associates, gives McQueen’s parent company, French conglomerate PPR, kudos. “PPR has been very strategic in getting Sarah Burton out there and giving her credit for the work she did prior.”

Burton was the head of women’s wear design at McQueen before taking on her current role as creative director in May 2010. Individual sales figures for the McQueen brand have not been released since then, but sales from PPR’s luxury goods brands, including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and McQueen, increased 26% in the first quarter of 2011 over the same period in 2010.

“A transition can be beneficial, because it opens the door for reinterpretation of the brand DNA,” says Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner with global management consulting firm Bain & Co., who is based in Milan, Italy.

How Burton chooses to craft her public image remains to be seen. So far, she seems mild-mannered compared with McQueen, who once mooned the crowd, in lieu of a bow, at the end of his runway show.

Experts say that having a high-profile designer is more important when resurrecting a dormant brand, a label that certainly applied to Chanel when Karl Lagerfeld arrived in 1983, and Louis Vuitton when Marc Jacobs joined in 1998.

After Coco Chanel died in 1971, sales dropped off dramatically, and by the time Lagerfeld took the reins, Chanel was little more than a perfume company. He transformed it into a multibillion-dollar global luxury goods powerhouse, inspiring what former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck calls “the Lazarus movement” in fashion. The business model of hiring designers to revive dormant brands is still the norm today. Jacobs performed a similar turnaround at Vuitton, restoring value to the LV logo after it fell out of fashion in the early 1990s.

“When you buy a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you don’t think about the person who designed the packaging. But in fashion, you are selling a dream,” Tungate says. “And it’s easier to reincarnate a dream when you have a personality who you can aspire to, or who can be entertaining in their otherness.”

Tom Ford, for example, became creative director of Gucci in 1994, when the company was coming off a decade of family feuds and scandal, during which time its luxury goods lost their luster.

“He had a tabula rasa to create what he wanted. So, like all good designers, he looked at the heritage, and the element of Gucci he chose to play up was the flashy Italian playboy, which he then turned into something harder and more disco,” Tungate says. Ford restored sex and glamour to the brand, and along with then-CEO Domenico de Sole, built Gucci into a $10-billion business.

In 2004, when Ford left over a contract dispute, the fashion community reacted to his departure as though it were the end times. But it turned out even the charismatic Ford was replaceable. Gucci may have faltered for a couple of years, first appointing a team of three designers to take Ford’s place (including then-accessories creative director Frida Giannini), followed by the ill-equipped Alessandra Facchinetti. The brand soon regained its footing under the sole leadership of Giannini, who took over in 2006, and chose to play up the brand’s more ladylike Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly, 1960s-era DNA instead.

The fashion house Christian Dior has had several incarnations since the death of its founding designer in 1957. It was briefly under the direction of Yves Saint Laurent, then Marc Bohan, then Gianfranco Ferrè and most recently Galliano (the ousted designer’s replacement is yet to be named).

“Galliano was great for Dior when he came, because Dior was like a grandmother’s brand, and he was so provocative,” Tungate says.

But it is a different time now. And Dior, like Calvin Klein, is a brand that has taken on a life of its own, regardless of the name behind the label. In 2003, Klein sold his company to Phillips-Van Heusen and retired from the runway. The runway collection has been designed by Francisco Costa ever since, but it is the more affordable licensed sportswear and denim lines that have brought the brand to a younger generation. “Younger consumers don’t even know there is a Calvin Klein,” says Hanft, who has worked with brands such as AT&T, Viacom and AOL Time Warner.

He predicts a trend toward the further depersonalizing of brands in the future. “The last thing you want to do is have your brand tied to a personality, especially in an industry where bad behavior is the norm.”

Brand identities will be crafted around heritage and associations rather than a designer personality, as we’ve seen at Hermes with its equestrian heritage and Prada with its relationship to the contemporary art world.

“Dior will want to take a rest from someone who is a lightning rod and go for a designer more known for what they turn out,” Hanft says.

Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research firm, agrees. “The more it is about the personality, the less it is about the product and the customer.”

Too bad there aren’t any upcoming royal weddings in France.