FINANCIAL TIMES | VANESSA FRIEDMAN
On Monday night, the great and good of New York, Hollywood and fashion mounted the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, evening gowns sparkling, tuxedos tailored, paparazzi snapping, to attend the city’s social event of the year: the Costume Institute Ball, which celebrates the opening of a new exhibit devoted to the art of dress. This season it is “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations”, an imaginary give-and-take between the two Italian designers, the first of whom died before the second ever hit the catwalks.
Yet, far from being a relic of the past, Schiaparelli-the-brand is currently being shaped for the future. Five years ago, Diego Della Valle, chairman of luxury goods group Tod’s bought the trademark to the house. Though he has allowed it to stay relatively dormant until now, the Met Ball has served as a wake-up call to the business. “It is a big opportunity to have the name become known by a new generation,” says the 58-year-old, noting that, while he had no part in planning the show, it would be a mistake not to exploit such a platform.
He has recently signed up the brand’s first ambassador – someone who will embody Schiaparelli publicly for the future – in the form of Farida Khelfa, the French-Algerian model/actress and former muse to both Azzedine Alaïa and Jean-Paul Gaultier. He has also committed to a timeline to launch: this July he will unveil the renovation of the original Schiaparelli Maison in Paris at 21 Place Vendôme, three floors of atelier, apartment, archive and offices; in September, the company will name the new designer; and next March, during the ready-to-wear shows, hold the first runway presentation.
More important, however, with Schiaparelli Mr Della Valle is articulating a new approach to luxury. Instead of creating and showing between four and eight collections a year, Schiaparelli will have only two. Rather than launching as a “lifestyle” brand offering fashion, beauty, homewares and gifts, Schiaparelli will be limited to clothing, accessories and fragrance/body lotion.
Instead of creating entry-level products that allow for price elasticity, Schiaparelli will also be very expensive – higher, Mr Della Valle says, than top-priced ready-to-wear brands such as Chanel and Tom Ford. He identifies the clothing as “prêt-a-couture”: a new level somewhere between very high-end ready-to-wear and the made-for-you couture extravaganzas that cost from €20,000.
In addition, instead of being available worldwide, Schiaparelli will be sold only at Place Vendôme; there will be no wholesale, and no advertising.
Production will be largely done in Italy. Yet, Mr Della Valle says, just because the brand “is not commercial, does not mean it won’t be profitable”.
“It’s not the normal way to do things,” says Robert Burke, founder of an eponymous luxury brand consultancy. “Traditionally, relaunching an old brand involved a star designer, a big show and flooding the normal distribution channels. But then, Schiaparelli was never terribly normal in the first place.”
Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most influential female designers in fashion history, but her business suffered during the second world war and closed in 1954. “We could do collections for 20 years just from the archives,” says Mr Della Valle. “There are a lot of rich people in the world who want something very special.”
Arnaud de Lummen, a French entrepreneur who specialises in identifying and relaunching old luxury trademarks, echoes this view. “There is a great magic and attraction to a ‘rediscovered’ gem, which gives a sense of pride and connoisseurship for those who have it,” he recently told Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry publication.
This new model is not without its critics, however. “I don’t think restricting distribution to this extent makes something desirable for the younger generation,” says one luxury observer. “It’s a mistake most of the luxury brand managers make: they don’t understand that the younger consumer who has grown up with Twitter and accessibility, defines exclusivity differently.”
Indeed, the Schiaparelli model described by Mr Della Valle is more reminiscent of the historic structure of a couture house, which demanded clients come to the designer, than the new way of thinking, which has brands such as Chanel taking its couture shows (complete with extravagant sets and famous models) to clients as far afield as Asia. “Discovery is not dependent on inaccessibility,” says the observer.
Mr Diella Valle says he was attracted to Schiaparelli both because of the values the brand represents – “modernity, style, independence” – and because of its success in the lucrative areas of perfume (the house’s fragrance “Shocking” was the main rival to Chanel No 5 when it was launched in 1937) and accessories (Schiaparelli was as famous for her “shoe hat” as her “lobster dress”), which he calls “the most important part of luxury today”.
The brand also fits in to what has become something of a personal crusade to preserve the cultural heritage of Italy, be it La Scala (Mr Della Valle has pledged €5.2m for its restoration), the Colosseum (a pledge of €25m) or one of its most famous fashion names.
Still, he has taken his time with the relaunch. One reason could be that it has become increasingly clear how difficult re-energising an old house can be. For every super successful Chanel or Burberry there is an equally high-profile failure.
Aquascutum, the storied British house founded in 1884 and owned since 2003 by fashion entrepreneur Harold Tillman, went into administration in April.
Meanwhile, despite its vaunted pedigree, Paris-based Vionnet, which was acquired by Matteo Marzotto former president of Valentino, in 2009, has not been able to find the alchemical combination of modern designer, heritage inspiration and corporate investment and governance that creates aesthetic and balance sheet gold.
“No one wants an Ungaro on their hands” says Mr Burke, referring to another once-storied French couture house that went through a revolving door of CEOs and designers after the founder retired, and this year dropped off the Paris fashion show schedule.
This is an especially acute challenge for a house such as Schiaparelli, whose fame can be both an advantage (its history creates a structure for a new designer) and a potential problem (it also creates expectations on the part of the buying public that a designer may, or may not, meet).
Indeed, Mr Della Valle says he has been called “every week at least” for the past few years about various rumours regarding his appointment of a new designer.
So far the names that have been mentioned are Brit Giles Deacon (who briefly designed a capsule collection for Fay and also worked at Ungaro), Frenchman Roland Mouret, Belgian Olivier Theyskens and, most recently, John Galliano, the British designer who had to leave Dior after making anti-Semitic remarks.
Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue and one of the most influential voices in fashion, suggested in the New Yorker magazine that Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the American designers behind Rodarte, would be good candidates for the post.
Mr Della Valle has denied all such rumours, and will simply say that he does not consider “being a star designer” a pre-requisite for the appointment. He is currently deep in the hiring process and estimates that by next September, just after the Schiaparelli & Prada exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum closes, he will have 40 people in Place Vendôme, with a further 60 joining the atelier by February 2013.
“I think this will be a wait and see situation,” says Mr Burke. “But if it succeeds it has the potential to make people in the industry rethink the way they present and distribute product. Fashion will copy anything if it works.”