WALL STREET JOURNAL | CHRISTINA BINKLEY
During the Paris fashion shows last week, a number of store buyers and style editors veered from the hubbub of the runways to the Yvon Lambert Gallery in the bohemian Marais district.
The draw: a new line of exquisitely detailed womenswear by the house of Rochas, a historic brand that for nearly three years had existed only as a lineof fragrances.
When owner Procter & GamblePG -0.58% shuttered the brand's fashion line in 2006, it seemed to be the end of Rochas. But as it turns out, those P&G fragrances kept the brand alive until a new manufacturer emerged.
Fashion and fragrance: It's one of the ready-to-wear industry's most stable marriages. Many, if not most, successful colognes are offshoots of luxury clothing brands. Gucci, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Thierry Mugler, Stella McCartney, Juicy Couture -- you can pick your favorite designer and smell like them. A number of once-celebrated fashion houses have been reduced to fragrances for years until a designer came along to air them out. Chanel was famously revived after years in a bottle. More recently, Vanessa Seward has been designing collections for Azzaro, known more for cologne than for clothes.
The benefits of fragrance for fashion are clear-cut. It costs more to manufacture clothes, which come in all those pesky styles and sizes, than scents. With their high margins, fragrances often contribute the lion's share of profits to a brand and can support it through boom and recession. At Puig Beauty & Fashion Group SL, the Spanish fashion company that owns Nina Ricci and Carolina Herrera, 80% of its net revenue came from fragrances in 2007, the most recent year reported.
Fashion these days is more about branding than clothes, and every brand needs a family of profitable products such as shoes, belts, bags and jewelry. "A brand is like a friend," said Robert Polet, chief executive of Gucci Group, whose Yves St. Laurent brand just turned profitable after years of losses. The path to profitability, he noted, involved marketing fragrances and dropping products that didn't draw fashion-minded consumers. "That's why there are no more YSL watches," he said.
But even as fragrances enrich fashion brands, it's a truth less acknowledged that fashion helps fragrances as well. Every good eau needs clothes.
When a brand is left with only a fragrance, as in the case of Rochas, it runs the risk of losing its relevance. "Fragrances have only a certain shelf life," says Robert Burke, an investment consultant and former Bergdorf Goodman executive. "Fragrances are generally successful when they're connected to a living person." The buzz created by celebrated designers and runway shows can update and revivify an old perfume.
So it was the fragrance of Rochas that lured Italian fashion manufacturer Gibò Co. SpA to re-open the house. After a licensing deal with P&G last fall, Gibò President Franco Penè hired Italian designer Marco Zanini. Mr. Penè asked for a collection with the elegant understatement of brands like Hermes and Gucci Group's Bottega Veneta, hoping to draw a contrast with flashy, heavily logoed lines. "The logo business was killing the luxury business," explains Mr. Penè.
This is hardly an ideal moment to introduce a new luxury-clothing line. After a six-year boom, luxury sales are expected to fall by at least 15% this year. Retailers like Saks and Neiman Marcus, facing tremendous losses, are cutting the size of their designer orders by between 20% and 30%. "It will be a difficult season," says Mr. Penè. I spent an hour at Gibò's Paris showroom last week and saw only one buyer looking over Rochas.
What's more, even the scent business couldn't prevent Rochas from losing money on clothes a few years ago. The house was founded in 1925 by Marcel Rochas, who has been credited with designing the first 2/3-length coats and skirts with pockets. By the time designer Olivier Theyskens was hired in 2002, Rochas was known more for cologne than clothes. But Mr. Theyskens's collections were critically acclaimed and turned that image around. He won the Council of Fashion Designers of America's International Award in 2006 -- akin to winning an Oscar.
Some of those gowns, though, were priced well over $30,000 -- reaching a thinly populated stratum that didn't make the line profitable. Procter & Gamble discontinued the clothes line within weeks of its designer's award.
It's worth noting that Mr. Theyskens two weeks ago left his job at Nina Ricci under similar circumstances -- critically acclaimed, highly expensive, detailed clothes that failed to meet profit goals.
Still, Mr. Zanini's Rochas is another world entirely. It's reasonably priced, as luxury clothing goes, with dresses costing between $950 and $1,400 at retail, and jackets priced between $850 and $1,300. Since that still isn't cheap, Mr. Zanini, a veteran of Halston and Versace whose deep sideburns give him a slightly wacky Victorian look, has endeavored to include for the brand's luxury clients the sort of interior details that have largely disappeared from modern clothing. Women's cardigans and jackets have generous interior pockets. Feather-light cashmere sweaters are lined in silk.
Everything is manufactured in Italy, and much of the work is done by hand. The result is understated and highly feminine. One knitted lace dress could be a workhorse, packable and, like the blazers, presentable at corporate meetings. Other elements of the collection, such as light silk blouses, are more fragile.
Rather than a logo, a signature Rochas ribbon runs through inside seams -- visible only to the woman who wears the clothes. In a knitted dress, the ribbon motif is subtly repeated in the knit pattern
"A garment is as important on the inside as on the outside," says Mr. Zanini. "For me, luxury is also the experience of wearing -- to discover the secrets of the pockets and the silk ribbon."