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What Does it Take to Revive a Heritage Fashion House?

Model in a studio, wearing a blue taffeta blouse with cartwheel sleeves and a blue and black brocade skirt, with a pale pink satin scarf and crystal beads, by Schiaparelli.

“Without heritage, there cannot be a traditional luxury brand.” So stated Arnaude de Lummen, managing director of Luvanis, an investment firm which specializes in reviving heritage brands. De Lummen and his father, Guy, are at the forefront of awakening so-called “sleeping beauties” – dormant luxury brands with immense historical cachet yet no current commercial activity. They lie outside the scope of the main French conglomerates – LVMH and Kering – and privately owned brands such as Chanel and Hermès. Over the last two decades, Luvanis has played Prince Charming to the sleeping beauties of Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Moynat, and Poiret. Reviving an old brand has the advantages of both a recognizable name and a blank slate on which to create a new aesthetic from the ashes of the old one. But is buying a name merely a way for investors to save time? To get a brand to market without the lengthy and laborious practice of creating brand recognition and loyalty?

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.

The last decade or so has seen a revival of the grand old dames of fashion, including Schiaparelli, Balmain, and Carven, with more waiting for their prince in the wings. “Brands can go dormant but they don’t necessarily lose their value,” said Arnaud. “Some are too old-fashioned, but there are some that are timeless.”

Take Vionnet, the first brand to be revived by Luvanis. As the first French couture house to open a branch in the US in New York in 1925, Madame Vionnet sold her famous bias-cut gowns with unfinished hems so they could be tailored to each client. In Paris, she employed 1200 seamstresses, but decided to close her house and retire in 1939, war in Europe looming. Guy de Lummen’s decision to acquire the label in 1988 was not born from a love of fashion. This was not a fairy tale Sleeping Beauty being awakened with the gentle kiss of creativity – it was a case of a canny entrepreneur seeing an unmined business opportunity. Trained as a textile engineer, Guy had for years worked in upmarket ready-to-wear, including at Ted Lapidus and Balmain. He hit upon the idea to try to revive a prestigious couture brand through the creation of licenses. Choosing Vionnet came down to painstaking research and calculation: Guy looked for a house with the one-two punch of rich heritage and available intellectual property rights. He bought the rights with his own money and steadily worked at creating brand awareness around an old house mostly known only to fashion experts, with his son Arnaud commenting, “Far from being a weakness, it is the magic Vionnet paradox: for the consumer, Vionnet is a fresh name carrying a rich story.” Luvanis sold the brand in 2009, and today it’s in the hands of Goga Ashkenazi, who recently announced that the brand will be pivoting towards a being a sustainable, eco-friendly label. “We see it as the only way forward for us and humanity as a whole,” Ashkenazi has commented.

A century ago, Parisian couture was ruled by one man: Poiret. He presided over many firsts – his was the first Parisian house to present a signature fragrance and the first to shoot his clothing in an artistic – what today is known as editorial – setting, with photographer Edward Steichen. The first world war and the subsequent rise of Coco Chanel sounded the death knell for his house, and if it wasn’t for his friends in the industry, including Elsa Schiaparelli, he would’ve died in poverty and obscurity. Eight decades later, his heritage was being resuscitated for a new generation of connoisseurs – but it was not an easy-to-win battle. When Guy started on his revivalist journey, it was Poirot he had his sights on, before settling on the easier-to-acquire Vionnet. When you’re looking to relaunch a dormant brand, the first step is to hunt down every single shred of intellectual property left around the globe. This is done so the brand can be built back up from scratch, so there are no surprises popping out of the woodwork holding a patent or copyright to ransom. In the case of Poirot, there were five owners, with overlapping rights. No one owned a large enough share of the rights to do anything substantial with it, yet nobody was willing to let their share go. Guy managed to persuade one owner to sell his rights, and the rest dominoed. Luvanis sold the rights to South Korean luxury department store Shinsegae, who has tapped Belgian businesswoman Anne Chapelle as creative director and chief executive. Chapelle was the woman behind Ann Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann, growing both into the global successes they are today.

In order to successfully revive a heritage brand, you need to build on two distinct pillars: sharp business skills, and the history of the brand. A dormant brand’s strongest asset is its heritage – the codes, designs, and consumer goodwill associated with it. “Without heritage, there cannot be a traditional luxury brand,” Arnaud has said. But sometimes it pays to bend this perception. Balmain today is a far cry from Pierre Balmain’s buttoned-up elegance of the 1950s, yet Olivier Rousteing – its 33-year-old gunslinger of a creative director – has breathed life into it with his unabashedly sensual designs and social media presence. His coterie of Insta-famous supermodel friends – the so-called “Balmain army” – certainly also helps. Schiaparelli, too, has built on its founder’s singular vision after being bought in 2006 and showing its first couture show in six decades in 2014. Emanuel Ungaro was not as lucky. While not a decades-old couture house, it could still command a hefty price when it was sold in 2005, with Emanuel Ungaro’s retirement. A revolving door of designers followed, most disastrously Lindsay Lohan in 2009 (The New York Times likened it to “a McDonald’s fry cook taking the reins of a three-star Michelin restaurant.”) Halston’s revival was also not a resounding success, its lukewarm reception blamed on its owners – including Harvey Weinstein – wanting too much, too soon. It’s since been rebranded as Halston Heritage, aiming slightly below the luxury market. Carven, too, had to file for bankruptcy early last year and was snapped up by China’s Icicle Fashion Group. This does beg the question: Is legacy ever enough?

In order to bring a dormant brand back into mainstream circulation, you need to play the long game and have very deep pockets. Consumers’ expectations are much higher than with new brands, who are allowed room to fail. A luxury heritage house needs to take its time to establish what it wants to be and where it wants to go. Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, took this road with Moynat, avoiding the runway and the press in favor of a slow-burn approach, which is working in its favor so far.

It’s the fate of Lanvin that the industry is perhaps the most breathless about. It’s the oldest French house still in operation but after the tumultuous departure of much-loved creative director Alber Elbaz in 2015, it might soon be in need of Prince Charming’s kiss. But should investors be looking towards “sleeping beauties” when there are so many talented young designers needing financial investment? “The best brands have a story to tell,” Arnaud feels. In the case of heritage brands, it’s a story only time can tell.

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