Dusting Off Fashion's Old Bags

  • Share
  • Read Later
Perhaps the Bible is wrong, and you really can put new wine into old wineskins.

It certainly seems to be the business model for lots of old, fusty fashion labels these days. The fashion industry has always had a voracious appetite for the new and the young—and has ultimately lost gobs of money pursuing them. But it has recently developed a taste for Lazarus labels, back from the dead and back in the black.

It seems inconceivable that there was a time when Prada and Gucci were considered dull, cheesy or both, but with some effort, it's possible to recall a world in which the distinctive tan-red-white-and-black plaid of Burberry was thought to be appropriate only for the lining of Granddad's raincoat. It was three years ago, to be precise—before Burberry underwent radical image surgery and made a plaid raid on everything from bikinis to bags to little doggy coats and on everyone from Kate Moss to the wife of the British Prime Minister. Now such sensible old-timers as Coach, Dunhill and even the venerable Swiss shoe company Bally are going through a similar process of fust removal, hoping to mimic the Burberry magic.

The idea seems so simple. Take a brand that has name recognition and an impressive archive but whose products are more likely to be seen on mall-walking matrons than on Madonna and inject the elixir of youth. That is, find an unsung young designer to create a new line of products, or conceive of a new store that will catch the eye of the fashion press and stylists. Encourage those stylists to nudge some free stuff toward a celebrity or two. Put some mad money into the hands of coltish ad folks, and create unfathomable but cool ad campaigns. Widen the product range—but gently, so as not to scare people. Get rid of all the dowdier stores and licensees. And presto! Your dog of a luxury label just became desirable to three times as many people without, if you've done it right, losing any of its snob appeal.

"Getting our bikini on Kate Moss cut the average age of our customers 30 years in one fell swoop," said Rose Marie Bravo, the voluble American who has steered the British Burberry brand for the past four years. Call it a billion-dollar bikini. Analysts valued Burberry at $280 million this time last year. Burberry's ipo, which is set to launch in mid-2002, anticipates a value of as much as $2.8 billion.

But is it really that easy? Burberry has had triple-digit growth since it started its makeover, but the creative director who was applying the hipness lift left last month by what the company described as "mutual agreement" and was replaced by a designer from Gucci. The signature plaid has been knocked off more often than a milk bottle at a carnival booth.

Dunhill, or as it is known since the revamp, Dunhill' (apparently punctuation is key—Burberry used to be Burberry's) was the definition of a brand that had lost its libido. Most people associated the name with smoking, although it divorced the tobacco business 10 years ago. After its parent, Swiss luxury-goods company Richemont, appointed Guy Leymarie to take over the reins, Leymarie hired a designer from Hermès to do the menswear collections and a couple of smart young architects to do a new store. Leymarie also came up with a tag line for all the new ads: "For Mature Audiences," although, as he pointed out, "that doesn't mean old. You can be 25 and be mature." Which is just as well, because the Dunhill' website would be baffling to anyone not accustomed to a steady diet of rock videos. And the company dipped into the archives, reproducing, among other things, a Dunhillian cricket ball.

Will it work? It's a tough call, since there is no identifiable Dunhill' fashion statement for young people to latch on to. But signs are encouraging. April's opening of the flagship store in London generated the requisite buzz. Guy Ritchie, also known as Mr. Madonna, wore a Dunhill' suit at his wedding. And Leymarie has already been promoted to head up Richemont's Cartier division. (Are there Cartier tongue studs in our future?)

The marketing folks of almost every brand that is trying to unstuffy itself will insist that what the company is doing is not about fashion. They do this partially for the benefit of Wall Street—fashion is cyclical and temporary, and the marketers need to convince investors that their brand will be Armani or Ralph Lauren, never really going off the boil. So how to reposition Coach, a purveyor of high-quality if not sex-drenched handbags, whose turf was being mowed by more fashion-aware companies, such as Kate Spade, and by other designers who were beginning to do handbags?

Coach's answer was fashion. To upgrade Coach, CEO Lew Frankfort went downtown. He hired a cherub-faced designer from Tommy Hilfiger, Reed Krakoff. (Anyone sensing a pattern here?) The two set about turning Coach into a "lifestyle brand," which is to say, instead of just bags, they decided to make everything. Krakoff persuaded the company to dislodge some stodge by making accessories out of something other than leather. One of the resulting bags, in jacquard with a C logo that was inspired by a lining the company once used (those archives again), was a big hit with the fashionistas. By association, Coach's shoes, watches and sunglasses became cool too.

"Our rejuvenation has been an effort for us to catch up with what some of our fashion-oriented consumers were purchasing elsewhere," says Frankfort. "It's meant to be in style today and at the same time tomorrow's classic." As brand renovations go, Coach's has been heroic. The company went public in October, cutting the cord from parent Sara Lee Corp., a cheesecake-and-underwear conglomerate. The stock price has more than doubled. It fairly trumpeted its third-quarter results, tooting that compared with last year, profits were up 156%, to $7.8 million on sales of $131 million. From here, Frankfort wants to use the same model overseas and coax Coach onto as many Japanese arms as he can.

The self-resuscitators are also being helped by the increasing popularity of vintage clothes. The everything-old-is-new-again trend means wearing Pauline Trigere is cooler than wearing Donna Karan. Old Chanel is better than new. In which case, Texas Pacific Group may have hit the mother lode in the somnolent 150-year-old Bally, which it bought late in 1999. Bally has a reputation for expensive, well-made shoes that register zero on the Richter scale. But the new creative director, Scott Fellows, has something most designers don't: a Harvard M.B.A. (He also attended the Fashion Institute of Technology.) He and his thirtysomething former Harvard roommate, Abel Halpern, who is a managing director at Texas Pacific, have added all the right ingredients: a minimalist new store in Berlin and one on its way in Los Angeles (appositely opposite Gucci and Prada, which started this whole thing), editorial wooing and an edgy ad campaign. Oh, yes, and clothes. The Milan runway show in March drew accolades. Don't be surprised if your teenager starts haranguing you to go to "the Bally."

And the fogeys aren't going away. LVMH recently bought Pucci; the Gucci group is revamping Bottega Veneta; and no less venerable a jeweler than Asprey & Garrard has hired Jade Jagger (yep, Mick's daughter) and her partner as designers.

This could be the first time in history when the most fashionable thing to be is totally out of fashion.