Reinventing Givenchy

Reinventing Givenchy

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It’s a word that has been attached to Ms. Waight Keller, 47, through most of her career, as the Birmingham, England-born designer has methodically climbed the fashion hierarchy: from design director of men’s wear at Ralph Lauren to senior designer at Gucci to creative director of Pringle of Scotland to creative director of Chloé to, finally, Givenchy, a brand steeped in the history of French couture and Hollywood, all of it accomplished so unobtrusively no one entirely realized what was happening.

Clare Waight Keller’s official Givenchy portrait.

Credit
Steven Meisel

But that does not mean that on Sunday, when Ms. Waight Keller’s first women’s and men’s collection for Givenchy is unveiled — the last of three big designer debuts taking place this Paris Fashion Week, and potentially the most freighted — she does not have revolution in mind.

“I want to build an entirely new story,” she said. “I want people to think, ‘that was completely unexpected.’ ” She was talking both about the brand and herself.

WHEN IT WAS FIRST ANNOUNCED that Ms. Waight Keller was taking over at Givenchy after Mr. Tisci resigned earlier in the year, a lot of eyebrows were raised. Part of it had to do with fashion’s increasingly short memory (“But wait — she’s never done men’s wear,” was a common refrain, even though she had done it for both Ralph Lauren and Pringle).

Part of it had to do with the fact that her success at Chloé over the preceding six years had been built on a soft-focus aesthetic different from the more severely chic lines of Givenchy. And part of it had to do with the fact that, in an industry that tends to associate oversize personalities with creativity, her reticence had made her easy to overlook.

“It was a big, bold choice for them both,” said Daniella Vitale, chief executive of Barneys New York. One not without risk.

Ms. Waight Keller, 47, through most of her career, as the Birmingham, England-born designer has methodically climbed the fashion hierarchy.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Especially in the wake of Mr. Tisci, an emotive, Instagram-savvy Italian who reinvigorated the brand by crossbreeding its Audrey Hepburn past with his own gothic sensibility and a dose of the street to make it relevant to the Kardashians and Beyoncé alike. “He had a different kind of energy,” Mr. Fortunato said, which is one way of putting it.

By contrast, when she left Chloé in January, speculation was rife that Ms. Waight Keller wanted to return to England to spend more time with her family. (If you think that sounds like gender-bias, you are probably right.) She has three children, 14-year-old identical-twin girls and a 6-year-old son, who live in London with her husband, an architect; she spends Friday to Monday with them and then takes the Eurostar back to Paris.

Ms. Waight Keller rolled her eyes at the suggestion of time out. “Six months of gardening leave was not really something I wanted to contemplate,” she said. Her low-key manner has always masked an ambition that is only now really becoming clear.

“Givenchy gives me the opportunity to focus on something the complete opposite of what I have done before,” Ms. Waight Keller continued. “It’s got a very different undercurrent. It’s really what people don’t know about me.”

It’s a side of her that became apparent when she began talking to Mr. Fortunato about the job, and she presented him (and later Mr. Arnault) with a 150-page book she had created that detailed what she called a “360-degree” plan for the brand, including about 50 ready-to-wear sketches and 20 handbag designs.

Givenchy has distributed “Wanted” posters, prompting thousands to register for a show ticket giveaway.

Credit
via Givenchy

She now has the sort of control over the house that a designer such as Alessandro Michele has at Gucci and Hedi Slimane had at Yves Saint Laurent. But LVMH has historically been reluctant to grant its artistic directors broad oversight, and that was one of the reasons Raf Simons, a much-feted designer at Christian Dior, left that brand in 2015.

It’s not just the clothes and the bags and the shoes — and the jewels and the children’s wear and the sunglasses — it’s also the ad campaigns and the image of the beauty and fragrance lines, and the packaging, the website, store displays and lighting, and celebrity relationships. She is planning monthly capsule collection drops online à la Supreme. She is going to bring back the couture runway, which Givenchy discontinued in 2012. And not just for women — for men, too.

All of which means she is very likely doing the most collections of any designer in Paris, at a time when most of her peers have been very vocal about the need to do less, and think more. “I’m quite organized,” Ms. Waight Keller said of her management style. “I think process creates structure and structure creates clarity. Chaos creates neuroses.”

LVMH has a lot riding on the idea she is right; the brand now has revenues believed to be approaching 600 million euros ($715 million) annually (LVMH’s annual reports do not break out the performance of brands in what it calls “the Fashion Group”) and, Mr. Arnault said, “I think it will grow very fast in the next two years.” He says he thinks it has the potential to reach the size of Dior, which is a member of the billion-euro club.

“Clare has a very clear vision, even if she comes across as peaceful,” Mr. Fortunato said. “She’s actually quite demanding. And very driven.” One of her first moves was to sign up the photographer Steven Meisel, to shoot not only her first teaser ad campaign but also her new official portrait. It’s black and white, and she is staring directly at the viewer. (A famous earlier portrait had her laughing and looking down, face half hidden by her hair). She is preparing herself for her close up.

One of the designer’s mood boards.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

RECENTLY, “WANTED” POSTERS have popped up around Milan, Paris, London and New York featuring a photo of a glossy black cat with staring eyes, plus the usual tear-off tags with contact information. If you look closely, they are invitations to register on the Givenchy website for tickets to the spring 2018 show. Three winners will be chosen; as of Sunday morning, 50,000 had signed up.

“I really have no idea what we are going to see,” Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said not long before the show. Originally, industry speculation centered on the assumption that Ms. Waight Keller, who has a gamin air about her, was going to reorient the brand toward its Hepburn history, an idea she dismissed as a bit obvious. Rather, what interested her about that relationship was the partnership between a man — Hubert de Givenchy — and a woman.

It’s one of “the founding myths” of the brand, she said, and part of the reason one of her first decisions was to give the men’s and women’s sides parity: to combine the genders in her shows, her campaigns, her stories. (Givenchy is also the rare brand where sales are divided equally between the sexes.)

She did go into the archive, and she did spend a lot of time thinking about M. de Givenchy, whom she refers to as “Hubert” (though they have yet to meet), and she did connect to his shapes from the 1950s and ’60s, and yes, there is lace, and, yes, there is a trench. But the end result is, she said, “very graphic, much darker.” She borrowed an animal print, and one of gold lips. On the runway, expect to see a lot of “drama through the shoulder” for women and flared legs for men. Also daywear. Also bags.

Accessories, and in particular leather goods, are the driver of luxury brands — with one size fits all and highly attractive margins, they can buoy a bottom line. When it comes to bags, Givenchy has a spotty record but, as it happens, Ms. Waight Keller “has a special talent for accessories,” Mr. Arnault said. It’s one area she takes very personally. The new style, which will be introduced on the runway, has been named GV3, in honor of the brand’s address.

That this might be a focus was fairly predictable. Otherwise, Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, said she expected a “unique vision of the archetypical Parisienne.”

Mr. Downing summed it up: “The only thing I know is: It’s not going to be Givenchy as we know it.”

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