Those PPR folks are making the gossip waters churn. Today, my colleague Cathy Horyn of the New York Times says NY hipster designer Alexander Wang is the top candidate for the artistic director job (artistic director, creative director, designer – does anyone else wish these companies would regularise their titles?) at Balenciaga, while WWD is reporting that Christopher Kane, the erstwhile favourite for that spot, is being looked at in the context of buying his eponymous brand. Golly! Two young designers at once.
Both, however, would be surprising moves. Here’s why:
First, Wang. He’s a streetwear/contemporary market designer, known primarily for his cool T-shirts, trousers and bomber jackets. Yesterday, talking to a friend in town from Italy, Wang’s name came up as a designer her 16-year-old loved. Doesn’t seem to me 16-year-olds are Balenciaga’s target customer.
So if he is the pick, that leads me to think that maybe PPR wants to change direction with Balenciaga, and go in for a more contemporary and less haute mode, so it can get into that lucrative market, which is growing in China. See what LVMH has done with Kenzo, for example, where hipster boutique owners Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have moved that brand into the contemporary direction. Or even what Andrew Rosen has done with Helmut Lang in NYC.
But to turn Balenciaga, with its storied history and rigorous design sense, into a jeans and tees brand seems almost, well, sacrilegious. I know fashion has a notoriously short memory, but still. Heritage matters.
So maybe then they all see this as an opportunity to create something really different for Wang; for him to go seriously upmarket and do the opposite of his own brand. In which case it’s an enormous risk, because nothing he has done so far indicates that he has a haute sensibility. And then there’s the fact that his own line is manufactured in Asia, where he has family connections, and he has not been part of the obsessive “Made In” trend that is so dear to European heritage brands.
Besides, if Wang were to get the job, what would happen to his eponymous brand? Presumably he would have to move to Paris – it’s too big a post and risk, and he’s too inexperienced (he launched his own brand in 2007) to pull off a Hedi Slimane, of YSL, and do it from overseas – which suggests it would be shuttered. But it’s just gotten off the ground! And the idea of letting one designer do two brands is generally accepted as being unworkable (Reed Krakoff and Coach aside).
Of course, it’s possible they could try to have their cake and eat it too, and use the runway as a conceptual showcase and the jeans and tees as the revenue-generating stuff, which wouldn’t be that different from the current situation (the jeans part aside). I am the first to say I am often bamboozled by fashion choices. So we’ll wait until next week – apparently D-Day – for the announcement.
Now, on to Kane.
PPR has said quite publically that they are interested in small to medium-sized companies with growth potential (see Brioni), and as they dispose Redcats, the last of their consumer goods brands, and list Fnac on the stock exchange, they may have some cash to spend. But buzzy as he is, Kane’s business is so tiny I’m not sure it qualifies, and it is ready-to-wear focussed, as opposed to accessories driven, which makes profits even more complicated. And building a business in today’s climate, as Pierre Mallevays of Savigny Partners said recently to Women’s Wear, requires so much investment, circumstances mitigate against it (unless, apparently, you’re Qatari).
So again, though I would love to think that new houses can be made instead of old ones endlessly revived, this seems implausible to me. Though if PPR were to embark on such a project (which would also reweigh their portfolio to UK brands so that Kane would form a troika with Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, making the Brits equal to the four Italian brands – Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Brioni and Sergio Rossi – and three French – Balenciaga, YSL, and Boucheron – they own) it would cast them as fashion’s white knight, a PR triumph that might be worth the expense of brand building.