Sure, history repeats itself, but what if you are in the business of repeating history? Is there a way to do it well? Are there best practices? Dos and don’ts?
I am talking of storied luxury brands—think Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and umpteen others—that count their history and heritage as their prime asset. The strength of their archives distinguishes them—something that brands created in more recent times can never have—and the nub of their business boils down to reinterpreting those archives for modern times.
This back-to-the-future act is tricky, especially as the designer whose name is on the label is long gone, a series of designers may have come and gone, adding their own imprint on the archives, and it is up to the latest designer to meld his creativity and vision with that of a past master. How is one to be path-breaking—for isn’t that what fashion is all about—while conforming to the codes of a bygone era?
Examples from the Paris Fashion Week (Ready to wear, Fall/Winter 2013-14) are instructive, and I am going to draw on three brands that demonstrate three different approaches to referencing the past.
Balenciaga: by the book
Had he been alive today, Cristóbal Balenciaga—the Spanish-born designer who ran one of the most revered fashion houses in Paris—would have been 118. Alexander Wang, the designer entrusted with breathing new life into the brand, is 29. Add on the fact that Wang is Chinese American, grew up in California and is now quite the rising star in the highly competitive New York fashion scene, has cut his design teeth on a youthful street-meets-sporty aesthetic with his eponymous six-year-old brand, is sure-footed with today’s media and knows how to rustle up a buzz.
Honestly, it leaves you struggling to find something in common with the reclusive Balenciaga—he gave one interview in his entire life—who was admired for his innovative cuts and diehard perfectionism, who his contemporaries—Coco Chanel and Christian Dior among them—looked up to as the “master of us all”. Could Wang possibly deliver?
Yet, as the first model walked down the specially constructed marble ramp, it was evident that Wang had found that elusive sweet spot between memory and vision. This was an utterly modern wearable collection, but had the spirit of Balenciaga’s austere architectural forms—the rounded shoulders, the scooped higher-in-the-front hemlines, the shortened “bracelet” sleeve (so called as the seven-eighths length allows you to display your bracelet)—recast for today’s woman. For his debut collection, Wang had played it by the book—like writing an exam paper showing his mastery of Balenciaga’s vocabulary and grammar.
Chanel: symbols for the global consumer
If Wang is a first-timer, Karl Lagerfeld at the iconic house of Chanel is as practised as they come—he has been the chief designer since 1983—and an absolute master at mining the Chanel archives. Over the years, he has taken signature details—the interlocked double C logo, tweed fabrics, gilt chains, quilted leather, pearl necklaces, camellia flowers, and more—and unabashedly built them into instantly recognizable symbols of the brand. Chanel’s runaway global success—take its store at The Dubai Mall, for instance, there is always a crush of consumers and often, you have to queue to be let in—can be ascribed directly to this strong sign language. Consumers love it—not only are you buying something beautiful, but the easily identifiable symbols let you communicate status and wealth anywhere in the world.
Perhaps this global prowess was the point of the latest Chanel show at the Paris Fashion Week. A massive globe, quite literally, dominated the venue, with Chanel flags dotting the brand’s international presence. Lots of clothes—and yes, lots of tweed—to choose from, as also a line-up of accessories with all the Chanel symbols in attendance, some with interesting new twists. Take the signature chains, for example—they were wrapped around boots this time, a small globe dangling on a chain became a bag, a chunkier chain worn as a necklace with your hair tucked under. Even its absence made a statement—the customary chains on the quilted bag had been replaced with a sturdy metal rod, a novel way to hold a bag.
Saint Laurent: rebellious spirit
In sharp contrast to Lagerfeld’s semiotics-on-steroids approach, Hedi Slimane’s second showing at the house of Yves Saint Laurent, or YSL (which he has rechristened to just Saint Laurent), seemed to ignore the brand’s visual code and summon up Yves’ rebellious spirit instead. The collection he sent down the runway drew gasps. It was a grunge fest—models stomped down the runway in flimsy little dresses or short skirts below oversized cardigans or slouchy flannel shirts, with mesh stockings and boots—more of an homage to grunge of the Los Angeles kind, rather than the polished look one associates with YSL.
"In 2007, upon the completion of 10 years with Christian Dior, John Galliano designed 12 limited-edition Dior Saddle bags, inspired by 12 countries. "
This is mining the archives not for visual references but for the ideas and attitude of the master. In his day, Saint Laurent too was a shocker, who said he hated to dress rich women and leaned towards the girl on the street instead. This is the spirit that Slimane served up.
There is no set script for repeating history—every designer, every season has a new take. If you are a marketer—and not necessarily in the luxury business—this is an eternal question that you have to resolve too: How do you interpret your brand’s deep-rooted codes for today’s consumers?
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.